Never Risky: Seeking New Life at the Singapore Biennale

Installation view of Donghwan Kam's Fermentation Houses (2021-23), as part of Singapore Biennale 2022 named Natasha. Image courtesy of Singapore Art Museum.

On a sweltering afternoon in January, after a short, bouncy, and very pleasant ride aboard a tiny pocket trawler, I found myself on Lazarus Island, one of Singapore’s uninhabited southern islands, looking at two miniature houses with orange roofs. Inside, soy sauce was fermenting. These houses were sculptures by the artist Donghwan Kam, a tall placard standing next to them explained, and they were included in Natasha, as the 2022 Singapore Biennale was titled. More specifically, they were part of the Nina bell F. House Museum, a multifarious entity featured in the Biennale that was named for Nina Simone, bell hooks, and Silvia Federici. It is associated with the Casco Art Institute: Working for the Commons, an art nonprofit in Utrecht, the Netherlands.

If that felt like a lot to absorb, I am right there with you. For the previous two days, I had been trying to get to know Natasha, visiting just about all of the ten or so sites that this edition calls home. It had been an alternately enervating and exhilarating experience. Composed of more than 50 artists and groups from around the world, Natasha was hard to pin down, and the Biennale’s artistic directors—Binna Choi, Nida Ghouse, June Yap, and Ala Younis—did not exactly clarify matters. “Who or what is Natasha?” they asked in the guidebook to their exhibition. “This question marks your first step in a journey of discovery.”

Installation view of Heman Chong’s The Library of Unread Books (2016-ongoing), as part of Singapore Biennale 2022 named Natasha. Image courtesy of Singapore Art Museum.

This much was clear: the vaguely anthropomorphized Natasha was well intentioned, often interesting but only rarely charismatic, and never risky. Loosely speaking, Natasha’s (on-trend) passions included the effects of ongoing ecological crises; the movement of artifacts and knowledge across borders and time; and, most notably, collective and experimental methods of healing, communicating, and making art.

Much was promised in that hundred-page guidebook about the show’s radical and accessible approach. It “seeks to connect with audiences on a more personal level,” declared Rosa Daniel, the National Arts Council’s CEO. “It takes bold steps to shift away from the familiar biennale format of a large-scale exhibition,” wrote Edmund Cheng, chairman of Singapore Art Museum (SAM), and Eugene Tan, its director. But there was little evidence of any bold steps. It “remains highly conventional,” as Adeline Chia put it in ArtReview: a centralized show with some modest satellite locations, albeit one with an odd name and some standout moments.

In one display that was emblematic of the exhibition’s somewhat limited imagination, South Korean graphic designer Yejin Cho had pasted diagrams for various communal games like hopscotch and sunshine on prominent outdoor walls. If only there was a place to play. Instead, there was a QR code that links to a PDF with instructions about how to do so.

You might see Natasha as a perfect representation of late-stage biennialism, an embodiment of the conflicted nature of such events at a time when every country seems to have at least a few recurring shows with long histories and tight budgets. You have to feel for today’s curators. Every situation is, of course, unique, but they are consistently under contradictory pressures: to be relevant locally but engaged internationally, legible to a broad audience but also in sync with the global curatorial set. Ideally, the show should draw tourists (I happily spent at least a thousand US dollars), and it should acknowledge urgent world problems without offending anyone with real power. (That is a serious concern in Singapore. At the ART SG fair, Lu Yang was pressured into editing his video after state officials tagged it with NC16 rating.) Also, it should unearth some obscure historical figures while championing the new. It’s a difficult balancing act. Visiting with Natasha, you got the sense of a show tangling with itself as it went about accomplishing all that.

There was more than a little obscurantism here. The artistic directors said in their text (which could be a satire of curator-speak) that their unusual naming decision aimed “to draw attention to and discuss the facets of being and non-being, human and non-human, knowing and unknowing, visible and invisible, local and cosmic.” The rest of the guide featured entries for the participants and “keywords” like “invisible” (“Is fear invisible?”) and “weather” (“Singapore’s weather is humid”). But their prevailing reticence about the show’s name, and its themes, could also be viewed, in the show’s more lucid moments, as a form of generosity: they trusted the viewer to figure it out.

Because when Natasha was focused, the show was eloquent and captivating. At SAM’s base of operations (a warehouse at an old port, which was the Biennale’s main location), the superb South Korean artist Joo Jae-Hwan, now in his early 80s, was given space for almost forty wily paintings that he has made over the past quarter-century. Wrappers for gum and pills became stick figures, and an egg container and a plastic dustpan made appearances. The front of one canvas faced the wall because, Joo explained in a handwritten note attached to the back, he wanted the wall to be able to see part of the show.

