It is not surprising that an artwork could suggest a metaphor for the global explosion of biennales. Korean-American Michael Joo’s prize winning work Bodhi Obfuscatus (Space-Baby) (2005) at the 2006 Gwanju Biennial is a case in point. A gold-painted Buddhist statue sits in a darkened room surrounded by a latticed grid of webcams; surrounding this, mirrors and flat screen TVs mounted on poles refract and reflect the images relayed by the tiny cameras’, but what the viewer sees is indistinct. Fragmented views of the statue’s face glow with the sickly green hue typical of real time images when transmitted on the Internet. If Joo makes the somewhat obvious point that the web redefines our experience of time and place, he also encapsulates an idea about the biennale phenomenon: cultural translations are often murky but the mechanisms of their transmission remain the lingua franca of globalism today.
This is true of modern communications technologies and the biennial format, use of the former sometimes being the best way to standardized an artwork in the international style. There is a kind of depersonalized universalism inherent to professionalised art practice that allows for the expression of local concerns. As in Joo’s work, the meeting of East and West, and past and present, was a central focus of the Gwanju Biennale. This was also true of its counterpart in Singapore; which by cross-promotional design had opened just prior to Gwanju, and which put forward a set of interests that were overall perhaps less coherent but more interesting for their relevance to the Asia-Pacific region.
If Gwanju was the stronger exhibition, it also was the more conventional, although this impression may simply be a reflection of its site. All the works in Gwanju were shown in one huge multileveled venue, whereasSingaporeused multiple locations, many of them places of worship, giving a greater sense that the show was knit into the fabric of the city. Gwanju also presented a higher proportion of artists known on the international circuit. The Incidental Self II (2006) by the collaborative duo Elmgreen and Dragset featured hundreds of small framed photographs all in some way referring to the gay lifestyle. Tepid and banal, this commissioned work was also presumably not intended for jaded Western eyes as its primary audience. The Italian Monica Bonvicini offered What Does Your Wife/Girlfriend think of your Rough Dry Hands? an ongoing project consisting of a questionnaire the artist has been conducting with construction workers in various cities and languages since 1999. Presenting the hand-scribbled answers in rows papered along a corridor, the work looks at preconceptions about gender. Like that of Elmgreen and Dragset, it has a domestic scale that is appropriate to its sociological conceit; inadvertently, however, this exposes the slightness of Western preoccupations – and specifically identity politics – when compared to the weight of issues informing works by their colleagues in the East. Chen Cheieh-Jen’s spectacular and disturbing Lingchi: Echoes of a Historical Photograph (2002) is a multi-screen reconstruction of an archival photo from the early 1900s. Using the techniques of cinema and the actual photograph it elaborates a scenario of extreme cruelty: execution by mutilation. The rhetorical devices of film mean that you infer the violence more than you see it. Balancing the aestheticisation of the act with its analysis, the artist provokes a range of questions, not least the intrinsic connection between visual representation and power. On an outdoor walkway between the two sides of the Biennale building, viewers of Jun Nguyen-Hatsushiba’s Memorial Project Waterfield: The Story of the Stars (2005-2006) look down one level onto a field of 26,000 empty water bottles. Working in this area, which is likened by the artist to a “prison courtyard”, white clad performers drink water from tanks strapped to their backs and then release it when they can into the plastic bottles. Their urine becomes the paint of the picture plane, the bottles being slowly accumulated and arranged into the yellow stars of the Vietnamese flag. The performers looking like nothing so much as labourers in a rice field, the artist suggests that the colonial struggles of his country continue: the containers of their body fluids bear the labels of the bottled-water brands Aquafina and Desani, subsidiaries of Pepsi Co. and Coca Cola, respectively.
Artworks inSingapore’s first Biennale also focus on a globalism that beats a path to your door. As with Nguyen-Hatsushiba’s work, global economic forces are identified with their most notorious ambassador; America’s influence is as large as the resentment it appears to inspire. In the large screen projection, The White House (2005), the Korean artist Joonho Jeon digitally animates an image of himself whitewashing out the windows of 2100 Pennsylvania Avenueas it appears on the back of the US 20 dollar bill. Like the strain of anti-Americanism running through both exhibitions, what the current US administration doesn’t know may be hurting them. In Shan Pipe Band Learns Star-Spangled Banner (2004), the Pakistani artist Bani Abidi tells melancholy a story on two screens. On one, the eponymous brass pipe band struggles to master the American anthem; on the other, one of their members gets dressed into a uniform with the red tunic and gold epaulettes of the country’s colonial past. The Chinese artist, Jianhua Liu powerfully expands on this theme to the point that it becomes not a specific but a universal indictment. Exhibited in a former Methodist Church, Dream (2005-2006) is a large-scale sculptural installation. Broken ceramic casts of consumer goods – such as computer keyboards, light bulbs, guns and toy airplanes – litter the floor in thousands of pieces. Seen from the perspective of a raised viewing platform, the fragments cohere into the image of a space shuttle – an elegant and harrowing expression of the idea of the catastrophe that is modernity itself.
Singapore is a city-state which is famous for its unusually high degree of social controls (e.g.: the no chewing gum edict, like decriminalized marijuana you can use it but its sale is against the law). It was a situation of unknown restrictions, against which the Biennale’s curators played a fascinating game of low-grade political provocation. Swedish duo Bigert and Bergstrom’s video work, The Last Supper (2005) looks at the American tradition of serving condemned men a last meal of their choice. A rather facile news-magazine type documentary, the work nonetheless made the ironic cruelties of the custom tangible. It also served to highlight the tensions inherent to the ambitions ofSingapore’s Biennale. A peacefully multicultural society,Singaporeis also known for its somewhat relaxed attitude to the death penalty. In this context, The Last Supper took on an added resonance, foregrounding other possible views on the topic than the one the country practices as a cultural norm. Although showing the work did not exactly constitute an incident of political dissent, its toleration shows how artworks can help to expand the realm of thought. Even if this toleration was in the name of what was speculated to be one of the Biennale’s larger goals, to create the impression of the liberal environment in advance of a conference of the IMF, its knock-on effects are still positive.
This text was originally published in C Magazine, #92.