The Singapore Biennale is set to return in October after being delayed from 2021 because of the pandemic. For the city state, this is more than just a large contemporary art exhibition. The seventh edition of the biennale is a signal to the world that it is “business as usual” and that Singapore is more eager than ever to become the region’s leading cultural centre. Since April 1, visitors to Singapore have no longer had to undergo quarantine, and the general easing of social restrictions has brought a growing sense of normality and of optimism about the local art scene. The Singapore Grand Prix in September and the biennale show a city that is welcoming the world with open arms, in contrast to the continued isolation of Hong Kong and mainland China, which are still keeping their borders shut as they struggle to meet their “dynamic zero Covid” targets. Like most major international art exhibitions around the world, Singapore’s foremost contemporary art platform has always been about reflecting local social conditions, but it also represents Singapore’s cultural and economic ambitions, say local curators and practitioners familiar with the two-yearly event. And since the start of the pandemic, the city state’s unmistakable urgency in fulfilling its vision as a serious contender in the global arts community has only gathered pace. In the past two years, the Singapore art scene has moved towards the digital world, with large-scale festivals and events adopting hybrid modes of presentation across physical and digital realms, and new technologies such as non-fungible tokens (NFTs) and the metaverse growing in popularity. Hong Kong exhibition propels performance artist onto Turner Prize shortlist The cancellation of many exhibitions, residencies and teaching opportunities has seen local artists suffer financially and emotionally. This has compelled many to seek new opportunities for collaboration in Singapore, and overseas. “There is a camaraderie amongst artists from different disciplines and practices – I think many of us have formed new friendships and found support networks with practitioners from other genres,” says creative producer Kamini Ramachandran, who took part in the 2019 biennale’s outreach programmes. “The last two years have given us time to percolate and almost ‘ferment’ for a while.” There is also the feeling that Singapore is upgrading its art infrastructure, with the reopening of the Singapore Art Museum and the launch of art fair Art SG in 2023. The museum, the organising body behind the biennale, is undergoing a major renovation and opened an annex in the Tanjong Pagar Distripark in January. Even so, the all-female international curatorial team for the Singapore Biennale 2022 is trying to avoid making it a typical mega event. They have even given it a non-thematic title: “Natasha”. At a news conference in March, the team explained that by giving the biennale a personal name, they wanted to create an opportunity for people to develop a deeper connection to art and the processes behind the exhibition. While no artists, artworks or venues have been revealed yet, organisers say that the biennale experience will unfold over reading performances, durational installations, music, publications and study groups, with the main exhibition in October being the climax. “The pandemic has undoubtedly affected the way the arts can be created, experienced and enjoyed during this time,” says June Yap, the Singapore Art Museum’s director of curatorial, collections and programmes. “Reflections on the biennale and its gatherings of art and the public, inevitably, also took a somewhat existential tone.” Yap is one of the biennale’s four artistic directors, along with three overseas curators: Binna Choi, a South Korean based in Utrecht, the Netherlands; Nida Ghouse, an Indian based in Berlin, Germany; and the Kuwait-born Ala Younis, based in Amman, Jordan. Yap hopes the biennale will shed light on how we might further relate to our personal contexts and living experiences together, especially as the Singapore arts scene finds its footing amid a changing world. The first edition of the Singapore Biennale was launched by the city state’s National Arts Council in 2006. Born as an anchor cultural event for when Singapore hosted the Annual Meetings of the Boards of Governors of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank Group, it followed the country’s hosting of its first national pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 2001. Singapore had earlier international exposures too, such as artist Tang Da Wu’s participation in the 1995 Johannesburg Biennale, and Matthew Ngui and Ho Tze Nyen’s inclusion in the 1996 Sao Paulo Biennial. Some people who had never experienced contemporary art before had light-bulb moments as they heard the docents share more about the work Pearlyn Cai, programmes manager of the 2006 Singapore Biennale, on the event Kwok Kian Chow, a former museum director in Singapore and