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Southeast Asia Is a Mirrored World at the 2016 Singapore Biennale

Multimedia mirrors and full-scale replicas of household bomb shelters took center stage at the Singapore Biennale.

by DJ Pangburn
04 December 2016, 1:00pm

Tun Win Aung & Wah Nu’s multimedia piece, The Name. Images courtesy of the artists, Singapore Biennale, and Singapore Art Museum

As the Singapore Biennale’s title, An Atlas of Mirrors, suggests, Southeast Asia a region where various cultures have migrated to and moved within over time, creating an array of geographical and cultural reflecting points. But the art at the Singapore Biennale isn’t just about how the migrant cultures of Southeastern Asia mirror each other, it has to do with how the region reflects other areas of the globalized world as far as identity, societal norms, and cultural artifacts.  

One of the curators, Louis Ho, tells The Creators Project that An Atlas of Mirrors features dozens of artists from an enormous region that ranges from the archipelagic Southeast Asia to the Indian subcontinent to the islands of Japan up north. He adds that while Asian artists do benefit from art being global as far as materials, media, topics and themes, these artists are more likely to explore individual identities, whether these are ethnic, sexual, cultural, political, and so on.

This year’s Biennale features over 40 new commissions. Artists were given a brief relating to the title, and submitted proposals that spoke to the chosen theme. For the Biennale’s curators, the mirror is a tool to see the self but unreliable one because of its various distortions. They were curious to see artists would approach the mirror theme as it collided with an artistic “atlas” of the region.

“It’s not uniform, of course, large swathes of the region remain economically and socially disadvantaged,” says Ho. “But it’s a start, and contemporary art is a part of that wave… [The] Biennale allowed artists from other parts of Asia to engage with the reality of Southeast Asia today.”

“Rathin Barman, for instance, who hails from Bangladesh but is based in India these days, interacted with a section of the immigrant Bangladeshi community in Singapore—mostly involved in low-paying manual labor—to produce an installation piece [Home, and Home],” he adds. “[It] evokes both the difficulties of their lives here, and the nostalgia for home that afflicts so many of them.”

Deng Guoyuan, Noah’s Garden II, 2016

Ho also points to the Japanese artist Kentaro Hiroki, who now lives and works in Thailand, as someone straddling two Southeastern Asian cultures. Hiroki’s art focuses on trash, the little talked about symbol of the capitalist, consumerist lifestyle. He traveled to Singapore, which has a well-known spotless veneer, investigating the phenomenon and producing Rubbish, a series of eight colored pencil-on-paper illustrations that simulate discarded items like plastic chip bags and paper wrappers.  

One of the more mesmerizing pieces at the Biennale is Chinese artist Deng Guoyuan's Noah’s Garden II. Guoyuan interprets the Biennale’s main theme quite literally with a labyrinth of mirrors outfitted with and reflecting artificial flora. Ho says the site-specific work is an “interactive, mirrored terrarium,” with the artificial flora being of the variety typically seen Chinese paintings—scholar’s rocks, bamboo, plum, to name a few.

Detail view of Kentaro Hiroki’s Rubbish

“These neon-bright objects are surreal reimaginations of classic Song Dynasty representations, assaulting the eyes and blurring the lines between the real and the artificial,” Ho explains.

These paints would guide the viewer’s eyes through a path along the terrain, which Guoyan replicates in his labyrinth. And for local audiences, the Song art symbolizes high Chinese culture, which Ho says is a product and tool of the northern literati classes.

“[T]he Chinese diaspora in Singapore and Southeast Asia are mostly descended from agricultural communities in the south, with a far different cultural ethos,” says Ho. “The histories and historical divides that are implied are real, and fascinating.”

Installation view of H.H. Lim’s two-channel video, Enter the Parallel World’ (2001, 2016).

Those looking for a great local Singapore artist will find one in Zulkifle Mahmod, who works with sounds that reflect the nation’s 21st century sonic character. Last year, for an exhibition at the Singapore Art Museum celebrating the country’s golden jubilee of independence, Mahmod deconstructed Singapore’s national anthem using copper pipes, solenoids (electromagnets that make a buzzing noise) and spoken sound.

For the Biennale, Mahmod created what Ho calls an “aural triumph” in the sound sculpture SONICreflection. Consisting of 143 glowing wok covers decked out with speakers, mics and LED lights, and mounted on a wall, the piece features ambient sounds recorded in Southeastern Asian immigrant communities in Singapore. The sounds range from traffic noises to snippets of dialogue to create a near 40-minute loop that crescendos before getting cut off halfway.

Chia Chuyia, ‘Knitting the Future,’ 2015-2016.

Video artists are also well represented at the Biennale, and Sino-Malaysian artist H. H. Lim’s two-channel video Enter the Parallel World is an example of how the region’s artists are witty and humorous. In the first video, Lim is seen balancing on a basketball for 30 minutes. In the second, he takes a tumble off the ball pretty quickly. Ho says that in showing two vastly different outcomes, Lim demonstrated how the process of failure led to achievement.

In Jaonua: The Nothingness (King of Meat: The Nothingness), Thai artist Araya Rasdjarmrearnsook’s presents a five-channel video installation that explores the nature of everyday existence. Inspired by Rasdjarmrearnsook’s Buddhist leanings, it features elements that are mundane, erotic and cruel. One moment that stands out, according to Ho, is the botched slaughter of a cow at an abbatoir, representing the power of contemporary art to unsettle and bridge divides.

Araya Rasdjarmrearnsook's Jaonua: The Nothingness

Malaysian-born performance artist Chia Chuyia, who is now based in Sweden, contributed a durational piece that lasted for five weeks, during which she knitted a full-length garment for herself out of leeks. “It speaks to her roots as a member of the global Teochew diaspora, a community which traces its origins to Southern China,” says Ho.  

While many of artists at the Biennale are established, Ho says Phasao Lao and Tchieu Siong, a Hmong couple from Laos, don’t consider themselves contemporary artists. The husband, Lao, is the village shaman, and together the couple produce textile works, which Ho says are a big part of traditional Hmong visual culture.

Debbie Ding’s ‘Shelter,’ a full-scale replica of a household bomb shelter.

“Some might argue that they more properly belong to an anthropological or ethnological museum,” Ho notes. “However, it’s perhaps high time for a conversation on the possibilities of looking at Southeast Asian visual culture, which would embrace a far wider range of visual objects and producers, rather than just art.”

And this, as Ho elaborates, is part of the mission of this year’s Singapore Biennale. The curatorial team wants to challenge audiences who are familiar with contemporary art to question what it can and should be in Southeast Asia.

“Difference can be a tricky thing,” Ho muses. “Perfectly palatable in the abstract, but an uncomfortable encounter in the flesh.”

Click here for more information on Singapore Biennale: An Atlas of Mirrors, which runs unti February 26, 2017.

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