Wednesday, March 23, 2011
  Stepping into the luxurious lion's cage
When the queen goes a-visiting, the pervasive smell is the smell of fresh paint. There is that "dress to impress" odour about the third Singapore Biennale.
Apart from the effort needed to turn the old Kallang airport into an exhibition space, the event showed other strains.
There was the strain of putting 63 artists from 30 countries into four venues, and of negotiating a place for an official display of international art in a country whose own artists are often seen as challenging the authoritarian regime.
Artists can fight government, even if it means many Singaporean artists now live and show their more controversial works abroad.
State-funded curators must try to tiptoe around it, and the biennale has three - Australians Trevor Smith and Russell Storer and Australian-resident Singaporean Mathew Ngui - who held the title of artistic director.
For those looking for a crash course in Southeast Asian contemporary art, the parallel show Negotiating Home, History and Nation at the Singapore Art Museum covers some of the highlights of the past 20 years.
Here it becomes clear artists in the region don't believe in art for art's sake. "In Southeast Asia, contemporary art always has a social purpose. Artists have sided with the 'losing side', people without power," says museum director Tan Boon Hui.
That's what the biennale seems to avoid as it strives to become part of the international circuit, clutching at tropes which have been recycled through other biennales of the past couple of decades,
It's a bit like those shows the Auckland City Art Gallery used to put on in the 1980s (when it at least tried to curate current New Zealand art) which excluded art with a self-consciously regional flavour in favour of self-conscious internationalism.
Performance art remains a feature of Singaporean art, perhaps because of the state's efforts to suppress it, but the performances at the biennale did not feature Singaporean artists.
Negotiating Home is packed with performance artefacts, such as a photograph of a Lee Wen show in London where he was splashed with yellow paint as a commentary on the way everyone there assumed he was from mainland China, rather than Singapore with its 700-year history of Chinese settlement.
The museum also holds the video of the event and the yellow painting produced by the performance, which is part of Lee Wen's long-running Yellow Man series.
Upstairs is one of Suzann Victor's early light pieces, rows of lights arranged in a triangle, the bulbs in constant motion touching small mirrors set in smashed windscreen glass on the floor, as she responded to the ban on performance art by making kinetic performance works that did not require a body.
Another of Victor's pieces, a row of red chandeliers permanently installed over a walkway in the huge Museum of Singapore, uses magnetic pulses to create a series of lively dances through the day, contrasting with the one-note tones of many of the biennale entries in the galleries below.
The biennale theme (or "banal-ay" as the woman from the Singapore Ministry of Information called it during the opening speeches) was Open House, referring to the Singaporean custom of opening their homes to others during festive occasions.
Ngui says it also refers to "an open house to the contemporary artist's process", the word process having replaced the dreaded "practice".
Walking in the main lobby of the Kallang terminal, which since the airport's closure in the 1950s has been used by the People's Association as offices and a place to build parade floats, it looked like a house terminally unfinished.
Most of the striking deco features of the 1937 building uncovered by
project architect Marcos Corrales were covered up by German artist Michael Beutler, whose "process" was to make long cylinders from plastic-wrapped wire mesh and lean them against the walls.
It's as if every action of an artist produces something of note, but at what point in a site-specific work should a curator step in and say "this fails" and scrap it?
Around the terminal building as punctuation are several pieces by Turner Prize winner Martin Creed, one of the least interesting of the YBA crew, looking like worn out party pieces - his row of metronomes, a jaundiced yellow neon tube spelling out "DON'T WORRY".
Upstairs another Briton, Mike Nelson, fills a room with scarred plinths built from the walls he destroyed for an installation in London's Hayward Gallery.
Critiques of the "white cube" are stale - Billy Apple was doing it better 30 years ago - and irrelevant in a region still struggling with the notion of finding places to show art at all.
The east wing was stronger. Rafael Lozano-Hemmer turns viewers' shadows into radio frequencies, drawing in splashes of sound as people walk through the space. You have to freeze to catch the latest death toll from Japan.
It gives way to Sheela Gowda's tangle of black rope holding up chromed car bumpers.
It's the smell that tips you off it's human hair, a reference to a south Indian practice of braiding locks around bumpers for luck.
At the end of the row, young Singaporean artist Michael Lee has created cardboard models of bizarre buildings tracking the career of a fictitious architect who supposedly brushed up against the greats of 20th century architecture.
In a city which seems like a giant architectural laboratory, it made a lot of sense.
Upstairs though was a stinker - the sole New Zealand contributor, Dane Mitchell, did one of his spooky pieces, enlisting the help of a medium to map the psychic traces of those who had passed through the room, with a pathway created by an oddly-shaped rail.
Mitchell, who was also in Auckland's Mystic Truths show, delivers the kind of emperor's clothes that curators use to assert their superiority over the rest of us.
The next room says much about the biennale phenomenon. Young Singaporean artist Genevieve Chua has a show at an Arab St photo gallery based on the pontianak, an Asian mythological creature with no western equivalent which is created when a woman dies giving birth.
Chua's interpretation, in blurred black and white photographs and spidery photograms, has a poetic power.
At Kallang, she projects a short video of vegetation down a long alley, so it appears to be swaying in 3D. By going bigger, the work becomes slight and one-dimensional.
Out the back, Michael Elmgreen and Inga Dragset did one of their funny, ironic biennale spectaculars, a large German-style barn filled with mounds of hay bales on which four male models in lederhosen sprawl.
Various trophies, tools and drinking steins hang from the wall, and there's a white stuffed goat with a white-painted car tyre nearby - a Jasper Johns reference as fodder for critical analysis.
The other big biennale piece looked like it had evaded critical analysis. Japanese artist Tatsu Nishi is Berlin-based, like so many of the "international-arti".
His party trick is to go to cities and build a room around a prominent public sculpture, so viewers can get up close and personal with something they may take for granted looking from below.
He did it in Christchurch in 2008 with a statue of Captain Cook, and this time he was allowed to take on the Merlion, the giant concrete sculpture of the Singapore national symbol which stands by the harbour.
Around the head of the lion he constructed a luxury hotel room to be occupied each night by one member of the public, while during the day small groups are ushered through.
So, let me get this straight. Singapore, with its history of wartime occupation, allows a Japanese artist to build a cage around its national lion in the guise of renting it out for luxury accommodation.
It's certainly thought provoking.
Singapore Biennale
What: Open House Singapore Biennale 2011
Where and when: Various sites in Singapore, to May 15
* Adam Gifford travelled to Singapore as a guest of the Singapore Art Museum and Singapore Biennale.
An online possie for Adam Gifford, a New Zealand journalist specialising in information technology, Maori news and the arts.

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