Singapore in Venice - A Historic First

By Feisal Abdul Rahman, Arts and Heritage Division, Ministry of Information and the Arts

Originally published at the MITA website

Singapore was invited for the first time to take part in the 49th Venice Biennale, one of the world's most prestigious arts festivals.

The theme for this year's Biennale is 'Plateau of Humankind'. The Biennale intends to serve as a platform of humanity. This reflects the desire to reconnect with the idea of all individuals as constituting a family - an idea that is particularly significant at the beginning of the new millennium, as globalisation and the breaking down of all kinds of walls gathers pace.

The Singapore Art Museum (SAM), which spearheaded Singapore's participation, organised an exhibition entitled SINGAPORE, featuring Singapore's contemporary art. MITA and Singapore Tourism Board supported the exhibition. Minister (ITA) officially opened the exhibition on 8 June. The exhibition, which runs from June to November 2001, is housed at the Schola di Santa Apollonia in Venice.

The exhibition attempts to articulate cultural vibrancy in contemporary Singapore. Four artists represented Singapore at the exhibition - Chen KeZhan, Matthew Ngui, Salleh Japar and Suzann Victor. The artists addressed issues of identity, the urban condition and Singapore's city-life within the global context through a myriad of forms comprising installation, painting and video.

Chen KeZhan explores contemporary expression through the traditional medium of Chinese ink and rice paper. The artist uses the architecture of the former chapel to create and highlight complex relationships between art, site and audience. The painting was strategically positioned to take advantage of the spatial structure and the audience is coerced to study the painting from varying and extreme vantages. The work, from afar, may only be seen in parts, concealed partially by the chapel's columns. This poses a challenge to the audience, whose viewing is affected by the lack of a complete whole, being able to see only parts at a time, whether from a distance or up close. Seeing thus becomes a meditative and speculative exercise, requiring multiple references to be made to the chapel and its architecture.

Mathew Ngui's work combines site-specific installation and performance to address the notions of communication and the generation of shifting meanings. In a precisely co-ordinated installation of cameras and monitors, selected props and self-created paintings, Ngui's untitled study of Venetian waters, draws images from outside and inside in an ironic collusion to involve and surprise his audience. Real-time feeding of captured visuals either from the canal, from inside the chapel space, chart both movement and change and stillness. The dynamic interplay results only from the last part of the installation, where viewers can only imagine how they had informed the artwork by looking at others doing exactly what they were doing, visiting the spaces they had once stood in, before reaching the end. The delayed human revelation contrasts with the almost stylised, simultaneous techno-transfer of the various images, raising questions of physical consciousness, memory and experiential dialogues on time and place.

Salleh Japar

Salleh Japar created a series of three spaces that are sequential and experiential, for the Biennale. The audience first encounters a large metal-clad wall, which connects the two other spaces - one dominated by the presence and smell of spices, and the other, salt. For Salleh, these series of materials provide a metaphor of engagements between colonial powers and the colonised, addressing assumptions and ownership over the history of Venetian and European trade, the rise of West and its colonisation of the East, and the West's conception of its history and achievements.

In Suzann Victor's work, five chandeliers are horizontally juxtaposed in at human height. Four pieces flanking the central hand-built piece are readymade 1950s Victorian-style chandeliers purchased from antique shops. The four ready-made pieces, which oscillate toward the centre hand-built piece, almost threatening to collide into it, are intended to signify the glory and pomp of the colonial era, while the hand-built piece in the centre stands for the colonised subject. This spectacle of violence creates an anxiety, augmented by the brittle fragility of the central piece. For the violence it suffers, the colonised subject bleeds drops of red glass, as if punished by anxiety of destruction of her 'misguided' state.