“An Atlas of Mirrors”: 10 highlights from Singapore Biennale 2016

Art Radar brings you a selection of 10 outstanding artworks at the Singapore Biennale 2016.

The fifth edition of the Singapore Biennale 2016 opened on 27 October and will run until 26 February 2017.

Bui Cong Khanh, 'Dislocate', 2013-2015. Image courtesy Singapore Biennale.

Bui Cong Khanh, ‘Dislocate’, 2013-2015. Image courtesy Singapore Art Museum.

Organised by the Singapore Art Museum (SAM), the fifth Singapore Biennale is titled “An Atlas of Mirrors” and features contemporary works by 63 artists and art collectives from 19 countries in Southeast Asia, and East and South Asia. The mega exhibition, which had its first edition nine years ago, started with an international outlook but has gradually narrowed its focus on the art of Southeast Asia and its surrounding regions.

The thematic use of mirror and atlas, to look at the self as well as the other, is highly relevant in contemporary art practices. The biennale’s curatorial statement explains:

Where navigational tools like the atlas – a compendium of maps – enable us to set our sights further afield, one instrument in particular – the mirror – brings us into that which is still so mysterious: the self.

Pannaphan Yodmanee, ;Aftermath', 2016. Image courtesy Singapore Art Museum.

Pannaphan Yodmanee, Aftermath’, 2016. Image courtesy Singapore Art Museum.

The exhibition is divided into nine tongue twisting sub-themes, which can be simplified into the following categories:

  • ideas of space and place;
  • myths, cyclical time and the ahistorical;
  • cultural legacies, beliefs and memory;
  • nature and culture;
  • the contestation of borders;
  • agency, representation and voices of resistance;
  • national and cultural identities;
  • migratory experiences and displacement; and
  • re-imagining histories that have been marginalised.
Bui Cong Khanh, 'Dislocate', 2013-2015. Image courtesy Singapore Art Museum.

Bui Cong Khanh, ‘Dislocate’, 2013-2015. Image courtesy Singapore Art Museum.

With 58 artworks at the Biennale, making a list of ten is not only difficult but limiting. As the 2016 Singapore Biennale unfolds over the months, Art Radar will bring you more highlights of the works on show. The works listed here are mere entry points to the mega exhibition, which can be negotiated in multiple ways. Will the coupling of an atlas and the curiosities of the mirror shift our perception of the world? An Atlas of Mirrors positions Southeast Asia as a vantage point through which we can recognise our world anew.

Here below are Art Radar‘s first ten picks from this year’s Singapore Biennale (in no particular order), some of whom were selected for the shortlist of the 11th Benesse Prize.

Lim Soo Ngee, 'Inscription of the Island', 2016. Image courtesy Singapore Biennale.

Lim Soo Ngee, ‘Inscription of the Island’, 2016. Image courtesy Singapore Art Museum.

1. Inscription of the Island — Lim Soo Ngee

Singaporean artist Lim Soo Ngee’s work is the first to greet you as you arrive at SAM. Placed on the museum’s front lawn, Inscription of the Island is a sculpture of a large left hand emerging from the ground, with the palm facing skyward and a pointing index finger. In Lim’s imagination, this was once part of a colossal statue that guided the ships of an ancient, mythical civilisation. In proposing myth upon myth, Lim extends our sense of history beyond historical records.

Hemali Bhuta, 'Growing', 2016. Image courtesy Singapore Biennale.

Hemali Bhuta, ‘Growing’, 2016. Image courtesy Singapore Art Museum.

2. Growing — Hemali Bhuta

Indian artist Hemali Bhuta’s installation can be smelled long before it can be seen and its sensory effect stays with you even after you have left its site. Made up of more than 300 kilograms of incense sticks of different fragrances strung together and suspended from the ceiling, Growing (2016) reflects on growth, life and death and the constant cycle of shedding and growing. Bhuta’s work references the Buddhist concept of dependent origination – everything affects everything else. The incense sticks that she uses singularly have their own fragrance but together they form part of a larger environment too.

