SINGAPORE – People live in troubled times. The world is on the brink of an environmental crisis and societies are reeling from the impact of issues such as social inequality.
It may be fitting, then, that the upcoming Singapore Biennale, titled Every Step In The Right Direction, should make a hopeful case for change in the face of these seemingly insurmountable challenges.
The title is “an invitation to take part in the process of thinking about what is right and making the step to do something about it”, says artistic director Patrick Flores, who was in Singapore last week for a curatorial workshop related to the Biennale.
The contemporary art event returns for its sixth edition from Nov 22 to March 22 with more than 70 artists and collectives from more than 20 countries in South-east Asia and beyond.
The 49-year-old Filipino curator and art historian adds: “I conceptualise change not only in terms of grand events like spectacular upheavals, but also in very personal, intimate, everyday endeavours.
“It doesn’t happen immediately. It takes time, patience and sustained commitment.”
Some strands of thought running through the festival are a critique of humanity’s intervention in the natural world and a response to events, such as colonialism, which have shaped the present.
The last edition of the Singapore Biennale ran from October 2016 to February 2017, featuring artworks spread across the Civic District, with the Singapore Art Museum (SAM) and SAM at 8Q as anchor venues.
This year, while the SAM – the festival organiser – undergoes renovations, there will be no main venue.
Instead, the Biennale will be spread over about 10 places, mostly in the Civic District, including the National Gallery Singapore and Asian Civilisations Museum.
People will get a sense of the ecology of Singapore’s arts scene as they walk around, Dr Flores says.
“It’s not in a big white cube where everything happens. Sometimes, biennales neglect the city, they have nothing to do with the city,” he says, adding that groups such as The Projector, Indian Heritage Centre, Intercultural Theatre Institute and Geylang Adventures are also involved.
In step with the Biennale’s title, performance artist Amanda Heng will present Every Step Counts (2019), featuring, among other things, a video presentation of walks which evolved from her iconic performance series Let’s Walk (1999).
In that particular performance, Heng and members of the public walked backwards with high-heeled shoes in their mouths.
There will also be several site-specific installations, such as Indonesia-born Singaporean artist Boedi Widjaja’s Black-Hut, Black-Hut, a work of salt-infused concrete panels responding to the National Gallery Singapore’s main stairway.
Other artists include Singapore artist Dennis Tan, who is building a kolek (a traditional racing yacht), and Thai artist Arnont Nongyao, who is presenting a multi-screen installation of videos compiling footage and audio recordings from 12 “kards” (markets) in northern Thailand.
In a move to encourage thoughtfulness and attentiveness, Dr Flores says this year’s Biennale has been conceived as a “festival-seminar”.
The seminar part of the event includes various reflective, research-oriented works.
Visitors can also expect to see a selection of works from artist archives, including the archive of the late artist-curator Raymundo Albano, who was from the Philippines.
There will also be works by figures – such as the late Filipino-American artists Alfonso Ossorio and Carlos Villa – whose artistic practices lie on the threshold between the modern and contemporary.
“There might be an impression that the Biennale is largely about art in the present, but the present didn’t emerge overnight,” says Dr Flores, who is a professor of art studies at the University of the Philippines and is the curator of the Jorge B. Vargas Museum in Manila.
“How did this contemporary art emerge? One way to do that is to look at the modern period in art history of the region.”
One past biennale which struck Dr Flores was the Sharjah Biennial 2013, curated by Yuko Hasegawa, who was interested in the idea of public spaces.
“Hasegawa respected the architecture of the site by looking at the courtyards and gardens as possible places of gathering or connecting people,” he adds.
Conversely, there are some things that were present in other biennales which he hopes to sidestep: “Over-thematicisation, over-spectacularisation. The repetition of over-circulated artists.
“Of course, we don’t discriminate against (blockbuster names), if they can contribute something to the Biennale. But there are so many artists in the world.
Dr Flores suggests that his academic background may have given him a better understanding of the long arc of art history.
“Maybe art history has sharpened my attentiveness to objects,” he adds. “I belong to the generation where we curated out of art history. Unlike today, where there are curatorial programmes that train people specifically to become curators.”
He hopes the upcoming Biennale will offer a new way of looking at South-east Asia – for instance, by moving away from the ambit of Asean towards a way of viewing it as a region surrounded by water.
Dr Flores adds: “We are trying to put in place a new geopoetics, so we move away from geopolitics. We re-mark the world through art.”