Artists in the Mekong River Basin (1)- from the Singapore Biennale

Nov 22, 2019 - Mar 22, 2020

Written by Kentaro Ichihara (Art Critic), Translated by AURA Art

A hot wind comes from Southeast Asia. We don't know what its source is, but we know that it is the great city of Southeast Asia that feels its winds on its cheeks.

The sixth Singapore Biennale (titled 'Every Step in the Right Direction') was held in Singapore. From the fourth time, this biennale was greatly aware of Singapore's geopolitical location and it surprised the art world with its lineup of participating artists, mainly from Southeast Asia. However, this judgement did not appear to be wrong.

Changing an event's policy, such as a Biennale, can sometimes trigger a deadlock. Although geopolitical issues are the main reason, why stick to Southeast Asia? If Singapore is to survive as a city-state, it needs to maintain good relations with the countries surrounding it. However, if things do not go well, it could suffer the misfortune of failure as described above. That was the reason why I had refrained from visiting the Singapore Biennale for a while. Even though they both belong to the same 'Asia', the directions are different in the east and southeast, and moreover, the historical course is totally different. Under these conditions, the biennale is trying to narrow the area itself and open it for only locals. For these reasons, the Singapore Biennale gradually faded out of my zone of interest.

So why did I feel like visiting this year after a long time? It's because the activities of Asian artists have become more conspicuous in recent years, irrelevant (or maybe not) to the biennale. Above all, the work of several artists from the Mekong River basin who appeared 'Documenta 14' in Kassel in 2017, left a vivid impression on me. At that time, I intuited that something was going on in Southeast Asia. The only way to explore that trend is to go to the Singapore Biennale, which focuses on contemporary art in Southeast Asia...

Therefore, I visited Singapore for the first time in six years. This is the third occasion since the Biennale was redesigned, but soon after I began seeing it, I felt the refinement of the exhibited works, which used to be unsophisticated. Artists from the Mekong basin also have a wide variety of faces: Lim Sokchanlina (1), Vandy Rattana, Phare, The Cambodian Circus (2) (the artists in (1) and (2) are from Cambodia), Vong Phaophanit and Claire Oboussier (3) (Laos), Min Thein Sung (Myanmar), Arnont Nongyao, Busui Ajaw, Dusadee Huntrakul (4), Korakrit Arunanondchai, Paphonsak La-or, Prapat Jiwarangsan, Ruangsak Anuwatwimon (5) (the above-mentioned artists are all from Thailand), and Le Quang Ha, Ngoc Nau (Vietnam). Adding local Singaporean and its adjoining Malaysian works to this brings together enough work for you to see.

For example, today's leading young artist, Kray Chen (6), who is from Singapore where utopians, dystopians, and tourism all coexist, expressed adopting a light and witty story that hints at the complex social situation of the city through the video, a Malaysian artist, Okui Lala (7) in her video work, held a lecture which eloquently reflected Malaysia's multilingual society. Both of them fully showed their sense of humor and it offered a breath of fresh air in the tropical region, as if it had previously been extremely heated by climate change.

What is the source of power that produces excellent contemporary art in Southeast Asia, especially from the countries along the Mekong River basin? The journey to look for it continues to Bangkok and Taiwan's exhibitions, but here have been some glimpses of it. In the next edition on Bangkok, let me write something  about it.