My heart always swells with pride whenever our island nation is mentioned in the international arena — especially on the arts front — and the Singapore Biennale, returning for the fifth time in October, 2016, is the single best product to come out of this little red dot. Prepacked bak kut teh and chicken rice notwithstanding.

The past few Singapore Biennales have left us with many memorable pieces. Who can forget Tatzu Nishi’s Merlion Hotel, and bask in the voyeuristic gaze of the Merlion for those lucky — or unlucky guests — who spent a night there? Or the educational-but-never-preachy All Lines Flow Out from Charles Lim?

Even though this edition, themed An Atlas of Mirrors”, is more than seven months away, a fair bit of buzz has already been generated, with the announcement of the first 10 participating artists. Among them are Cultural Medallion winner, Han Sai Por and rising star Fyerool Darma, who are the oldest and youngest participants this edition, at 73 and 29 years old respectively.

Arts heroine, Han, is still churning out breathtaking works in her seventies. Her collaboration with the Singapore Tyler Print Institute in 2013 was dubbed as “breakthrough”, as she delved deeper into her unbridled obsession with nature, but this time, letting go of the pre-existing medium she’s comfortable with (i.e. stone/marble) and played with highly textured paper pulp.

20 Tonnes by Han Sai Por

20 Tonnes by Han Sai Por

Best known for large-scale works in hard, unyielding materials, such as 20 Tonnes and Art Tree, the petite lady makes an 180-degree about turn and uses flimsy paper to reinterpret her Seed and Flora Series.

Penetration by Han Sai Por

Penetration by Han Sai Por

Tan Siuli, head curator of SAM and a member of the Singapore Biennale 2016 10-member curatorial team, is drawn to the portraits in Darma’s “Moyang” (meaning “Ancestor”) exhibition:

“This body of work delved into the (forgotten) histories and narratives of the Malay Archipelago, and I am interested to see how Fyerool will further his explorations in this area for his SB2016 commission.”

We were keen to know what the direction of the SB2016 is, and how it would differ and set itself apart from the previous biennales.

“While past editions introduced contemporary art with a more ‘international’ tenor to audiences here, I think there is now more interest in the art coming out of this region. Singapore Biennale 2013 took on a new direction with its focus on Southeast Asian art, and Singapore Biennale 2016 will build on that by looking at the relationships and shared narratives between Southeast Asia and Asia.”

On what can be done to further advance the visual arts culture in Singapore, Tan believes grounds-up initiatives and private patronage are key. An idea enmeshed in the art renaissance of the past, our neighbours such as Indonesia still embrace the concept of patrons who commission artists to produce works. This allows artists to have a relatively steadier flow of income, which affords them the breathing space to continuously produce brilliant works without having to worry about basic needs.

“If we saw more of these independent efforts in Singapore, the art scene might be a little livelier, and develop in interesting and unexpected directions!”

Tan notes that the local art scene has come a long way in the last decade. Now, she sees packed museums during weekends and fresh graduates enthusiastically inquiring on how they, too, may become a curator. She believes education and being more involved with our neighbours are crucial in developing our very own artistic identity, “Singapore has made huge strides in establishing the necessary infrastructure for a well-rounded art ‘ecosystem’. What needs to continue is continuous investment in art education, and the institutions that play a role in cultivating the artists, art audiences and patrons of the future. We must be doing something right there.

“A lot of creative exchange can happen — for now it’s only happening in incidental pockets. A concerted effort to engage in dialogue and creative exchange with the art scenes in Southeast Asia may yield insights into our own, and open up new avenues for development.”

We couldn’t agree more.


The Singapore Biennale will take place between 27 October 2016 and 26 February 2017.