Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Letter from Singapore and Shanghai

Dear friends:
I just visited Singapore, where the 6th Singapore Biennale is being held. The Biennale, curated by Japanese curator Fumio Nanjo (director of the Mori Museum in Tokyo) for the second time, was hosted in three main venues, with other projects also located on alternative sites. Here’s a link to the official website:
And to Universes in Universe coverage of the Biennale:

The 2008 Biennale is based on the concept of “wonder”, both in its demand for amazement and for questioning. The theme lent itself to a rather simplistic approach to the selection of works, all of which had, for the most part, some kind of spectacular or gimmicky character. Many pieces moved one to ask “how did he do it”? Large-scale, labor-intensive works coexisted with works that invariably had a trick, but all of them were intended to awe you in some way. For example, Zhan Wang’s Stone To Fill the Sky features a vitrine with a hovering silver rock that defies gravity; Marielle Neudecker’s piece is a striking model of a mountain range in a water-filled glass case with milky water that suggests clouds; Jane Lee’s impressive large-scale tapestry-like painting was done directly on the wall with paint flowing from a tube; Lee Yong Deok made bas-relief paintings,that appear convex to the eye if viewed from the right direction and thus seem to move as the viewer approaches them; Sergio Prego’s video is of a firework-induced cloud of smoke that was photographed simultaneously from all sides by an array of cameras, resulting in a video with a continuous shot around the cloud that allows the viewer to experience it in a quasi-sculptural manner; or Leandro Erlich’s twin barbershop rooms, one the exact reflection of the other, trick the eye into thinking that one of them is merely a reflection on a mirror. This quality of trickery made the event read very much as an archetypal Biennial: a theme-based, well-funded, cultural-tourism-driven event composed of spectacular rather than meaningful works. However, even despite this catering to tourism, the Biennale included many interesting artists.

Among the most beautiful works were Ben David Zadok’s Blackfield, a field of plants and flowers etched out of metal, inserted one by one on a sand carpet. The motifs for the plants were taken from 19th-century botanical illustrations, multi-colored on one side and completely black on the other. The resulting effect caused the viewer to witnesses the “field of flowers” as it came to life or died out, depending on which side he or she approached the work from.

Another work that interested me was the one by Indonesian collective Tromarama’s Serigali Militia, a fast-paced music video done entirely with woodcuts that were animated with the traditional step-frame method. Visually it was very effective, and the raw quality of the woodcuts reinforced the band’s punk attitude. The video showed various steps in the carving of the wood, and, as the image developed and morphed into something else, the viewer witnessed the carving of the wood incorporated in the video, which in terms of process was very engaging and self-reflective.

Joselina Cruz, on eof the co-curators, comments on this work in universes-in-universe, the leading website for the often-overseen art from Latin America, Africa and Asia-Pacific. It can be found on this link (there is even a snippet of the video):


Also, on Tromarama’s blog, there are some images of the process of turning a live performance into frames that were then carved one by one and then animated:


Scroll down to: Behind the Scenes Serigala Militia.

While in Singapore I visited the world-famous Singapore Tyler Print Institute (SITP), a veritable cultural center devoted to the print medium, which was conceived by the American master printer Kenneth Tyler, who for more than 40 years collaborated with artists such as Josef Albers, Anthony Caro, Helen Frankenthaler, David Hockney, Jasper Johns, Roy Lichtenstein, Robert Motherwell, James Rosenquist, Frank Stella and Donald Sultan. I saw Sema Upadhyay‘s exhibition there, which featured large-scale prints in mixed media, often incorporating sculptural elements like Chinese wooden puzzles. Here is the link to the STPI site:

The STPI also hosts a residency program. The current resident was Japanese artist Tabaimo, whose work was prominently displayed at the last Venice Biennale.
Tabaimo is known for her references to Japanese Manga culture, which are often displayed as animations on video installations:


She was working on several projects at the STPI, most of which involved collaborating with the Institute’s two main strengths: etchings and paper-making. Tabaimo’s drawings of different types of insects were printed in lithography on a gossamer vellum-type paper, which were then incorporated in a single sheet in alternating layers: printed vellum, paper pulp, another printed paper, another layer of pulp, etc. With the paper still damp, Tabaimo proceeded to cut “windows” on the paper, thus revealing motifs hidden under the paper pulp. The results were large-scale prints with round “potholes” that reveal fragments of insects, delicate and poetic, yet powerful and visually striking.

