Singapore Biennale Focuses on Multidimensional World


The world is changing at a rapid pace, and it is easy to get lost in the process. Inviting numerous artists to reconsider the worlds we live in, the fourth edition of the Singapore Biennale has chosen “If the World Changed” as the title.

Commissioned by the National Arts Council and organized by the Singapore Art Museum, the Biennale was opened in late October and runs through Feb. 16, with many fringe events and programs including talks, lectures and artist workshops still coming up.

At various locations across the city, art enthusiasts can explore the works of 82 artists and art collectives from the Southeast Asian region and beyond.

Tan Siuli, one of the curators of the Singapore Biennale, said this year’s approach is quite different from previous years where they had been hosting more international artists.

“[This year] we have chosen to focus almost exclusively on Southeast Asia,” Siuli explained. “We found through working with our co-curators — there were 27 of us altogether — that for a lot of them, and in a lot of Southeast Asian countries, art is really rooted to a social context, so you will see a lot of collaborated and community projects in the Biennale, which is also quite a departure from previous times when we were still working within a more international framework which revers the artist as an individual genius.”

Evoking community spirit with his work is Ahmad Abu Bakar, a Malaysian artist based in Singapore, who has been working with the inmates of Changi Prison for many years.

“When we asked him if he would like to propose something for the Biennale, he wanted to work with the inmates to produce the work,” Siuli said.

In a wooden boat called “ kolek Melaka, ” a traditional fishing boat from Melaka, Ahmad placed a thousand glass bottles; each of them has a message wrapped around it.

“These messages are written by the inmates that he’s worked with, and they express the hopes, fears and aspirations of the inmates as they think about how they would like their lives to change when they leave prison and they reintegrate into society, because for many of them it’s quite a scary prospect as they have been isolated from society for a while and they’re not sure how to deal with the changing world — which is in turn a response to the Biennale theme,” Siuli explained.

In a corner, visitors to the Biennale can find some notebooks and pens on a table.

“Inside the books, all the messages are recorded — there’s a number tag to each bottle which you can cross-refer there — and as the public audience, you can actually read the messages and write a message of encouragement in response, put it into the box, and every two weeks we will send it to the prison and deliver it to the inmates,” Siuli said.

Singaporean artist Angie Seah has chosen a very unique approach to evoke memories of long gone times. In an interactive console, Seah has compiled more than 60 audio clips that represent moments of everyday life in Singapore, some of which have vanished completely and only exist as a distant memory, like the clatter of the “ karang guni ” man who used to walk from house to house to collect old newspapers — but there are also more contemporary additions to the kaleidoscope of sounds, like the squeaking wheels of cars during the Formula One race.

“By pressing the different buttons, you can compose your own melody of Singapore memories,” Siuli said.

The Biennale also hosts the works of several Indonesian artists, one of which was developed by Iswanto Hartono in collaboration with an Indian artist collective called Raos Media Collective.

“This work called ‘The 5 Principle No-s’ was already presented at the Shanghai Biennale 2012, but I felt that it still had resonance with the theme of our Biennale, so invited them to represent this work in a slightly different form,” Siuli explained.

The artwork consists of a series of five different statements, drafted by Raos and expressing an idealistic yet ambiguous political philosophy that the citizens of the world would like their governments to apply — make no promises, take no prisoners, do no harm, kill no more, and go no further. The letter “o” in the word “no” is expressed by a big void through an infinity mirror.


One of the most striking and eye-catching works called “Between Worlds” comes from Yogyakarta-based artist Nasirun and whose arrangement very much resembles the structure of Borobudur temple.

“He put all these wayang puppets, which he has created himself, into glass bottles — there must be at least 700 or 800 of them altogether,” Siuli said, adding that Nasirun was initially inspired by noting how fascinated and entranced people are with television today, which he relates back to traditional wayang theater in Indonesia.

“Television is basically a glass box lit from the back, and you have all these different characters dancing across the screen, which is very similar to wayang, and both television and wayang are — and were — popular forms of entertainment,” Siuli said. “But Nasirun fears that wayang is dying out in Indonesia, and that’s why he put the puppets in the glass bottles because they need to be preserved.”

Yet another artwork requiring painstaking efforts comes from Toni Kanwa, an artist from Tasikmalaya, West Java, who spends his time between Indonesia and Belgium. Believing that every object bears its own energy and character, Toni has hand-carved 2,000 miniature, talisman-like sculptures for his installation “Cosmology of Life.”

“It is simply amazing,” Siuli said. “Some of them are so small that we always tell our visitors, please don’t sneeze because otherwise they will fall over.”

Several magnifying glasses are on hand for visitors to take a closer look at the extraordinarily detailed work.


“He is very spiritual,” Siuli said about the artist. “He told me that he knows how to get into a meditative state and feels at one with the universe, and only when he is in that state, he starts carving. It’s very interesting because he has actually a quite poor eyesight — he needs reading glasses — but when he carves these figures, it’s almost like he is in trance, and he is guided by his feelings and hands only.”

One spacious room at the Singapore Art Museum is dedicated to the AX(iS) Art Project, which was established in Baguio City in the Philippines in 2012, and whose “Tiw-tiwong” involved some 150 participants in collaboration with local communities along the country’s Halsema highway, bringing together indigenous people with artists, local artisans, writers and cultural activists.

The result is a the so-called “Uncyclopedia,” a series of artworks and installations which serves as an A to Z survival guide in times of change, covering a wide range of topics from colonialism to the salt trade.

This article was first published on January 8, 2014 in the Jakarta Globe newspaper.