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 ). Afterward, he granted us this interview.
Artistic director of the Singapore Biennale 2006
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.
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
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 .
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.
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
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.
UiU: The selection of some of the exhibition sites is oriented
toward the theme of "Belief" . 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.
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
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.
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
UiU: Can you briefly summarize your personal expectations for the Singapore
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