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Singapore Children’s Biennale goes ‘phygital’

By SCOTT GARCEAU, The Philippine STAR Published Jun 14, 2021 5:00 am

It’s kind of heartening to see physical art exhibits reopening after the long COVID shutdown, especially if they’re made for kids to experience and enjoy. National Gallery Singapore’s Gallery Children’s Biennale is one such venue preparing to welcome the masses again this September.

But until then, they’ve decided to go “phygital,” with interactive installations created by nine local and international artists: Dinh Q Lê (Vietnam), Isabel and Alfredo Aquilizan (Philippines/Australia), Jeremy Sharma (Singapore), Joyce Ho (Taiwan), Khvay Samnang (Cambodia), Nandita Mukand (Singapore/India), Nona Garcia (Philippines), Sandra Lee (Singapore), and Speak Cryptic X ADDADDADD (Singapore).

The theme this year, according to National Gallery Singapore director of Audience Development & Engagement Suenne Megan Tan, is “Why Art Matters?” and the nine artists — three of them from the Philippines — were asked to create fun, interactive modules that fit into one or more of four categories: Home, Time, Diversity and the Environment.

This is the third edition of Gallery Children’s Biennale, and the pandemic added another dimension of meaning, underscored by the artists enlisted to participate in this ‘phygital’ format. 

The online site went live last May 22, to be followed by onsite counterparts opening up for visitors to National Gallery Singapore in September.

 “Calling for Rain” by Khvay Samnang

The Filipino artists were an interesting mix, including the married artist couple Alfredo and Isabel Aquilizan, based in Australia. Their work often references balikbayan boxes, and their module (under the “Home” theme) consists of a vertical construction of balikbayan box “homes” which kids are invited to personalize, even adding their own selfie to construct their “home” around (No wonder the piece is called “Head/Home”).

The Aquilizans moved to Oz with their five kids and have made a living through their art. Balikbayan boxes are just part of the Filipino frame of reference, of course. When moving abroad, they even gave their kids a quota of “one box apiece” to fill up with their belongings.

The online version for kids is part of a larger ongoing work, “Project Another Country,” which reimagines one’s new identity and sense of community in a foreign land.

“Head/Home” specifically references Singapore, their home base for the artwork, with its stacked HDB blocks (made up of cardboard boxes) and “floating city” configuration. Once kids choose their materials and create a home, it can be added to the “floating city” page as part of the larger community. They can also use their designs as wearable masks.

 “Conversations with an Octopus” by Sandra Lee

“Our work talks about travel and location, directly linked to balikbayan boxes,” says Alfredo. “We like using these materials to create houses, boats, airplanes, because they’re easy to use.”

As Filipinos, they’ve long ingrained the notion of reusing and repurposing materials, not just out of thrift, but as a vehicle for imagination. “As Filipinos, we’re used to playing around with whatever discarded materials we have,” says Isabel. “That limitation gives us opportunity to be more creative.”

 “Illuminated” by Nona Garcia

Another Filipino artist is Baguio-based Nona Garcia. The daughter of doctors, she’s long had a fascination with x-rays — she used to gaze at illuminated x-rays in their office when she was a kid, and it continues to visually inform her work.

For her module “Illuminated,” Nona created an interactive landscape where kids can choose a background, pick a variety of x-ray shapes (bones are a favorite) and manipulate them to create their own surrealistic composition.

Nona, a UP Fine Arts graduate, says she addresses the category of “Diversity” by allowing kids to interpret the constructions in their own way, then sharing/ comparing them with other submitted compositions from kids around the world. Through the x-ray images, she wants her visitors to observe inherent patterns in nature that are “typically less visible to the naked eye.” Call it x-ray vision.

You can see visual references to time, transparency, and ways of seeing in Garcia’s activity, which is a “translation of the physical installation” we’ll be able to see in September.

Having spent years collecting coral pieces and animal bones (from taxidermy friends), she’s developed a method of x-raying the shapes and forms and constructing them as visual metaphors, such as a video she’s done focusing on the time element, made up of x-rays which form a vast and shifting seascape: “It’s a reflection on how the sea continues to flow, while we’re all stuck at home, basically.”

 “Head/Home” by Alfredo and Isabel Aquilizan

All the artists’ activities are fun and interesting.

Singaporean artist Jeremy Sharma spent a lot of time during lockdown having his kids create around 300 crayon-colored drawings, which he’s used as the animation construction tool for “Superstar,” an online piece focusing on the passage of time.

Dinh Q Lê’s “Voices from the Center” uses actual images from the National Gallery Singapore to create videos that interweave online visitors’ faces with artworks in an echo of mat weaving from his Vietnam culture, and as an allegory for the Vietnam War.

Several focus on kids’ narratives and self-reflection during the lockdown, like Taipei’s Joyce Ho, whose “A Day’s Book” allows kids to add to an ongoing journal that is carried forward by each daily visitor; or Nandita Mukand’s “Because it makes me feel…” which encourages kids to use artwork to express their emotions during the long pandemic, a way of anchoring themselves to their environment.

This is the third edition of Gallery Children’s Biennale, and the pandemic added another dimension of meaning, underscored by the artists enlisted to participate in this “phygital” format.  As Tan says, it’s an “online safe space for creative expression and learning through play,” something that will hopefully branch out to more physical counterparts in the near future.

The Gallery Children’s Biennale is viewable at