Singapore Biennale’s moniker, Natasha—a living entity or a naming fad?

STIR investigates the reasoning behind Singapore Biennale's name—Natasha, the artworks on display, and if it all adds up to something meaningful.

by Vatsala SethiPublished on : Jan 11, 2023

At one level, it might seem naive to assume that Southeast Asia might emerge as the biggest artistic hub in 2023, but given the evolving nature of the art scene in the region, it seems like a realistic possibility. With a fast developing contemporary art scene, Singapore is garnering interest from art lovers, practitioners, and collectors alike, and the Singapore Biennale is at the forefront of this interest. Keeping in tradition with art biennales, fairs, and exhibitions that centre around themes concerning current world events, hoping to make a powerful statement through art, we assumed the Singapore Biennale, too, will centre around an evocative theme. So imagine the surprise when the Singapore Biennale announced they will be called Natasha. For a country as culturally diverse as Singapore with Chinese, Malay, Indian, and other ethnic communities, what does this name signify? Does it lead to something meaningful through art?

Installation view of Multitude, 2022, Sarah Abu Abdallah | Singapore Biennale | STIRworld
Installation view of Multitude, 2022, Sarah Abu Abdallah Image: Courtesy of Singapore Art Museum

The images one conjures when thinking of the name Natasha, is one of bias. Despite having Russian roots, the name, which translates to mean 'born on Christmas day' or ‘the birthday of the Lord,’ is also extremely popular in other parts of the world, including India. One is forced to wonder then, if the curators considered Natasha as the biennale’s name, owing to its proximity to the Christmas season, given that the biennale is taking place after the pandemic and intends to continue through the winter of 2023. While the curators, June Yap of Singapore, Ala Younis of Kuwait, Nida Ghouse of India, and Binna Choi of South Korea, have spoken extensively about the enigmatic title during the previews, the quirkiness of the name doesn't lessen. The curators have mentioned that the main premise behind the name, was the curiosity it might garner among the general public and how they would react to an art biennial with a person's name, making it more intimate and personal, in a way. While, that seems like a high expectation to set, we are contemplating whether it could be assumed that there's a hidden reference to the conflict in Ukraine.

Installation view of Natasha Tontey's Garden Amidst the Flame; Lacuna for Compassion (2022)  | Singapore Art Biennale | STIRworld
Installation view of Natasha Tontey's Garden Amidst the Flame; Lacuna for Compassion (2022) Image: Courtesy of Singapore Art Museum

The experience that Natasha offers, challenges viewers to shift their ideas and perspective through art, with the biennale exhibits displayed in a variety of locations, allowing audiences to meander, relax, and discuss. The Singapore Art Museum (SAM), which has now moved to a sizeable warehouse, beside the Tanjong Pagar docks, has three floors, on which the major display is held. Additionally, there are works displayed across the three islands, offering a place for contemplation, imaginative play, and projection, while making them an effective location for art, artists, and public immersion.

Installation view of Wu Mali's《旗津本事_ 旗津的帝國滋味》(Cijin Pún-Sū_ Cijin’s Taste of Empires),  2022 | Singapore Biennale | STIRworld
Installation view of Wu Mali's《旗津本事_ 旗津的帝國滋味》(Cijin Pún-Sū_ Cijin’s Taste of Empires), 2022 Image: Courtesy of Singapore Art Museum

Across the three islands, the highlights of the art event are—Maile Meyer and Drew Kahuʻāina Broderick’s KĪPUKA at Sentosa Island, which is set within an altered shipping container and brings together offerings from an intergenerational group of collaborators and friends. In Hawaii, the term kipuka can imply a variety of things, such as 'variation' or 'change of form,' 'a tranquil place in a high sea,' 'a deep place in a shoal,' or, most often accepted, 'a metaphor for vibrancy and resilience.' Donghwan Kam's work, Fermentation Garden, in which he raised kimchi in miniature homes, serves as the inspiration for Fermentation House. Additionally, one may come across Moving Earth, Crossing Water, Eating Soil, an installation by Singaporean artist Zarina Muhammad on St. John's Island, that asks viewers to lean in, pay attention, and refocus their senses on erratic geographical locations. Along with her multifaceted artwork, there will be several on-site seminars, tours, and performances that the public can attend.