Harumi Yukutake, 'Paracosmos', 2016. Image courtesy Singapore Art Museum.

Harumi Yukutake, ‘Paracosmos’, 2016. Image courtesy Singapore Art Museum.

3. Paracosmos — Harumi Yukutake

Harumi Yukutake’s Paracosmos (2016) propels the viewer into a parallel world – a space of otherness that is recognisable but unfamiliar. Shaped by Shinto ideas of interconnectivity, the site-responsive work is situated in the circular stairwell of SAM, a central transition space that connects two floors. It is made up of a multitude of hand-cut mirrors which transform the stairwell into a magical site. The mirror was core to philosopher Michel Foucault’s concept of the heterotopia as a kind of zone that could encompass other sites and like a mirror that throws a warped or skewed reflection, heterotopias can disturb and distort the spaces that they hold.

Pannaphan Yodmanee, ;Aftermath', 2016. Image courtesy Singapore Art Museum.

Pannaphan Yodmanee, Aftermath’, 2016. Image courtesy Singapore Art Museum.

4. Aftermath — Pannaphan Yodmane

Emerging Thai artist Pannaphan Yodmanee’s vast mural Aftermath (2016) combines the traditional with the contemporary. Her work is a map of the Buddhist cosmos done as a mural painting using natural as well as mass produced materials. Combining found objects, icons made by the artist herself, concrete and paint, it presents elements of Thai art and architecture as well as that of Buddhism and the cosmic cycle of birth, life and death.

Deng Guoyuan, 'Noah's Gardern', 2016. Image courtesy Singapore Art Museum.

Deng Guoyuan, ‘Noah’s Gardern’, 2016. Image courtesy Singapore Art Museum.

5. Noah’s Garden — Deng Guoyuan

The chapel in the SAM building is always a favourite for works that reference biblical or religious themes. For the 2016 Biennale, the space is occupied by Chinese artist Deng Guoyuan’s Noah’s Garden (2016), an installation of steel, mirror, glass, lights, artificial and real plants and rocks that reference the biblical Ark of Noah. The labyrinth of mirrors and the artist’s break from conventional systems of colour coding blur the lines between the real and artificial, creating a utopia while at the same time disassembling it.

Qiu Zhijie, 'One Has to Wander through All the Outer Worlds to Reach the Innermost Shrine at the End', 2016, ink on paper, glass and stone, dimensions variable. Collection of the artist. Singapore Biennale 2016 commission. Image courtesy Singapore Art Museum.

Qiu Zhijie, ‘One Has to Wander through All the Outer Worlds to Reach the Innermost Shrine at the End’, 2016, ink on paper, glass and stone, dimensions variable. Collection of the artist. Singapore Biennale 2016 commission. Image courtesy Singapore Art Museum.

6. One has to Wander through all the Outer Worlds to Reach the Innermost Shrine at the End — Qiu Zhijie

Possibly the artwork with the longest name at the the biennale is the monumental work One has to Wander through all the Outer Worlds to Reach the Innermost Shrine at the End (2016) by China’s Qiu Zhijie. Scrolls with maps drawn in ink run from the ceiling to the floor and cover the entire walls of the gallery space where the work is located. The floor is also littered with 30-odd hand blown glass chimerical creatures. The maps present Qiu’s investigation into cartographic history as he links together history, philosophy, mythology and science in a witty yet candid take on the history of mapping.

Eddy Susanto, 'The Journey of Panji', 2016. Image courtesy Singapore Art Museum.

Eddy Susanto, ‘The Journey of Panji’, 2016. Image courtesy Singapore Art Museum.

