Singapore Biennale 2016: An Atlas of Mirrors, Jan 2017

John McDonald writes, “(e)ven by the absurdist standards of the Biennale circuit, An Atlas of Mirrors is a phrase guaranteed to confound audiences.” The visitor is greeted by a finger to the Singapore Art Museum, where one expects a typical mix of spectacle, crowd-pleasing visual effects, traditional motifs, and jargon-laden texts, accompanying works by notable Asian artists (Caucasians are excluded?) Ignoring curatorial demarcations, I enjoy the wide range of mediums utilised on show, having come from a painting-saturated art scene. Like H.H. Lim standing atop a basketball, one threads a balance when appreciating works – between wow factor and conventional tropes, between folk tradition and cultural appropriation, between metaphorical mediation and rigid symbols; I stumble when the first work I see is made up of 100 square mirrors. This is as straightforward as it gets.

Detail snapshot of work from Pala Pothupitiye – Other Map Series (2016)

After being creeped out by one illuminating two-sided mirror, impressed by tiny scripts that illustrate a Javanese folktale, confounded by an installation of vibrating wok lids, immersed with Sharmiza Abu Hassan’s formal adaptation of a story from Sejarah Melayu, and delighted by lovely drawings over maps of Sri Lanka, I stand entranced in front of a dense foliage of incense sticks. Hemali Bhuta’s arrangement offers a welcome break from artworks and an exhibition layout that demand visitors to interact with it; I leave the room charmed and refreshed from the emanated sweet scents. Upstairs, Tan Zi Hao’s ‘The Skeleton of Makara (The Myth of a Myth)’ stands up as an excellent subversive object within the biennale presentation. Why is the skeleton of a dinosaur in an art museum? Was the dinosaur excavated in this region? Is this skeleton real, or made up? Is this dinosaur art, or is art a dinosaur?

Installation snapshot of Tan Zi Hao – The Skeleton of Makara (The Myth of a Myth) (2016)

A number of spectacular works are exhibited on the second floor. Qiu Zhijie illustrates maps with terminologies associated literally with atlas, which progressively develops into an encyclopaedic list of animals and places. Mythological creatures in crystal are displayed together, accentuating further the durational impact of cartography as an activity. Navigating from the ‘Sea of Geopolitik’ to the ‘Mount of Twelve Titans’, one encounters sheer joy in the arbitrary nature of this cultural & literal mapping exercise. Pannaphan Yodmanee’s ‘Aftermath’ exhibits an apocalyptic scene – weighty chunks of concrete with painted murals, metal grids jutting out of hard surfaces – that impresses at first sight. Upon reflection, the presentation fits too neatly with an imagined place gleaned from end-of-days action blockbusters, notwithstanding the inherent appeal of pools of azure paint.

Installation and detail snapshots of Qui Zhijie – One Has to Wander through All the Outer Worlds to Reach the Innermost Shrine at the End (2016)

Martha Atienza‘s multimedia installation successfully creates an environment, where one feels like bobbing along in a small ship cabin for ‘Endless Hours at Sea’. In another dark room, I recharge again while looking at starry night scenes made by Ni Youyu with chalk, and magnets. Traditional Hmong embroidery by Tcheu Siong depict Laotian spirits as interpreted by her village shaman husband, which geometric forms and tactile surface manifest a narrative as well as any other art medium. With surprisingly few videos on show, one should forgo Araya Rasdjarmrearnsook’s obscure 5-channel work, and spend time viewing documentary records by Wen Pulin. Capturing critical moments in Chinese contemporary art history, I watched the segment about Xiao Lu’s controversial gun-shooting performance 肖魯《槍擊事件》, where the artist insisted in an interview that the act was a personal gesture.

Detail snapshots of works from Adeela Suleman – Dread of Not Night series (2015–2016)

Equally violent is the blood oath taken by S. Chandrasekaran, who cut himself in protest of the organizers’ decision to disallow his planned performance, on grounds of it being religiously-insensitive. Metal hooks meant for the performance remain displayed on the third floor of 8Q, now transformed into markers of state-sponsored censorship. Htien Lin’s carved soaps are incidentally displayed in the adjacent gallery, reminding the audience that freedom cannot wash away the shackles of oppression. Re-arranging historical objects to depict the ‘Singapore Human Resources Institute’, Ade Darmawan’s superb installation celebrates a foundational organization that has contributed to Singapore’s first-world status. Yet, with its broken chairs, stickers on wallpaper, and chopped slogans, one senses that the artist is left out in this development, and still playing catch up now.

Installation snapshots of Ade Darmawan – Singapore Human Resources Institute (2016)

Hidden away in a small room behind heavy curtains is one of the biennale’s best work. ‘Hearings’ by Jack Tan is a collaboration with charity organization Community Justice Centre, where the artist interprets sounds from court proceedings as graphical scores, that are subsequently performed by a choir. Xun Wei Er’s careful review describes the moral economy manifest in this work, and emphasises that “…voice is a significant if not the predominant means of engaging with…” the viewer. The clash of languages – oral, visual, musical – is intriguing, and extends the meaning of “representation” into the social realm. The law favours the learned and the privileged, not unlike art. Dwelling upon this sobering thought, I walk past impenetrable lightboxes by Niranjan Rajah, also sympathizing with Azizan Paiman’s eccentric pop-up café which sits uncomfortably on 8Q’s porch.

Detail snapshots of works from Jack Tan – Hearings (2016)

Ahmad Fuad Osman’s expansive installation fares better at the Asian Civilisation Museum, as I gleefully note the number of visitors who come & go believing that the first person to circumnavigate the world was a Malay man. That lines between fact and fiction can be blurred to the point of uncertainty, is a ready approach in contemporary art-making, yet out of steps in times like this when fake news is rampant. With its elliptical curatorial theme, “An Atlas of Mirrors” pans out as an exhibition of individual artworks in visual dialogue with a familiar museum space, thereby leaving this visitor feeling like a missed opportunity. As Lim Qinyi asks in her crisp criticism, “…can a biennale that has so far fallen short of its touted complexity and reflexivity justify its existence beyond as a mere charade for larger political colonialist designs on the region’s art narratives?”

Installation snapshots of Ahmad Fuad Osman – Enrique de Malacca Memorial Project (2016)