Taking “Every Step In The Right Direction” With The Sixth Edition Of The Singapore Biennale 2019
The name Salud Algabre may not sound familiar to many, but the story of the Filipino revolutionary may inspire you. Algabre was the central figure of a 1930s peasant movement, which did not appear successful in its protests against large landowners. But when she was later asked about its perceived failure, she reasoned that no movement fails; “each one is a step in the right direction”.
This sincere declaration is the inspiration behind the title of the upcoming Singapore Biennale—Every Step in the Right Direction, which takes place from November 22 to March 22, 2020, and features a line-up of more than 70 artists and collectives from Singapore, the region and beyond. Organised by the Singapore Art Museum (SAM) and commissioned by the National Arts Council, the sixth edition of this international contemporary art exhibition offers an exploration into our human condition in light of the troubled times the world faces today, from climate crisis to political instability, while taking the steps for change and betterment.
At this point, it is probably apt to highlight that there is no one right direction. Patrick Flores, artistic director of Singapore Biennale 2019, explains, “This idea of the right direction is processed and allowed to play out through the experience of art. As artists try ways of responding to the world and expressing that response through experiment and risk, so does the audience think through and make sense of the different directions that the right kind of action might take.”
To allow for action and reflection, the biennale will be presented in a “festival-seminar” format with convivial, participatory and community-responsive projects, as well as reflective, archival and research-oriented works.
Much like Algabre, the process of transformation begins with a single step. This is a sentiment shared by Singaporean performance artist Amanda Heng, who will revisit her acclaimed Let’s Walk (1999) series with Every Step Counts (2019), where she examines the relationship between humans to the outside world and the psychological resources of the body. She also reflects on her earlier series of walking performances, where members of the public joined her in walking backwards along the streets with a shoe stuck between their lips and only a handheld mirror to guide them.
The Singapore Biennale 2019 will also present site-specific commissions never before seen on the biennale circuit, including Malaysian artist Sharon Chin’s In the Skin of A Tiger: Monument to What We Want (Tugu Kita, 2019), a large-scale installation featuring fabric from discarded political flags; Myanmar artist Min Thein Sung’s Time: Dust (2017-2019), where seemingly mundane objects or scenes are infused with the potent properties of magic and morals; London-based Céline Condorelli's Spatial Composition 13 (2019) of "support structures" that hold the archives of five artists and inviting visitors to sit down; and Singaporean artist Dennis Tan’s Many Waters to Cross (2019), which explores the making of the kolek, a traditional timber racing yacht that was once a common sight along Singapore’s coasts.
Other works include Reincarnations (Hopea Sangal and Sindora Wallichii, 2019) by Thai artist Ruangsak Anuwatwimon, who examines the resurrection and protection of extinct or endangered species through the use of science and technology; and National Language Class: Our Language Proficiency, a video installation by Malaysian artist Okui Lala, who looks at the complexity of multilingualism.
“Artists always respond to things happening around them and to the context that has shaped what they can do as creative agents. Geography is only one aspect. Geopoetics is another. As the place makes the art, the art makes the place through rearticulation in a creative form that gives rise to a range of possibilities: interpretation, speculation, critique, appropriation, and so on,” explains Flores, who is an art studies professor at the University of the Philippines and curator of the Vargas Museum in Manila.
It is only natural that Flores’ roles as art historian and academic have informed his curatorial approach to the Singapore Biennale. “As an art historian, I value the history of past efforts to create form and to deeply reflect on what those efforts mean and how they inform the present and the future”. As such, the line-up this year also includes artists whose artistic practices lie on the threshold between the modern and contemporary such as late Filipino‑American artist Alfonso Ossorio, who is known for his distinct abstract expressionist work as well as inter‑media Congregations series derived from found objects and detritus.
What is also interesting to note is that Flores leads a team of six curators from independent and institutional backgrounds, all born in the 1980s and early ’90s, and whom we refer to as millennials—considered the most influential generation today. Citing this as a conscious decision, Flores believes that “young curators should curate the biennale of their time. They also bring to the process a distinct intelligence and intuition. There’s so much to learn from them. They have inherited a world not entirely of their making, and now they are remaking a world not entirely for their taking”.
And with the SAM and SAM at 8Q buildings closed for renovations, this year’s Singapore Biennale will take place across various locations, including the National Gallery Singapore and Gillman Barracks. So how can visitors approach their visit? Flores shares this tip: “I would encourage them to explore the city in the spirit of Amanda Heng, and renew their experience with Singapore by walking, getting lost and finding places.”