A ceramic sculpture from 'The Map for the Soul to Return to the Body' by Dusadee Huntrakul. (JG Photo/Nur Yasmin)

Colonialism, Afrofuturism, Virtual Reality: the Best of the Singapore Biennale


JANUARY 20, 2020

Singapore. The sixth Singapore Biennale will run until March this year at various venues in the city-state. The biggest art event in the country displays more than 200 notable contemporary works by artists from Southeast Asia and beyond.

This year, the biennale takes on the theme of "Every Step in the Right Direction" to reflect on the conditions of contemporary life and is held simultaneously at 11 venues – the Asian Civilization Museum, de Suantio Gallery, Esplanade Theaters, Gillman Barracks, LaSalle College of the Arts, National Gallery Singapore, National Library, National Museum of Singapore, Singapore Art Museum, Far East Plaza and W!ld Rice Funan.


But don't fret, you can easily move from one location to another on board the city's super-efficient MRT trains or public buses. A free Singapore Biennale tour bus will run on weekends only (National Gallery Singapore and Gillman Barracks).

It will likely take you more than two days to explore all the sites during the biennale. But Andrea Fam, the assistant curator of the Singapore Art Museum, has suggested this list of highlights that you simply can't miss.  

'Instruction' by Wendelien van Oldenborgh

The cadets of Royal Netherlands Army reading a transcript. (Photo courtesy of the artist)
Royal Netherlands Military cadets reading a transcript in 'Instruction.' (Photo courtesy of the artist)

Oldenborgh is a Dutch artist whose mother lived in Java during the Dutch occupation of Indonesia before the Second World War. Her work at the biennale, "Instruction," explores unresolved issues from Dutch military interventions in Indonesia.

The video installation shows four young cadets from the Royal Netherlands Military Academy reading a script written by her about her mother.

"It has two screens, one showing Dutch military cadets reciting a powerful propaganda piece, and another showing the translation. It makes you think about language today – what are we focusing on, the content of what's being said or who is saying it? Oldenborg demands of us to choose the visual image or the text, when you actually have to look at both or you won't understand a thing," Fam told the Jakarta Globe.

Olderborgh's work is on display at the National Gallery Singapore.

'Relic 3' by Larry Achiampong

British-Ghanaian Achiampong revisits the history of colonization using science fiction and the concept of Afrofuturism. The piece is part of a series where he explores the fictitious Relic Travellers' Alliance of the African Union. The travelers go back and forward in time and assess where and how civilization went wrong.

"I think it's a powerful way to assess all the craziness of the world today. What Larry is doing is speculating – can the African continent be the one to save the world? He started off by imagining 2016 as an important year, with uncertainties in the West while in Africa they produced a unified passport for the whole continent," Fam said.

Achiampong's work can be found at the National Gallery Singapore.

'Block 22' at the Gillman Barracks

A ceramic sculpture from The Map for the Soul to Return to the Body by Dusadee Huntrakul. (JG Photo/Nur Yasmin)
A ceramic sculpture from 'The Map for the Soul to Return to the Body' by Dusadee Huntrakul. (JG Photo/Nur Yasmin)

Block 22 is one of three blocks at the Gillman Barracks, displaying works from Paphonosak La-or, Ruangsak Anuwatwimon and Dusadee Huntrakul from Thailand, Robert Zhao Renhui from Singapore and Zakaria Omar from Brunei.

"It's like a mini national history museum that effectively illustrates the biennale. The block shows artists who are tackling the thinking of constructs itself. You have Anuwatwimon who vividly reconstructs extinct species of plants. Omar who creates a totemic monument from demolished old stilt houses and Huntrakul who questions our value system through ancient relics," Fam said.

'An Obstacle in Every Direction' by Nabilah Nordin

Nabilah Nordin
Nabilah Nordin's 'An Obstacle in Every Direction.' (Photo courtesy of Singapore Biennale)

Nordin's work invites us to enter a room full of objects that are unsettlingly placed to suggest failure – routes that might go somewhere, nowhere or everywhere.

"When you enter this site, you will feel uneasiness because you're in this chaos, where things look like they're about to fall apart. The uncomfortable sensation that you feel is what she wants you to experience, being vulnerable, the awkwardness that you need to embrace. It's about not taking things too seriously," Fam said.

"I think it's an important work because it summarizes the biennale nicely. Take your time, clear your routes – there is no prize in the end, but maybe you will feel ease in this world," Fam said.

Another must-see work at the biennale is the award-winning virtual reality experience "La camera insabbiata (The Chalkroom)" by Laurie Anderson and Hsin-Chien Huang that lets the audience fly through a labyrinth filled with writings and drawings.

Visitors trying The Chalkroom virtual reality, at the SMU de Suantio Gallery, Singapore. (JG Photo/Nur Yasmin)
Visitors immersed in 'The Chalkroom' virtual reality experience at the SMU de Suantio Gallery, Singapore. (JG Photo/Nur Yasmin)

Indonesia Represents

Works by Indonesian artists at the Singapore Biennale include Boedi Widjaja's "Black-Hut, Black-Hut" on display at the National Gallery Singapore, an architectural installation inspired by the Javanese joglo house.

Also at the Gallery, Gillman Barracks and LaSalle College of the Arts, you will find a series of works by Hafiz Rancajale from Pekanbaru called "Social Organism," a rumination on Indonesia's post-Reformasi struggles.

A snapshot from Hafiz Rancajale
A snapshot of Hafiz Rancajale's 'Social Organism,' on display at LaSalle College of the Arts, Singapore. (JG Photo/Nur Yasmin)