Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — Art is a navigational tool. This is what the Singapore Biennale proposes in its 2016 edition, themed “An Atlas of Mirrors.” There is an intent to position Southeast Asia as “a vantage point from which to picture our world anew,” and considering the gamut of artists representing both raw and cultivated perspectives from the region, an encompassing stance — the Biennale’s central theme notwithstanding — finds artists confronting issues that cross boundaries and relationships.
Now on its fifth edition, the Biennale is housed mainly at the Singapore Art Museum and is scattered to seven more locations outside the Lion City, with 63 artists and art collectives participating. Notions of place, identity, memory, and absence are at the center of most works.
A striking example is Chinese artist Qiu Zhijie’s “One Has to Wander Through All the Outer Worlds to Reach the Innermost Shrine at the End,” a commissioned cartographic work installed in a large room with multiple hand-painted maps that span from the wall to the ceiling. Accompanied by hand-blown glass figures of mythical monsters, the work hones in on the fantastic voyages of discovery and the idea of legendary lands — with names such as “Island of Self-Loathing,” “Fictional Geography,” and “Phantom Islands” — that conjure the mystery of the uncharted world and utopia as a spectre that haunts us until now.
Hong Kong-based artist duo MAP Office’s “Desert Islands” features 101 engraved mirrors bearing fractured topographical images of actual islands, such as Christmas Island, Diego Garcia, the Spratlys, and Singapore, and their respective coordinates. “Desert Islands” puts a spotlight on these seemingly innocuous areas that might be small in terms of land area, but are the subject of disputes owing to their significant place in the global economy — places that have become playgrounds for political aspirations and displays of power.
SAM at 8Q, the Singapore Art Museum’s annex, has more decidedly political works, with arresting images and voices telling stories of displacement, border conflicts, and national struggle. Bangladeshi artist Munem Wasif’s “Land of Undefined Territory” captures images of seemingly barren landscapes — bleak and unforgiving in black and white — that bear no apparent geographic identity. The land in the photographs actually embody the border separating India and Bangladesh, putting forth decades of a tenuous political relationship between two countries over an area that has been exploited for economic and political gains.
Further up at 8Q is Wen Pulin’s three films of critical moments in the development of Chinese contemporary art — posing the dangerous nature of the artist’s plight. “Police cannot interfere with art, whether it is good or bad,” declares one of the art critics in the film, as images of performance artists struggling to show their art on public are shown onscreen.
An entire floor is dedicated to the plight of Kashmir, a conflict-ridden land that faces an uncertain future due to border conflicts. “Witness to Paradise 2016” features wall diagrams and garments referring to Kashmir’s material culture and symbols of cultural changes (Abeer Gupta’s “The Pheran”), 30 photographs by photojournalists (the “Witness to Paradise” project), and paintings contemplating on the subject of beauty as a ruined being (Praneet Soi’s “Srinagar II”), in relation to Kashmir’s ravaged lands.
Five Filipino artists — Martha Atienza, Patricia Perez Eustaquio, Dex Fernandez, Gregory Halili, and Ryan Villamael — represent the Philippines with works that use different media to showcase meditations on issues that beset the country.
Atienza’s “Endless Hours at Sea” — shortlisted for the Asian edition of the prestigious Benesse Prize — is a video and sound installation depicting footage recorded during Atienza’s oceanic journey that explores the artist's relation with the sea and its nature as a territory subjected to the entirety of human ambition. Eustaquio’s “The Hunters Enter the Woods” is an enthralling rendering of rare orchids, on two aluminum panels as “island formations,” depicting the fragile relationship between nature and human ambition.
Dex Fernandez paints murals of survivors of typhoon Haiyan and their relationship with “useless” but sentimental objects in “I Wonder, I Wander.” Gregory Halili’s “Karagatan (The Breadth of Oceans)” are delicate paintings on mother-of-pearl illustrating the eyes of residents living in coastal villages — their lives bound to the endless depth of the ocean. Ryan Villamael creates the likeness of an Eden gone wild in “Locus Amoenus,” an installation of an overgrown fauna in paper-cut outs made out of cartographic prints of the Philippines, dating as far back from colonial-era maps made by conquistadors.
CNN Philippines Life sat down with Singapore Biennale’s co-curatorial head Joyce Toh to talk about her work with Filipino artists and how they relate to the Biennale along with the rest of artists from the region.
For the selection of this year’s Filipino artists for the Biennale, I heard you ventured outside Manila...
