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by Walter Robinson
"Our ABCs of the arts," said Lee Suan Hiang, CEO of the Singapore National Arts Council and chairman of the Singapore Biennale 2006 steering committee, "are art for art’s sake, art for business’ sake and art for the community’s sake. It’s a total approach to the arts."

Indeed, Singapore is famous for the success of its "total approach" to managing both its economy and its society. A multiethnic, multilingual, multireligious country with no natural resources to speak of (even its drinking water is imported from Malaysia), Singapore depends on deft management of its human resources for its prosperity. By most accounts, the nanny government is fairly benign, with low taxes, free education and free health care. And yes, chewing gum is banned.

Sixty percent of the population is housed in state-subsidized apartment blocks, with singles under 35 often living with their parents (out of both filial duty and economic necessity). A secular society, the island is a mix of Chinese, Eurasian, Indian and Malay inhabitants who coexist without noticeable religious strife. The local press seems fairly restrained. The lead story in the main newspaper, the Straits Times, typically reports on a government initiative -- "Masterplan to improve lives of the disabled," for instance, or "Wanted: A single brand for S’pore," a telling look at how best to market the island as a place for both business and tourism (with "Uniquely Singapore" being one of the potential slogans).

In recent years, Singapore has decided to support contemporary art, an effort that has culminated with the first Singapore Biennale, Sept. 4-Nov. 12, 2006. And the government, led by Mr. Lee’s arts council, has gone about it in an impressively professional manner, hiring a respected curator on the international scene, Fumio Nanjo, deputy director of the Mori Art Museum in Japan, and budgeting the entire affair at almost $4 million Singapore dollars (the exchange rate is US $1 = Singapore $1.57). Another $2 million was raised privately; to encourage giving by Singapore corporations, they’re allowed to writeoff their arts funding at two-to-one.

Nanjo and his team of three curators -- Roger McDonald, Sharmini Pereira and Eugene Tan -- put together a show of 118 individual artists at 19 venues in three major areas, all under the rubric of "Belief." The result is an exhibition that seems potently sincere, especially for avant-garde art, with its reputation for transgression -- a condition that reflects a certain tension with Singapore’s conservative social order.

Works are installed in no less than seven religious sites -- churches, a mosque, a synagogue and temples -- serving five different religious traditions. Another 30 artists are sited in courtrooms and other spaces of the city’s old City Hall, an imposing neoclassical structure that is to be converted into an art center. Still more works are located at Tanglin Camp, a rough-hewn complex of buildings where Singaporean men formerly underwent their compulsory, two-year military service.

Works are also presented in ordinary museum spaces, namely the newly restored, 118-year-old National Museum of Singapore (which officially opens in December) and at a few sites along the city’s Orchard Road shopping street, notably inside the four-story Hermès boutique. And beginning on Oct. 20, 2006, a group of public sculptures opens at the vast new VivoCity shopping center on the Singapore Harbourfront.

Clearly, the settings provide a rich context for artworks that engage with the theme of "Belief." The biennale opened with a massive projection by Jenny Holzer of statements from her "Truisms" series on the façade of city hall, maxims like "It’s good to give extra money to the needy" and "It’s important to stay clean," that take on added punch from their Singaporean context.

The Holzer projection was part of a festive evening party in the Padang, a large grassy field used for soccer and cricket that also was the site of an impressive airborne sculpture of large helium balloons, linked together and eerily lit from within by a rainbow of LEDs, by Usman Haque (b. 1971), an Ohio-born architect who lives and works in London. Dubbed Open Burble, the "interactive" work was a success, floating magically upwards as children and other viewers tugged and pulled on its grounding ropes.

Holzer is one of a handful of better-known artists active on the global art scene who are included in the show (others are Xu Bing, Yayoi Kusama, Iñigo Manglano-Ovalle, Mariko Mori, Carsten Nicolai, Jaume Plensa and Mark Wallinger). Much more revelatory are the artists in the show hailing from Asia -- 65 in all, including five from the Mideast.  

One of many finds in the fair is Ana Prvacki (b. 1976), a Serbian-born Singaporean artist who arranged a rather uncanny performance at the vernissage in which the Tang Quartet played a string quartet from within a zipped-up, white camping tent. The cloth structure bulged and quivered with a life of its own, while images of the musicians, videotaped by the artist herself from within the tent, were projected on the adjoining wall.

