Singapore’s sling at the unknown

October 11, 2006
Singapore Democrats

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Sydney Morning Herald
11 Oct 06

As the conservative city-state digests images of pornography and teen suicide, Mark Chipperfield wonders if its first biennale will also be its last.

Singapore was once famously dubbed “the only shopping mall with a seat at the United Nations” and its citizens are acutely aware, almost proud, of the national stereotype. Not so the Government, which now wants the island state to embrace the creative arts.

“Over the last 40 years we have shown that we are very good at perfecting the known,” says Lee Suan Hiang, the head of the National Arts Council. “Now it is time for Singapore to explore the unknown.”

The country’s arts mandarins believe Singapore’s prosperity will increasingly depend on its prowess in the areas of industrial design and information technology. They do not want any of the 7000 multinational companies based in Singapore to move elsewhere.

“We believe that art is an important trainer of the imagination,” Lee says. “So, the benefits are both intangible and tangible.”

The inaugural Singapore Biennale, which runs until November 12, is the most dramatic expression of this artistic leap forward. The $S6 million ($5 million) arts festival, led by the respected Japanese curator Fumio Nanjo, features 118 artists in venues as varied as synagogues, temples, mosques, the old Supreme Court building, a railway station, a disused army camp and, yes, even a shopping mall.

In a country where almost every aspect of one’s life is controlled and press freedom is closely monitored, the biennale has exposed Singaporeans to work which is politically subversive, sexually explicit and, occasionally, downright anarchic.

For instance, Mats Bigert and Lars Bergstrom’s video installation The Last Supper is a harrowing account of the rituals surrounding condemned prisoners, especially their right to a final meal before execution. It includes interviews with prison chefs, guards, judges and former inmates. Watching this in Singapore seems like an act of defiance – after all, Singapore has the highest per capita rate of execution in the world, well ahead of Saudi Arabia.

Equally confronting is Makoto Aida’s flamboyant pop art painting Harakiri School Girls, which depicts a group of scantily clad Japanese female students running amok with samurai swords. According to the program the girls are “happily committing ritual suicide in an orgy of blood and entrails”. Both works are on display at the magnificently restored National Museum of Singapore, which officially reopens in December.

No one could accuse the biennale curators of playing it safe. At Tanglin Camp, on the city’s outskirts, the Melbourne artist Philip Brophy takes genre-hopping to a new and bizarre level in his hilarious music video Fluorescent. The artist camps it up as a “polysexual” glam rocker who trashes accepted notions of cultural and sexual identity – and demands justice, tongue firmly in cheek, for the convicted pedophile Gary Glitter.