In the video ‘Between Spins, Stops and Changes of Direction’ (2019) by the Berlin-based collective titre proviso ire, a group of Generation Z students from Singapore debate the deliberate forgetting of their colonial history by countries such as Germany and the UK. As described by the students, the history of imperialism they are being taught tends to downplay the role of entrepreneurs in capitalising on the agendas of the colonial powers. One of the students muses that as she must now become more enterprising to succeed in a globalised economy perhaps she has to work to colonise her own identity. The defeated acceptance with which the students - who represent a cross section of Singapore’s multiracial society - discuss these propositions is disarming in its honesty. However, as they assign their chores in line with this new order, we see resentment growing leading to a scene of the group fighting on a Singaporean street curb - an unimaginable act of civil disturbance.
These themes of a wilful forgetting of the past and the spectre of resulting violence that titre provisoire brilliantly portray reoccur in several works in the biennale. Vong Phaophanit and Claire Oboussier’s film ‘Never real historians, always near poets’ (2019) uses as narration the recollections of Phaophanit’s family who became divided between his native Laos and France as a consequence of the violent rupture of the Vietnam War. The film mirrors scenes and settings between the two locations. Nearly identical lace curtains decorate two interiors and there is the commonality in the food markets in Savannakhet and St. Denis. The beautiful vistas of rivers conjure a fantasy of a communal globalised world. As we watch the swirling river waters, the narration recalls that the Mekong became a dividing line of partition, as family members risked their lives to cross the river to escape to Thailand from the communist regime change of 1975.
Vandy Rattana’s trilogy of videos also revisit the family traumas caused by the American intervention and resulting Cambodian genocide. In ‘MONOLOGUE’ (2015) we witness the tending of sites that had been the scenes of massacres while the artist addresses the anguish of not having a proper grave to grieve at for a dead sister. Rattana’s new work ‘…far away, over there, the ocean’ (2019) goes some way to overcome the tropes of the South East Asian artist trapped by the Cold War legacy. His young landscape artist protagonist journeys through a contemporary urban landscape whose abandoned and decaying office buildings betray a new generation that has also been victimised by the economic superpowers.
For this biennale, led by the Philippine curator Patrick Flores, the works of the 77 artists and collectives have been spread across venues with the core of the exhibition at Singapore National Gallery. Adjacent to Rattana’s work is Larry Achiampong’s fantasy film ‘Relic 3’ (2019) shown with the flag of the artist’s invented time travelling organisation. Beautifully produced though Achiampong’s film is, it appears trite when seen alongside such emotionally charged works as Rattana’s or Wendelien van Oldenborgh’s nearby documentation of Dutch atrocities in Indonesia.
Between these the London based architects muf’s project about absentee landlords and the regeneration of Wood Green appears charmingly out of place. A muf designed feature seating occupies the grand staircase of the gallery that was originally built as the central court and administrative headquarters of the British Imperial administration. This presentation has the unexpected twist that the gentrification of multi-racial areas of the UK that muf’s work documents is being fueled by capital investment from China and South East Asia.
The Asian Civilisations Museum building is another piece of colonial heritage that has been repurposed. For several years it was Singapore’s birth registry and immigration office. This history resonates with Okui Lala’s video ‘National Language Class: Our National Proficiency’ (2019) screened in the museum’s foyer. The piece provides a testimony to the consequences of Britain’s colonial education policies of the 1950s. Fearful of the influence of Chinese communists in what was British Malaya, the policy excluded many non-anglophones from higher education. As a consequence, politically motivated language classes played a major role in the independence narrative. Using the classroom setting, one of Lala’s now elderly interviewees recounts the anguish of as a child sitting exams that they knew they would fail. The lasting rancour of this treatment
is underscored by one of the younger participants wearing a Sex Pistols ‘God Save the Queen’ t-shirt. Also showing at the museum Lawrence Lek’s virtual reality game ‘2065 (Singapore Centennial Edition)’ (2019), presenting a future city that appears to have reconciled these traumas by simply being depopulated. As I navigated through the game’s architecture, I became stuck in Lek’s version of the Barbican Centre that, emblazoned with Union Jack flags, suggests Singapore will be stuck with the colonial heritage ties for some time to come.
Jen Liu’s installation of sculptures and paintings alongside three videos presents a shattering alternative to Lek’s Sino-futurism. The upward path of labouring Chinese populace as the motor of the over-developed world’s consumerism is viciously satirised by Liu, who shows a dancer performing to Mao era patriotic songs extolling the virtues of female labour. As the ballerina spins, her feet literally grind the bones of bourgeois consumerism to dust while on the facing screen we see the same performers guide us through the grisly operations of an abattoir. The centre piece of ‘Pink Slime Caesar Shift’ is a gold painted room in which Liu on video stages a mock human resources meeting in which contemporary women workers are forced to accept degrading infringements of their human rights. ‘Once upon a time the workers were the masters’ one of Liu’s character’s protests to no avail. The artist presents us with a computer generated future fantasy that is the equal of Lek’s for its glossy seduction but here is horrifying in its consequence. Liu envisions a future where the employees are subject to ‘biolistics’ where gold is used to manipulate DNA, a project that recalls the horrifying experiments of 20th century racist scientists.
Three artists whose work is placed together at Gillman Barracks sum up the issues of native vs. migrant, locality vs. diaspora and cosmopolitan vs. colonised that abound in the biennale. Korakrit Arunananondchai has broken through to art world stardom as a representative of the Thai diaspora and variations of the piece of have been shown several times in London. The work’s cinematic, seductive visuals of lush forests and beautiful bodies, the narration about memory, folklore and loss and veiled criticism of Thailand’s authoritarian government all viewed from bean bags has become a cliché. In contrast, Busui Ajaw’s paintings and installation have a directness in their representation of Thai mysticism that now appears more honest. Ajaw’s subject, though, is brutal, using folklore to treat contemporary subjects of sexual violence. Chang En-Man’s ‘Snail Paradise’ (2019) is a witty essay on the diaspora of giant African snails. Introduced to the artist’s home in Taiwan by the Japanese occupation, the snail became a main foodstuff of the indigenous peoples while at the same time devastating the local ecosystem. Set out as an educational display with wall charts and videos, ‘Snail Paradise’ smartly sums up the subtler consequences of the tides of colonisation that have swept over the region.
Many works in the biennale present narratives of the live consequences of globalisation and a highlight is Marie Voignier’s documentary ‘Na China’ (2019), screened at the LaSalle School of Art, that follows business women from Cameroon and Nigeria based in Guangzhou. Opening with a panorama of fake Prada and Chanel products, one of the traders provides a concise critique of notions of authenticity and the hypocrisy of the Eurocentric fashion industry. It is impossible not to feel admiration for Voignier’s subjects as they battle through racism and bureaucracy to export Chinese made Rwandan branded sportswear. As we see a young Chinese female client receive consultation about weave extensions to get ‘authentic’ cornrows there is another type of synthesis taking place. China’s influence in East Africa will become a theme of the next decade and there is much to learn from Voignier’s work.