Prvacki, who exhibited her work earlier this year at Luxe Gallery in Manhattan, frames her art within a company she calls Ananatural, and produces a catalogue of works that presumably address daily needs. And in fact, her works in the Singapore Biennale were ordered from the catalogue by the curators.

Setting contemporary artworks in the various religious sites, many of them quite active as venues of daily devotion, is an impressive accomplishment, one that was apparently made possible by a general policy among religious leaders that a degree of openness serves Singapore’s multireligious nature. For Westerners, the experiment has produced an art experience that is -- well, unusually religious.

Noting that artistic practice is typically built either on doubt or on faith, Sharmini Pereira, a freelance curator who hails from Sri Lanka and splits her time between there and London, said that the project raised two questions: how consecrated sites can be used for art; and how art remains critical without being disrespectful.

In all, 25 works by 14 artists are presented at the seven religious sites. Many of the pieces demonstrate a spirituality that is notably nondenominational. On the sidewalk outside the Maghain Aboth Synagogue, the Spanish artist Jaume Plensa installed a large brown boulder that is dramatically illuminated at night with a spotlight. On the fourth floor of the Sri Krishnan Temple is Yayoi Kusama’s Ladder to Heaven (2006), a kind of ladder sculpture made of fiber-optic cable stretching from floor to ceiling, with circular mirrors at both ends to give the impression of infinity, gradually changing color.

At Saint Joseph’s Church, the Korean artist Shin Il Kim (b. 1971), who now lives in New York, exhibits an austere video of washing hands, while at the Kwan Im Thong Hood Cho Temple, Charwei Tsai (b. 1980), an artist born in Taipei who now lives in New York, has a hit with a large potted lotus plant onto which she has written the Buddhist lotus mantra in small Chinese characters.

Also interdominational is the installation at the Sultan Mosque by Jennifer Wen Ma (b. 1973), who was born in Beijing but now also works in New York. Titled Alms (2006), the video loop is projected on one wall at the end of a large basement room carpeted with prayer rugs. As an outstretched hand slowly opens and closes, revealing a different number of glass marbles each time, a soundtrack presents three different "soundscapes" as one -- the Muslim call to prayer, a Jewish reading and a Catholic chorale.

In the case of many of these installations, the religious setting helps focus attention on the kind of piety that often attends artwork, even avant-garde artwork. At the same time, the art is able to successfully claim a special spiritual freedom all its own, even within consecrated spaces that might otherwise be considered doctrinaire and restricted.

The religious theme is taken up, too, in a rather incredible installation in one of the galleries at the National Museum. In a darkened room are three spotlighted works -- Hiroshi Sugimoto’s mural-sized, black-and-white photograph of a diorama of the Last Supper, made in 2000; a black-and-white photograph by the London-based artist Jonathan Allen (b. 1966) showing a headless white-suited figure holding a silver platter and his own decapitated head, a reference to John the Baptist; and Harakiri School Girls (2006), a fluorescently colored manga painting on canvas by Japanese artist Makoto Aida (b. 1965) showing several tweens committing ritual suicide in a riot of blood and guts, a scene that arguably refers, in this religious context, to the story of Salome.

In a separate theater space opening off of this gallery is The Last Supper (2005), a 58-minute documentary video by the Stockholm-based team of Mats Bigert (b. 1962) and Lars Bergström (b. 1965) that deals with "the macabre tradition of giving death row inmates a final meal of their choosing the night before execution." The vid is a sardonic argument against capital punishment -- and Singapore is said to have the highest per-capita execution rate in the world. The death penalty is applied to drug traffickers as well as for violent crimes. As a rule, the issue is not widely discussed in the country, making the exhibition of the Bigert & Bergstrom work in the National Museum all the more remarkable. 

Singapore’s powers-that-be have allowed the biennale to open up a space for provocative if symbolic speech in the installations at the City Hall as well. Especially successful here are artworks in former courtrooms that implicitly criticize the process of crime and punishment, both in the country and elsewhere. The Cape Town-based artist Jane Alexander (b. 1959) fills a courtroom with an unnerving collection of figures, part animal and part human, plainly involved in some kind of trial of three forlorn figures who stand hooded and handcuffed in the defendant’s dock.