7. The Journey of Panji — Eddy Susanto

The Journey of Panji (2016) is a work by Indonesian artist Eddy Susanto that charts the movement of the Panji cycle throughout Southeast Asia. The Panji cycle is a collection of stories revolving around the legendary Prince Panji, which originated in Java around the 14th century and spread to what is now modern-day Malaysia, Cambodia, Myanmar, the Philippines and Thailand. The images in the artwork are taken from reliefs illustrating episodes from the Panji cycle and their outlines are rendered in scripts, starting first with Javanese script, then flowing out into scripts reflecting the various regions and localities that this narrative has travelled to. Even as the work reminds us of Southeast Asia’s shared cultural histories, the letters spilling out from the compendium of Panji stories suggest the impossibility of ‘containing’ Southeast Asia and the limits of any attempt to unify its histories or to conceive of the region as a singular entity.

Titarubi, 'History Repeats Itself', 2016. Image courtesy Singapore Art Museum.

Titarubi, ‘History Repeats Itself’, 2016. Image courtesy Singapore Art Museum.

8. History Repeats Itself — Titarubi

Indonesian artist Titarubi’s History Repeats Itself (2016) is a hauntingly beautiful installation of wooden sampan boats and mysterious golden hooded cloaks atop of them. The work reflects on the history of power and colonial conquest in Southeast Asia. The burnt-out wood on parts of the boats reference the burning of ships in Indonesia by the Dutch East India Company as they attempted to seize control of the lucrative spice trade in the 18th and 19th century. Standing atop the charred ships are shadowy, cloaked figures whose robes are made of gold-plated nutmeg, a spice once worth its weight in gold and over which countless wars were fought. Their rich sheen suggests grandiosity and pomp but their hollowness alludes to the emptiness of riches and power.

Dex Fernandez, 'I Wander, I Wonder', 2016. Image courtesy Singapore Art Museum.

Dex Fernandez, ‘I Wander, I Wonder’, 2016. Image courtesy Singapore Art Museum.

9. I Wander I Wonder — Dex Fernandez

The usually bare walls of SAM’s two courtyards have a new look as Filipino street artist Dex Fernandez probes the psyche that lies behind the compulsion to hold onto objects that hold no value beyond the sentimental. His mural entitled I Wander I Wonder comprises of two counterpoint sets. One set is based on the surviving possessions of people in Tacloban who lived through the deadly typhoon Haiyan in 2013; the other set centres on Filipinos in Singapore and depicts the objects that they brought with them to the city. Fernandez explains that it is not uncommon to find Philippine homes filled with decorative mementos and souvenirs that have come as gifts from family members working overseas, and even when faced with disasters like the recent typhoon, these objects will accompany the displaced becoming “unintended mirrors” of the self. The obejcts subconsciously reflect and reveal what we desire and believe is vital. Such objects are cherished for their emotional worth – their ‘sentimental value’ – which far outweighs their utilitarian function.

 Bui Cong Khanh, 'Dislocate', 2013-2015. Image courtesy Singapore Art Museum.

Bui Cong Khanh, ‘Dislocate’, 2013-2015. Image courtesy Singapore Art Museum.

10. Dislocate — Bui Cong Khanh

Dislocate (2013–2015) by Bui Cong Khanh is a traditional Vietnamese home handcrafted by the artist and master carpenters and woodcarvers over a period of two years. The work which came about as a consequence of the artist’s investigation of his personal history led him to combine his family’s history and heritage with the complexities surrounding social and national identity. Bui combines the woodworking craftsmanship of his ancestral province of Fujian, China, with the cultural identity of central Vietnam, and investigates the geo- and socio-political tensions between Vietnam and China. The artwork is made entirely of jackfruit wood – a timber that is only found in South and Southeast Asia – with repurposed elements from a traditional wooden Vietnamese home. The installation contains carvings of Vietnamese military paraphernalia, which have been interspersed between motifs of lotus flowers, and dragons that have been composed of panels of chain-link carvings.

Durriya Dohadwala

1390

Related Topics: South Asian, Southeast Asian, East Asian, time, identity art, biennales, Singapore

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