Biennale draws record visitors

SINGAPORE - Singapore's first South-east Asian-focused Biennale has ended with record numbers and an overall positive response from visitors who saw the artworks.

The fourth edition of the Singapore Biennale, the country's leading contemporary art showcase, ended on Sunday with more than 560,000 visitors after a three-month-long run.

The Singapore Art Museum, organiser of the Biennale, said the visitor numbers reflect a growing appreciation and understanding of contemporary art here.

In 2008, the Biennale attracted 505,200 visitors, while in 2011, it drew 196,000 visitors.

This year's visitor numbers include footfall across the main venues situated within the Bras Basah-Bugis precinct, such as the Singapore Art Museum and its annex building SAM at 8Q, the National Museum of Singapore, Peranakan Museum and the National Library Building.

More than 100 artworks by 82 artists and artist collectives were shown, over 90 per cent of which came from South-east Asia. This was also the first time that more than half of the works on show were commissioned specially for the event.

In comparison with previous editions, which had an artistic director and several curators, this year's Biennale was put together by a team of 27 co-curators from the Singapore Art Museum as well as other South-east Asian countries. The curatorial team was co- chaired by academic and writer T.K. Sabapathy and Singapore Art Museum chair Jane Ittogi.

Dr Susie Lingham, 47, director of the Singapore Art Museum, told Life! that they are delighted by the overall response to the Biennale.

She said they engaged with a whole spectrum of audiences through both the Biennale works and comprehensive museum programming, which included online research and even smartphone apps.

She added that they will be "refining" their curatorial model such that "we will still be able to represent diversity through art. Our South-east Asian focus will continue and we continue to evolve and refine our approach on how a Biennale can be made".

Ms Kathy Lai, chief executive of the National Arts Council, which commissioned and funded the Biennale, said in a media statement that they were "encouraged by the success" of the year's Biennale, particularly the interest in art created by home-grown and regional artists.

For the next Biennale, scheduled to be held in 2016, she said art lovers can expect "more thought-provoking works, meaningful discussions and impactful art for everyone".

From Indonesian artist Toni Kanwa's miniature wood carvings to Singapore artist Shirley Soh's mixed-media installation created in collaboration with inmates from Changi Women's Prison, many artworks made visitors pause, linger and reflect.

Viewed collectively, they showed how contemporary art practices are grounded in the myths, traditions, beliefs and concerns of a particular place, area or region.

Miss Esther Genevieve Tan, a freelancer who handles art-related publications, told Life! that what worked for her was the Biennale's focus on South-east Asia. This set it apart from previous editions as it allowed her to see fresh works from the region. She pointed out that sometimes such international contemporary art events can have an element of sameness as works seen in one event end up travelling to the next.

Said the 34-year-old: "I was impressed with both the presentation and execution. I felt there was a lot to see, discover and learn from. The model of using co-curators did help to bring out some of the best artworks from the region, several of which were special commissions.

"One of the pieces which stood out for me was by Japan's collective teamLab. I liked how it merged technology and art and was so interactive." The digital installation, Peace Can Be Realised Even Without Order, referenced primitive dance and indigenous festivals in Japan, a side of the country not known to outsiders.

While there were some criticisms about the lack of a strong overall vision from the large number of co-curators and the distinct South-east Asian focus - which meant international names were virtually missing - many felt the focus on the region was also its very strength.

Another highlight was the greater community engagement in the art-making process. Lawyer Valerie Cheah, an art lover who also runs an online gallery, Jada Art, felt there was "a lot of heart" in this year's Biennale.

The 46-year-old said she was moved by many of the works on display, in particular Singapore artist Kumari Nahappan's installation Anahata. Nahappan had been collecting saga seeds for 18 years and these stunning red seeds were set against a red wall, with the sound of a heartbeat playing in the background. In Hindu cosmology, Anahata refers to the fourth and heart chakra and it means unstruck or unhurt.

Said Ms Cheah: "I was very happy and moved that such artworks were special commissions. The co-curators need to be commended as they have done a great job in finding fresh artworks from not just Singapore but also the region."

Community art projects such as Soh's intimate collaboration with prison inmates, in which they embroidered their dreams and unfulfilled desires onto pieces of cloth, also touched a chord.

Art dealer Tanvika Baru, 24, who was visiting from New Delhi, said she was struck by the "intimacy" of some of the artworks on show.

She said: "They were apt reminders that our lives take diverse courses which are not always perfect. As individuals, we are constantly navigating through our relationships, being forced to metamorphose and trying to maintain an equilibrium within ourselves as well as with the community. I was very drawn to some of the works which explored these elements."

That collaborations with prison inmates could make it to such a cutting-edge art showcase, she felt, showed that contemporary art can be truly collaborative.

Singapore-based event planner Henny Scott particularly loved Singapore artist Hazel Lim's nature-themed porcelain project with students. A Botannical And Wildlife Survey - Singapore featured porcelain plates with drawings, student journals and video.

Said Mrs Scott, 45: "This edition (of the Biennale), through its distinct focus and celebration of what exists in our rich region, clearly raises the profile of Singapore and South-east Asian contemporary arts and artists. It has opened up platforms for some relatively unknown artists too and this is a very good thing."

Prominent Indonesian collector Oei Hong Djien, who was in Singapore for the top-end contemporary art fair Art Stage last month, also spent time exploring the Biennale and came away impressed.

Said the 74-year-old: "There were new discoveries, surprises and eye-openers. For instance, Toni Kanwa, a relatively unknown artist in Indonesia, came out with an incredibly powerful work showing us that contemporary art can be something painstakingly crafted by hand." The installation Cosmology Of Life comprised 1,000 hand-carved figurines. Each figurine is 0.5cm tall. These miniature, talisman-like sculptures are a nod to art painstakingly created by hand - one which clearly has a space in the contemporary art world.

Dr Oei added the curatorial model was questioned when it was first announced, but said the 27 co-curators "did a very good job of finding fresh artworks from our region" and ought to be commended.

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