“The Singapore Biennale 2011.” Sounds pretty good, doesn’t it? Singapore, the Southeast Asian trading hub, one of the world’s most modern, thriving, cosmopolitan cities, hosted its third biennale from March to May, featuring “63 artists from 30 countries presenting 161 works across four venues.” I was tentatively excited. I hoped for the best, but to my memory the Singaporean government had a history of not exactly “getting” creativity. Singapore has been trying to publicize itself as a center for the arts for the last decade, building the grand six-hectare Esplanade theatre building in 2002, and more recently, the Singapore FreePort and Christie’s auction house’s Fine Art Storage Service in 2010.
By the end of my tour, I wasn’t impressed, but I had to admit that I was surprised. Many A-list artists were represented (Omer Fast, Leopold Kessler, Ryan Trecartin, and Charlie White, to name a few), and although the quality of the artwork often varied, the overall picture proved interesting. While the main site of the biennale, Old Kallang Airport, was literally in shambles, the other sites on museum grounds were actually quite thoughtfully put together, and presented both work and curatorial skill that could, in fact, be taken seriously. The American multimedia and performance artist Jill Magid’s piece Evidence Locker (2004), on view at the National Museum, had a great effect on me as an exploration of intimacy and surveillance culture, while her politically-charged A Reasonable Man in a Box (2010) failed to come to its full potential because of the careless installation job at Kallang. All-in-all, however, the emphasis on video, sculpture, and installation work throughout gave the biennale the contemporary feel promised, and the plurality of artistic voices reinforced my belief in Singapore as a truly multi-cultural society from the ground up. 54% of the artwork was commissioned specifically for this event, and 43% was made by Asian artists, 9 of them Singaporeans.
It is important to put the burgeoning art scene in context within Singapore’s current state of political evolution. The day I attended the biennale was, funnily enough, voting day for Singaporeans, and for weeks earlier locals had been talking about their options, attending rallies, and for the first time seriously considering voting for an opposing party, instead of the People’s Action Party (PAP), which has been in control since Singapore’s independence from Britain in 1963. There were concerns over the secrecy of the ballots—whether walkovers would “pay” for their disloyalty. But by the end of the day there had been an historical upset in the Aljunied constituency, as the Workers’ Party representatives won by a 9.4% margin over the PAP.
Singapore has surprised the world by being a great capitalist nation, without necessarily being democratic. All television and radio stations, save for one frequency from BBC World Service, are owned by the Media Corporation of Singapore, or MediaCorp, the media arm of the government. Given the situation, what can we expect of young local contemporary artists and curators? What has to change for true creativity to flourish? The biennale felt shiftless, an event with such great content and potential, but without a comfortable home, or proper commitment given to it. Before Singapore truly becomes known for nurturing creative exploration, it needs to change the internal culture that has prevented it from matching the vibrancy and success it has achieved as a world leader in other areas.