Wonder, instructs the theme of this year’s Singapore Biennale.
With that humble word, we are presented with a profound challenge. And that is indeed the intention of the organizers, calling upon us to explore and question beyond the obvious and the perceived. To embark on an inquest into the arcane topics of existence, beauty and origins, using the art as a starting point.
Unlike other biennales, it is clear that our curators have strived to make this accessible to everyone. But the exhibits are no less deep. With full commitment to the nature of the challenge, outwardly unpretentious exhibits are juxtaposed with their possibilities for deeper interpretations and complex discourses.
Some pieces are strikingly apt, like Terrible Landscapes by Lena Cobangbang. She presents a series of photographs depicting disaster scenes we see in the news on a regular basis. What is refreshing is that all the materials employed in the recreation of the scenes were solely from her refrigerator. In doing so, she has offered two points for us to ponder over. First, the fact that real art is never snooty and exclusive. It neither necessitates fancy materials in its creation, nor bears down on its appreciators with self-absorbed concepts. Second, the approach she has taken in the recreation of disaster scenes facilitates the reopening of such issues in our deliberations. With a different presentation, she has caught us at a weak spot where apathy and desensitization let their guards down.
In the same vein, Address by the Aquilizans challenges us to redefine our understanding of the term ‘address’ in the context of home and relative permanence. Again constructed of unassuming materials, Address makes use of hand-me-downs donated by the Filipino community as ‘bricks’ for a ‘room’ within a room. Dolls, cassettes, clothes, books; everyday items that were rendered invaluable by the infinite memories contained within. Its initially puzzling title pushes viewers to rethink their ideas about home addresses and its permanence. The latter especially in the face of the knowledge that this so-called ‘home’ has been designed to weather several demolitions and reconstructions biennale after biennale. It pushes us to think about what really is home to us and how temporary it actually is, particularly in an era where expatriatism is a norm.
Xteriors I, II, IV, VIII remains my favourite exhibit in this Biennale. A series of photographic portraits so impressively taken to resemble oil paintings, Xteriors presents a remake of renaissance art with a tinge of rebellious irony. Desiree Dolron’s deliberate use of pan-Asian female subjects with androgynous features instills that sense of wonder that comes with ambiguity. The apparent conservativeness that shrouds the theme is palpable at first glance, with overt clues like the high collars, sombre colours and austere style. Linger on, and the subtle piercings and sheer fabric will be brought to attention. Suddenly, in light of the multiple ear, navel and lip piercings, the ethereal and haunting mood takes on a new edge.
To the untrained eye, Singapore Biennale will be a wonder not only because it showcases visually accessible aesthetics, but also because in its strive for frankness rather than the abstract, it leaves room for more unrestrained internalization of the art.