Event Recap | Down the Grand Canal

Watch the entire talk here:

Down the Grand Canal
By Fiona Tan
Year 4, History Major

The fourth installment of the Curating Nation Talk Series brings us back to home, with June Yap providing both a broad overview of the Venice Biennales and Singapore’s participation, as well as her personal insights and reflections of her involvement curating Ho Tzu Nyen’s The Cloud of Knowing at the 54th Venice Biennale in 2011.

Yap’s presentation was also the first in the Series to discuss exhibitions of the nation to an international audience, not simply a national one. The Venice Biennales, which allowed for self-determined exhibitions by the participating nations, provided a platform in which the nation is already given, naturally making curating nation a lower priority. Yap was emphatic about her position on curating nation – that it was not necessary and undesirable in the ways it limits creativity. However, she acknowledges that people, viewers and various institutional stakeholders, have the capacity to interpret artworks in ways which fit into their notion of nation. Rather than a conscious effort of curating nation, Yap seems to suggest that what occurs at international biennales is an individualized response of viewing nation.

Nevertheless, the structural division of the Biennale into national pavilions and representations also mean that politics of nationhood inevitably penetrate into exhibitions, with Taiwan and Hong Kong having collateral events instead of national pavilions. Given that Singapore’s participation was mediated by national agencies – as in the case in many other participating nations – the nation still loomed large in the foreground. For instance, Lim Tzay Chuen’s Mike (2005) presented the difficulty of moving a national monument from Singapore to Venice, ultimately reinforcing rather than blurring national borders.

Ending her presentation with some instances of trans-national art works featured at the Venice Biennales, such as Navin Rawanchaikul’s Paradiso di Navin (2011) and Israeli artist Yael Bartana’s …and Europe will be stunned (2011) at the Polish Pavilion, Yap seemed to intend for a discussion on curating and exhibiting of contemporary art works beyond the nation.  However, the post-talk discussion was preoccupied with questions of who decides the curating of the nation at such international exhibitions.

The issue of practical benefits arising from Singapore’s participation was raised, which Yap deftly handled by steering it away from quantifiable KPIs and pointing to intangible benefits such as how it facilitates a “civil exchange” and puts Singapore on the international art radar. However, beyond flogging the proverbial dead horse of cost-benefit analysis, the persistent lines of questioning on the nature of the selection process and why Singapore should even participate seemed to betray a sense of indignation about the elitist way in which the nation is curated and exhibited. This indignation is shared by people who don’t get to even negotiate the different conceptualizations of nation in these artworks because they don’t get to see it. While the curators might attempt to move beyond boundaries of nationhood, it seems that the public might not be ready just yet.

However, that ought not to foreclose the possibility of trying. The attempts at challenging the national divisions inherent in the structure of the Venice Biennale reveal that the results might sometimes be surprising. The selection of Simryn Gill, Sydney-based, Singapore-born and Malaysian-raised artist to represent Australia at the upcoming Venice Biennale in 2013 serves as a further reminder of how national identities might be superfluous in a globalised world. And though it might seem “presumptuous” at present, as a member of the audience quickly points out, I look forward to a Southeast-Asian exhibit put up in a national pavilion, or even a regional Biennale in Singapore.


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