Five to See: Singapore

Adeline Chia’s quick and dirty guide to what to see beyond the Singapore Biennale...

By Adeline Chia

Megan Evans, Raffles Pin Cushion, 2019, embroidery beads, pins, cushion. Courtesy the artist


The theme of this year’s Singapore Biennale is ‘Every Step in the Right Direction’, an upbeat, failure-proof message on which to end 2019. Featuring 77 artists and collectives from Southeast Asia and beyond, the event is in its seventh edition and curated by a team led by Patrick Flores, who says that the exhibition is ‘an invitation to take part in the process of thinking about what is right and making the step to do something about it’. ArtReview Asia believes in doing what’s right, and also what’s smart. With the Biennale being spread out across 11 venues, you’re already probably wearing out your soles finishing it, let alone even begin thinking about the satellite events. So here’s a quick and dirty guide to what shows to see in Singapore in November, outside of the major institutional shows. Let’s take a walk off the beaten track, starting with…

Piyatat Hemmatat, Eden, from Online exclusive 19 November 2019 Singapore Five to See
Piyatat Hemmatat, Eden No. 11, 2015–18. Courtesy the artist

Gap: A Distinct To Reality at Deck

15 November – 22 January, 2020

Defamiliarising the familiar is the point of this show featuring four photographers who hold a mirror up to contemporary Thai society. Industrial waste, pollution and drugs get transformed into mysterious abstract images. Miti Ruangkritya takes coloured ashes from a waste disposal centre and spreads them on paper, the vibrant hues suggestive of ever-increasing toxicities; while the enigmatic grey fogs in Nat Bowornphatnon’s images are actual pictures of his hometown Chiangmai, which was hit by a severe haze earlier this year from forest fires. Meanwhile, as Thailand is in the grip of a national debate on whether to legalise marijuana for medical use, Piyatat Hemmatat examines the issue in close detail – literally, as he captures jewel-toned images of weed seen under a microscope.

Superflux, Mitigation of Shock, from Online exclusive 19 November 2019 Singapore Five to See
Superflux, Mitigation of Shock, 2017–19. Courtesy the artist

2219: Futures Imagined at ArtScience Museum

23 November – 5 April

This year, Singapore commemorates the bicentennial anniversary of its founding as a British colony with a glut of historical exhibitions. This new show at the ArtScience Museum looks forward instead, asking artists, architects, designers and filmmakers to imagine a Singapore 200 years later. A fun, sci-fi-inflected show, it includes Finbarr Fallon’s fictional video advertisement of an underground city when the surface has become inhabitable (Subterranean Singapore 2065, 2016), as well as a Singapore flat by Superflux set in the 2070s, when food is scarce and homes become farm-factories (Mitigation of Shock, 2017–19).

Bea Camacho, Sartre, from Online exclusive 19 November 2019 Singapore Five to See
Bea Camacho, Sartre, Jean-Paul, “The Imaginary” (New York Routledge, 2010), pp128–129, 2010)

Discrete Encoding at Fost Gallery

23 November – 29 December

The ‘encoding’ in the exhibition title refers to original systems of meanings created by artists in their works. Curated by Khim Ong, the former deputy director of curatorial programmes at the NTU Centre of Contemporary Art Singapore, the show interrogates how art can deconstruct existing representational frameworks to create new symbols and codes. Works on show include: Savanhdary Vongpoothorn’s ink-on-paper works boiling down the Phra Lak Phra Lam (a Lao telling of the Indian epic the Ramayana) into repetitive, geometrically motifs (Rama Was A Migrant (I) and (II), 2015), as well as Bea Camacho’s reworking of Jean-Paul Sartre’s 1940 The Imaginary, where all the characters in the original text were counted and re-presented in alphabetical order.

Ren Yi, Eight Immortals, from Online exclusive 19 November 2019 Singapore Five to See
Ren Yi, Eight Immortals (detail), 1880, four ink and colour on paper, 150 x 82 cm (each). Courtesy Asian Civilisations Museum, Singapore

Living With Ink: The Collection of Tan Tsze Chor at Asian Civilisations Museum

8 November – 22 March

Think of this as a palette cleanser from all the contemporary art. On show here is the private collection of Chinese ink works donated by the late Dr Tan Tsze Chor, aka ‘Pepper King’, a Singaporean businessman, calligrapher and arts patron (1911–83). There are 130 exhibits, including those by nineteenth and twentieth century masters such as Xu Beihong, Qi Baishi and Ren Yi. Ren Yi’s Eight Immortals (1880), four paintings depicting the mythological deities as everyday characters, is one of the highlights. But this isn’t just an old-school classical ink painting show – there’s also a personal and art-historical dimension: you get a glimpse into the close-knit émigré-Chinese literati scene in Singapore’s early art history. Dr Tan used to host dinner parties at his home, which were attended by other collectors and pioneer painters such as Chen Wen-Hsi and Liu Kang. The artists supposedly encountered great Chinese ink works there, which subsequently informed their own practices while they developed a style more specific to the local context, known as the Nanyang School.

Megan Evans, Raffles Pin Cushion, from Online exclusive 19 November 2019 Singapore Five to See
Megan Evans, Raffles Pin Cushion, 2019, embroidery beads, pins, cushion. Courtesy the artist

Rules of Engagement at The Substation

21–24 November

In the basement of The Substation is a dive bar called, appropriately, SADBAR, serving (when I last went) an appropriately sad-ish menu of beer, red and white wine. During the Biennale opening weekend, however, it will host what promises to be a rather fun event called Rules of Engagement, parodying artworld protocols and Singapore’s love of regulations. To enter, you need to buy a $5 coupon for a drink, which also doubles up as a voting slip to select your favourite artwork exhibited there. Participating artists include Jimmy Ong, Jason Wee, Grace Tan and Alecia Neo, and the works are themed around the idea of a public square. There is a list of rules the artists must adhere to, and a separate list for audience members. (One of them is ‘no name-dropping of any kind… inclu[ding] places, exhibitions and biennales etc’. I like.) There are other rules, too, like the creator of the most popular artwork every night collecting all the proceeds, and undercover officers ‘fining’ you for offenses, and you need to buy more $5 coupons, etc. TLDR: Buy cheap drinks, support local artists. Cheers!