Singapore Biennale a.k.a ‘si-mi-lai-eh?’ (‘what is it?’ in Hokkien) or We also want one if it makes us cool!

The Singapore Biennale is upon us. For the less artsy amongst us, it is pronounced ‘bee-yen-na-lay’ (pronouncing it ‘by-anal’ would have been plain wrong). Rumour has it that some Singaporean civil servants went to the very successful Venice Biennale (held once every two years) and they knew Singapore had to have her own. And wala, we are now into our 3rd contemporary art fest.

Well, whatever they call it, it is seriously elitist. It is as if the curators and planners all sat down and decided all the things the Singapore Biennale can do so as to EXCLUDE as many Singaporeans as possible. A bit harsh? Try these for reason:

1. The organisers allowed a Japanese artist – Tatzu Nishi – to fully enclose the Merlion, an icon that many overseas visitors identify as THE Singapore landmark. I would be pissed off if I went all the way to Paris or Sydney to find that the Tower or Opera House was completely covered from view, right? And with highly-controlled visitor-access (and with guests allowed to book it for overnight stays at $150/night), they have transformed this ‘EVERYBODY’s monument’ into something uber-elitist for the few.

2. Need more evidence that this art show intentionally leaves Singaporeans out? Try this: All the artworks are on display only at “SAM and SAM at 8Q, the National Museum of Singapore, Old Kallang Airport and Marina Bay”. These are hardly Ang Mo Kio, Bedok, Jurong and Yishun, are they? Sadly, the official press-release (click ‘here‘) said that the Singapore Art Museum (overall in-charge of the Biennale) “…has expanded the educational and outreach efforts of the Biennale to make the event more accessible and increase the participation of young people in its making”. “…more accessible”? Really? A recent newspaper opinion-piece complained that the one of the venues, Kallang Airport, is as good as inaccessible (click ‘here‘) as taxi drivers are clueless, combined with a lack of public transport or shuttle buses to the venue.

“Contemporary Art”, as mainly the purview of those who can afford it or  ‘understand’ it (or at least claim so lah) is sometimes NECESSARILY elitist. I feel that there is a right time and place for such things. I therefore have no problem that the Singapore Biennale IS elitist (I mean how many people can really espouse the artistic value of turning the Merlion into a centrepiece of a plush hotel room???).

I, however, DO have a problem with the different organisers  trying to tell us that the Singapore Biennale is a event that “…has expanded the educational and outreach efforts…” when most of their actions are to the contrary. Can they explain the exclusive ‘city-centered’ locations? Or that some locations are not even an easy commute for those wanting to visit? It is not as if ‘art’ shown outside of large consmopolitan city-centres have failed; see the success of Guggenheim Bilbao, an industrial city on the wane until the museum showed up.  

But I am sure that at the end of this art show, official press release will inform us that XXX,XXX number of ‘visitors’ had seen the artworks, making it a resounding success. But if I was bored enough today to do a straw-poll of passers-by in Ang Mo Kio, Bedok, Jurong and Yishun, how many out of a hunderd would have even heard of the ‘Singapore Biennale’, let alone visited one of the venues?

Having said all that, I am all FOR the Biennale. Singapore is a thriving city full of characters large and small, and such an art show candidly displays  our quirky, less serious, side. What I think can take a backseat is the organisers trying to get their cake and scoff it down too: Holding a hard-to understand, multi-venue contemporary art event in the city centre AND then tell us that they have tried to ‘reach out’ to ordinary Singaporeans.  

1 Comment

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One response to “Singapore Biennale a.k.a ‘si-mi-lai-eh?’ (‘what is it?’ in Hokkien) or We also want one if it makes us cool!

  1. Before this I hadn’t actually heard much about the Biennale at all, although I agree with you that the Merlion Hotel is pretty tacky. But what I was really appalled by was this report:

    They had agreed to feature an award-winning artist’s work, and then censored it without even consulting him? That is not only unprofessional, but unethical and dishonest. And makes a mockery of Singapore’s efforts to be an arts hub.

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