Singapore's 'floating ship' conjures S-E Asian magic in Venice

The unthinkable happened at this year's Venice Biennale: The South-east Asians were upside down. The Indonesians were drab, the Filipinos uninspiring, the Thais merely all right, and the Singaporeans! Well, the Singaporeans were full of magic, mystery and beauty. What on earth was going on?

Every two years or so, for well over 100 years, Venice (or "La Serenissima") - the paradoxical city in a lagoon - hosts the world's largest art biennale. It is a vast smorgasbord with work from across the globe, divided into two main components.

First, there is an official exhibition selected and edited by a different curator with each outing. Housed in the Arsenale (that is, the Arsenal, what was once Venice's shipbuilding and armaments hub), the show extends over hundreds of hectares against a backdrop of raw concrete, iron and brick. It is worth bearing in mind that La Serenissima was an industrial power as early as the 1100s and that the city's lavishly decorated baroque palaces and churches were built on the back of a dynamic economy.

Second, there are the national pavilions - a large number of which are located in the Napoleonic-era Giardini gardens alongside the Arsenale. These pavilions - they are not galleries - are predominantly European, with a smattering of Latin American nations alongside the Japanese, Koreans and Australians.

The use of the word "pavilion" is critical: It suggests a three-dimensional space that should be filled or curated.

The Venice Biennale is not about shoving a few paintings up on the wall. A national pavilion has to be spectacular, immersive - literally a "Sensurround" experience.

In this respect, the German pavilion was a standout - presenting a disturbingly dystopian vision of modern life. Artist Anne Imhof installed temporary glass walls and floors within the pavilion, creating a strangely unnerving and disorientating environment where the barriers between the audience and the sports-leisure-wearing performers shifted continuously. As the action progressed, I begin to wonder whether I was merely a passive onlooker or an intrusive Peeping Tom.

Artist Zai Kuning's suspended ship - the hull of a 12m-long seagoing craft made from rattan and bound together with beeswax and red cord - evokes Singapore's trading roots and the shared Melayu-Riau heritage of its people, says the writer.
Artist Zai Kuning's suspended ship - the hull of a 12m-long seagoing craft made from rattan and bound together with beeswax and red cord - evokes Singapore's trading roots and the shared Melayu-Riau heritage of its people, says the writer. ST PHOTO: NABILAH SAID

Anyhow, quite apart from the Giardini, the national pavilions are dotted across the city - some of which are extremely moving. For example, both the Iraqis and Iranians had thought-provoking pavilions that stressed their respective nations' pre-Islamic traditions. So, what happened with the South-east Asians?

As noted, the Singapore pavilion was supremely elegant and yet enthralling: the hull of a 12m-long seagoing craft made from rattan and bound together with beeswax and red cord. Suspended from the ceiling, it evoked the city's trading roots (not unlike Venice's) as well as the shared Melayu-Riau heritage of its people. Created by the erratic but brilliant artist-cum-shaman Zai Kuning, the work is part of an extended personal exploration of Malay identity - digging back into the pre-Islamic Srivijaya roots with a supplementary theme of the Orang Laut (a group of maritime nomads) of the Riau archipelago as well as the mak yong (oral theatre) tradition.

By comparison, the Philippine and Indonesian offerings felt overwrought and contrived.

The references to nationalist icon and polymath Jose Rizal and South-east Asian historian Benedict Anderson, respectively, merely underlined the limitations of the work displayed.

Given the fact that Manila is currently the most exciting creative arts centre in the region, the tired presentation - a few paintings from Manuel Ocampo (his paintings from the 1990s are so much better than his current work) and some sub-Tracey Emin light-boxes - fell flat.

Having said that, a collateral event in the city (Zobel Contrapuntos) showcasing the late Filipino artist Fernando Zobel's work was infinitely more satisfying. Exquisitely curated, the exhibition captured the essence of this "binational" figure with his joint Spanish/Filipino roots as it explored his "controlled elaboration" of aesthetics.

Indonesian Tintin Wulia's work was ambitious and intriguing - projecting the bloody events of 1965 onto an imagined future. However, the execution was pedestrian and dull.

The Thai pavilion by respected artist Somboon Hormthiethong was a wry and slightly tongue-in-cheek celebration of Bangkok - a juxtaposition of celadon ceramics and plastic stools. While enjoyable, it lacked depth.

By comparison, Singapore's Zai mastered "his" pavilion - his space. He created an art form - his floating ship - that transformed a barren concrete godown, evoking a sense of adventure and the allure of the Nusantara, or archipelago. The Filipinos and the Indonesians lacked Zai's raw brilliance.

Wandering around the national pavilions in Giardini and elsewhere, I also realised that this year - the first Biennale post-Brexit and post-Donald Trump - the nation-state was making a dramatic comeback.

Liberal observers such as myself have been consumed by the dream of a borderless world. The elites have benefited from globalisation and profits have benefited the wealthy, leaving ordinary men and women bereft.

Well, over the past 18 months, with demagogues and charlatans like Mr Trump and Britain's Boris Johnson leading the charge, we have rediscovered the powerful allure of our smaller, national and often tribal domains.

What does that mean in terms of art? Well, art production has to be rooted in the human experience, and that experience must have a distinct locale.

Works by artists such as Damien Hirst - also showing in Venice - belong precisely nowhere.

For all his monetary success, Hirst is the artistic equivalent of a tax haven lawyer: flashy, amoral and rootless.

His shamelessly trashy output clogged the hushed galleries of LVMH luxury conglomerate owner Bernard Arnault's private museums in the city. It was a perfect match: The man who makes handbags for the international elite now showcasing rubbish masquerading as art.

In contrast, when art production has deep roots both intellectually and aesthetically, it can soar. Moreover, art that engages with the real world has relevance and resonance.

Consider the American pavilion and its gay, black artist Mark Bradford, who turned his tableau into a commentary on a nation at war with itself. He locked and bolted the front door, forcing visitors to enter through the side. The ceiling of the hallway was encrusted with yellow muck that seemed to be proliferating.

It was nauseous and foul.

•Karim Raslan is a South-east Asia commentator and founder and chief executive of the KRA Group, a public affairs consulting firm with an Asean-wide focus. This is the latest instalment of his long-running Ceritalah column.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 19, 2017, with the headline 'Singapore's 'floating ship' conjures S-E Asian magic in Venice'. Print Edition | Subscribe