From Singapore I traveled to Shanghai, to visit the 7th Shanghai Biennale. The Biennale was curated by a team composed of Zhang Qing, Julian Heynen and Henk Slager.

Here’s a link to the official website:

And to UIU’s coverage:

Like the Singapore Biennale, the Shanghai Biennale had a distinctive title and theme: Translocalmotion, which demands a sense of migration in the featured works. But, unlike in the Biennale in Singapore where the works themselves were strong and varied, in Shanghai it was difficult to find truly engaging pieces because most of them tended to be subsumed in the illustration of the all-encompassing thematic premise of mobility and migration. There were many videos that tracked the experience of migrants in different contexts around the world. Other works showed different aspects of displaced cultural groups clinging to tradition as a way to maintain a connection with their homeland. The wall texts tended to give a reductive view of the works by attempting to tie them too tightly to the curatorial premise. They lead so often into the same argument that in most cases any given text would have worked equally well for any given work of art.

Among the works that I found most interesting was media theoretician and artist Harun Farocki’s video on immigration, a fast-paced slide-show narration done entirely with ideograms and charts taken from German official documents.

Two other videos also based on graphic illustrations were visually and conceptually interesting. The first one was Bu Hua‘s Savage Growth, an animation whose aesthetics reference woodblock-printed children’s books; the other is Huang Hsin-Chien’s Shanghai, Shall We Dance?, a three-screen video interactive installation in which the viewer feels completely immersed. The animation reacts to the viewer’s movements, mimmicking the viewer’s shadow with computer-generated images of buildings. It thus comments on the rapid urban development of China through this flowing dance of images.

The Biennial was full of young people on a Sunday morning, and in this sense, it seems to be capable of fulfilling its role of creating a new audience for art. The “pièce de résistance” was Yue Minjun’s impressive cavalcade of dinosaurs, which referenced the famous display at the Museum of Natural History in Paris. Each one of the dinosaurs had a human head that boasted Yue‘s signature grinning smile, and could be interpreted as an ironical commentary on China’s happy and relentless “evolution” towards globalization. Take cover: the dinosaur is waking up…

José Roca.

1 comment:

serenella said...

How wonderful to be able to read about your travels and feel like I'm there looking "over your shoulder" - mucho exito! The work looks outstanding and I'm grateful for your detailed descriptions and images, etc. The Serigali Militia Indonesian project by the Tromarama collective is precisely the kind of intense and effervescent work I encountered traveling in Java between Bandung, Jakarta, and Jogjakarta. Its raw and sort of "in your face" style is very popular among the younger generation of Indonesian artists and typical of their (re)interpretation of the punk ethos. I wish I could actually see the length of Harun Farocki's video...his work has always been provocative and his style is unprecedented! My favorite introductory piece on him is: http://www.sensesofcinema.com/contents/02/21/farocki_intro.html
by the co-editor of "the book" on the artist/theoretician by Thomas Elsaesser and Farocki himself. And finally, Tabaimo! Her unique spin on the more "traditional" manga format certainly puts into question exactly what the roots of the tradition are/may be. Wonderful work Jose - can't wait to read more about your experiences and travels. I recently had the luck of meeting Okui Enwezor at a brilliant lecture in which he presented the 21st century as "The Asian Century" and my my do I have to agree...the dinosaur has indeed awakened - and it spread its wings to reveal its true identity as a dragon! Con aprecio - Anabelle