2006 Singapore Biennale
6th Gwangju Biennale
BIENNALE HALL, GWANGJU, SOUTH KOREA
IF THERE IS ONE THING more predictable than the inexorable expansion of the global biennial circuit, it's the litany of complaints that trails in its wake. Whether in Berlin or Sao Paulo, so the refrain goes, these exhibitions routinely suffer from a fatal bout of sameness: same high-profile curators, same artists, same blather about the "world-class" status of the host city, same jaded audiences. Critics have ample reason for their disaffection, no doubt. With biennials serving as yet more layovers in the ever-lengthening itinerary of the international art market, it has become increasingly difficult to see them apart from the mercantile structures of the art fair. Indeed, the rhetoric of nation building drummed up in support of each new biennial is inseparable from the not-so-subtle requirements of that nation's capital interests.
At first, the inaugural outing of the Singapore Biennale, titled "Belief," would seem to provide another occasion for such hand-wringing, all the more so as it was timed to coincide with the two stalwarts of the Asian biennial scene, Shanghai and Gwangju. In what the promotional literature called a historic collaboration, all three opened consecutively during the same week--an obvious bid to encourage their desired audience to take advantage of their relative geographic proximity. Even if designed as a package for globe-trotting art collectors, curators, and critics, the lineup offers a singular opportunity to test the usual batch of biennial truisms against more recent developments in the "genre," and it offers an impressive range of work mostly unfamiliar to Euro-American audiences. Radically different in temper and kind, the Singapore and Gwangju showings dramatize one aspect of the biennial phenomenon that demands critical redress: In what ways can we speak of these shows in regional, as much as global, terms?
Nowhere is this question raised more forcefully than in Singapore's "Belief," organized by a team of international curators led by Fumio Nanjo. Featuring some ninety-five artists and artist collectives, the exhibition tackles the none-too-timely subject of belief in an era of divided "values," an era split between radical fundamentalisms of all stripes and progressively handicapped notions of secularism. It's just the kind of big, juicy thematic proffered by biennials of late: something that can mean all things to all comers, effectively relieving the curators of the task of generating a sustained visual thesis. However, in the case of Singapore, a city-state whose pristine sidewalks and lush equatorial climes are matched only by the vehemence of its dictatorial policies, the impulse to "have it all" reads as the unintentional point of the exercise, as if the two seemingly split positions on belief are far closer in practice than one might think. No doubt the religious themes that necessarily animate the topic appear to find literal (as well as ideological) corroboration in Singapore's religious diversity: As the guidebooks are at pains to remind us, the existence of Singapore's multicultural population allegedly confirms the nation's democratic ethos. Yet in a place where references to chewing gum invariably raise the specter of authoritarianism, the thesis takes on radically different associations than it would if the show were staged in, say, New York or Venice. Indeed, "Belief" inadvertently demonstrates something of the nexus of power and belief in Southeast Asia, the way the interests of religious life are never far from the interests of secular (read: economic) power. The convocation of the IMF and the World Bank there just two short weeks after the biennial's opening went far toward explaining the exhibition's extra-aesthetic motivations, a point obliquely embraced by governmental representatives. …