Behind the baroque facade of the Singapore Art Museum (SAM), at the foot of a chandelier-lit curving stairway, sits a traditional Malaccan fishing boat. Heaped into this wooden vessel are a thousand glass bottles, each bearing a message from a male inmate from the island republic's Changi Prison.
The words, written on white labels affixed on the bottles, reflect the aspirations of each prisoner, spelling out what they hope to achieve after they are released.
Since the Singapore Biennale 2013 opened last month, visitors to the contemporary art event have milled curiously around this installation, titled Telok Blangah, by Malaysia-born, Singapore-based artist Ahmad Abu Bakar, 50. On a table next to the boat, pens, note cards and a postbox are provided, for onlookers to respond to any message that strikes a chord with them. The public's messages will be sent, after vetting, to the inmates. It is a symbolic rehabilitation of the jailed individual, establishing tentative links between the man and society at large, before he regains his freedom.
In a way, this humble, haunting fisherman's boat - marooned, seemingly, in an incongruous time and place - serves as a fitting icon for the Singapore Biennale's fourth edition, with the theme "If the world changed". The work is both the name of an area in Singapore where Malay royalty used to live, as well as a particular style of traditional Malay costume, hinting at the inter-mingling of race, language and history in the Southeast Asian region.
Organised by SAM, the S$6-million (HK$37.4 million) "SB2013" features 82 works by artists and art collectives from 13 countries around Singapore including Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos and Myanmar. The pieces were selected by 27 co-curators, also drawn from the region. And the display is spread over nine venues, including the National Library and National Museum, Fort Canning Park and the Singapore Management University's city campus.
"We selected some of the best artworks from some of the artists not represented in the international list [of renowned Indonesian artists who make the rounds of biennales]," says Jakarta-based curator Mia Maria. "Not because we're trying to … resist, but because we want to give more space to these artists and add another view of Indonesian art and painting within contemporary Southeast Asian society. The hope is that the public can see how relevant the art is to them."
Visitors will have no problems relating to Toko Keperluan, an installation by Indonesian artist Anggun Priambodo. Toko Keperluan means an old-fashioned provisions store, which is essentially what the 36-year-old artist has recreated in the forecourt of SAM's annex, 8Q. Filled with things that are actually for sale - from traditional Indonesian papier-mache animal heads to carrom boards - the wooden shop represents a critique of today's disposable consumerism. It pokes fun, too, at the recent hipster trend, where nostalgia and old-school items have been parlayed into cult-commerce.
Similarly, the traditional and contemporary, mysticism and modernity collide in the work of Anggun's compatriot Toni Kanwa. Cosmology of Life comprises 1,000 tiny sculptures of skinny humanoid figures, each no taller than a matchstick. Pak Toni, as the 54-year-old is respectfully known to colleagues, carves each delicate figure out of oak with a knife, after a meditation ritual that he says is not aligned with any religion. Arranged in a doughnut-shape on a plinth-like lightbox, these talisman-like figurines are fascinating to peer at.
The political is implicit in the works by Filipino artist Nikki Luna, who has fashioned sugar and resin into some 800 "diamonds" - arranged in glass display cases as though in a jewellery shop. Luna's Tiempos Muertos ( Dead Season) installation is an indictment of the sugar plantations of Bacolod in the Philippines, which made the hacienderos (plantation owners) rich while exploiting the local labourers. Hence, sugar as "blood diamonds", extracted at great human cost. Luna, 36, says her work, a version of which has been displayed in the Lopez Museum in her native country, has helped to raise awareness among the younger generation who are not familiar with this particular aspect of the Philippines' history.
Host country Singapore has fielded a number of interesting works which engage with national identity, especially amid rapid urban development and change. Filmmaker Royston Tan's Ghost of Capitol Theatre is likely to be the most intriguing for many Singaporeans old enough to remember the now-defunct Capitol cinema.
A couple of rows of old plush seats salvaged from the cinema are lined against one wall in a dark screening room. A translucent screen separates the seats from the audience. On the screen a haunting video of dancers from Singapore's T.H.E. (The Human Expression) Dance Company is projected, the human figures seeming to interact with the seats behind. Capitol, which opened in 1930, was closed for redevelopment into a shopping and entertainment complex in 1998. Tan, 37, says he asked the redevelopers of the site for the seats when he found out that they were to be discarded. "They said they'd think about it," the artist says. "So I went to their office every day to ask them until they said yes." He rescued five rows.
After the biennale, he plans to let members of the public "adopt" each chair, asking only that they pay for the cost of reupholstering them in vintage fabric from England.
Boo Junfeng's biennale commission harks back to a certain period in Singaporean history, only with a twist: in Happy and Free, Singapore never separated from Malaysia to become independent in 1965. Instead, walk through an anteroom lined with propaganda and the score for a song celebrating the merger of Singapore with the Federation of Malaya to form Malaysia in 1963.
It is interesting to see Boo's work beside the happening that helped open the biennale on October 26, Malaysian artist Sharon Chin's Mandi Bunga ( Flower Bath). The project saw 100 participants designing their own yellow costumes, culminating in a mass flower bath on the lawn outside the National Museum of Singapore.
Chin, 33, says she was inspired to do the project after taking part in several street rallies to campaign for free and fair elections in Malaysia: "The inspiration came from questions that I had after taking part in these street rallies, about collective action, what it means to be part of a big movement, because you can't achieve anything alone."
If nothing else, the current biennale is an intriguing response to the previous edition, in 2011, which was mired in controversy over a censored work and faced declining visitorship figures.