Throwback: The Singapore Biennale 2016 and Its Excess of Rhetoric

Updated: Jun 26, 2018

by Katrina Stuart Santiago

Kentaro Hiroki’s “Rubbish.”

▶︎ The mapping of art and nations through a biennale is a foregone conclusion when it is both premise and project, specifically in the case of the Singapore Biennale, the past two editions of which (2011 and 2013) were heavily contextualized in or concerned with the championing of Southeast Asian (SEA) art and artists – no matter the requisite works chosen from across Asia and beyond. The task, conscious or unconscious, is that of representation.

One imagines this could be a burden for any curatorial team. After all, (re)presenting SEA at this point is more complex than just mouthing post-colonial clichés. It demands of us a nuanced, critical stance that engages with the more difficult questions about ourselves, beyond what we have been made to believe as (post-)colonial subjects. It is a complicated conversation that needs to be had if we are to move forward as a region, which might also be why it’s easier to avoid it altogether.

Sadly, this is what the Singapore Biennale’s 2016 edition did: fall back on the platitudes and banalities that present SEA as a region that is built upon discourses on identity and independence, history and geography. It went for the easy, evading the challenge of representing SEA in all its complexity and contradiction. 

That these are enough to get the expected “positive” reviews that declare this as “the best” or “most important” in art from the region, and that no arguments will be had, say in the form of serious and independent reviews, is indicative of the state of (art) criticism in Southeast Asia. The fact that this publicly-funded biennale flew in lifestyle writers over serious critics is telling.

In retrospect, this might have been the best decision made by organizers: the lack of critical rigor and careful curation in “Atlas of Mirrors” would underwhelm any art critic worth her salt.

The default premise of the biennale as a necessary mapping of nations and artmaking notwithstanding, the concept of mirrors was an interesting counterpoint to the atlas as a geographical reference guide. And while one appreciates the acknowledgement of the “divergence” and contradiction between these two devices, there is little by way of curation that works with the complexity and convolution that an “atlas of mirrors” allows.

To some extent it was as though the curatorial task was to over-explain why the works were chosen, rendering the complexity of the biennale’s theme irrelevant. When I say they over-explained, I mean there is an excess of words that accompanied the art here, and it is unclear why.

There were Nine Conceptual Zones that speak of our common Asian experiences in words that are nothing but romantic and un-critical, and terrifyingly passive. Reading “A Presence of Pasts” and “A Somewhere of Elsewheres,” “A Breath of Wills” and “A Flow of Identities,” “An Endlessness of Beginnings” and “A Share of Borders,” across the museums and galleries, makes it difficult not to cringe at the nostalgia and optimism these words evoke, as if we (particularly in Southeast Asia) have not struggled against these assessments of our stories and dismissals of our struggles, as if we have not insisted on re-writing our stories precisely so we might speak of the violence of colonialism in the past and the tyranny of neo-colonialism and globalization in the present.

But it gets decidedly worse: each conceptual zone is broken down into three general topics each, as if to make sure that every work on display could be neatly pegged down to a theme, a concept, a reason for existing in the Singapore Biennale.

The result of this glut in rhetoric is manifold. It becomes easy for viewership to limit itself to the multiple frames of the conceptual zones and subtopics. There is little enjoyment to be had when you are reminded in big stenciled letters on every wall that you are shifting to another conceptual zone. There is little freedom to experience the exhibit differently – it’s like walking through the hallways of a pre-school, with signs teaching you how to behave and telling you what to think.

This is not to say that there weren’t any works in the biennale that stood out, as it is to wonder if some works were rendered less powerful given the curation. Gregory Halili’s “Karagatan” for example, a series of intricate portraits of eyes of coastal people, was about the labors and struggles – and the impossibility of change – for an impoverished community heavily contextualized in the Philippine experience. Under the concept “An Endlessness of Beginnings” it is pegged down to “contemplation of cyclical time” and “lives amidst timespans of elemental substances that transcend human measure,” i.e., the sea.

At the very least, these words make art spectatorship less of an exciting engagement with each work; at most, it disempowers the work, tying it down to the specificity of words. Worth mentioning as such are works that stood out despite the excess of rhetoric.

Qui Zhijie’s “One Has to Wander Through All the Outer Worlds to Reach the Innermost Shrine at the End” at the Singapore Art Museum (SAM), is an epic work that recreates a mapping of the world according to global relations, historical colonization(s), and mythmaking, and which reminds viewers of the violence inherent in colonial expansion and globalization as it re-maps the world based the experience of being divided (maps of “Sea of Boundary Disputes,” “Pacific US Military Bases”), and silenced (areas labelled “Maps Tamed the Unknown,” “The Lost Land,”), and fictionalized (maps of “Fantasy Island,” the “Sea of Mythology,” “Phantom Islands”). As such, it is also a critique on the exercise of mapping, as it is a contribution to the grueling process of becoming.

Ahmad Fuad Osman’s “Enrique de Malacca Memorial Project” at the Asian Civilisations Museum, is a multi-media anti-tribute to the slave-translator of Ferdinand Magellan which goes beyond giving voice to the silenced by reimagining and questioning the mapping of nations in Southeast Asia based solely on the experience of the silenced other.

Kentaro Hiroki’s “Rubbish” was a favorite, as it literally (re-)presents rubbish as found objects on the museum floors (SAM and SAM At 8Q), a statement in itself about the commodification of nothing into art, and the rendering of art into nothing within the creative economy – an indirect up-yours to the enterprise of the biennale itself.

Indirect, perhaps inadvertent, but nonetheless necessary because it seems like we have reached an impasse. The Singapore Biennale is practically repeating itself despite – and maybe as indicated by – its plethora of words. Surely there is more to the discourse on Asian art than this endless search for meaning and identity?

Or is this the farthest the Singapore Biennale can go conceptually? Staring at mirrors and asking “who are we?”, rendering ourselves immobile in our past while refusing to acknowledge the mistakes in our present and stubbornly sticking to the drama of victimhood?

Maybe this is the limit of Southeast Asian mainstream (gallery- and market-controlled) artmaking and curation? Quite revealing is the fact that all Philippine artists included in this year’s edition are managed or exhibited solely by one gallery in Manila, which calls into question the selection-process of artists, and brings into sharp focus the function of the biennale as it serves the private interests of galleries and art agents.

One wonders what the “representation” was like for other countries, and how those choices were made. With obvious disdain for art criticism, we might never find out.

For something premised on maps and mirrors, Singapore Biennale 2016 sure decided to go nowhere. ***

Katrina Stuart Santiago writes at This piece was previously published in the Sunday Times Magazine in February 2017, and is being republished in light of the upcoming Singapore Biennale.