Installation view of The Hybrid Intermediates – Flourishing Electrophorus Duo (The Sonic Intermediate – Hairy Carbonous Dweller and The Randing Intermediate – Furless Uncolored Dweller), 2022, Haegue Yang | Singapore Biennale | STIRworld
Installation view of The Hybrid Intermediates–Flourishing Electrophorus Duo (The Sonic Intermediate – Hairy Carbonous Dweller and The Randing Intermediate–Furless Uncolored Dweller), 2022, Haegue Yang Image: Courtesy of Singapore Art Museum

One particularly noteworthy installation at the art exhibition is one by Korean artist Haegue Yang, whose work is entitled The Hybrid Intermediates - Flourishing Electrophorus Duo (Sonic Intermediate – hairy Carbonous Dweller and the Randing Intermediate – Furless Uncoloured Dweller). These 'dwellers' are two enormous, segmented totems that resemble standing alien entities and are draped in sheets of woven straw and tiny copper bells. The figures emit sound and even have plants growing on top of them.

Installation view of Elina Waage Mikalsen's Áhcagastá – Tales of the Ember, 2022 | Singapore Biennale | STIRworld
Installation view of Elina Waage Mikalsen's Áhcagastá–Tales of the Ember, 2022 Image: Courtesy of Singapore Biennale

Other immersive installations worth seeing include Ong Kian Peng's Viscous Sea. An immersive audio-visual project that examines how climate change is affecting us as a species and how we interact with the natural world. A chamber that is scarcely more than a temporary abode from an underprivileged neighbourhood is shown in Kantha Tith's Hut Tep Soda Chan (Hut of an Angel) from Cambodia. Tith's room is so full of evidence of her own, wide-ranging interest, that it has a happy vibe, including the abundance of photographs and items, and even a little TV set playing an ancient Cambodian film—about an angel who comes to earth and falls in love with a human.

Installation view of AWKNDAFFR's Get to the Point, 2022 | Singapore Biennale | STIRworld
Installation view of AWKNDAFFR's Get to the Point, 2022 Image: Courtesy of Singapore Art Museum

In January 2023, one can also come across works that weren't included in the 2022 preview. Fragility Game, a site-specific art installation by Daniel Lie, offers a platform for contemplating life and death via organic substance. The documentary One Room School by S.O.I.L Community with CONA PROJECTS shows the pedagogical journey of five kids and how they came to perceive learning as a micro-system that can evolve and adapt to practices, including experiential learning. Visitors can also look forward to Kancil Menghadap Beringin (The Mousedeer Comes Before the Banyan Tree), a living installation consisting of a live banyan tree surrounded by 99 mousedeer cement sculptures and a timber framework. Through this monumental work of art, artist Shooshie Sulaiman commemorates Malay cosmology and intelligence by imagining Sang Kancil's encounter with the pohon beringin (banyan tree).

Installation view of S.O.I.L Community with CONA PROJECTS' One Room School  | Singapore Biennale | STIRworld
Installation view of S.O.I.L Community with CONA PROJECTS' One Room School Image: Courtesy of Singapore Art Museum

By highlighting everything contemporary, the biennale's name Natasha may take on new significance at the Singapore Biennale. It’s good to note that the biennale coincides with Singapore Art Week 2023, which commenced on January 6, 2023.

Exhibition view of Level 5 Gallery, Tanjong Pagar Distripark | Singapore Biennale | STIRworld
Exhibition view of Level 5 Gallery, Tanjong Pagar Distripark Image: Courtesy of Singapore Art Museum
Installation view of Hut Tep Soda Chan, 2011-2017, Kanitha Tith  | Singapore Biennale | STIRworld
Installation view of Hut Tep Soda Chan, 2011-2017, Kanitha Tith Image: Courtesy of Singapore Art Museum
Co-Artistic Directors; From left_ June Yap, Nida Ghouse, Ala Younis, and Binna Choi | Singapore Biennale | STIRworld
Co-Artistic Directors; From left: June Yap, Nida Ghouse, Ala Younis, and Binna Choi Image: Courtesy of Singapore Art Museum

The Singapore Biennale’s main event began on October 16, 2022, and it will be on display until March 19, 2023.

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