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Nominated for the Benesse Prize, Chinese artist Qiu Zhijie combines his study of history, cartography and philosophy to create new worlds and territories, as well as mythical animals in glass (above).

Indonesian artist Titarubi conjures sinister figures wearing cloaks of gold-plated nutmegs standing atop ships to recall the long and bloody history of the nutmeg trade that lasted centuries (above).

Singapore artist Fyerool Darma created a plinth with no bust, and only the inscription of Sultan Hussein Mua'zzam Shah, to address our historical amnesia (above).

A detail of a miniature painting by Pakistan's Adeela Suleman, who subverts the centuries-old tradition of illustrating courtly scenes to depict images of brutality instead (above).

Nobuaki Takekawa tackles Japan's involvement in World War II with a work that mixes cartoonish Japanese folklore images with unsettling war icons such as Adolf Hitler and a rocket (above).

Asia through art's lens

The country's biggest contemporary art show, the Singapore Biennale, returns with its most coherent vision yet.
Oct 28, 2016 5:50 AM

THERE are old ghosts haunting the various spaces of the just-opened Singapore Biennale. Grief and pathos run through many of the works by 63 artists and art collectives hailing from 19 countries and territories of Asia. Death, destruction, bloodshed, wars and forgotten histories reverberate across centuries and borders to arrive belatedly at the country's biggest contemporary art show.

The fifth Singapore Biennale is titled Atlas of Mirrors, and begins with the question of where we come from and how we see the world. With Susie Lingham and her team of nine curators, many of the selected artists have taken the opportunity to address the region's history of wars and colonialism from the view of the conquered or the conqueror. Other artists choose to highlight the social and political conflicts troubling their countries today.

But, on the whole, the fifth Biennale, commissioned by the National Arts Council and organised by the Singapore Art Museum, may be the most coherent and compelling edition yet.

Perhaps no work addresses the issues of history and conflict more potently than Indonesian artist Titarubi's eerie installation History Repeats Itself: three ominous figures wearing robes made of gold-plated nutmegs stand atop miniature ships. Nutmeg, indigenous to Indonesia, was once more prized than gold because of its taste and supposed medicinal properties. The Europeans, the Arabs, the Indians and others have fought over it. In 1621, the Dutch even massacred the people of the nutmeg-producing Banda Islands in Indonesia to control the nutmeg trade. Titarubi brings into view a dark slice of her country's history that so many have forgotten.

In another work by Pakistani artist Adeela Suleman, miniature paintings on ceramic plates in the style of Persian and Mughal traditions depict killings, decapitated bodies and rivers of blood instead of the usual images of courtly scenes. She subverts the revered centuries-old tradition to bring attention to contemporary wars and conflicts that riddle the globe.

Meanwhile, in roomful of paintings and installations, Nobuaki Takekawa confront Japan's violent past. Echoing the notorious manner in which Japanese history lessons in schools leave out crucial details of the country's involvement in World War II, Takekawa blunts the facts by mixing cartoonish Japanese folklore images with unsettling war icons such as Adolf Hitler and a rocket.

If his work is arch, other works depicts visions of chaos and destruction more startlingly - such as Singapore artist Han Sai Por's massive Black Forest filled with blackened pieces of wood and charcoal, or Thai artist Pannaphan Yodmanee's Aftermath made of large concrete debris heaped on miniature stupas.

Among the most compelling Singaporean works is Fyerool Darma's The Most Mild Mannered Men which places two plinths across from each other. One holds the bust of Stamford Raffles, the other is empty with only the name, birth and death dates of Sultan Hussein Mua'zzam Shah. Both men played important roles in the founding [5]of modern Singapore - Sultan Hussein signed two treaties with Britain which culminated in Singapore's founding. However, only one man is celebrated by history, and the other man is ignored. Like many other artists in the Biennale, Fyerool wants to address our cultural and historical amnesia.

One of the most important new developments for the Biennale is the debut of the prestigious Benesse Art Prize. For the past 10 editions, the prize was awarded to artists at the Venice Biennale. But for its 11th edition, the prize will be given out to an artist at the Singapore Biennale.

Billionaire Soichiro Fukutake of Japan's Benesse Holdings feels that contemporary Asian art has come into its own and deserves due recognition. The award comes with a cash prize of three million yen (S$40,000), and the five nominees are Thailand's Yodmanee, Martha Atienza from the Philippines, Bui Cong Khanh from Vietnam, Ade Darmawan from Indonesia and Qiu Zhijie from China.

  • The Singapore Biennale runs from now till Feb 26, 2017, at the Singapore Art Museum and SAM at 8Q, with some exhibits at the National Museum of Singapore & Stamford Green, Peranakan Museum, Asian Civilizations Museum, Singapore Management University and The Arts House