Universes in Universe - Worlds of Art

1st Singapore Biennale
4 September - 12 November 2006

Singapore / 2006 / Dates & Facts

January 2006

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SB2006 Under the Sign of "Belief"
Interview with Fumio Nanjo, Artistic Director
by G. Haupt & P. Binder, Universes in Universe

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The Japanese curator and art critic Fumio Nanjo has plenty of experience with major exhibitions, for example as co-initiator of the Yokohama Triennial (2001) and the Taipei Biennial (1998), as commissioner of the Japanese pavilion at the Venice Biennial (1997), co-curator of the 3rd Asia-Pacific Triennial for Contemporary Art (1999), and a member of the Selection Committee of the Sydney Biennial (2000). His good reputation in the international art scene led the organizers of the Singapore Biennale to ask him to develop a concept for its first edition and to invite him for talks that ultimately led to his hiring as Artistic Director.

In Singapore at the beginning of December 2005, Nanjo and his team presented the theme, some exhibition sites, the first confirmed participants, and other aspects of the Singapore Biennale 2006 (see Encounters 04 [1]). Afterward, he granted us this interview. 


Fumio Nanjo

Artistic director of the Singapore Biennale 2006
>> Biography

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Universes in Universe: You obviously believe that Singapore has good chances to succeed in establishing a new Biennale. Why?

Fumio Nanjo: As a matter of fact, I do see good preconditions here for starting a major art event like this one. Financial and institutional stability are needed for its continuity, and both are given here. Beyond that, Singapore is an important center in the region, a hub of networks and a node for information, so that one can work very efficiently here and a high degree of international impact is guaranteed. 


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UiU: But in the international art scene, the opinion is widespread that there are already enough Biennales, triennials, and other periodic exhibitions...

FN: One shouldn’t let that bother one. Nobody is able to travel to all the biennials and triennials; hardly more than 100 people will be able to afford or have the time to travel to even only the 20 best-known of them.

Our main target group is not the international specialized public, anyway ? which is, of course, cordially invited and whose interest and acceptance we hope for. But we are organizing this Biennale primarily for the people in Singapore. We want to bring them closer to what is going on in international art; we especially want to share with them the enthusiasm and fun of being able to see art from all over the world in this city.

An exhibition needs to have a certain dimension to ensure that many people are aware of it and that it becomes a generally recognized event. Only then will people everywhere write and report on it, which rouses curiosity and makes it "in" to visit the showing and to talk about it with other people. And of course, acquiring the necessary budget increases the chances of success. This budget must be rather large, but the sum seems much more plausible when you set it in relation to the large number of people you reach. I call that "scale merit".

UiU: The first Singapore Biennale is one of the official events that will take place in parallel to the annual meeting of the Board of Governors of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank Group [2]. Did this specific context make any difference for your concept?

FN: I have this summit meeting of the financial world in my mind, but it has no influence at all on the exhibition or on our curatorial decisions. That would surely be different if the theme of the Biennale was explicitly political, but that is not the direction we’re taking. We are much more oriented toward everyday life and the cultures of the people here in Singapore and elsewhere in the world. 


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UiU: It’s certainly remarkable that, during this thoroughly materialistically oriented financial summit, a Biennale with an explicitly spiritual theme is taking place...

FN: Yes, it makes a good balance... After a long process of coming to agreement with the curatorial team and the organizers, we decided on the theme "Belief". Singapore is a multi-cultural society in which many faiths coexist peacefully. We want to expand this outstanding starting point to reflect on the state of the world. We are asking what people from various cultures and with various value systems believe today. At the Biennale, diverse forms and approaches to belief systems will be examined with artistic means. This goes beyond religions as such, extending to categories like progress, development, affluence, power, nature, tradition, families, etc. Conflicts and tensions have arisen in the name of belief, but if people would stick more to the essence of belief, that could definitely be a path toward living better together.

In a certain sense, art too is a belief system. Artists and really everyone involved in art are something like the faithful, and the museums, galleries, and exhibition halls are their temples.

So we hope to take this theme very broadly, so that it can serve as the starting point for thinking about many current questions about the world of today. 


