Universes in Universe / Biennials / Singapore Biennale 2006 / Low Kee Hong - interview
What can be expected from SB2006?
Interview with General Manager Low Kee Hong
by G. Haupt & P. Binder, Universes in Universe
Universes in Universe: How did the idea of the SB come about and who are the organizers?
Low Kee Hong: The National Arts Council (NAC)  has long planned to set up an international Biennale here but budgets and conditions were not available. In 2004, there was a precursor, SENI , a festival of contemporary Southeast Asian and Asian visual art. It was organized by the NAC and the National Heritage Board (NHB) , and both institutions are part of the Ministry for Information, Communication, and the Arts (MICA). The Singapore Biennale 2006 is organized by the NAC in partnership with NHB.
In September 2006, Singapore will play host to the annual meetings of the IMF Board of Governors and the World Bank Group under the umbrella event "Singapore 2006: Global City. World of Opportunities" . This event alone is expected to draw about 16,000 delegates, observers and media. There will be a number of parallel meetings and events, for which special budgets have been made available. This creates a favorable opportunity to begin the Singapore Biennale, which will not only receive the necessary financial support, but will also profit from the worldwide attention paid to "Singapore 2006".
Of course large scale events like the Biennale aim to reach out to the international audiences and register a critical endorsement but for us, the Singaporean community is also a very important audience. Contemporary art, including its reception by a broader public has only a short history with us. The Biennale aims to bring current international art practices closer to the people in Singapore and to nourish their enthusiasm for it. If the Biennale does not find the desired resonance here in this country, it will hardly be possible to continue it.
UiU: The name "Biennale" only makes sense if such an event is staged periodically, every two years. If it remains a one-time event, the positive image cultivated with such effort could turn into its opposite. How are you going to ensure that this does not happen and that, even without such a top-notch occasion as "Singapore 2006", there will be a second and more editions?
LKH: As with all new platforms, this is a question of sustainability, and we want to achieve that in various ways. We hope that our current partners in the funding of the Biennale will support not only the first edition. Like many other art events in Singapore, the Biennale receives part of its budget from the government and the rest through private partnerships. We have to give these partners good reasons to commit to the second, third, and we hope even more editions.
Most importantly, the last thing we want is a spaceship landing in Singapore for two months and then flying away, leaving no traces. If we bring so many curators and artists from all over the world to the city, it should contribute to strengthening the national art scene. This can give important conceptual impulses to art processes in Singapore, and surely many new contacts and affinities will arise that will help our local art achieve greater international presence. An “art world” infrastructure will grow that will be of long-term use to the art scene and the mediation of art in Singapore.
UiU: Why do you believe that Singapore is a good site for an international Biennale? The caravan of art specialists, artists, collectors, and art lovers really only attends the big events that are currently en vogue in the international art scene: Why should it make a stop in Singapore now? After all, there are many more than one hundred Biennales and triennials all over the world now, and only a relative few of them manages to become part of this caravan’s itinerary.
LKH: Singapore has a favorable geostrategic position and is one of the most important economic metropolises, far beyond Asia’s boundaries. With 8.3 million visitors a year, it is a popular stopping place for tourists and business travelers, and in many areas it is already an international meeting place. Since it has a vibrant art scene and an institutional infrastructure with close relations to its neighbors in Southeast Asia and diverse contacts all over the world, there is good reason to hope that a new world-class art event can establish itself here.
Amongst other reasons, the Singapore Biennale will differ fundamentally from periodic exhibitions elsewhere because it will integrate with the local context and make it a unique experience for the visitor. And this context is very attractive. One of the special aspects is the mixture of various cultures, ethnic groups, and faiths in a rather small territory. Here you plunge rapidly into Asia’s cultural diversity – see it, hear it, smell it, and taste it on a stroll through the city. Singapore is a young nation that is rapidly growing. The situation here sometimes feels like an experiment in a petri dish, where you can watch and share in the experience of how cultures develop and unfold. English is the official language, so visitors from abroad can navigate the city easily.
Singapore is often called an interface between East and West. It is the gateway to Southeast Asia, and the Biennale should reflect that. Even if artists from all over the world will be taking part, art in Singapore and Southeast Asia is an important focus – another aspect that makes the Biennale interesting for the international art scene.
UiU: Can you tell us more precisely what awaits the visitors to the Singapore Biennale, for example, what exhibition sites there will be?
LKH: We are currently planning about 12-15 exhibition sites . If you want to view the whole Biennale, you will need 2 or 3 days to give you enough time to take a look at the art and even the videos at leisure, to soak up the atmosphere of the city on your way from one place to another, and to rest for awhile occasionally. In this respect, it is an advantage that Singapore is relatively small. Especially considering the theme of "Belief" , we don’t want to make the public rush, but to slow down its tempo, so that there is time to reflect. This contrasts with the normal, hectic rhythm of life in Singapore, but the Biennale aims not only to provide foreign guests access to little-known aspects of the city; it also seeks to allow Singaporeans to rediscover a part of Singapore that is usually glossed over or forgotten.
Several very unusual exhibition sites will be equally interesting for local and foreign visitors. Amongst them are historical buildings like Tanglin Camp which was constructed in the 19th century as housing for soldiers and was later used by the military as a medical facility up until recently. It should be familiar to most of the male population in Singapore given that it is compulsory for young men to serve the army between the ages of 18 to 21.
