Two curators tell Gwen Pew why art newbies should take the time to visit this year’s Singapore Biennale.
5 Oct 2013: Founded in 2006 as a platform to stimulate dialogue between works by local and international artists, the Singapore Biennale quickly established its reputation as one of the largest art events on the country’s cultural calendar. Held every two years, this fourth edition returns with a bold theme of ‘If the World Changed’ this month, and while the quality of artworks remains stellar, a lot of changes and improvements have also been made to the structure of the exhibition.
‘This may be Singapore’s fourth biennale, but it’s a first in many ways,’ says Tan Siuli, a curator at the Singapore Art Museum. ‘For one, this is the first time we have done without an Artistic Director for the Biennale [and instead] have a team of 27 curators from around the region.’ Among the curators are a number of notable local faces, such as Charmaine Toh of Objectifs, Tamares Goh, programming officer at the Esplanade, and Seng Yu Jin of Lasalle and The National Art Gallery.
Each curator proposed a few artists to work with for the Biennale, which means there’s plenty for art lovers to feast their eyes on, from paintings to installations and photography to sculptures from over 100 artists around the world. One particular draw, says Tan, is the strong regional focus: ‘This edition has a very strong focus on South-East Asia [and features many] artists who are not on the usual international biennale circuit, so this is going to be a biennale of discoveries.’ Look out for works by President’s Young Talent winners Zhao Renhui and Liao Jiekai, plus largescale commissions by artists such as Suzann Victor, who will create a rainbow circle at the National Museum, and Nguyen Oanh Phi Phi, who will take over SAM’s chapel with a work of Vietnamese lacquer.
And even if you’ve never been to an exhibition before and don’t know anything about contemporary art, the curators promise that it’s still worth taking the time to go check out the Biennale. ‘To quote the Dalai Lama, “Once a year, go someplace you’ve never been before”,’ says Tan. ‘It is precisely the experience of exploring the unfamiliar that expands our mind and spirit; there is bound to be something to marvel at and something to fall in love with.’
Aware that contemporary art may be difficult for some to enjoy, curator Seng advises that one should ‘approach contemporary art with an open mind and critical attitude, and be prepared to end up with more questions than answers, as contemporary art engages with the viewer as an active and critical agent rather than a passive one.’
‘It is worth remembering that contemporary art is “contemporary” – it is very much a product of our time, and more often than not, [it] engages with the issues and ideas of our time,’ adds Tan. ‘Also, don’t expect to like everything. There are bound to be some artists and artworks that appeal to you more than others, so take that as a starting point – find out more about the artist, his or her practice and other works, and from there it is easy to find other artists whose works or styles are similar to what you like. This will gradually broaden your knowledge and appreciation of the contemporary art world.’
Furthermore, there will be a range of activities on the side for visitors to gain a broader understanding of the artists and artworks involved (see sidebar), so there are many ways to help art newbies take their first steps. ‘And don’t worry,’ concludes Tan reassuringly. ‘The Biennale won’t bite!’