Magazine article Art Monthly

Biennale Round-Up

Magazine article Art Monthly

Biennale Round-Up

Article excerpt

Biennale Round-up

The biennales in Singapore, Shanghai and Gwangju, which are all taking place this autumn, have been working 'in a spirit of collaboration', or so the marketing would have you believe. In reality, besides conveniently staggering their openings within days of each other and tailoring their tour packages to all three while holding joint press conferences, there has been only limited collaboration. The three biennales operate in very different contexts, with little overlap in the selected artists, and distinct curatorial methodologies and focuses.

Where their approaches overlap is in their emphasis on networking. This is reflected in curatorial strategies such as using networking curators in the case of Singapore, and hosting independently curated components within the Gwangju Biennale. Zhang Qing, artistic director of the Shanghai Biennale, refers to the international curators of Shanghai as 'radars of international trends', which reflects their mutual desire to communicate the relevance and pertinence of their subject matter both in their locale and beyond.

The Singapore Biennale, the new kid on the block, has met cynicism since its conception. Biennales are funded because of wider political agendas, be it regeneration or tourism, but few are funded in relation to as provocative an event as the meeting of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank. Locals have criticised it as superficial decoration, likening it to the excessive planting that has been put down to line the roads for the IMF meeting. In contrast, despite the poignancy of the raison d'etre of the Gwangju Biennale as commemoration of the Gwangju Massacre of 1980, the local population has consistently been in favour of it. The first biennale in 1995 was the most highly attended biennale to date with a staggering 1,640,000 audience; on the day of my visit alone, some 9,000 students attended. Among the local population the Shanghai Biennale has also, over the last ten years, become increasingly popular. Not only has the audience diversified but its presence in the press has significantly shifted from the domain of art news to the front page headline of Shanghai's leading newspaper.

Criticism of the Singapore Biennale is not so much about the resulting exhibition but a rebuke to profile-raising buildings and events, referred to locally as 'hardware'. It comes against a backdrop of locally perceived inadequate investment in nurturing artistic development. Yet comparatively speaking the Singapore Biennale has played the most active role in doing this. Certainly, for the 12 local artists chosen to show in the biennale their practice has been pushed during the commissioning process of what was, in many cases, their most ambitious work to date. Particularly exceptional is Tzu Nyen Ho's Bohemian Rhapsody, 2006, a video courtroom drama and the video component of Brian Gothong Tan's We Live in a Dangerous World, 2006. As a whole Tan's installation is overcrowded and obvious, trying to critique too many aspects of Singapore's image, but the video within it is a gem. It is a beautifully shot fictional depiction of Imelda Marcos as a Filipina maid, in a dress with puffy carrier bag sleeves, gracefully singing as she caresses her mistress's shoes. Besides supporting local artists for Eugene Tan, curator of the biennale and director of the Institute of Contemporary Art Singapore, there is also the potential to increase public engagement with art in Singapore.

In contrast Kim Hong-Hee, Gwangju Biennale's artistic director, is unapologetic about the small number of local artists in Gwangju Biennale's curated exhibitions. She offers the open submission part of the extensive citizen programme, '1.4 Million Torches', as an alternative. Despite having a very small community of contemporary artists based in Gwangju she sees the biennale as 'a catalyst for the re-energising and repositioning of Gwangju as a creative centre'. …

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