[Singapore Biennale '11] A memo from da man
This year’s biennale has been one controversy after another almost from the word go, and Matthew Ngui, artistic director, has at long last seen fit to speak his mind.
He wrote in to The Straits Times to clarify his stand on certain matters, which published his letter in the Life! section today (28 May).
YES TO GLOBAL ART
I would like to respond to two issues brought up in the article “Biennale A Big Hit” (Life!, May 17) by Deepika Shetty.
The first relates to the choice of the Old Kallang Airport site as a venue for Singapore Biennale 2011 Open House.
The use of old buildings or sites-in-transition as exhibition spaces for contemporary art is a short but distinctive tradition of the Singapore Biennale: Tanglin Camp in 2006, South Beach Camp and the Central Promontory Site in 2008, and City Hall in both years. This not only allows for unique and innovative installations that respond to the site, but also invites Singaporeans to experience sites often closed to them and, in many cases, about to be changed.
The selection of these sites is based on a number of considerations, including the size of its spaces, state of the building, safety and the convenience and comfort of its visitors. We consciously try to have spaces in or as close to the city as possible, and to provide air-conditioning and other facilities. But cost is a major factor and it is not always possible to provide pristine conditions.
Yet these spaces offer artists and curators the freedom to work with unique and evocative sites, and for audiences to encounter contemporary art is new and exciting ways.
The second issue concerns the curatorial direction of the Singapore Biennale: Should it remain international or should it narrow its focus to show only Asian or South-east Asian contemporary art?
Throughout the world, contemporary art biennales are usually international in nature. They offer local audiences the chance to experience contemporary art from around the world. When international and local artists and curators meet, networks are strengthened and new exhibition opportunities are created.
The Singapore Biennale is widely respected. In its short history, it has become known for being “international with an Asian focus”. Fourty-four per cent of the artists in this year’s biennale were from Asia, of these artists, 74 per cent were South-east Asian.
Most of the South-east Asian artists were commissioned to make major new works – enabling ambitious projects and a platform to show alongside international peers, and providing new contexts for their work.
Artists from outside the region also relish the rare chance to come to Singapore and engage with the city and its culture, and to see their work in a new environment. It would be a great loss to deny this opportunity in the future to artists and curators who do not fit a particular regional profile.
The Singapore Biennale is the only recurring, government-funded, contemporary art exhibition in Singapore that is not defined geographically. The Singapore Art Museum (SAM) already has a mandate and core programme focusing on South-east Asian contemporary art, and holds the world’s most extensive public collection in this area. A large-scale South-east Asian exhibition titled Negotiating Home, History And Nation was shown at SAM concurrently with the biennale. During the first biennale in 2006, SAM presented Telah Terbit, a major survey of South-east Asian art from the 1970s and 1980s.
If SAM is already offering such an important and extensive focus on South-east Asian art, should the biennale or any other body funded by the Ministry of Information, Communications and the Arts, have a similar focus?
The Singapore Biennale should maintain its tradition of producing extraordinary international exhibitions every two years or so in Singapore with new curators, local and international, at its helm. This complements the South-east Asian focus of our local institutions and ensures that Singaporeans can experience regular, fresh exhibitions of contemporary art from across the globe.
My curators and I feel that narrowing this focus would not strengthen the art scene in Singapore and the region, but would diminish it by removing a rare and valuable platform for participation on the international stage.
Singapore has built its success on being a global city with an expansive outlook and it deserves the opportunity to see its art as part of the wider world.
Artistic director, Singapore Biennale 2011
A couple of quick thoughts: First of all, it seems a little strange that Ngui is responding only at this juncture, two weeks after the wrap of the Biennale. He states clearly that his letter was written in response to Deepika Shetty’s article of May 17 (read it here), but public concerns over the inaccessibility of the Old Kallang Airport site and the artists represented in the show only made up a portion of that story. If anything, the writer’s main angle was the unbelievably optimistic visitorship numbers reported by the SAM – a point which Ngui chose to ignore altogether. In fact, Shetty’s piece was followed up by a longer article by Adeline Chia two days ago, which openly challenged those numbers. Ngui, however, apparently decided instead to make his reply to two lesser points – raised in a piece published more than ten days back. Why ?
Secondly, questions about the choice of some of the artworks – most notably, about the large number of video works that were featured in this year’s biennale – were actually discussed in an even earlier ST article, also by Shetty, published on 21 April. That’s some five weeks ago. Sure, SAM’s director, Tan Boon Hui, did respond to that piece, but preferred to skip over issues about the choice of artworks altogether in his reply. Why didn’t Ngui speak up then ? It seems like he decided to wait it out, and is even now only just tackling the topic of the geographical scope represented by the biennale and its artists – rather than questions of the artistic merit of some of the inclusions, which are no less valid. I’m not saying that I agree with popular sentiment in this matter – I don’t – but the event is after all paid for by tax dollars, and its organisers should remain responsive to public concerns.
So far Ngui and Tan have only responded to a select few issues raised in the press – based on personal preference, one is forced to assume. These guys, along with Storer and Smith, were responsible for making curatorial decisions, so how about stepping forward to own those decisions ?