Constant Craving

February 1, 2022
• Singapore

OVER MIDNIGHT HOTPOT, artist Ming Wong, curator Kenji Praepipatmongkol, and I pored over the hefty catalogue for Singapore Art Week (SAW) 2022, which earlier this month boasted a staggering 130-plus virtual and in-person events, the most in its decade-long history. This year’s off-kilter mascot—blue googly eyes against a yellow background, reminiscent of the Cookie Monster—was true to its slogan: “Art Takes Over.” The sheer volume of events seemed to suggest Singapore’s ravenous appetite for art.

For the second year in a row, the Tanjong Pagar Distripark, a shipping-port/warehouse-turned-art-nucleus, played host to SAW’s flagship art fair, S.E.A. Focus, and a mixed bag of exhibitions organized by gallery tenants and independent curators. But its undeniable attraction was the inauguration of the Singapore Art Museum’s (SAM) new venue, under renovation since last year, now refurbished with air-conditioned white cubes that offer a stark contrast with the Distripark’s industrial premises.

In a room given over to Korakrit Arunanondchai’s cultish video installation Painting with history in a room filled with people with funny names 3, 2015, visitors lolled on the artist’s signature bleached denim pillows, mesmerized by a strobing video which fused found footage of new-age Buddhist movements and Nāga sightings with a rousing musical performance, led by the artist, of peers and pundits anthemically chanting his Thai gallery’s name. Accompanying the video was a ceiling-high sculpture sprouting artificial greenery, charred mannequins, electronic waste, and other paraphernalia that was salvaged from the work’s previous international iterations.

Conceptually resonant was “Refuse,” a solo exhibition of music and mushrooms by the beloved homegrown experimental rock band The Observatory. Guest curator Tang Fu Kuen described how an algorithm monitored the growth of a mycelium as it decomposed dead organic matter in petri dishes scattered across custom-built, sprawling wooden structures, converting this data into sonic compositions which were then broadcast live. The exhibition staged a cybernetic system. Likewise, in the museum’s astute and self-reflexive move to place its residency studios within its administrative offices, visitors became privy to the day-to-day negotiations and labor required to sustain artistic exchange.

Like the rest of the world, SAW tackled the acronym on everyone’s lips: NFT, prominently (and at times gratuitously) featured in exhibitions, artworks, and panel discussions. Amid the week’s relative absence of critical discourse around the social harms of new technologies, “My Desire to Consume,” an exhibition of digital images, video, and code at the artist-run space Grey Projects, was opportune. Visitors could simulate “trades” of the exhibited works by scanning QR codes, at which point the artworks were fed through Enzyme 1.0, 2022, a program developed by artists Jo Ho and Kapilan Naidu that “digested” their pixels, disappearing them completely. In the exhibition text, Kathleen Ditzig framed the exhibition as a critical commentary on the “speculation that has defined the post-Covid rise of digital art.”

Equally topical was Fyerool Darma’s superlative exhibition of “screenshot culture,” or, as Ditzig described it, “post-Internet in Southeast Asia.” Central to the exhibition were eight textiles, handwoven by the artist and displayed in special frames made from fiber-optic cables, which were placed against a backdrop of digital debris: amplified and cut-out screenshots of games, news articles, and stock images from the artist’s online perambulations. Fyerool’s weavings are intentionally futile and imprecise exercises in recreating these digital images in analog form; his labors are evident in a disordered vitrine, the first thing visitors see, bearing his loom and rubbish from the exhibition’s production.

One scorching day at Gillman Barracks, I overheard customary whispers that the gallery cluster might soon be abandoned, its grandiose and well-attended initiation a decade ago now a fading memory. One of the Barracks’ now-empty gallery spaces played host to a press preview of the Singapore Pavilion for this year’s Venice Biennale: a presentation of work by Shubigi Rao curated by Ute Meta Bauer. Set amid an all-enveloping digital culture, the exhibition will foreground the medium of paper via copies of Rao’s new book, Pulp Vol. III: A Short Biography of The Banished Book, placed within a “less wasteful” and “reusable” paper maze structure. This year’s edition of SAW, arguably the most ambitious to date, included many well-intentioned projects that espoused sustainability and care for the self and the environment, but not without alluding to their imminent collapse and fatigue. Art has certainly taken over Singapore, but what will its reign promise?

— Wong Bing Hao