Culture / Art Republik

Singapore Biennale 2016: Mirror Mirror

The Singapore Biennale 2016, organized by the Singapore Art Museum, runs from October 27 to February 26, 2017.

Oct 24, 2016 | By Nadya Wang

The poetically titled Singapore Biennale, ‘An Atlas of Mirrors’, will showcase artworks from Asia that reveal the close ties countries in the region share with each other, and in the process reveal their intrinsic commonalities and distinctness. The event is organized by the Singapore Art Museum (SAM) and commissioned by the National Arts Council of Singapore, and will take place from 27 October 2016 to 26 February 2017.

The previous edition, ‘If The World Changed’, took place in 2013, focused on Southeast Asia. ‘An Atlas of Mirrors’ widens its focus to include South and East Asia as well; it is put together by Creative Director Susie Lingham and her team of curators from SAM: Joyce Toh, Tan Siuli, Louis Ho, Andrea Fam and John Tung; together with associate curators Suman Gopinath from Bangalore, India; Nur Hanim Khairuddin from Ipoh, Malaysia; Xiang Liping from Shanghai, China; and Michael Lee from Singapore.

This time, there are only nine curators, compared with the 27 who were involved in the previous edition of the Singapore Biennale. “For this edition, we elected to have a smaller curatorial team as compared to the 2013 edition so that conversations between all involved could be more engaged,” SAM curator Louis Ho explains. “The SAM team met with our team of associate curators over a series of curatorial workshops held in Singapore, where we worked through ideas, artists, artwork proposals, sites, themes and curatorial narratives.”

Adeela Suleman Dread Of Not Night.

Adeela Suleman Dread Of Not Night.

The curatorial workshops have been necessary to ensure the high standard of the sprawling exhibition. “All proposed projects were brought to the table to be pondered – and, yes, argued – over, which made for several particularly lively and energized sessions. It is part and parcel of the creative process,” says SAM curator Andrea Fam. “A worthy exhibition is one that provokes thought and generates debate, and the scale of an undertaking like the Singapore Biennale certainly encompasses those aspects.”

The exhibition will feature over 60 works by more than 50 artists from 19 countries and territories. Singapore is the most well represented, with 10 artists participating, including David Chan, Fyerool Darma and Melissa Tan. Indonesian artists include Ade Darmawan and Eddy Susanto. Chinese artists Qiu Zhijie and Ni Youyu are also participating. From the Philippines, there are Martha Atienza, Patricia Eustaquio and Dex Fernandez, among others. Some countries are represented by a single artist. Sri Lanka is, for instance, represented by Pala Pothupitiye, while Bangladesh is represented by Munem Wasif.


The majority of the artworks are commissions or adaptations of existing works that respond to the biennale’s theme. A highlight is a video installation by Brunei artist Faizal Hamdan that explores the intersection of involuntary migration in Southeast Asia during the Second World War and his family’s past. “The artist’s grandfather was forcibly expatriated to Brunei from Java by the Japanese army, and stayed on after the occupation ended to raise a family,” says Fam. “It’s an important work by an artist from a country that’s not often represented on the contemporary art circuit – even here in the region.” 

Another artist whose work for the biennale is an exploration of her country’s history is Nguyen Phuong Linh’s ‘Black, White, Red’ (2016), a mixed-media installation that looks at colonial rubber plantations in Central and Southern Vietnam and the stories they can tell about Vietnam. “I investigate the rubber plant and how it travelled to the southern and central highlands of Vietnam during French colonization, as well as how the proletariat emerged and socialism sprouted,” says the artist, who started the work two years ago. “The rubber plant and the land inspire both fear and fascination in me, holding the promise of untold wealth and the opportunity to discover old ghosts.”

Munem Wasif

Munem Wasif

Some of the artists explore pressing current issues. Malaysian artist Azizan Palman is presenting ‘Putar Alam Café’, an interactive work made specially for the Singapore Biennale. Explaining the name of the café, the artist says, “In Malay, ‘putar alam’ refers to a charlatan, a person fond of cheating, deceiving, tricking and swindling other people for his or her own selfish benefit.” The café is a space for the audience to talk about issues relating to the Western superpowers in the postcolonial world as filtered through media channels.

