Highlights from the Singapore Biennale: An Atlas of Mirrors

I’m not sure why I feel compelled to see the Singapore Biennale. Maybe it’s because there aren’t so many biennales in Southeast Asia, and I trust the Singapore Art Museum to put on a good show.

This is possibly my least favourite year of the three that I’ve attended, but there are still some works that floored me, made me think and impressed me with the quality of the work and the clarity of the concept. While I have some favourites that I did not photograph, here are the ones that I thought worthy of a visual remembrance.

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Walking past the National Museum of Singapore, it’s impossible not to notice David Chan’s “The Great East Indiaman”, a wooden skeleton of a mythical whale in the steel skeletal belly of a 19th century ship.

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I joined a docent for a free tour of her picks. She started with the work of Eddy Susanto, “The Journey of Panji”. The art is as epic as the story it tells. The wall hanging of ink on canvas is meticulously rendered in various Southeast Asian scripts, morphing into roman letters in the collection of the stories published by a Westerner. Worth writing a book about.

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Another Indonesian who made an impression is Made Djirna, whose “Melampaui Batas (Beyond Boundaries) made me think of the beauty of scale. Terracotta figures sit in an antique boat and cover the wall. Well presented.

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One of the two works that assault your sense of smell is “Black Forest” by Han Sai Por. The charcoal and blackened wood smells like the haze that covers Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia a few times a year when the palm oil plantations burn.

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Seeing Titarubi’s “History Repeats Itself”, I gasped at the ghostly capes of gold-plated nutmeg on ships. It’s a powerful reminder of how spice was such a big part of the history of colonization.

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I needed a break before tackling the other venues, so I headed down to the Maxwell Road Hawker Centre in Chinatown for the famous Tian Tian chicken rice. It was the most tender chicken rice I’ve tasted, but the flavours are too delicate for me.

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After my late lunch, I headed to SAM at 8Q for the afternoon. The artist was not present at Azizan Paiman’s “Putar Alam Cafe” where his performance is an essential part of the piece, but it was still worth a look around. A classic example of how you can incorporate mirrors into your idea without being literal.

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Injecting a healthy dose of pop is Nobuaki Takekawa with his woodblock prints, glass rocket sculpture and an amusing acrylic on canvas painting of the solar system, forming “Sugoroku – Anxiety of Falling From History”.

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If only I could read East Asian characters.

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I was mesmerised by Adeela Suleman’s beautifully graphic paintings on vintage plates framed by carved wood. The detail is astonishing, though the subject is morbid, contrasting against the elegance of the medium. It proves that you don’t need to be big and loud to make an impact.

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Violence and beauty are not mutually exclusive.

The Singapore Biennale runs until 27 February 2017. www.singaporebiennale.org

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