Premised on the obliquely hypothetical question “What if the world changed?”, the Singapore Biennale 2013 (SB2013) is presented as a deconstructed entity centered on allusive keywords—or “tags” in internetspeak—such as “histories,” “intervention,” and “materiality” in order to highlight the transmutative and the transformative qualities of the art produced in the region. With a collaborative team of 27 curators instead of an artistic director helming the show, If the World Changed presents the works of 82 artists and eschews the country pavilion-centric layout in favor of a more organic display of artworks that are hung according to interwoven ideas of words and images.
On paper, at least, there’s much to get excited about after reading SB2013’s vague but stylishly crafted curatorial brief. Above all, there’s the anticipation that nascent ideas embedded within these keywords will become sites of exchange and experimentation, and it is within this framework that SB2013 attempts to operate, weaving strands of commonality (though tenuous at times), shared tensions, themes, and attitudes. As academia continues to mull over the definition of Asia as an incoherent, multivalent concept rather than a homogeneous physical, social, and cultural entity, SB2013’s vision appears to be almost a dramatic, metaphorical realization of this idea. Even though this vision consists of a nebulous collection of words that, on their own, are theoretical concepts and linguistic connectors to a wider dialogue on art and its shared values, the lack of a more precisely crafted statement also presents the discursive slippages in which the collaborative team of curators can operate more fluidly as they seek to represent the varied cultures and identities of the Southeast Asian nations. If the distilled purpose of Biennales is to display a hybrid variety of art forms produced by artists working in specific cultural contexts, If the World Changed certainly succeeds in reinforcing the rhetoric of the region’s socio-economic, aesthetic, and ideological complexities with what is at times a beguiling mix of artworks.
Works that explore the quotidian social injustice that millions in the region suffer are plentiful and cast a harsh light on the costs we bear as humanity slowly destroys itself. Nikki Luna’s Tiempos Muertos (2013) is an installation of a thousand diamonds cast from sugar that details the exploitation of cheap labor, while Adrian Ho’s Fruits of Life (2013) registers its mournful concern for the Bornean forests that have fallen prey to palm-oil corporations. In an installation comprising fragments of body parts made of wood, clay, and stone scattered in foetal positions, Kiri Dalena’s Monument for a Present Future (2013) recalls the ash-covered bodies in the wake of Mt. Vesuvius’s eruption in A.D. 79, suggesting that the loss of lives will always count as the greatest tragedy in the aftermath of catastrophes or atrocities.
Cosmic ideas of spiritual change coupled with nostalgia for lost tradition are perpetually present in Toni Kanwa’s Cosmology of Life (2013) and in Nasirun’s Between Worlds (2013). Oscar Villamiel’s Payatas (2012) is an installation of thousands of dolls salvaged from a Manila landfill, an evocative parallel of how its inhabitants forage through this landscape of refuse for usable items. Rapid industrialization of third-world nations—and the corresponding impact on the environment—also seems to be a common theme that runs through a number of works. Crystal Palace: The Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nuclear Nations by Japanese pair Ken and Julie Yonetani underscores the global proliferation of nuclear-generating nations through the use of radioactive uranium glass; Bounpaul Phothyzan‘s We Live (2013) is a site-specific exploration of politicized environmental damage in Bolikhamxay Province in Laos.
The examples in the paragraphs above are nevertheless typical of the characteristics of contemporary Asian artworks, many of which still bear the constant burden of voicing oft-contested issues of social engagement, the erosion of traditional values and beliefs, and political sea change. That isn’t to say that there are no standouts: Jeremy Sharma’s Terra Sensa-Lovell (2013) consists of casts of radiographs of collated data from collapsed stars, a surreal meditation on humankind’s unceasing obsession with extraterrestrial terrain light-years beyond Earth; Peace Can Be Realised Even Without Order (2012) by teamLab is a massive, interactive platform of holographic musicians and dancers clad in traditional garb that respond to viewers’ movements and reactions. El Fin del Mundo (The End of the World, 2012) is a stirring two-screen video installation by Moon Kyungwon and Jeon Joonho that depicts two worlds, separated by time, where two characters—one living in a world on the brink of the apocalypse, and the other in a post-apocalyptic, sterile habitat—work to collect objects that come to define humankind. The first screen shows an artist in his studio at the end of the world, collecting discarded items. This man is juxtaposed on the second screen by a woman who works in a laboratory built on the same physical site at some point in the future. By assembling an archive of samples in order to rediscover the basic tenets of human life, the scientist finally leaves her workplace at the end of the film after packing away twinkle lights, the implication suggesting she has found the answer to the meaning of human existence in a quiet, epiphanous moment. El Fin del Mundo goes beyond imagining a dystopia; as part of a larger series of works collectively entitled News from Nowhere, Moon and Jeon’s work posits that the essentiality of art and human consciousness will continue in the absence of formal socio-political and economic structures. The world that we know and perceive, as Moon and Jeon seem to insist, is, after all, predicated on intangible, metaphysical qualities—such as aesthetic wonder—that will always transcend humankind’s reductive attempts to explain them.
For all the Singapore Biennale purports to do, it does not stray too far from revisiting these preoccupations. Whether it’s a result of the absence of artistic direction or oversight, the fact remains that the lack of spatial and curatorial coherence prevents SB2013 from plumbing the depths of the diversity of these artistic affiliations to greater effectiveness. While not lacking in ambition, If the World Changed’s most glaring weakness is its inability to sufficiently move away from the existing discursive pathways that have for some time defined this geographical region and its communities as a an elusive construct of political engineering. Its narratives are sweeping and grand but uninvigorating, failing to challenge its viewers’ perspectives beyond portraying the usual fixations of contemporary art of the region.
If the World Changed will run until February 2014 at various venues in the Civic District, Singapore.