On the occasion of our Focus on the 5th Singapore Biennale, I interviewed Tan Siuli to talk about this year’s program. Tan is the Curatorial Co-Head of the Singapore Art Museum. Tan was a Curator-Mentor in Curating Lab 2012, a co-curator of the Singapore Biennale 2013, a member of the Advisory Committee to the Indonesian Pavilion at the Venice Biennale 2013, and a Juror for the Bandung Contemporary Art Awards.
Carla Ingrasciotta: Let’s start with the title of the exhibition “An Atlas of Mirrors”: this major theme includes nine sub-themes which engage with notions of space and place, myths, cultural legacies, beliefs and memory…. Could you tell us something more about this concept?
Tan Siuli: For centuries, atlases and mirrors have been instrumental in humankind’s exploration of the world and the self, as we visually appraise (and recognize) ourselves, and as we navigate and map our journeys into the unknown. For this edition, the Singapore Biennale’s theme brings together these two objects as an imagined new ‘device’, so that it evokes a multiplicity of perspectives and ways of mapping the world. “An Atlas of Mirrors“ is thus a poetic way of encompassing the Biennale’s sub-themes, to create possibilities for unexpected ways of thinking about and contemplating the many facets of contemporary life.
In our curatorial write-up for the Biennale, we ask: “From where we are, how do we picture the world – and ourselves?”, and I think this is a good way of summing up the interests of this Biennale.
Implied in this is a sense of geographic specificity, of a certain view of the world based on where you are and where you stand. For us, this point is Southeast Asia, and the Singapore Biennale 2016 seeks to explore resonances and dialogues within the region as well as between Southeast Asia and the wider world, in particular Asia, with which this region has had a long and historical relationship.
C.I.: One of the Singapore Biennale main ambitions is to engage the local and Southeast Asia cultural scene with the international art world. In which way the Biennale will contribute in the creation of such dialogue?
T.S.: When SAM took over the organization of the Singapore Biennale in 2013, we made art from Singapore and Southeast Asia its focus. This distinguishes the Singapore Biennale from the plethora of other Biennales around the world, while giving voice to contemporary art from this region on a global platform. Throughout the Biennale we expect to host international media as well as visiting curators, scholars and art historians, and this is a wonderful opportunity to acquaint the international community with local and Southeast Asian art. In addition, the SAM team has been developing a range of online resources on the artists and artworks featured in the Biennale, all of which will remain accessible to anyone interested in researching the art of this region.
In January we will also be organizing the Singapore Biennale symposium, to discuss issues pertinent to the regional art scene and to Biennales in general. Our speakers and attendees will come from all over the world, so this is another avenue for an exchange of ideas about art and the art ecosystems of this region and beyond.
C.I.: Could you tell us about some of the artists’ projects? How did you select the participating artists? Could you tell us about one of the most representative projects you will be showing?
T.S.: The artists were selected by the curatorial team. We began by approaching artists whose work and interests we knew were aligned with the themes and keywords we wanted to explore in the Biennale. We also approached artists who had not necessarily addressed these themes before in their work, but whom we felt had a mature and established practice and/or whom we felt would be able to respond in an interesting way. All artists were invited to submit a proposal responding to the Biennale title, and the final selection made from there — we enjoy this process a lot because artists do surprise you!
The title of the Biennale is very evocative, and can be unpacked in so many different ways. As such, I hesitate to name a single artwork as ‘representative’ of the Biennale. How we have curated the Biennale is also less about singular works of art than about artworks in conversation with one another, and the rich narratives that ensue as a result.
C.I.: This biennial returns after 3-years absence. Which are you hopes and expectations after this edition?
T.S.: We hope for visitors to explore and experience, through contemporary art, the many ways of seeing and engaging with critical issues in and of our own region. Personally, I also hope that visitors to the Biennale will leave with a renewed sense of wonder and curiosity about our neighbours and the region.
Many of us are more familiar with European or American culture and cities than we are with the cultures and histories closer to home. A lot of artworks in this Biennale touch on these shared, often submerged narratives, and bring these to light in moving and imaginative ways.
Working with the artists on this Biennale has been an enlightening experience as I found myself listening to the inspiration and research behind their artworks in fascination, and I hope that through the conversations between artworks that we have mapped in this Biennale, the public will go away with a similar sense of discovery.
C.I.: Which kind of reactions are you expecting from Singapore Biennale’s audience? And in which way the city itself can contribute to engage visitors to the biennial?
T.S.: I would like to think that we have put together a Biennale that has something to offer everyone, from the casual visitor to the seasoned museum-goer or art critic. There are some stunning works that will delight audiences who may be experiencing contemporary art or a Biennale for the very first time, and I believe there are curatorial narratives that will provide food for thought, as well as works that will enchant the connoisseurs. As mentioned earlier, I hope that audiences will feel that they have something to take away from this Biennale, and I also hope that they will come back to uncover new layers of meaning in the conversations between artworks.
It does help that the Biennale is located in the Civic District, which is also the Museum precinct. This makes the Biennale eminently ‘walk-able’ and accessible. We have sited works at other museums apart from the Singapore Art Museum too – works that respond to the respective Museums’ collections and spaces — so this is a wonderful opportunity for visitors to discover the collections of these museums in the precinct, such as the Peranakan Museum and the National Museum.
During this period, there will also be several private and public art and cultural organisations all over the city presenting special exhibitions, some in response to the Biennale’s theme. All this makes for a really engaging visitor experience.
C.I.: Could you tell us something about the art scene in Singapore? Apart from the Biennale itself could you suggest some art spaces and exhibitions that shouldn’t be missed?
T.S.: The Singapore art scene has grown exponentially in the past decade. We now have major institutions dedicated to the research and presentation of art from Singapore and Southeast Asia, as well as a cluster of art fairs and a recently established gallery enclave at Gillman Barracks. Art schools are offering postgraduate programmes in art history and courses in curating and arts management. From what I can observe, the younger generation is much more interested in and engaged in the arts, especially contemporary art, and many are seriously considering careers in the arts and are passionate supporters of the local and regional art scene.
Visitors to the Singapore Biennale should definitely spend some time exploring Gillman Barracks, where a parallel project of the Singapore Biennale is being presented. There are also several exhibitions opening around the same time as the Biennale, so there will be plenty to see. Over at the Institute of Contemporary Arts at LASALLE College of the Arts, visitors can look forward to two new exhibitions, one a solo show and one a group show, which respond to the Singapore Biennale’s title. Last but not least, at the newly opened National Gallery Singapore, one can view a new iteration of the “Artist and Empire“ exhibition, which has traveled from the Tate Museum, UK.