A note of provocation also attends an installation in another courtroom by Jason Wee (1978), a Singapore-born artist who now lives in New York. His mixed-media work, 1987 (2006), includes photographs, several rows of laptop computers with photo-portraits and a group of statements written on a chalkboard. Rather esoteric to a visitor but clear enough to native Singaporeans, the work refers to "Operation Spectrum," in which several social activists and professionals were rounded up in 1987 and accused of being part of a Marxist conspiracy to overthrow the government.

The members of the group were never tried but were all released by 1990, and the event remains shrouded in uncertainty, almost 20 years later. Wee's shadowy courtroom is an uncanny evocation of history on the brink of the memory hole.

Among the more amusing works installed in the complex of buildings at Tanglin Camp is an eight-minute video by Makoto Aida (maker of Harakiri School Girls), titled The Video of Man Calling Himself Binladen Staying in Japan (2005). Sitting in front of a low table surrounded by sake bottles, a Japanese man in a turban laconically addresses the camera. "Hi. . . I’m Osama Bin Laden. . .  I’m in Japan now. . .  so you can stop looking for me. . .  sake’s awesome. . .  obviously I’ve picked up some Japanese. . . ." The comparison of the world's most notorious Islamist with a dissolute samurai is one kind of mockery that the Bush administration has yet to add to its arsenal.

For Aquarium: I Feel Like I Am in a Fishbowl (2006) by Takashi Kuribayashi (b. 1968), you climb a ladder and stick your head through a hole in the ceiling - a kind of "portal" reminiscent of Martin Kippenberger's imaginary global subway system. But in Kuribayashi's aquarium, you are transported to a pond in the tropics, a lifesized diorama that incongruously boasts a bewiskered seal staring right back at you. Kuribayashi is scheduled to have an exhibition at Tina Kim Gallery in New York in the coming months.

Other works out at Tanglin Camp include a room filled with curlicue blue graffiti by Agathe de Bailliencourt (b. 1974), a painter who was born in France and now lives and works in Singapore. One of the few abstract painters in the exhibition -- another one of note is the Indonesian artist Handiwirman Saputra (b. 1975) -- De Bailliencourt also designed (with Theseus Chan) the graphic signage for the biennale.

And the Karachi-based artist Bani Abidi (b. 1971) contributes two videotapes to the show. In a straightforward, 7½-minute video titled Shan Pipe Band Learns Star-Spangled Banner (2004), we see a group of musicians in Lahore, Pakistan -- playing oboe, clarinet, bagpipes, drums -- learning the U.S. national anthem by ear. It’s charming and, interestingly, despite their obvious abilities, the band comes nowhere near to mastering the tune.

A newer, 8-minute video installation, titled Reserved, is like a full-blown movie, with several different scenes: a group of small children, dressed in school uniforms and carrying small flags; a variety of dignitaries, anxiously chatting and waiting outside of a legislative hall; a jam of cars and motorbikes waiting patiently at a blocked off intersection, manned by police; and a motorcade of rushing black BMWs accompanied by motorcycle cops. In an endless loop, the entire city awaits the arrival of a nameless VIP, who comically -- and poignantly -- never actually arrives.

Two public art projects give the biennale a demonstrably lighthearted spin. The Dutch artist known as IEPE (b. 1974), who now lives in Berlin, installed The Singapore Miracle (2006) along the esplanade of the Singapore River. Under IEPE’s ministrations, a towering tropical Angsana Tree periodically rains 2,000 liters of water in 30 minutes on unsuspecting passersby, water that the artist claims makes you younger and more beautiful. An impressive bit of work, rain does seem miraculously to pour from the tree -- though close observation reveals hidden waterworks.

And, during the opening week, New Zealand artist Daniel Malone (b. 1970) enlisted most of the biennale curatorial staff, along with several dozen school kids, in an effort to levitate city hall, a recreation of the 1967 protest in Washington, D.C., where Abbie Hoffman and the Yippies attempted to levitate the Pentagon 300 feet in the air. To outward appearances, City Hall refused to budge. But who knows for sure?

WALTER ROBINSON is editor of Artnet Magazine. He can be reached at Send Email