What can be expected from SB2006?
Interview with General Manager Low Kee Hong
by G. Haupt & P. Binder, Universes in Universe
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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
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.
Low Kee Hong
General Manager, Singapore Biennale
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
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
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
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
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
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.