In any major festival, it is easy for one to feel lost amidst the vast plurality of sights and sounds, all clamouring to be seen and experienced. This certainly seems to be the case with this edition of the Singapore Biennale, especially as it is a sprawling one that spans eleven venues across the city. In keeping with the curatorial team’s efforts to, in the words of Biennale Artistic Director Patrick Flores, “restrain the compulsion to merely thematise the latent spectacle of contemporary art”, we thought we’d shine a spotlight on a few works that speak more softly, though no less strongly.
Gathered here, dear reader, are five works from the Biennale that stole our hearts, not with fireworks and dazzle, but with the sense of wonder that they spark, and the reflection that they encourage.
1. Karolina Breguła, Square, 2018
An old-school painted film poster greets visitors at the entrance of the darkened gallery space. Step inside and be immediately captivated by the glow and flicker of TV screens scattered around the room, floor cushions placed in front of them invitingly.
Square tells a story through nine synchronised video projections that form a non-linear narrative. At first, it’s a little disconcerting – our attention shifts from one screen to another, uncertain as to where the story begins and where it ends. After a while, though, the snippets coalesce and a tale emerges within the setting of a small-town community in Taiwan. Something is hidden in the bushes growing in the town square. It begins to communicate with passers-by, first humming, then singing so beautifully that everyone is captivated. The community becomes obsessed with the object in the bushes, engaging with it, dancing to its song, and trying to talk to it.
The sound is said to come from an old sculpture, a relic from a bygone political order. As the lyrics of its song gradually become clearer, however, the townsfolk become uncomfortable, disenchanted and eventually enraged. “I’d like to ask you a question,” the object asks. What is the question that the people are so afraid to answer?
Monuments and public spaces are repositories of a community’s collective memory. Karolina Breguła‘s strange, dream-like film tells a universal parable about the dangers of being afraid to confront the past and the explosive consequences of repressing painful secrets.
(See Square by Karolina Breguła at Block 7, Lock Road, Gillman Barracks)
2. Zai Tang, Escape Velocity III & IV, 2019
Amidst the larger, louder works that you will encounter at the Singapore Biennale 2019, Zai Tang‘s Escape Velocity III and Escape Velocity IV, offer a refreshingly understated, yet powerfully affective, counterpoint. Two drawings made from charcoal, graphite and ink hang on a wall, above two turntables, accompanied by an immersive soundscape that envelopes the viewer.
Tang gives voice to endangered Nature through field recordings of wildlife from natural habitats that are under threat by construction and development.
In one composition, Tang slows down the recording to augment the clarity of the wild creatures’ calls, presenting nature as raw and larger-than-life. In the other composition, he samples and sequences the recordings using computer software, transforming the sounds of nature into a constructed logic. Adding a visual layer to the viewer’s encounter with the work, Tang translates these sounds of nature into sonic scores, imagining them as lines, shapes and shades of colour. A visual and aural dialogue emerges between the two compositions – one presenting essential, existential Nature and the other, nature as anthropocentric construct that exists solely in service of Man, his needs and desires.
In EV IV, Tang takes the visual interpretation of his Mandai soundscapes a step further, through an animation created with his long-time collaborator, Simon Ball.
“What does it mean to listen to Nature in a time of ecological crisis?”
Immersed and enveloped within Tang’s environment of nature sounds, the mind quiets, the breath slows and the consciousness expands. If so much of our environmental problems today stem from the privileging of human life over the nonhuman, Escape Velocity III and IV offer encounters with nature that shift our awareness, compelling us to conceive of ourselves as part of a wider, interconnected universe.
( Experience Zai Tang’s Escape Velocity III & IV at Block 9, Lock Road, Gillman Barracks)
3. Verónica Troncoso, Telling stories from outside and inside, 2019
If Zai Tang seeks to debunk the notion of nonhuman life as “other”, Verónica Troncoso‘s concerns are with bridging the gaps in understanding and empathy that divide us, as human beings, from one another. While the migrant and refugee crisis is a global problem that extends far beyond our shores, Troncoso’s installation draws our attention to the men and women who live and work among us, right here in Singapore, yet so often remain invisible and unseen.