Direct associations with one of the more obvious interpretations of the theme of "Belief" will come with the inclusion of a number of religious sites. Already certain are a Chinese and a Hindu temple and the Armenian Church. At first I was not too sure if the religious communities would be open to our requests for partnership. After all, these are sites of worship and are considered sacred. But the answers have been extremely encouraging. Of course, there is a need to maintain deep respect as we work with the various religious communities. Their participation and input is vital to the art work placed there. More religious sites from other faiths will also be included in due time.
Locating the works of the Biennale in the religious sites is not an attempt for the spectacular or the sensational. One the contrary, we are hoping to provide visitors a chance to experience Singapore in its multi-religious and multi-racial complexity. By generating opportunities to engage with communities of different faiths and cultures, we are hoping to create more platforms for mutual understanding, communication and reflection. For example, if I am a Christian, there is no reason or opportunities for me to visit the Hindu temple but because I want to see the art in there, I need to enter into a social contract with the community, highlighting a certain mutual respect. The fact that I need to take off my shoes before entering the temple is already a first step in this social contract. In some small way, the Biennale hopes to contribute to having our citizens better understand what others believe and what it means for the various religions to coexist peacefully in close proximity in this small city-state.
Beyond that, we want to take art to public spaces where there are many people, for example Orchard Road, the busiest shopping street. Permanent installations will also be created. Together with one of our partners, we will be commissioning 7 to 8 such works in a new building. They will be fun, accessible and yet quite different from the kinds of public art one usually sees in Singapore.
Particularly in the opening week, we hope to create a broad spectrum of possibilities for visitors to encounter the participating artists. Normally the audience of a Biennale sees only the final product of an artistic process, but we want to put some emphasis on the process itself. It is not just about the exhibition itself but the lead up to it where people get to find out, engage and participate in the Biennale. Hence, we place great value on educational programs prior and throughout the whole duration of the Biennale. The Encounters Series (sessions of artists’ talks, dialogues, workshops, forums, etc.) launched in July 2005 is meant to serve this function. Also, to sustain continued interests in the Biennale, there will be other major events throughout the two and a half months.
UiU: Are you offering interested people from abroad special packages for the trip to the Biennale? What aids to orientation are you providing the visitors?
LKH: Yes, it will be possible to book a package covering everything: flight tickets, airport pickup, hotels in various categories, tickets to the exhibitions, participation in the events, etc. A special micro site within the Biennale website will be set up later to serve this function.
Let me point out again that it is very easy to get around in Singapore. All the signs are in English, everyone speaks English, the exhibition sites are concentrated in a relatively small zone in the center of the city, most of them within walking distance of each other, and there will also be shuttle buses. The Biennale will set up information stands where you can also get refreshments. Also very important is that no one has to worry about security in Singapore.
We want to make a visit to the Biennale as easy and pleasant as possible. Of course, along with the catalog there will also be a short guide with a map of the city. Beyond that, we are planning an audio guide that you can call up under a special number with your own cell phone. On your way from one place to the other, it will provide stories and explanations.
UiU: Singapore has a reputation for being a strictly ordered, almost antiseptically clean city. But now the logo and the graphic appearance of the Biennale are conveying a completely different impression. What’s up?
LKH: For us, it is very important that every collateral, publicity material and platforms of the Biennale that the public comes into contact with is designed or filtered by an artist. So we asked Agathe De Bailliencourt, a French artist living in Singapore, to create some works to serve as the basis for the graphic design concept . With this spontaneous gesture, tossed off with a fast hand and reminiscent of graffiti, we want to point out and arouse curiosity about dimensions people wouldn’t think possible in Singapore. There are many ruptures and niches to be discovered, the unexpected, the complex, the crude, all of which are also part of Singapore but seemingly unperceivable. This is why we want to encourage people who live in Singapore to go on a journey of rediscovering their own city. Behind this graphic design is also our intention to bring art together with street visual culture, to underscore its presence in public space and in everyday life, and to arouse the interest and participation of the larger public.
UiU: But isn’t there a danger that the occasion that makes it possible to start the Biennale this year – the meeting of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank Group – will hinder this openness? During such meetings, the sites where they are held usually turn into high-security tracts and criticism is not exactly welcome. At the Singapore Biennale, will voices critical of the behavior of the world’s most powerful financial institutions be permitted?
LKH: The annual meeting of the IMF and the World Bank Group will not take place until September 11-20, 2006. So it will not hinder the preview and opening of the Singapore Biennale (September 1-3) in any way. And since the Biennale will continue until November 12, a few days with increased security measures in the city should not be too disruptive. Also, the exhibition sites are outside the areas where the financial meetings are being held.
The curators and organizers of the Biennale have no intention of suppressing any criticism of the IMF and the World Bank Group, although there are surely better and more effective platforms for that than an art exhibition. After all, the Biennale has its own theme that has nothing to do with the financial summit, and the works of the artists have been selected on the basis of a concrete curatorial concept.
Of course art has this function to critically deal with our social structures and environments but I think today there is too much complaining, too much struggling against each other, too much mutual blaming, and too little looking for solutions. All the energy that is generated to stir up conflicts, be aggressive, point fingers at each other, could be used much more constructively in the search for solutions. That, too, is something we want to underscore the Biennale with.
1. National Arts Council, summary and link.
2. SENI. http://www.senisingapore.org
3. National Heritage Board, summary and link.
4. Singapore 2006. http://singapore2006.org
5. See exhibition venues.
6. On the theme, see the interview with Fumio Nanjo and the
7. See the official website. http://www.singaporebiennale.org
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