by TERENCE REPELENTE
Images by SEE KIAN WEE
“It may be said that the world is troubled,” Filipino art historian Patrick Flores writes at the beginning of his statement as the artistic director of the Singapore Biennale 2019 (SB2019). Returning for its sixth edition, the Biennale once again unleashes a plethora of works, performances, talks, and activities, featuring 77 artists and art collectives from 36 countries and territories.
Unlike other biennales and other traditional exhibitions, however, Patrick insists that SB2019, titled “Every Step in the Right Direction,” does not have a theme. “I was moving away from the default practices of biennale-making, one of which is having a theme. I resisted the temptation to thematize,” he says, adding that the title, “Every Step in the Right Direction,” is not a theme.
The progressively-optimistic title is lifted from an interview of Salud Algabre, a revolutionary woman in the ‘30s, during the American period in the Philippines. “They were fighting for sovereignty, freedom, and land. It was a colonial moment. An instance of resistance against the Americans,” Patrick says. The revolutionary movement he refers to was called the Sakdal Uprising, which eventually failed and was quickly extinguished. “The uprising didn’t actually work, in the conventional sense. They weren’t able to seize power from the Americans,” he says. “Years later, in the ‘60s, Salud was interviewed by a historian who asked her, ‘where did you go when the revolution failed?’ And she was quick to rectify: ‘No uprising fails, each one is a step in the right direction.’”
SB2019 shows us our present condition. It is a survey of events that have unfolded and continue to unfold around us. Designed as a sort of “festival-seminar,” making use of reflective, archival, and research-oriented works, it depicts, through multiplicities that move and flow in different directions and intensities, the pressing concerns and anxieties that plague our societies in a deteriorating world under capitalism.
Zakaria Omar’s Fossils of Shame: The Pillars is one such example of a work that directly tackles these distresses. He sculpts driftwood that are originally from stilt houses in Bandar Seri Begawan’s Kampung Ayer (water village), which was demolished to make way for the construction of a waterfront lifestyle attraction, resulting to the displacement of its villagers. Omar himself reclaimed the timber pylons from the banks of Brunei River, recreating them into totems that eerily illustrates the horrors of development aggression and the hunger of capital to devour everything in its wake.
Filipino freelance curator Renan Laru-an, who is part of the young team of curators for the Biennale, agrees with Patrick that a unifying theme would’ve foreclosed certain possibilities, and, as the art director would say, a theme tends to capture rather than release. For Renan, the SB2019 feels as if you are looking at fragments and how these fragments come together for the audience, for the individual viewer.
Aside from the overall curatorial work, Renan initiated “The Mamitua Saber Project,” which is a para-curatorial project that include three emerging artists and collectives from Asia—the all-female Food Study Group, the trans-regional anonymous collective ** Propaganda Department, and Filipino artist Mark Sanchez. The para-curatorial project reimagines and engages with the legacy, practice, and scholarship of Dr. Mamitua Saber, a Mindanaoan intellectual, who, according to Renan, was a crucial figure in the development of the cultural life of Mindanao and the Philippines in the 1960s. “Dr. Saber’s contributions as an intellectual prove that Mindanao is and has always been a horizon of imagination,” he says. “This is in contrast with the kind of portrayal of ‘lack’ in the island.”
In his work, From Where Labor Blooms, Mark adapts one of Dr. Saber’s famous concepts, the construction of a “Marginal Leader.” The artist superimposes this theoretical framework against the existing political and social contingencies within the Philippine context. While doing annotations on the diagram, he realized that the model also works on the dynamics and contradictions between two forces or interests. “And that Saber’s concept problematizes the contradiction between a minority and the hegemony,” he says.
“The peasant class is a marginalized majority. Seventy-five percent of the population belongs to the peasant class in a country that is agricultural in its economic base. But being a farmer here means having to live landless and with one of the lowest average annual wage,” Mark says. “The GDP from the agricultural sector is in steady decline despite a productive export industry. Agriculture is the ground from which other sectors and industry stand on. If it is in crisis, it will definitely bring with it conflict and contradictions.”
With this concept of tracing the gap between the government and the peasant class, Mark reconstructs Dr. Saber’s diagram using a swarm of meticulously-collected data, texts, images, news articles, video installations, historical references, and books, where several manifestations of crises branch out, ultimately forming the layout of the entire installation. Finally, he puts a face on the “Marginal Leader,” by showing video interviews of peasant leaders such as Rafel Mariano and Pj Dizon talking about their practice and experiences.
“The process is guided by the reading of the Philippine society as still a semi-feudal and semi-colonial society,” he says. “It is also informed by the things I’ve learned and experienced as being part of an artist alliance pushing for agrarian reforms.”
At the very heart of Mark’s installation, under the “Semi-colonial and Semi-feudal” section, there is a photograph that shows another artwork. A parasitical intervention piece done by Panday Sining, which is a national democratic artist collective that recently gained attention for “vandalizing” a Manila underpass with spray-painted messages that touch on different issues such as fascism, militarization, national minimum wage, and—like the revolutionary Sakdalista Algabre—national sovereignty. The photograph in Mark’s installation shows a piece of plywood, slyly installed in a random Manila street, which has “Hindi ka malaya, mahaba lang ang tanikala (You are not free, the chains are just longer)” written on it using red paint. It is quite interesting that this miniscule of a piece is somehow placed within a larger nexus of ideas and moving assemblages that is the Singapore Biennale 2019. A biennale that hopes to start a collective reflection on our contemporary condition—the chains that bind us—through the transformative potential of art. A biennale of fresh possibilities and new imaginings. A biennale that invites everyone, artists and the audience, to move and take a step forward, however big or small, to the right direction, wherever that is and wherever it takes us. After all, as the Polish Marxist Rosa Luxemburg, another revolutionary woman like Algabre, would say: “Those who do not move, do not notice their chains.”
“The Singapore Biennale 2019: Every Step in the Right Direction” runs until Mar. 22. | singaporebiennale.org