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UiU: The selection of some of the exhibition sites is oriented toward the theme of "Belief" [3]. They include several religious sites, but sites of more profane belief are also being discussed, like the temples of consumption, stores. Works of the Biennale will be on view in houses of worship regularly visited by believers. Do you expect the artists to refer directly to the respective context? Could this result in conflicts?

FN: The artists do not have to refer directly to these sites, though of course they should establish certain relationships to the concrete surrounding context, but that is more in a metaphorical sense. If the works were too direct, conflicts could easily arise. But of course the artists must respect the religion of the respective house of worship, and the priests and faithful who go there every day to pray must not be disturbed.

That demands great sensitivity and modesty from the artists, because their artistic interventions in the religious sites should not be importunate and try to grab all the attention. But these works will attract the visitors, arouse their interest in the respective religion, and perhaps even open the door to dialogue with the faithful.

And maybe those who often come to this site to pray may begin to see certain aspects of their religion somewhat differently. After all, the role of art is to expand people’s fields of vision and let them see everyday things in a different light. I recall an experience I had during the Yokohama Triennial. An older woman came out of the exhibition and said, "Oh, could it be that even the trash on the street looks like art?". Of course, because she saw the world in a different way than before. 


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UiU: Considering these widely differing sites, it will certainly not be easy to compose a balanced overall impression of the Singapore Biennale 2006. Will you integrate the path from one exhibition site to the other in your concept? Aren’t you afraid that the visitors may plunge into the charms and attractions of the city instead of following your dramaturgy?

FN: We think we can generate lasting interest in and curiosity about the respective next station of the Biennale. The art will differ markedly from the usual attractions of Singapore. It won’t be as sugary as the display windows in the shopping centers, but more mysterious, disturbing, and a little cynical, as well.

Part of our concept is precisely to tie the Biennale closely to Singapore as an environment and context. So the city will be like a stage that you are not just incidentally aware of between the exhibition sites, but where many things will be happening, for example works in public space and possibly performances. When we place art in the city, that creates levels of meaning that convey something new about the city itself.

Singapore currently does not have an exhibition space large enough to contain the whole Biennale, anyway, as São Paulo does, for example. But the point is not to make a virtue of necessity. Rather, it is my firm conviction that the art at such an exhibition must enter into a connection with the site.

UiU: How many artists will ultimately be represented at the Biennale?

FN: At the moment, we still have about 150 on the shortlist, but in the end it will not be possible to have many more than 70 to 80. We don’t want to overburden the public. We want to make it possible to take in and experience the whole Biennale at one’s leisure in 2 to 3 days.

UiU: At first the word was that the Singapore Biennale 2006 would focus on the equatorial belt. Is this still a criterion in your selection of artists?

FN: Certainly, a high proportion of the artists will come from these regions, but the concept is now much broader and is open to the whole world. Singapore and Southeast Asia remain a special focus, however. The Biennale aims to foster dialogue among artists of various backgrounds and to set works that arose from extremely different cultural and social contexts in relation with each other. I was just in Brazil and Argentina and saw that art there has a strong character of its own. For example, I noticed a strong tradition of Constructivism and interesting stances toward performance art. 


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UiU: How will the process of final selection be conducted in the near future? Does priority go to the search for specific works to fit specific exhibition sites?

FN: I can’t really put it that way. Our criteria are determined by the theme as well as by the concrete sites. So we are trying to place works by Biennale participants who are already internationally known, in particular, in the religious sites, thus placing them in a new context. Certainly, even for the specialized public that has already often seen the works of these artists, it will be fascinating to experience them now in a Hindu temple, for example. That, too, is an interesting aspect of this Biennale for the art specialists from all over the world. By contrast, we will tend to present younger artists in more neutral spaces, where they will not have to take a specific environment as intensely into consideration.

UiU: Can you briefly summarize your personal expectations for the Singapore Biennale 2006?

FN: Of course I want the Biennale to be a big success. And if it could become in a certain way a new model for an international exhibition, that would make me happy. What I mean by this is a certain balance, multi-dimensionality: respect and attention for the local as well as the international, and also a connection between art and people’s lives.




Encounters 04



Singapore 2006



See exhibition venues.


Singapore / 2006 / Dates & Facts