Like Tang, Troncoso seeks to give voice to that which we view as “other” – in this case, migrant workers – by literally enveloping us in their stories. In Telling stories from outside and inside, the viewer is confronted with scroll after floor-length scroll of text – words that speak of love, longing, loneliness and loss – demanding to be read, understood and, more importantly, deeply felt. Walking among these walls of words, we can no longer blind ourselves to the sacrifice and the strength that have enabled these men and women to come to our shores and to survive and thrive. Their words ennoble them – and humble us.
“I have many privileges. That makes me feel bad. It does! I feel very guilty … I think of all these people who must leave their own families for a better life and make money … I don’t have a problem like that in my life. I cannot compare. I don’t know, it makes me feel guilty and uncomfortable. I feel that I don’t have the right to talk about my story.”
The installation also includes collages of photographs and letters, audio recordings and a series of performances, presenting a dense, layered narrative that invites the viewer to linger and be open to a multiplicity of readings and responses.
(View Verónica Troncoso’s installation at Level 3, National Gallery Singapore, Gallery B)
4. Min Thein Sung, Time: Dust, 2017 – 2019
One might be forgiven for thinking that Min Thein Sung’s collection of canvases were something by minimalist artists the likes of Agnes Martin or Mary Corse, albeit on a more intimate scale. The multiple geometric forms on small canvases seem delicately awash in shades of an indeterminate brown-grey, unimposing though quietly radiant. But a closer look reveals that these forms were not created through the application of paint, but rather, the accumulation of dust. Some of the canvases feature even layers of this almost immaterial medium, while others contain strips and circles of gradually thinning layers. The constant that remains throughout this series of works is how each canvas is a record of time that has gently passed us by.
In collaborating with his environment to put this humble material in service of art, Min Thein Sung lays bare some beauty, but also some difficult truths. On the one hand, there is much ingenuity in the simplicity of this gesture. On the other, the artist’s selection of this ubiquitously abundant material is underscored by the grim realities of global economic inequality. In a country where 24.8 percent of the population live in poverty, art materials are a luxury that may not be easy to come by in Myanmar. The poetry of dust is thus simultaneously an artist’s pragmatism; one that expands the work’s commentary beyond the lofty eternal and into the present political.
(View Min Thein Sung’s Time: Dust at Level 3, National Gallery Singapore, Gallery A)
5. Zakkubalan in collaboration with Ryuichi Sakamoto, async – volume, 2017
We walk into a darkened room, in which a constellation of smart phone and tablet screens function as windows into internationally renowned music composer Ryuichi Sakamoto’s home studio. Some screens close in on instruments and domestic objects that he uses on a daily basis – steam spouts from a kettle, light flickers on and off on a synthesiser. Other screens look in on some of the rooms, each scene tightly composed but cropped off at the edges, such that it hints at more than it reveals.
The man himself never appears in any of the videos, but his presence is everywhere. In recording the small sounds and quiet scenes of the space in which Sakamoto lives, works and finds inspiration, New York-based artist duo Zakkubalan (Neo Sora and Albert Tholen) constructs a portrait of the man not based on his likeness, but the looped landscape of his daily routines.
The soundtrack that accompanies this landscape is an amalgamation of environmental sounds recorded by Zakkubalan in Sakamoto’s home studio, spliced with musical fragments from Sakamoto’s 2017 ‘async’ album. Through this we’re afforded a little glimpse into the physical and aural environs that Sakamoto inhabits, and are given a momentary insight into how everyday sound might inspire, become, and coexist with music at the hands of this maestro.
It is a work that encourages us to pay attention to the poetics that exist in the seemingly mundane. It does not have to be a grand gesture, this collaborative effort by Sakamoto and Zakkubalan seems to say. It could just be the afternoon light filtering through the blinds, that quietly retreats in time.
(Experience async – volume at Level 3, National Gallery Singapore, Gallery C)
Plural is proud to be an official media partner of the Singapore Biennale 2019, which runs from 22 November 2019 to 22 March 2020. For more information, please visit singaporebiennale.org