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‘Natasha’ puts a name to the face of Singapore Biennale 2022

By SCOTT GARCEAU, The Philippine STAR Published Aug 08, 2022 5:00 am

As the 7th Singapore Biennale 2022 (SB2022) gears up for its Oct. 16 opening, the four women co-artistic directors behind the event have bestowed upon it a name. It’s “Natasha.”

Binna Choi, Nida Ghouse, June Yap, and Ala Younis launched this year’s edition, organized by the Singapore Art Museum (SAM) and commissioned by the National Arts Council, Singapore (NAC) in a Zoom session.

So what’s in a name? While it’s tempting to think that giving the bi-annual festival a name instead of, say, a broad theme is a way of focusing things, they’re quick to point out that the name is meant to be universal, familiar, intimate — which is what they promise this year’s biennale will be for face-to-face visitors. Visiting SB2022 will be a process of “finding” Natasha.

SB2022 co-artistic directors June Yap, Nida Ghouse, Ala Younis, and Binna Choi

“Why this name? It is a common and familiar name, and it can be found in our everyday context if we pay attention it,” says Choi. “We’ve known ‘Natashas’ all over the world — India, Georgia, South Korea, Slovenia, Crimea. The name is not so special. It’s not divine. It’s not the name of a goddess. It’s the name of a friend, or a daughter.”

Breaking down walls between art and public was also a consideration. “In facing multiple crises, there’s more emphasis that we should act together as citizens of the earth. We think relationships should change on all levels, and artists should be able to contribute to that; the act of naming itself is already an artistic act.”

Natasha is a Singapore Biennale you can feel comfortable with, even as it raises important issues and questions for this recovery time. Staging the events across Singapore’s islands in unexpected spots — like Tanjong Pagar Distripark (TPD), a historic port located near SAM; or Yan Kit Playfield, a ’50s children’s park; as well as Sentosa Cove, where a ferry will take visitors to Lazarus Island and St. John’s Island — Yap promises will reveal an interconnected “journey with Natasha.” The interactions will be “spontaneous” — an important word for these artistic directors.

Say my name: “Natasha” is handwritten in Hangul (Korean) on paper held in the air against the crater Lē‘ahi on O‘ahu island, Feb. 21, 2022.

Some 50 international artists from Southeast Asia and the world have collaborated on this journey, including headliners like Aarti Sunder (India), Angkrit Ajchariyasophon (Thailand), Assem Hendawi (Egypt), Berny Tan (Singapore), Daniela Zambrano (Peru), Elina Waage Mikalsen (Norway), Firas Shehadeh (Jordan), Haegue Yang (South Korea/Germany), Heman Chong (Singapore), Natasha Tontey (Indonesia), Samia Halaby (Palestine/US), Trevor Yeung (China), Valentina Desideri (Italy), Denise Ferreira da Silva (Brazil), Wu Mali (Taiwan), and Zarina Muhammad (Singapore).

Desideri and Da Silva will bring an ongoing studio process that facilitates collaborative studying and experimenting, with visitors being given different tools for “reading and healing” within the exhibition space.

As for the absence of any Filipino artists for SB2022, Yap noted: “Speaking from Southeast Asia, as with other exhibitions, we look at the region at large and there was an interest that we were following, and that’s where certain artists have been selected. It wasn’t so much going from, say, country to artists but really artists in practice and where are they working for us to explore further.”

Singapore Art Museum at the Tanjong Pagar Distripark (TPD) will be the nervecenter of SB2022, though its pulse will spread far and wide.

Reading between the lines

Clearly, there’s a textural dimension to Natasha. Some of the projects outlined for SB2022 are “The Library of Unread Books” by Heman Chong (Singapore) and Renée Staal (Netherlands/Singapore), comprising a reference library of donated books belonging to individuals that remain unread; library visitors can borrow books and return to a common resource pool in the city. Desideri and Da Silva will bring an ongoing studio process that facilitates collaborative studying and experimenting, with visitors being given different tools for “reading and healing” within the exhibition space. Jordanian artist Raed Ibrahim uses Sumerian tablets, one of the earliest forms of written communication, in his work, while Shin Beomsun and collaborators have devised stones embedded with shamanistic symbols that reveal themselves on closer inspection.

Elsewhere, there’s an emphasis on interactions with the physical body, and the world’s impact on ourselves. Younis describes the “Nina Bell F. House Museum,” a collaborative work between the Netherlands/South Korea/Indonesia that “reimagines an institution or a workplace as a person or a human being. The architecture will be in the form of several mini houses that will be ubiquitous across the space. And inside that house, you can follow the process of fermentation of soy sauce that is consumed and digested by some who are coming to the biennale.” Sounds appetizing.

Then there’s Moad Musbahi’s work, “The SAM Weather Channel,” which Ghouse describes as exploring artificial technology and the ways weather data has been gathered and interpreted historically, “asking what it means to ‘read’ the weather, our own internal temperatures, the conditions between the inside and outside of our bodies and our environments.”

Another feature is Singapore Biennale’s partnership with Darat al Funun - The Khalid Shoman Foundation. Through this new partnership, the two institutions are conducting dual artist residency programs — one ended last July 31 in Jordan, and the second runs from September to November in Singapore. The presentations produced during the residency will be featured as part of the final event for SB2022.

This year’s four directors — Choi from South Korea/the Netherlands, Ghouse from India living in Germany, Yap from Singapore and Younis from Jordan — represent a multi-faceted disciplinary approach rooted in real-life questions and matters.

SAM director Dr. Eugene Tan points out that “their artistic direction has been shaped in part by the impact of the pandemic on the region over the last two years and the question of what it means to be living in our present conditions.”

And there is that name — Natasha — welcoming us in. I ask Choi if other names were considered besides “Natasha.” “Yes. Can I say ‘Brian’? I don’t have any issue with Brian; I have a very good friend called Brian.” There were also those who saw in the naming an overlay with the Ukraine situation, though the directors insist “Natasha” was chosen before Russian’s invasion began.

Choi gives a clearer connection: “I like to say it is important that we chose a female name. We were all born in a womb, like a matrix, a woman’s body. So there is something very deep and fundamental, intimate that brings the question of birth and death and existence” in giving the biennale a feminine name.

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Singapore Biennale SB2022 runs from Oct. 16 2022 till March 19, 2023. More information on ticketing can be found on SB2022’s website. Audiences can enjoy a two-for-one early bird ticket promotion from July to September (only available in pairs). Join the conversation on Facebook and Instagram.