The sixth edition of Singapore Biennale, titled Every Step in the Right Direction, makes a bold call to action of reimagining the current state of the world through art that shapes it and taking one decisive step at a time in an everyday endeavor to change. The phrase coined by the event's current Artistic Director, Patrick Flores, invites both the artist and the public to engage in artistic exploration and be the catalysts for the change.
Apart from leading the charge at Singapore Biennale 2019, Patrick Flores is also a Professor of Art Studies at the Department of Art Studies at the University of the Philippines and Curator of the Vargas Museum in Manila. With his extensive work in the field of academia and art, Flores is one of the most prominent figures in the region's art landscape. In this interview, Flores talks about his role, the sentiment behind Every Step in the Right Direction, and the changing art scene in the region.
How has the role of artistic director for Singapore Biennale 2019 been different from your past projects?
This is my first time to serve as artistic director of a Biennale. The directorial role is different from the curatorial role, of which I am quite familiar. It demands a larger scope of responsibility in organizing a project of so many moving parts. These include curatorial work, public programming, interface with media, negotiating with institutions, lots of writing and speaking with a diverse public. This becomes more challenging if the biennale has 11 venues. But my training as an art historian, my current position as the curator of a university museum, and my profession as professor of art history have afforded me a perspective through which to offer a broad vision of the Biennale as its artistic director.
My approach has been reflective and prospective: to look inward and renew the resources of art and its history, and also to incline outward and activate the wide ecology surrounding art. As an art historian, I value the history of past efforts to create form and to deeply reflect on what those efforts mean and how they inform the present and the future.
How are you splitting your time as curator of Jorge B. Vargas Museum and professor at Filipiniana Research Center of the University of the Philippines in Manila while being the Artistic Director of the Singapore Biennale?
We were able to devise a scheme in which I didn’t have to be in Singapore all the time. The planning was good, and time I guess was on our side, so we mapped out the tasks quite efficiently. Also, the energy of being a curator of a university museum and professor of art history fed into my work as artistic director. So the mindset was able to take in the range of intersecting commitments.
The title ‘Every Step in the Right Direction’ is a tribute to Salud Algabre, an icon of resistance and strength in the Philippines. What was the driving force behind selecting this theme?
The Biennale lifts a line from an interview of Salud Algabre. She was part of a revolution against the Americans in the Philippines in the thirties. When asked several years later what she did after it failed, she was quick to rectify that “no uprising fails. Each one is a step in the right direction.” The Biennale aims to foil apathy and inspire the recovery of individual agency, and in doing so, restore patience in working with others in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds. It suggests the everyday endeavour to change, one decisive step at a time. This seemingly counterintuitive response to a revolutionary expectation makes us reconsider notions of failure and success, and acknowledges the gains of sustained ethical action in everyday life, from person to person.
SB2019 Curatorial Team. (Image courtesy Singapore Art Museum)
What does your role as artistic director entail? What was the process of curating the exhibition, did you already have some artists in mind to include? Do you work with the artists throughout the selection and production of the artworks?
The curatorial team drew from its extensive sources of experiences and backgrounds, and from its network of artists, the potential artworks for the Biennale. The final names were chosen by the team via curatorial discussions, considering the practices of artists, the juxtaposition and conversation across artworks, and the potency of their presence in space.
I wanted a horizontal curatorium in which curators were given independence to choose artists and shepherd their works into the Biennale. We invested in process, in discussions, in exchange of ideas. We learned from each other.
We reflected on the geography of Southeast Asia and found ways to unsettle its geopolitical construction and the legacies of colonialism and the Cold War. We wanted to reimagine the region geopoetically, that is, through the art that shapes it and not the political structures that bind it. We looked for methods of extending beyond it and evoking a larger world through Southeast Asia.
The focus of this year’s biennale is headed towards more research-oriented contemporary works. As a country with a relatively short history of art education, how do you anticipate the audience reacting to these works?
I am optimistic that they will respond to the openness of the process, of the generosity of mutual learning. Some of the works in the Biennale are not fully formed; they require the activation of the audience who are given the chance to perform the work, and not only to consume it. This should excite them because they are cast as co-producers, co-investigators, fellow makers.
It’s as though this year’s theme is an evolution from Singapore Biennale 2013’s theme “If The World Changed,” finally taking action after imagination. Was this intended?
They might be related at some point, but the current Biennale is quite distinct. It is inspired by a specific intellectual source and animated by a particular method of curating. This is an achievement I would like to sharply cast: the methodology of curating a Biennale is different from presenting a survey of contemporary art. It involves a way of constellating both the world of the works and the works in the world. Please note too that the Biennale is not confined to the exhibition, but to an array of Coordinates projects in which the Biennale reaches out to the community through long-term initiatives in the ground. Through heritage, moving image, and performance, the Biennale radiates beyond the exhibition arena without assimilating the impulses of these initiatives to form a thoughtful and attentive audience in Singapore. Examples of these projects include Geylang Adventures, Projector, and Drama Box.
How do you foresee the art scene in Southeast Asia changing in the next five years?
It is becoming as complex as its context. It is confident and assertive, and strongly positioned to take risks. It is also open to a high level of eccentricity, no longer indebted to the graces of western modernism and its heroic avant-gardes. I also see more keenness to process and a materiality that dilates the locality without being absorbed into an ethnocentric domain, on the one hand, and into an international contemporary art, which has to a certain extent an echo chamber.
What is a ‘must-see’ for this year’s biennale?
All of them. They are all the children of the Biennale.
Singapore Biennale 2019 runs until March 22, 2020. Read more about the event here.
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