Singapore Biennale 2011: Open House

Ming Wong, Devo partire. Domani / I must go. Tomorrow (still), 2010, 5 channel video installation, 12:58 minutes, colour, sound, © the artist.

The Singapore Biennale 2011: Open House threw open its doors to the public on 13 March 2011 with 63 artists from 30 countries presenting 161 works across four exhibition venues.

Predicated on the belief that contemporary artistic practices are largely driven by discursive acts of exchange and transactions, Open House records the ensuing visual dialogue and contested ways of seeing that emerge when communication channels are laid open. According to Creative Director Matthew Ngui, the focus this year is “on the city as site and as home, where art engages audiences and represents realities through unique creative processes”. With the curatorial objective of prioritizing these artistic processes (founding ideas, initial emotional compulsions and artistic intentions) – all of which inevitably function within a complex network of socio-historical and cultural spaces and discourses –, Open House engages with the local experience by hosting its works in emblematic and culturally significant sites (read: converted colonial-style buildings carrying the collective memory of the country’s history).

Such site-specific installations however, invariably demand that the works are examined in relation to the difficult spaces created by the architecture of the buildings, and it is precisely therein that the Biennale disappoints. If process-oriented site-specificity endeavors to augment several things – like emphasizing performative aspects that such charged spaces are wont to engender or constructing an enhanced community network for instance – the paucity of connections made between particular spatial dimensions and the artwork generates instead, a random walking route that feels akin to an exhaustive tourist list of sightseeing spots to tackle before the sun goes down.

Matt Mullican, That persons work with single bedsheets, 2007, bedsheets, mixed media ( 26 sheets and 22 bars), 246 x 165 cm. Installation gesamt 8 x 8m, Höhe 2,5m Photo: Lisa Rastl. Image courtesy Georg Kargl Fine Arts, Vienna.

That is not to say that the show doesn’t try to explore what happens when traditional boundaries that demarcate private and public spheres are breached. On the contrary, it makes an earnest but at times literal attempt to do so through artists such as Arin Rungjang’s research piece on Thai-migrant workers who have made their private experiences for public consumption, or through Martha Rosler’s public garden that was constructed in dialogue with students, local community groups and artists. Roslisham Ismail’s investigation into the buying and eating habits of the local population offers us intimate, transgressive moments of the degustatory sort in Secret Affair (2010 – 2011), a food installation of 6 refrigerators storing the consumables of several families.

Staples of contemporary art themes – subversion, displacement and the extent to which how much one sacrifices for art – are revisited in other contemplative pieces. For Matt Mullican, an artist whose practices have since the 1970s, been informed by the creation of art under hypnosis, That Person’s work with single bedsheets (2007) documents the devices of the hyperconscious (his trance persona is aptly called That Person) and the fluidity of fiction and reality. Scandinavian art duo of Michael Elmgreen & Ingar Dragset known for “Drama Queens” at the Old Vic (a neat survey of 20th century art history enhanced by the voices of stage actors) and Prada Marfa in the Texan landscape, replicated an Old German Barn in the hangar of the Old Kallang Airport accompanied by hunky blokes clad in lederhosen.

Elgreem & Dragset, Installation, The German Barn, commissioned by the Singapore Biennale 2011. Image © designboom.

Ise (Roslisham Ismail), Secret Affair, (work in progress), 2010 – 2011, food installation, © the artist.

Video installations seem to dominate the Biennale and are arguably, the most exciting of the lot, though much of these works have already premiered elsewhere. The priority given to the moving image here seems to be a curatorial acknowledgement of ever-increasing expansion of the visual vocabulary of artists and of the changing relationship between spectator and the artwork. Named after Robert Rauschenberg’s near-identical paintings Factum I and Factum II (1957), Candice Breitz presents Factum (2010), a multi-channel video installation in a series of in-depth video portraits of twins – and one set of triplets, exploring forces that drive individuality and identity. Breitz films each twin in isolation from their sibling and reveals their starkly differing personalities and beliefs in a video diptych that demolishes common assumptions about twins’ ideological similarities.

Candice Breitz, Factum, 2009, six dual channel and one three channel video and sound installation, various times, © the artist.

Ryan Trecartin, Roamie View: History Enhancement (Re'Search Wait'S), 2009-2010. Duration: 28 minutes, 23 seconds HD Video. Image courtesy of Elizabeth Dee Gallery.

In a 4-part video installation Roamie View: History Enhancement (Re’Search Wait’S) (2010), Ryan Trecartin’s cast of camera-loving characters compete for attention in an overstimulated sphere where non-existent hierarchies and social rules hold the power to unleash assaultive fantasies. In this digitized, exhibitionist space of web-video sharing, re-fashioning one’s own identity is a not an act of volition but a necessity borne out of escaping repressive forces. Over-the-top emotional exchanges, androgynous dressing and fragmented scenes of image-text combination are frenetically documented in a chaotic montage amid electronica and exaggerated sound effects. Trecartin’s mismatched and effortless cast ultimately deconstruct contemporary cultural sensibilities as unstable and farcical.

Omer Fast, De Grote Boodschap (The Big Message), 2007. Image: Courtesy of the artist. Production still: Erik De Cnodder.

The fragmentation of narrative that video art permits is fully utilized in Omer Fast’s De Grote Boodschap (The Big Message) (2007). In 27 minutes, several panoramic shots of 4 scenarios create worlds marked by reversals and contradictions. Shot like a drama series with a convoluted plot that is centered on a dying elderly woman tormented by memories from the Second World War, Fast’s narrative is supercharged with racial overtones. Also exploring issues on race, identity and gender is Ming Wong’s Devo Patire. Domani (2010), an appropriation of Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Teorema (1968) in which he plays all the characters in an archetypal family plunged into an identity crisis after encountering a stranger. The theatrical emphasis on the viewer’s experiential/spatial encounter with the moving image naturally engenders the need for interactivity, such as Rafael Lozano-Hemmer’s Frequency and Volume: Relational Architecture 9 (2003). Frequency and Volume assesses human perceptions and kinetic energies within a built environment, using the shadows of gallery viewers as a form of embodied representation.

Arin Rungjang, Big Moon and Waterfall, 2006, outdoor light installation, bamboo, Passage de Retz, Paris, © the artist.

The Singapore Biennale 2011: Open House is the 3rd Biennale held in Singapore since 2006 and will run until 15 May 2011. Conceived by Artistic Director Matthew Ngui and curators Russell Storer and Trevor Smith, Open House is organised by the Singapore Art Museum, the National Heritage Board and supported by the National Arts Council. It is held across several venues: Old Kallang Airport, National Museum of Singapore, SAM@8Q and the Singapore Art Museum.