Singapore Biennale 2011: Be Surprised by This Open House

Singapore Biennale 2011 will feature works by Singaporean youth alongside top international artists, to engage the public like never before.
be surprised by this open house

The idea of an open house is very much part of Singaporean society, such as when people open their homes to guests during festivals like Hari Raya or Chinese New Year.

The upcoming Singapore Biennale will apply this idea to the visual arts, to connect Singaporean artists, young and old, to the world.

Artworks by students participating in Self-Portrait, Our Landscape a year-long public outreach programme to engage students in exploring the idea of identity

Open House is the main theme of Singapore Biennale 2011 (SB2011) to be held from March 13 to May 15, 2011. This will be the third edition of the country’s largest contemporary visual arts exhibition, held a year later than usual due in part to the inaugural 2010 Youth Olympic Games.

“Open house” is also a mindset, the organisers say, a forward-looking attitude that welcomes new ideas and people from around the world into the mix. The Biennale will live up to this promise by displaying, for the first time, artworks by Singapore children alongside those of established international artists.

Yu Neng primary students drawing
Participants from Yu Neng Primary

Young Artists-in-the-making

These artworks exploring the idea of identity are the culmination of a yearlong public outreach programme to engage primary and secondary students.

Entitled Self-Portrait, Our Landscape (SPOL), the drawing and animation programme developed by Mr Matthew Ngui, the Biennale’s artistic director, involved some 3,200 students from 47 schools.

The youth were asked to draw their portraits without depicting their faces as a subject matter. Instead, with their teachers and friends, they had to explore their own identity in relation to significant people or things around them. They also created “transitional drawings” for their self-portraits to be linked to those of their peers, through simple animation techniques.

Mr Tan Boon Hui, director of the Singapore Art Museum (SAM), the appointed organiser of the Biennale, says it is “really a very radical idea” to place the works of non-artists as part of the main exhibition.

“These works are not considered peripheral; we recognise the passion to express. We are building an audience in our young and instilling pride and confidence in them that they have the talent and creativity,” he says.

Tan Boon Hui
SAM director Tan Boon Hui
These works are not considered peripheral; we recognise the passion to express.

The aim of the Biennale’s education and outreach programmes is to engage and develop different target audiences and create sustained interest in contemporary art, so that art becomes part of one’s daily life.

Ms Mabel Lui, a programmes manager with the Biennale, adds that older students may be invited to participate in the installation of the SPOL artworks. “We want young people to know that they need not only be a passive Biennale visitor. They too can be part of a distinguished international event.”

The World to Singapore

Featuring more Singapore artists, including youth, is what Mr Tan means by the event giving back to society and to the Singapore arts scene.

By offering a high-profile platform for these artists to display their works – some 14% of all works will be Singaporean – and for them to interact with international counterparts, the event will “bring the world to Singapore,” he says.

This Biennale will build on the first two editions in 2006 and 2008 to show the world that Singapore is a world-class arts city and has an important international arts event worthy of attention.

young boy with his artwork
A young artist from Damai Primary and his art work

The choice of SAM as organiser builds on the museum’s curatorial and visual arts programming expertise and gives the Biennale a more permanent presence, both at the museum proper and at its adjacent SAM at 8Q extension.

The museum undoubtedly has the necessary resources, networks and manpower to handle an event like this. According to Mr Tan, who has been involved in past Biennales, his role is as a facilitator.

“I run the organising secretariat looking at the organisation of the entire event. We shape it and make sure it achieves its chief objectives. A lot of it is down to communications.”

More than half of the artists will be commissioned to create new works, in response to Singapore’s culture, history and landscapes. Apart from SAM, historical locations across the island will be used as event venues.

Mr Tan is excited about working outside the museum, on sites that are unfamiliar as arts spaces, and so, offer learning opportunities in getting these places ready. For instance, Old Kallang Airport, Singapore’s first civil aviation airport in operation from 1937 to 1955, has never been used as an arts venue.

Cedar Girls
Students from Cedar Girls

Renowned local visual artist Matthew Ngui, the Biennale’s artistic director, sees this as fulfilling the event’s need to be ‘experimental and brave’, and to push boundaries. Mr Ngui, Trevor Smith from America’s Peabody Essex Museum and Russell Storer of Queensland Art Gallery form the curatorial team.

“A biennale needs to ‘rock’ as it makes its own place within the global framework of contemporary visual arts events,” he says, noting that SAM has been receptive to fresh ideas in selecting works and presentation styles.

Among the artists set to participate are Elmgreen and Dragset, Ceal Floyer, Rafael Lozano-Hemmer, Tatzu Nishi, Arin Rungjang, Charles Sandison, Shooshie Sulaiman, Goto Design, and homegrown pair Ming Wong and Tan Pin Pin.

Art as Part of Our Lives

The Biennale further engages Singaporeans on another front: the often unsung heroes, the volunteers.

Mr Tan Chee Sean, Manager (Programmes) for the Biennale, who set up the framework for assessing volunteer needs, says recruitment began in November 2010, with training slated for February 2011.

While volunteers perform a wide variety of roles, including artist liaison, administration and tour guide, one of the most vital is helping to “bring contemporary art to the people by delivering clear, concise explanations of the artworks or attending to enquiries”.

Volunteers come from all walks of life, he says, each with unique skill sets. Past Biennales have relied on volunteer forces 500- to 600-strong, with ages from 17 to 60. This year’s Biennale requires a similar-sized group.

“It is part of Biennale ethos to encourage learning new skills, developing friendships and ensuring an overall pleasant experience for volunteers. We really want them to have fun with their job!” says Mr Tan Chee Sean.

Mr Ngui agrees, stating that the Biennale must engage local audiences, children and adults alike.

It is vital that we use the Biennale as an expression of our people and time. This engagement with people and space is one of the main priorities and would advance art as something that could be part of our lives.
If these aims succeed, this third Singapore Biennale, with its focus on new works that resonate with Singapore’s identity, education and outreach, could very well give ample reason to feel ‘house-proud’ about the country’s international standing in the contemporary art arena and its artistic prospects.
Matthew Ngui
Singapore Biennale 2011 Artistic Director Matthew Ngui
    Jan 18, 2011
    Yong Shu Chiang
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