I think the great thing about my job it allows me to go outside of Manila. Like Gregory, his home is in Cavite. In the last Biennale I was also going to places like Mindanao or to Baguio. In a way it really allows me to get out to the different parts of the Philippines — and that life is beyond Manila as well.
How different was the batch here from the other batches that were in the last Biennale?
That question is a little bit tricky because we tend to look at the particular artist or the proposal that they give to us and how well it resonates or kind of responds to the theme. I think in the last Biennale, we were making more of an effort to go outside Manila.
I would say that beyond the metropolitan centers — what’s important with us, always, is how well a particular artwork is going to resonate with the particular theme or title of this work. So in this case, what we did was with the brief I invited a number of artists and I spoke to them and they gave us proposals. Then we brought them in for the curator workshop, we presented it and then shortlisting and selection from there.
Were there specific things you were looking for to fit the theme this year?
I think I was looking for a range of different perspectives or ways to capture the work. And then also by way of maybe forms and practices as well. So, for example we’ve got a wonderful painting from Patty Eustaquio and we know that the Philippines is very very strong in painting, but at the same time I wanted to make sure that we could represent different forms. For example with Dex, he’s much more of a street artist. It is painting as well, but a much more public manner. And then from Martha [Atienza] we have a much more — it’s a sound and video installation. Then from Gregory [Halili], it’s painting but on a much more miniature scale and very specific material and medium. Ryan [Villamael] is paper cutting. I think it’s important for me that when you look at the works collectively, they will still be able to encapsulate the richness and the diversity of art practices, of contemporary art practices in the Philippines.
I noticed that some of the things in the Biennale intersect. Like with Ryan Villamael’s and Qiu Zhijie’s installation with the glass animals and fictional maps (“One Has to Wander through All the Outer Worlds to Reach the Innermost Shrine at the End”).
For me, it’s actually one of the really nice aspects of this Biennale. Some of the works might have a similar reference point and unsurprisingly a lot of them refer to maps. But it’s how the artist chooses to interpret it that helps us look at it differently. So you can see maybe Qiu Zhijie and Ryan’s on a very simple starting point, yes, they both refer to maps or even MAP Office’s mirrors. But you see how they are manifested and the end points are very different. With Qiu Zhijie you have a very big mural and all of these are kind of fictitious maps — make believe maps — and he’s also using the traditional Chinese ink painting because he is from China. What you have with Ryan is he’s referencing historical maps of the Philippines. And then very telling is a lot of these would have been European maps because the Spanish and the European powers were looking to colonize Asia. Ironically, these are European imaginings, European imaginings of Asia. Then of course what Ryan has done is how he’s cut into it and has made it into a different life form, which is like a plant that’s taking over. So as you see in the end even if the starting point might be similar, the manifestation is different, and in a way that makes us think quite differently.
For me, a lot of times, we all think we know what a map is. It’s such a ordinary object, we all have GPS, we all know what a map is. I think through encountering these works like that, maybe triggers or probes us to think a little bit deeper, about what some of these things are, or really, what are maps? Who draws the maps? When was this map [made]? Maps, in a way, are kind of reality, and then you ask whose reality is it? I think that’s what they do. Because they show different points of view or how the artist used the material differently, it makes us think about them in a different way.
Viewing all these works from five different artists from the Philippines, do you think there’s something that unites them thematically aside from fitting in the theme of the Biennale?
I would say the sense of history and culture is very strong. [These are] themes and interests that course through the works of the artists here. I think [there’s] an interest [on] what’s happening with marginalized or communities that have been disenfranchised. So, for example, with Dex’s work and also with Gregory’s work, because he’s working with people that live in coastal communities. History is also a big part of it. We see with Ryan’s work, and then also with Patty’s, she’s going into the history of what nature is like, because she goes with this particular orchid. It’s actually endangered in Palawan now and maybe you could find it more commonly before, and that’s not so much the case anymore.
Was there something you discovered along the way working with these artists in the context of how they are side by side with artists from Malaysia, from Indonesia?
I think for a lot of times, we see a lot of works from Southeast Asia, the issues of history are very important and also the sense of connection with one another. Sometimes the artists also tell the stories of other people and kind of bring the experience alive for other people as well. Material and medium are also very important. We see that material carries a lot of meaning with a lot of artists in Southeast Asia. Works that use buffalo skin, maybe like clay, or with wood that comes from jackfruit — not just any wood — and like with Gregory [he used] mother of pearl. So, again material seems to hold a special importance with a lot of works that we see in Southeast Asian artists.
The Singapore Biennale runs from October 27, 2016 to February 26, 2017. Visit the website for more details.