Singapore Icon Makes a Big Splash at Venice Biennale



With the head of a lion and the body of a fish, the Merlion, Singapore’s most well known tourist symbol, has elicited mixed reviews. It was invented in the 1960s, drawing upon the legend that a Malay prince sighted a lion on the island’s shores when he founded the place. The symbol was first used as a corporate emblem for the Tourism Board in 1964, and later in 1972 a 26-foot statue was completed and sited at the mouth of the Singapore River. Lee Kuan Yew, then Prime Minister, was the guest of honor at the official launch.

The Merlion Park quickly became a popular tourist destination, and the statue has spawned countless souvenir tokens. It became, alongside the national airline’s “Singapore Girl”, one of the country’s main icons for promoting the “lion city” (from the Sanskrit words “singa” and “pura”). But the Merlion has also had many detractors, both locals and international visitors, who have found the pseudo-mythical creature to be the epitome of kitsch.

In 2002, the 80-ton Merlion statue was moved. A bridge had been built that cut off its view to the sea, and the move reinstalled the statue to a prime location on the waterfront. The whole relocation project, which cost over US$4 million, also involved substantial redevelopment of the new site, and restoration of the statue.

This year marks a far more dramatic moment in the life of the Singapore icon. The Merlion has once again made a journey, but rather than a short hop from one spot along the mouth of the Singapore River to another, the artist Lim Tzay-Chuen has taken the statue all the way to the Venice Biennale. When asked why the move, and why this statue, a spokesperson for the artist said:

“Over the last decade, Singapore has invested a lot of financial resources and human energy into developing the arts. Given Singapore’s desire to draw attention to this effort, to establish links between art, economic returns, and the tourism industry, what more appropriate intervention could an artist make than to create a work that directly engages the issues of publicity and tourism—like taking the Merlion to one of the world’s most prestigious art events. But this project is also about getting the government and corporations in Singapore to shift mindsets. For all the investment in Singapore art, in buildings like the US$400 million Esplanade—Theatres on the Bay, the authorities are still hesitant to put their trust and faith in artists. This trust and faith actually costs them nothing.”

Although, some might argue, such trust and faith are worth well over a million dollars. Which is what it cost to move the Merlion and install it temporarily at the Singapore Pavilion situated near the Arsenale, one of the main venues of the Venice Biennale.

Mr. Lim’s project has generated no small amount of controversy in his hometown. A number of Singaporeans have complained publicly that it is a huge waste of money. However, the Singapore Tourism Board, the main sponsor of the project, has defended the work, saying it has generated an enormous amount of publicity for the Merlion and the country. Considering that last year they spent US$40 million on overseas marketing and promotion, the kind of attention the project has received seems worth the price.

As the CEO Lim Neo-Chian said, “Tzay-Chuen came to us with a bold proposal, and, to be honest, at first we had reservations. There were a lot of risks involved. But we listened to him with an open mind and decided to go for it.

“Singaporeans have talked about our city-state aspiring to be the Venice of the East. Venice has its Lion of Saint Mark statue. We have our Merlion. So why not send our statue on an adventure to visit that grand Renaissance City? This project has truly put the Merlion on the world stage, and has also brought global attention to our artists.”

Even the country’s Prime Minister, Lee Hsien-Loong, has remarked on the project. When asked what he thought about the great expense for this artwork, he replied, “Money should not be the first consideration. The more important question is whether this is a worthwhile project or not. A few years ago, this kind of art work would not have happened. But now, an artist can borrow the Merlion for an exhibition. It shows that we are becoming more comfortable with taking risks and encouraging individual daring and creativity.”

The National Arts Council of Singapore claims there has never been an art work that has generated as much national discussion. All the local and international publicity the work has generated has been a vindication of sorts for the Arts Council, which admits that selecting Mr. Lim for the Biennale wasn’t a safe choice, since his past work has often been about challenging institutions to do something they normally would deem impossible. A lot of the discussion, aside from the debates over the wisdom of spending large amounts of money on art, has centered on the question, “but is it art?” Eugene Tan, the curator for the project, observed that,

“The general public in Singapore would probably not consider what Tzay-Chuen has done to be art. They might think it is just a publicity stunt. But I think the emphasis on publicity misses a main element of Tzay-Chuen’s work, which has often been concerned with introducing delays into the experience of an art work. For example, one of Tzay-Chuen’s early proposals was about subtly shifting a Dali sculpture situated in a downtown bank plaza. The plan was to rotate it only slightly so that the shift was barely noticeable—without placing any signs to indicate any intervention had been made—then a year later rotate it back to its original position. Only after it had been returned to normal, would there be a publicity campaign to inform everyone that an artistic intervention had taken place. The idea is that many people who frequent the bank plaza would have noticed the slight shift, wondering if something was wrong—though they’d probably shrug it off as something not worth thinking too much about. But when they find out that it was an artist’s intervention, they’d retrieve their memories of the shift, seeing it in a different light. Unfortunately, the proposal didn’t get realized.”

