Maps of Asia in Singapore

The fifth Singapore Biennale mirrors refreshing ideas about identity and borders in south Asia

Subodh Gupta’s ‘Cooking The World’ (2016). Photo: Subodh Gupta/Singapore Biennale
Subodh Gupta’s ‘Cooking The World’ (2016). Photo: Subodh Gupta/Singapore Biennale

As biennales go, Singapore’s recently opened An Atlas Of Mirrors, hosted by the Singapore Art Museum (SAM), is a strong showing of art from South-East, South and East Asia. Organized with the help of five in-house and four consultant curators, the fifth edition of the Singapore Biennale is a cohesive compilation of nine themes that examine issues of identity, memories, borders, history, migration, maps, cosmology, political struggles, and postcolonial expositions of suppressed narratives. Through more than 80% of the works that are commissioned, the biennale offers a refreshing perspective of the region.

It was evident from an interview with Suman Gopinath, one of the associate curators from Bengaluru who recommended artists from South Asia, that after four intense workshops, the curators had collectively selected photography, mixed media, painting, sculpture and video art to best represent the socio-political conditions of Asia. Like the eighth Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art that opened in Brisbane in November 2015, the biennale enables a fluid discourse between artists from different countries and the host nation’s own socio-economic profile. For instance, Rathin Barman’s installation Home, And A Home (2016) emanated from many conversations with migrant Bangladeshi labourers in Singapore. Barman’s spare, deeply moving skeletal structure of heritage homes made from steel bars that are often used to house migrant workers in Singapore, pays homage to this often overlooked segment of the population, while eerily recalling the metal bars of jail cells. Through his minimalist architectural drawings and sculpture, Barman captures the highly charged notion of home and displacement, and the suppressed anguish of memories of the homeland that are contained within the metal structure of the workers’ rudimentary new homes.

From a different perspective, Bangladeshi artist Munem Wasif’s black and white photographs, titled Land Of Undefined Territory (2014-15), are images of the contested territory between India and Bangladesh. Desolate and bleak, yet strangely alluring, the landscape takes on a treacherous tone when what seems to be a dead body is visible in one photograph, between the undulating dunes and crevices of the fallow landscape. The hopelessness of border disputes becomes embroiled in issues of identity in Sri Lankan artist Pala Pothupitiye’s Other Map Series (2016). Here, through a series of maps, Pothupitiye charts new imagined territories in a postcolonial re-evaluation of Sri Lankan history while alluding to the contentious divide between the northern minority Tamil Tigers of Jaffna and the majority Buddhist Sinhalese that segregated the country for more than two decades during the conflict that began in 1983.

In Chinese artist Qiu Zhijie’s elaborate floor-to-ceiling installation of maps, One Has To Wander Through All The Outer Worlds To Reach The Innermost Shrine At The End (2016), the viewer embarks on a voyage of map-making from pre-Columbian times that links “history, philosophy, mythology and science”. Through Qiu’s tongue-in-cheek naming of territories such as “Cape Revelation”, “Biblical Geography”, “Conspiracy Theory” and “Salmon of Knowledge”, various maps of the world are embedded with the ramifications of political strife and centuries of divisiveness between nation states.

Titarubi’s ‘History Repeats Itself’ (2016). Photo: Titarubi/Singapore Biennale
Titarubi’s ‘History Repeats Itself’ (2016). Photo: Titarubi/Singapore Biennale

A reassessment of boundaries, segregation and exploitation can be seen in Indonesian artist Titarubi’s spectacular sculptural installation History Repeats Itself (2016). Large-scale ghostly figures resembling Rio de Janeiro’s Christ the Redeemer loom above burnt wooden ships in a dark room. By shrouding them in robes made with gold-plated nutmegs that reference the massive looting of nutmeg in Indonesia by the Dutch East India Company, Titarubi honours the Christ-like native Indonesians who hover over their merchandise in the departing colonial ships. Some of the most striking works at the biennale give voice to the disenfranchised. Subodh Gupta’s Cooking The World (2016), made of used aluminium kitchen utensils suspended from the ceiling in a circular global shape, pays homage to the underprivileged denizens of Asia.

From the biennale, it is evident that Singapore’s geographical vantage point between South-East, South and East Asia is crucial in realizing its vision of intertwining regions, says Susie Lingham, a former director of SAM. Citing Gopinath’s role in presenting artists from all of South Asia, Lingham emphasizes the importance of fair representation and cross-cultural dialogue—these have been critical to the success of the exhibition.

The Singapore Biennale is on till 26 February. For details, visit here

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