The space is outfitted to look like a café, but also comes with information and images the artist has selected to spark off discussions about what is going on in the world today, which the artist will facilitate. He says, “By allowing people from different backgrounds and circumstances to meet, socialise and converse about a myriad of issues – from political, economic and social to religious, cultural and art matters – I attempt to stage a social experiment to show how the media, possibly the greatest charlatans of them all, can influence our perceptions of reality and our understanding of things around us.”

While most of the artworks are specially made for the biennale, 12 of them are on loan, chosen for their relevance to the Biennale’s themes. Two of these works are by Hmong-Laos artists, Phasao Lao and Tcheu Siong. The married couple contribute to each other’s distinct artistic practices. “Siong assists her husband by performing minor tasks in sewing and composition; and Lao, as the village shaman, performs the more significant role of interpreter through his interpretation of the creatures and abstract characters ‘witnessed’ in Siong’s dreams that are then embodied in her large-scale textile art,” explains Ho. “Together, the duo produces artworks that speak about the universal concepts of genealogy, movement and migration and symbolism and representation.”

The main site of the biennale will be at Singapore Art Museum on Bras Basah Road and Sam at 8Q on Queen Street. Artworks will also be on display at other heritage venues including the Asian Civilisations Museum, the National Museum of Singapore, The Peranakan Museum. The SMU Green and De Suantio Gallery, SMU, located within the Civic and Cultural District, will also house some works.

Map Office Desert Islands, 2009

Map Office Desert Islands, 2009

Affiliate Projects

In addition, there will be exhibitions at the Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA) Singapore at LASALLE College of the Arts, as well as at the neighboring DECK, an independent art space dedicated to the art of photography in Singapore and Southeast Asia, on Prinsep Street. These are affiliate projects of the Singapore Biennale, and reflect its curatorial themes.

‘The World Precedes the Eye’ at the ICA Singapore is supported by the Lee Foundation and the Cultural Matching Fund. “The exhibition examines a current generation of artists creating new forms of ‘material’ knowledge and experience,” say curators Bala Starr, Silke Schmickl and Melanie Pocock. “The title of the exhibition reflects the swing towards ‘new realism’ — the concept that ‘matter matters’ — in contemporary art.”

The exhibition title also appears to play off the biennale’s title even as it captures the essence of its works. The mirror, without the eye, does not serve its purpose of reflecting what is before it. But to truly see the world, as symbolized by the atlas, we should understand and appreciate that it existed long before human beings did, and will probably exist long after, and holds possibilities that remain unknown to us. The curators note that “implied in the works is the existence of new material worlds that lie outside the boundaries of current knowledge” and that “the ‘lesson’ is that we share this world and are not its primary subject — the world is not constructed in our own image.”

Nine artists will present works that challenge what we know about the world. These include a set of 16 paintings and works on paper from Firenze Lai and a 16mm film installation by Pratchaya Phinthong. Shimura Nobuhiro will present another video work titled ‘Japanese Cattle’. A sound work by Zou Zhao will be experienced throughout the exhibition. Other artists taking part are Ang Song-Ming, Cheng Ran, Matt Hinkley, Nabilah Nordin and Zeyno Pekünlü. Complementing ‘The World Precedes the Eye’ is a solo project presentation, ‘Black-Hut’ by Indonesian artist Boedi Widjaja that looks at the intersection of architecture with collective and personal memories.

DECK will present two solo exhibitions by Singapore artists: ‘The Natural History of an Island’ by Robert Zhao Renhui and ‘Hanging Heavy on My Eyes’ by Ang Song Nian. Both exhibitions look at human intervention, for better or for worse, in natural landscapes. Zhao charts photographically the evolution of the natural landscape of Singapore against its history in the 20th century, while Ang investigates the impact of persistent air pollution from the forest fires in Indonesia in recent times.

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