IN the art world, biennales have become something of a competitive sport among global cities. Who can showcase the most challenging, jaw-dropping art? Who can secure the biggest, most exciting artists? Who can draw the highest number of visitors?
The top biennales and triennales of the world such as Venice and Lyon are not short on big names such as Ai Wei Wei, Jeff Koons or Cindy Sherman. In fact, when the Singapore Biennale debuted in 2006, it also paid good money to attract big names such as Yayoi Kusama, Mariko Mori and Jenny Holzer.
But for the fourth Singapore Biennale that opens tomorrow, a team of 27 curators led by former Singapore Art Museum director Tan Boon Hui have employed a strategy to make the art event stand out from the crowd.
For the first time, the event is focusing solely on South-east Asian art - a narrow approach that goes against the grain of big, international biennales.
Nearly all of its 80 artists are drawn from around the South-east Asian region, with some being complete unknowns. Many names are likely to make seasoned biennale visitors scratch their heads: Marisa Darasavath? Talaandig artists? Eko Prawoto? Do you mean Eko Nugroho? No?
This biennale is likely to divide art lovers down the middle. Critics and naysayers might label it "provincial" and "uninternational" - perhaps even "rural-looking". But others may argue that this year's Biennale looks more distinct than it ever has since it started in 2006. As some observers remarked during the preview yesterday, the Biennale actually "looks Asian" - if previous editions did not.
The event's biggest names such as Nasirun, Khvay Samnang and Leslie De Chavez are nowhere near as big as Kusama, Mori or Holzer. But the strength and relevance of several artworks certainly make one wonder how much of South-east Asian art has been overlooked by the international art circuit.
Whether international art lovers will flock to a biennale so regional in its perspective and so lacking in international names remains to be seen.
But for his part, Mr Tan is certain that this is the way to go. He says: "We looked at the lists of artists in top biennales like Venice, Sao Paolo and Gwangjju. And we found that some 75 per cent of the artists have already appeared in other biennales - a figure that is also true of the last three Singapore Biennales.
"So when we set out to create this Biennale, we looked for artists no one had seen or heard of before. We looked for curators who had a deep knowledge of their local scenes. We wanted to know what we didn't know - that was our starting point.
"Most of the artists in this Biennale have not been shown at any other biennale. We believe in the art of our region. We thought, if we don't, who would?"
The biennale's tagline If The World Changed suggests environmental change and loss of traditions. Many of the artists have responded with works that draw on their traditional arts, religious beliefs, agricultural practices and environmental concerns.
From the giant seed sculptures of Zulkifli Yusoff to the large bamboo bonsai by Francois Roche, several works celebrate nature's bounty. From Oscar Villamiel's room-sized recreation of a dumping ground, to Ken and Julia Yonetani's uranium glass chandeliers that represent nuclear threat, there is also a plea to respect and protect the earth.
Among the surprises are a "soil painting" by Talaandig artists who hail from the Mindanao region in the Philippines. These artists use 14 shades of light and dark clay to paint on canvas. Their large-scale figurative painting depicting their village undergoing transition as development encroaches on their traditional way of life.
Other strong works include Leslie De Chavez's stunning painting of life on a landfill, Nasirun's 1,000 glass tubes filled with wayang kulit characters that serve as a commentary on television, and Boo Junfeng's mock music video celebrating 50 imagined years of Singapore's union with Malaya.
There are, of course, some weak and mediocre works that make one wonder if they really have a place in the premier art event. The works of Marisa Darasavath, for instance, are candy-coloured, semi-abstract canvases depicting Laotian village life - paintings that seem more suited for a popular art fair than a biennale.
But Khairuddin Hori, one of the 27 curators in the team, says: "It's important to understand that we were judging the art by the prevailing artistic standards of the country from which the artist came. . . In Marisa's case, her technique and vision surpass that of the prevailing standards of Laotian art."
Likewise, Jainal Amambing's simple evocations of longhouse life in Borneo might also strike some as unsophisticated because of their bright palettes and caricaturish figures.
But Yee I-lan, the artist-curator in the Biennale's curatorial team, says this is the first time artists in Borneo have had their works shown on such an international platform - a statement that suggests concessions should be made.
During the press conference yesterday, members of the international press asked if the Biennale's regional focus betrays the very definition of what biennales should be - big, rousing international events featuring the best in global contemporary art.
But Mr Tan says: "Even if almost all of its artists are based in the region, the point of this Biennale is that it is not limited by the region. If we accept that all contemporary art is international, then all the trajectories of global contemporary art - whatever that may be - will also manifest."
The Singapore Biennale takes place at the Singapore Art Museum, the National Museum, SAM at 8Q and other locations within the vicinity. From tomorrow until Feb 16, 2014.