member of the 2006 Singapore Biennale steering committee, recalls the launch of the first edition. “It was also around the same time that the planning of National Gallery Singapore started. This was a familiar trajectory adapted by other countries to enhance the local art sector and engage with the global art scene, the local and international being the two sides of the same coin during the height of globalisation,” he says. Kwok believes Singapore has developed its art infrastructure, which includes new art fairs, within a shorter time frame compared with other countries, and with a keen sense of urgency. The government offices for economic development and tourism have worked closely with art institutions to “fast track” decisions, he adds. In fact, the Singapore Tourism Board commissioned a study, undertaken by the local Nanyang Technological University from 1997 to 1998, to understand the economic impact of the arts and entertainment industry in Singapore. The findings revealed that by 2002, roughly every S$1 spent on the arts would generate an additional S$1.80 of income in related industries. The Economic Development Board and Singapore Tourist Promotion Board (later renamed the Singapore Tourism Board) inevitably began to view the arts and creative sectors as sources of growth, and worked to draw investors, talent and audiences to Singapore. Set against the backdrop of these broader ambitions, the first Singapore Biennale, titled “Belief”, was led by the Japanese artistic director Fumio Nanjo and Low Kee Hong, the Singaporean who incidentally spent seven years as head of theatre at Hong Kong’s West Kowloon Cultural District before moving on to the Manchester International Festival in January. The 2006 Singapore Biennale made effective use of the city’s different religious spaces and intercultural context to show artworks by Yayoi Kusama, Handiwirman Saputra, Charwei Tsai, Donna Ong and more. It was a landmark event that introduced a lot of Singaporeans to contemporary art. Hers was the only Western art that adorned Mao Zedong’s personal rooms “Some people who had never experienced contemporary art before had light-bulb moments as they heard the docents share more about the work,” says Pearlyn Cai, who was programmes manager of the event. “There was a lot of ‘I never knew contemporary art was like this’ – people being surprised they could enjoy or engage with it so much.” The biennale has continued to thrive, with the 2019 edition featuring 77 artists and collectives from 36 countries and territories. But the unpredictable nature of running such an expansive art show, as well as clashes between artists and the country’s censors, have caused problems over the years. For example, in 2016, local artist S. Chandrasekaran cut himself in a dramatic “blood oath” ceremony and swore not to perform again unless the Singapore Biennale withdrew a ban on a piece he proposed to highlight the plight of 19th-century Indian convicts. And in 2011, Japanese-British artist Simon Fujiwara said his work featuring gay pornography was altered by the biennale without his consent or knowledge. The biennale experienced a major change in leadership in 2010, when the National Arts Council handed it over to the Singapore Art Museum. And 2021 wasn’t the first time it skipped a year: in 2015, it had to be postponed because the country’s golden jubilee celebrations took precedence. Rocco Yim on his bold design for new performing arts centre in Shenzhen More recently, industry insiders have said that the biennale lacks a consistent long-term vision and engagement plan. Khairuddin Hori, one of the curators for Singapore Biennale 2013, points out that for the platform to meaningfully deepen the country’s own arts scene and act as a fulcrum and gateway for contemporary art in Southeast Asia, it needs to do things like earmark a 10-year plan consisting of five biennales. Hori also proposes that event operations should be run from an independent and dedicated office that facilitates continuous engagements between editions, acquires grass-roots support, and acts as a training ground for curators and arts administrators. “Given the extraordinary government support, retention of experience and knowledge gathered from past iterations, the Singapore Biennale today should already have been able to establish itself as an autonomous institution, and not as a mega event where the precarious existence of each instalment appears dependent of the weather for the day,” he says. The key to manoeuvring the Singapore arts scene post-pandemic might very well be acknowledging the storied evolution of the Singapore Biennale as a key institution, including its strengths and flaws. As Yap says, the biennale is an evolving platform that changes with the times, and which addresses and draws attention to various subjects and perspectives. Ultimately, what the event is can only be decided by its artists, artworks, curatorial frames and audience encounters, Yap adds.