ASIA NEWS NETWORK
WE KNOW ASIA BETTER
Down to the roots
Publication Date : 15-10-2013
This year's 2013 Singapore Biennale features contemporary art pieces with traditional Southeast Asian themes
A traditional flower bath might not be something you associate with contemporary art, but Malaysian artist Sharon Chin's Mandi Bunga (translated "flower bath") is the first performance piece of the 2013 Singapore Biennale.
It is one of 10 community-driven arts projects being featured in this year's biennale that is focused on Southeast Asian art, setting it apart from other international biennales which either tend to have a country focus or a more international nature, like the previous Singapore Biennale editions.
Through the 10 community art projects, the Biennale shines the spotlight on contemporary art practices in the region. Some of the projects were created by artists working closely with ordinary people, ranging from schoolchildren to prison inmates.
Viewed collectively, they show how contemporary art practices in the region are grounded in the myths, traditions, beliefs and concerns of a particular place, area or region. The community art projects are also easy to relate to, even for those who are new to contemporary art.
For Mandi Bunga, for instance, 32-year-old Malaysian artist Chin worked with about 100 people from different communities in Malaysia to re-visit and examine the symbolism of the original Mandi Bunga tradition. Over the last year, they participated in workshops with the artist where they designed and made yellow costumes adorned with flowers which the artist wore.
The chatty artist, who was in Singapore recently, told Life! that through this "act of working together" she wanted to "reach out to complete strangers and re-look the traditional ritual of Mandi Bunga or flower bath", in which a person washes the body with water mixed in a concoction of fragrant flowers such as rose, orchid, frangipani, jasmine and ylang-ylang. The folk belief, which spans Chinese, Malay and Indian communities in Southeast Asia, is that such a ritual washes away bad luck.
For the Biennale's opening night on October 26, the artist intends to bring together 100 people here to participate in the flower bath ritual to be held at the National Museum of Singapore.
Singapore Art Museum director Dr Susie Lingham said one reason for greater community engagement at this year's Biennale is because it is focused on Southeast Asia. For many artists in this region, "art-making is often rooted in a social context and must have some relevance" to people for it to have greater meaning.
The projects are among more than 100 artworks by 82 artists and artist collectives on show at this fourth edition of the Biennale which will run till Feb 16 next year.
This is also the first time that more than half the works on show will be Biennale commissions.
Lingham says this move towards commissioning more community-oriented projects was also based on feedback the organisers received from the local arts community after the last Biennale. Key among this was the need for greater engagement with Singapore audiences not just in the viewing of art, but also in the process of art-making.
The Biennale theme If The World Changed opened up "all kinds of possibilities", she added.
"The matter of what 'world' means to an individual, community or a country, and to what extent we desire, and are able to be agents for change, highlights this critical juncture of our lives and our time in history. It nudges us towards deeper engagement with questions relating to where we are located in the world, and how we perceive our possible future," said Lingham.
This is evident in several collaborations that are likely to have greater resonance with the audience.
One such artwork is Singapore artist Ahmad Abu Bakar's installation titled Telok Blangah, a collaborative work done with the help of prison inmates.
The 49-year-old ceramic artist and part-time art teacher said the project was inspired by the art classes he had been conducting for inmates at Changi Prison for the last four years. The installation features a wooden boat with 1,000 bottles bearing a simple line spelling out the dreams and aspirations of inmates once they are out of prison.
Visitors are encouraged to leave messages for the prisoners so that the piece will produce dialogue rather than just be a passive work.
"The boat is a reflection of us as a society and the bottles on it, the dreams of those who are behind bars. What sort of life do they imagine when they leave prison is a question that I have been interested in," said the artist.
He sees this work as more than just art.
"The artwork itself serves as a vow for the inmates, to encourage them to commit to change, to commit to going in the right direction once they are out of prison," he says.
Equally fascinating grassroots-level collaborations have happened in the Philippines and Thailand as part of the Biennale commissions.
2243: Moving Forward by Siete Pesos, a group of seven collaborating artists from the Philippines, is one example.
Siete Pesos is Tagalog for seven pesos, which references the maximum passenger capacity of a standard moving motorela, a common mode of transport in the country, as well as the standard fare for the ride.
In their mixed-media installation, the artists use a refurbished motorela which has life jackets, pop-up cards made by children and video works.
The work, they add, is a nod to the "resilience of the Kagay-anons", who are residents of the region of Cagayan de Oro in Mindanao. It was hit by a devastating typhoon, Typhoon Sendong, in 2011. To create the work, they worked with children who survived the typhoon.
In a joint statement, the artist group said: "This motorela comes equipped with survival kits to serve as a reminder that the previous storm will not be the last."
Such messages of community engagement also resonate in other artworks such as Knot, Play, Rest by Singapore artist Tay Bee Aye. Through her work, created in collaboration with Singapore students using 10.9 km of cloth, the artist makes a call for people to come together to communicate and to play through art.
From Thailand, The Satanni Project redefines communities by bringing together a group of creatives from various backgrounds and disciplines, ranging from product design to architecture. In a mixed-media presentation, this collaborative community project will use recycled objects to create furniture. They will present other elements such as film and research materials to explore the concept of space.
This approach shows the broader perspectives towards what art and artmaking can be and mean in this day and age, as well as the cross-disciplinary and collaborative nature of contemporary art today.
The works in the Biennale were culled from 700 proposals received by the organisers. The artists were picked by 27 co-curators, the largest curatorial team assembled for the biennale. Twelve are from Singapore and the rest are from the region. In earlier interviews, the co-curators said that a focus on Southeast Asia will help them showcase the diversity of contemporary art practice in the region.
Despite the bigger number of curators, artists and original works, the budget has remained at around S$6 million (US$4.8 million), the same as the previous editions of the biennale. The event is supported by the National Arts Council and organised by the Singapore Art Museum.
While the focus is predominantly on Southeast Asia, there are some names from beyond the region too. These include French artist Francois Roche and Australia-based artists Ken and Julia Yonetani.
Filipino co-curator Abraham A. Garcia Junior, 45, says: "Several of the artworks at the Biennale are anchored in the spirit of working together and attempt to bring these into the contemporary arena. Importantly, the projects are also works on identity-making and recognition in the context of the South-east Asia region and beyond, which makes them more relevant to our world today."
Lingham says: "This is the first time we are not looking at greater Asia - India and China - which has a long history and art tradition. I believe this Biennale is very unusual in that it has been co-curated.
"A lot of time has been spent on research and developing the artworks and people will see something fresh that respond to questions of our times. I believe it nudges us towards deeper engagement with questions relating to where we are located in the world and how we perceive our possible futures."