Art, the poet Cesar Cruz once said, should comfort the disturbed – and disturb the comfortable. There’s certainly plenty to unsettle and sooth our souls at the Singapore Biennale 2019, one of Asia’s biggest and most anticipated contemporary art events. Back for its sixth run, the 2019 edition sees over 70 artists from Southeast Asia and beyond presenting works around the theme Every Step in the Right Direction. Tinged with quiet hope, this theme calls upon the power of artists and audiences to rework our troubled world for the better.
Kicking off 22 November 2019, the Biennale promises a four-month smorgasbord of sound art, virtual reality adventures, interactive installations, and much, much more. If this all-you-can-art buffet has you overwhelmed, here’s our pick of ten works which gave us a jolt:
Am I A Ghost?, C&G
Are you a ghost? That’s the chilling question Hong Kong artistic duo Clara Cheung and Gum Cheng Yee (aka C&G) pose in their interactive installation on social othering. Highlighting how the Cantonese term for ‘ghost’ is haunted by other meanings − gangster, spy, refugee − this work invites you to walk into a phone booth and answer multiple-choice questions based on typical ghost depictions in Asian films. You might find that the borders between you and the underworld are more tenuous than they seem.
2065 (Singapore Centennial Edition), Lawrence Lek
How will we live and think in a posthuman time, when AI powers the world? To explore this question, Lawrence Lek’s 2065 transforms the Asian Civilisations Museum into an immersive game-space. Step into an uncanny virtual world where Singapore celebrates its grand centennial, the Farsight Corporation’s algorithms rule, and rebellious AIs dream of becoming artists.
Time: Dust, Min Thein Sung
Like the rings of a tree, the layers of dust that often annoy us mark the great march of time. In Time: Dust, Min Thein Sung presents ‘paintings’ created by the fall and coalescence of dust motes over time. Capturing the insidious yet almost invisible passing of years, these seemingly plain canvases conceal a quiet beauty which make them well worth contemplating.
Escape Velocity III and IV by Zai Tang
In a time of ecological crisis, we need to listen to Mother Earth − sometimes literally. Sound artist Zai Tang captures the sounds of nature under threat in his field recordings of wildlife-rich places, such as Mandai, undergoing urban development. Accompanied by animated soundscapes and visual scores, Escape Velocity offers a mesmerizing eartrip into a deeper state of eco-consciousness.
Bukit Brown Index #132: Triptych of the Unseen, Post-Museum
Even our dead aren’t exempt from the tragic struggle for space in land-scarce Singapore, as the exhumation of Bukit Brown Cemetery proves. Through a gripping wayang performance, reminiscent of those seen during Hungry Ghost Festival, Triptych of the Unseen explores the moral contradictions faced by three characters in urban redevelopment − ‘Ghost’, ‘Activist’, and ‘Bureaucrat’. Slip on VR goggles and watch as these spectres grapple with their imperiled existences, in a tragicomedy destined to play out in Singapore over and over again.
Coping Mechanisms by Pooja Nansi
Be it retail therapy or briyani binges, we’ve all got our (usually unhealthy) coping mechanisms. Local poet Pooja Nansi divulges some quintessentially Singaporean ways of dealing with life, in a quirky series of text responses splashed across a 35-metre long hoarding. From procrastination guilt to getting cuckoo about dead birds, this window into our everyday woes and triumphs is hilariously, guiltily relatable.
Chapter 1: The Legend of Lieu Hanh & Chapter 2: The Blessed Child, Ngoc Nau
Against the unlikely backdrops of colonial Vietnam and modern-day tech, Ngoc Nau brings a rich realm of Vietnamese legends to life. Inspired by one of the Four Immortals worshiped as a mother goddess, Chapter 1: The Legend of Lieu Hanh tells the struggles of spiritual life in northern Vietnam during French colonization. Chapter 2: The Blessed Child follows up with an augmented reality simulation using brainwave scanning tech, plunging us into the funky, spectral world experienced by a possessed follower of the Mother Goddess.
Catch Chapter 1: The Legend of Lieu Hanh and Chapter 2: The Blessed Child by Ngoc Nau at National Gallery Singapore, 1 St Andrew’s Rd, Singapore 178957.
An Obstacle in Every Direction, Nabilah Nordin
Ever felt like life’s a maze and there’s some cosmic conspiracy to make you hit dead ends at every turn? An Obstacle in Every Direction recreates this experience of failure, with a perilous obstacle course of found objects that visitors must navigate. Rather than speeding your way through, this whimsical maze is all about exploring the different possible routes you could take, and reveling in the strange textures you find along the way.
Gilded Age, Le Quang Ha
Power corrupts, and… you know the rest. In a trenchant series of paintings, sculptures, and videos, Gilded Age takes aim at the limitless greed of political tyrants, past and present. Inspired by Mark Twain and Charles Warner’s 19th-century satirical masterpiece about a glittering yet corrupt society, and drawing on familiar references such as Animal Farm and Dear Leader, this installation will leave you with unsettling questions about the powers which structure our reality.
La camera insabbiata (The Chalkroom), Laurie Anderson and Hsin-Chien Huang
Fly through a wild vortex of stories and sounds in La camera insabbiata, a stunning virtual reality work about our collective memories. This dreamlike mindscape comprises eight interactive caverns − dive into the flooded Water Room to discover its submerged scrawls, or float around a storytelling tree in the Tree Room. Surreal and spectacular, it’s no wonder this work clinched the Best Experience VR Award at the 74th Venice Film Festival.
Top Image: Post-Museum