If the capital-B Biennial seems like a too-familiar carcass to flog, it is mainly because the discourse in Southeast Asia has yet to transcend the presentational mode that is identified with a certain kind of universalist regionalism. This condition is bound up with uncertainty over the necessity of each project and its curatorial exigencies, vulnerabilities, and ethical responsibilities.
The past six months have seen the openings of two biennials organized according to similar themes around the assertion of national and regional identities and agendas: the Biennale Jogja XII and the Singapore Biennale 2013. While it could be argued that, given the exhibitory vernacular that the Biennial employs, these events have fulfilled expectations within the framework of popularity and tourism, questions around the honesty, generosity, sincerity, and public engagement of such events in general remain unanswered.
Biennale Jogja XII, the second iteration of the Equator series, was premised on the geographic framework of the equator, and on westward travel. While its curatorial aspirations were written into familiar tropes of syncretism, migration, and diaspora, Sarah Rifky’s unpublished foreword for the Jogyakata Biennale 2013 catalogue, Our Common Future, sheds a more self-reflexive light on the project. Reflecting on the use of the word Arab in a time of sociopolitical upheaval in the Middle East, and on the Biennale as a symbolic platform for rethinking connections between Indonesia and Egypt 58 years after the 1955 Bandung Conference, Rifky admits that association with the Arab world in any major art event will invoke questions of how “art from the revolution” would look. Conversely, she debunks the idea that a singular artwork could embody the full complexity of said revolution, and thus poses questions to the audience about their own framing of it.
The denial of responsibility as a curatorial conceit can also be discerned between the lines of the Singapore Biennale 2013. Subtitled If the World Changed?, this exhibition was organized by gathering of 27 curators from the region into a consultative cluster, echoing the curatorial model of the 1993 Asia-Pacific Triennial at the Queensland Art Gallery in Australia. While rejecting the idea of national pavilions in her foreword to the Singapore Biennale 2013 Guide Book, Susie Lingham inevitably pushes the onus of national and geopolitical representation onto the curators, as opposed to allowing their practices or strategies—which may well extend beyond geopolitical entities—to manifest themselves in the exhibition.
If the World Changed? The exhibition title itself proved to be an existentially complacent platform that allowed any differences or antagonisms embedded within artworks or curators to be neatly shuffled into categories and keywords—testimonies, histories, locus, sprit, cosmology, interruptions, ancestries, geographies, selves, futures, apocalypse, culture, exchanges, nature, activism, prophecies, intervention, meridians, materiality, intercessions—without taking into account the sociopolitical histories or vernaculars within which these materials exist, or displaying any awareness of what the presentation of materials in a context beyond geopolitical representation might mean.
Would reflecting on notions of curatorial urgency result in a changed perception of the curator, beyond that of a gatekeeper? In repositioning him or her as a member of the art ecology, a practitioner, one would be able to articulate matters of urgency in exhibitions or other curatorial projects rather than relying on the neat categorizations of the here and now.
A note on the title
In The Politics of Small Gestures: Chances and Challenges for Contemporary Art, curator Mika Hannula speaks of a small gesture standing for a plurality of means of expression—a plurality of competing “life worlds”—at the same time emphasizing that both of this is only possible if there is enough room for something called “reasonable disagreement and loving conflict.”
Qinyi Lim is a writer and curator at Para Site, Hong Kong.