Mr. Lim’s Merlion project unfolded in several phases. In May, the statue disappeared, and the circumstances were kept a mystery. There were vague reports about its position throughout its sea journey, and the country became obsessed with speculating where the statue was going and for what purpose. Only when it finally arrived in Venice and was installed at the Singapore Pavilion were the artist’s full intentions revealed.

Also during the month of May, a school program was initiated, which took young students to visit the site of the missing statue. There was a competition, where students were asked to make up stories about the Merlion’s new adventure. The artist’s spokesperson explained:

“Tzay-Chuen finds the fact that the statue is missing more interesting than its appearance in Venice. He thinks its disappearance offers a unique opportunity for Singaporeans to rethink and reinvent the story of the Merlion. The Merlion is a fiction, but perhaps what it needs are more layers to the story. And children should have a big say in how we reinvent it. When Mr. Lim conceived the Merlion project, he imagined children having their pictures taken at the empty site, and years later, showing their own children that they were there when the Merlion went on a holiday/adventure. There are few national icons that will have had such an interesting life—traveling to Venice and participating in the world’s oldest international art event.”

A big welcome ceremony is being planned when the statue returns at the end of the year. Seven-year old Mike Goh, from Saint Stephen’s Primary School, said, “I really miss the Merlion, I can’t wait till it comes home.”

(This article is a proposal presented as a hypothetical newspaper report by the artist)


Born in 1972, Lim lives and works in Singapore. He has participated in numerous exhibitions in Singapore and internationally. Amongst his more notable exhibitions and projects in Singapore
include those realised at the Substation (2001) and TheatreWorks (2003), while, internationally, Lim’s work has been exhibited at Polypolis at the Kunthaus Hamburg (2001), the Gwangju Biennale (2002) and the Sydney Biennale (2004).

The work of Lim Tzay Chuen questions and redefines aesthetic experience — by compelling viewers to reflect upon their experience of his work, viewers are led, to critically re-evaluate perceptions and assumptions as to what constitutes aesthetic experience. This is achieved through intricate and complex engagements with the social, economic, cultural and political processes that define the particular contexts around which his work is situated. Lim’s interventions acknowledge the transitory and fragmented nature of space and memory, and it is their engagement with the volatility and uncertainty of situations that is significant. His work rejects the construction and definition of prescribed meanings as to what comprises a work of art. Instead, the recognition of an aesthetic event derives from moments of self-discovery, often involving reflexivity and intuition.

As Russell Storer, Curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney has written: “Lim’s work has, amongst other things, involved the altering of conditions within a gallery space, exhibition or catalogue so that those who encounter them are compelled to think, and rethink, this encounter. Something as simple and automatic as turning a page in a catalogue might be frustrated by an order from the artist to the printer to leave two pages uncut, so that the reader has to force them apart with their fingers; or to skip page numbers, which are then referred to in the bibliography or artist statement in the back. Are these errors, or deliberate? You are not entirely sure until you rip the pages apart to find an image of fingers performing this very action, or read the pages more closely to realise that the text flows on, despite the jump in the numbering sequence. These tiny alterations create an ambiguous space where initial confusion may lead to irritation, laughter, indifference or a spark of understanding that nothing, no matter how small, needs to be assumed or taken for granted. It also has the potential effect of slowing down the process of reception, calling for attention to be given, whether cognitively or not.”

Lim’s exhibition at the 51st Venice Biennale is curated by Eugene TAN, Director of the Institute of Contemporary Arts Singapore (ICA Singapore). Established by LASALLE-SIA College of the Arts, the ICA Singapore is devoted to the exhibition and research of contemporary art in Asia. In late June, Singaporeans will have the opportunity to experience Lim’s work as the ICA Singapore will present a solo exhibition by Lim. This exhibition will not merely illustrate or document Lim’s exhibition at the Venice Biennale, but instead unveil a new work by Lim, which will give audiences in Singapore the opportunity to gain insight into Lim’s work and the processes which underpin his work.