Major space at SAM was also given to the South Korean group Brightworkroom, which works with neurodivergent artists (who rarely figure in biennials). One artist from the group, Na Jeong Suk, makes hypnotic drawings with patterns reminiscent of weaving. There is a rare candor and immediacy to the work of both Na and Joo, who use quotidian materials for beguiling ends. You got the sense that they just have to do what they do. This art is central to their lives—a joyous focus radiates from it. A similar air of natural invention imbues the heartbreaking papier-mâché heads that Thai artist Araya Rasdjarmrearnsook makes of stray dogs she has taken into her home in Chiang Mai. And it is there, too, in the astounding “kinetic paintings”—vibrant, seductive, evolving digital displays—that the Palestinian New Yorker Samia Halaby made in the mid-1980s, after teaching herself to code on a Commodore Amiga 1000, displayed in the Biennale on a large hanging screen.

Installation view of Samia Halaby’s Kinetic Paintings (1987-88), as part of Singapore Biennale 2022 named Natasha. Image courtesy of Singapore Art Museum.

This focus on homespun ingenuity delighted, but on occasion, it spilled into overindulgence. Shin Beomsun, a retired literature professor from South Korea, presented found rocks on pedestals, positing that they were “stone-tablets that hold the story of Creation itself, recorded as pictograms.” Via texts, paintings, and photographs from various collaborators, Shin investigated the various stories that these ancient objects might contain. The conceit was charming for a stone or two, but grew ponderous as they kept coming. (It also obscured just how astonishing the actual prehistoric creations of humans can be, as Dallas’s Nasher Sculpture Center demonstrated in its 2018 First Sculpture show.)

Given the ample real estate afforded some artists, it was odd that sections of the SAM show felt too spacious, almost empty, as though work had gone missing. (One of the less kind reviews I heard about the Biennale came from a dealer in town for the ART SG art fair, who wondered why four curators were required to organize such a modestly sized affair.) A positive way to put it: This was an endeavor rigorously opposed to spectacle, to the grand, unsalable installations that defined the heyday of biennialism in the 1990s––what the late critic Peter Schjeldahl called festivalism. There was very little razzle-dazzle, and some of the few potent visuals came in one of the most distressing works: a multiscreen video installation that examined the steady erosion of the Dead Sea, by Singaporean Ong Kian Peng.

Installation view of Ong Kian Peng’s The Vicious Sea (2022), as part of Singapore Biennale 2022 named Natasha. Image courtesy of Singapore Art Museum.

A curious loneliness, or melancholy, pervaded some of Natasha’s other locales. In a park tucked among towering apartment buildings, a small greenhouse held a garden and many stacks of upside-down old pots, apparently abandoned and being subsumed by nature. This is The Pavilion of Regret (2022) by the Hong Kong–based Chinese artist Trevor Yeung. When I visited The Library of Unread Books (2016–ongoing), by the artists Heman Chong and Renée Staal, in a crowded mall one afternoon, it sat locked, its stacks of donated books sitting alone. (This unexpected closure felt like a reasonable excuse for another round at the nearby hawker center.)

A number of other works just pointed to vital things elsewhere. There was the well-stocked library of materials about Hawaii, sitting in an overheating shipping container on luxe island of Sentosa, by Maile Meyer and Drew Kahu‘āina Broderick; Cho’s game-direction billboards; and a concise video about the Jordanian collective Malaeb’s heartening efforts to work with people in a remote village to build a much-needed playground.

These projects are all worthy pursuits, but they do not really require viewers. Kam’s houses of fermentation, which were scattered throughout the Biennale, could be the mascots for this artistic mode: sealed off, well meaning, a touch precious. I would very much like to taste that soy sauce when it is ready, but making a trip to watch it mature felt like a bit much. That said, I enjoyed the boat ride to them, and, mercifully, there were more gratifying offerings nearby, like a mysterious altar populated by depictions of symbolic, rich animals by the Singaporean artist Zarina Muhammad. There was also a solid contingent of wild monkeys.

Installation view of Zarina Muhammad’s Moving Earth, Crossing Water, Eating Soil (2022), as part of Singapore Biennale 2022 named Natasha. Image courtesy of Singapore Art Museum.

Installation view of Daniel Lie, Fragility Game, 2023, as part of Singapore Biennale 2022 named Natasha.. Photo by Andrew Russeth.

A glorious work that I have come to think of as the exact opposite of those little houses awaited on the second floor of a nondescript shophouse near the National Museum of Singapore. There, the Berlin-based Brazilian Indonesian artist Daniel Lie built an enchanting, room-spanning installation with huge bouquets of yellow and white chrysanthemums strung up toward the ceiling, turmeric-dyed cotton fabric, and masses of soil. Like the soy sauce, the installation changed slowly over time. It was intensely pungent, a site of both growth and decay (you could spot mold growing atop some of that soil). Its cryptic title, Fragility Game (2023), suggested that it could be the locus of some strange ritual. It looked like an ecosystem unto itself. On a wall label, Lie proposed that “we create an acquaintanceship, friendship and kindship with rottenness.” At a moment when so much is falling apart and wasting away, that sounded like an intriguing course of action. The frankly intoxicating smell inside Lie’s fertile piece proffered what is promised by—and so often missing from—so many of today’s safe, antiseptic biennials: the potential for wild new life.


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