Singapore

An Atlas of Mirrors: Singapore Biennale 2016

There is no shortage of mirrors and maps in the fifth iteration of the Singapore Biennale. Glass mirrors in Harumi Yukutake’s Paracosmos (2016) curve around the main circular stairwell of the Singapore Art Museum, dazzling the eye as light hits their multiple reflective surfaces. Dozens of mirrors appear in their reflections; dozens more yet, to the power of infinity, show up in the reflections of their reflections. In another room, Map Office’s Desert Islands (2009, 2016) features familiar topographical seascapes, as a hundred square mirrors bear the engravings of islands and their coordinates. Pala Pothupitiye’s Other Map Series (2016) reinscribes and retells Sri Lanka’s past and present in the form of overlapping landscapes, names, and voyages, trapped on static, two-dimensional space that recalls Ptolemy’s maps of Ceylon, while Qiu Zhijie’s One Has to Wander Through All the Outer Worlds to Reach the Innermost Shrine at the End (2016) is an exploration of cartographical history resulting in a conflation of myths, landscapes, and epochs scrawled on paper, glass, and stone.

Harumi Yukutake. Paracosmos, 2016; Glass mirrors, site-specific installation, dimensions variable. Image courtesy of Singapore Art Museum.

Harumi Yukutake. Paracosmos, 2016; glass mirrors; site-specific installation. Courtesy of Singapore Art Museum.

The biennale’s apt but campy title, An Atlas of Mirrors, is an illustration of the many artworks’ disappointingly myopic and literal takes on the exhibition’s moniker—the core theme of which is art’s capability to reflect, inflect, refract, magnify, and project alternative viewpoints onto what is current, traditional, and expected.[1] Through the sheer repetition of motifs, it is impossible to miss the extent to which the curators wish their audiences to be cognizant of the fact that there exists a lexical map of gateways, mirrors, and journeys, on both physical and socioeconomic levels, that needs to be constantly (re)examined, more so now than ever.

Yet An Atlas of Mirrors is also a title that speaks of broad, interlinking possibilities that do not point us in any particularly original direction. If this theme of embracing contemporary realities and mirroring them might appear so extensive as to be confounding, it is only because of the broad structuring of the show into nine conceptual zones—space, time, memory, nature, boundaries, agency, identity, displacement, and absence (each under a curatorial director with overlapping ideas)—that results in a more mystifying than elucidatory experience.

Qui 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. Image courtesy of Singapore Art Museum.

Qui 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. Courtesy of Singapore Art Museum.

Solidarity, interdependency, and ties are forged by a sense of history that can be reclaimed—this much is evident. It is the rhetoric constantly reiterated in this region that has as much a political sheen as it is an aesthetic to which the governmental institutions certainly subscribe. For instance, Fyerool Darma’s The Most Mild Mannered Men (2016) questions the writing of Singapore’s early modern history with sculptures of two key figures, while Nobuaki Takekawa’s playful installation of maps, tables, and board games underscores the societal issues that contemporary Japan still faces for its inability to confront its part in the second World War. As both Darma’s and Takekawa’s works suggest, the burdensome sense of history cannot—or should not—be shrugged away easily; instead, it has to be internalized, ruminated upon, then reproduced.

Titarubi. History Repeats Itself, 2016; Gold-plated nutmeg, copper-plated wood, nickel-plated wood, burnt wood, sampan, wood, aluminium, copper, soil, light and nutmeg perfume; Dimensions variable. Image courtesy of Singapore Art Museum.

Titarubi. History Repeats Itself, 2016; gold-plated nutmeg, copper-plated wood, nickel-plated wood, burnt wood, sampan, wood, aluminum, copper, soil, light and nutmeg perfume. Courtesy of Singapore Art Museum.

The ships and ominously preaching missionaries in Titarubi’s History Repeats Itself (2016) are perhaps the Biennale’s most visceral representation of the legacy of conquest in this region. The specters of the past in gold-plated nutmeg robes recall the lucrative spice trade that European powers had sought to control. Constructed out of jackfruit wood with woodworking craftsmanship, Bui Cong Khanh’s Dislocate (2016) contains all the elements of a traditional Vietnamese home, yet its central sculpture contains carvings of a Vietnamese military jacket, American G.I. helmets, and missiles. At best, both Bui’s and Titarubi’s works intimate that history’s indelible stains are part of the quotidian, participating in part of a larger discourse that has to do with the currency of collective memory.

Pola Pothupitiye. Other Map Series, 2016; Archival digital print, acrylic, ink, pencil on paper and canvas; various dimensions. Image courtesy of Singapore Art Museum.

Pola Pothupitiye. Other Map Series, 2016; archival digital print, acrylic, ink, pencil on paper and canvas. Courtesy of Singapore Art Museum.

An Atlas of Mirrors is a show that attempts to find new ways of telling the same broad story that resonates in Asian contemporary art: a continual engagement with the international art world, but never without a foot firmly planted in the geopolitical structures of a region that cannot—or would not—quite step away from shrugging off its colonially inflected narratives. This is the sort of contemporary reality that’s continually espoused in contemporary Asian art. If this biennale is any indication, it’s also a didactic trend that, despite the tendency for it to get repetitive, will continue for the foreseeable future.

In the exhibition’s catalog, mirrors are positioned as the standpoint, or a “counteraction on the position that [we] occupy,” as “spaces of other spaces,”[2] as allegorical validation of how sites, context, and histories are connected to each other. They offer complex levels of representation that emerge out of reciprocal visibility, explore the notion of the roving, unstable gaze, and exhibit plurality in powerful ways, but they also have the tendency to lead us back full circle to the primary image. Yet it’s a framework of interpretation that leaves questions unanswered: Should we see ourselves or the Other (or both, for that matter)? What can they possibly reflect that could ignite a debate that has not yet already encompassed rehashed ideas of identity, shared histories, and co-dependency? Ultimately, the mirrors, both physical and metaphorical, behave like passive objects, defused of their power because of their inability to engage.

An Atlas of Mirrors: Singapore Biennale 2016 is on view at several museums in the Civic District, Singapore, through February 26, 2017.


 

[1] Susie Lingham, Our Fractal Realities, in An Atlas of Mirrors, Singapore Biennale catalog, p. 17.

[2] Michel Foucault, Of Other Spaces: Utopias and Heterotopias (1967). The section on heterotopias is also referred to briefly in the catalogue, p. 114. I refer to Foucault’s postmodern analysis of Las Meninas (1656) in The Order of Things (1966), where complex levels of representation and the gaze are highlighted.

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