With the highly anticipated sixth edition of the Singapore Biennale (SB) opening this Friday, we’ve enlisted Andrea Fam, assistant curator at the Singapore Art Museum and key member of the SB team, to walk us through the pieces to look out for, up-and-coming artists to know and the daily nitty gritty of being an art curator.

Andrea Fam

When did planning for this edition of the SB start and how did you guys arrive at this theme?

The curatorium was called together for its first workshop in June 2018 – gosh how time’s flown!
Something significant about this year’s Biennale is that there is no theme attached to it. It has a title – Every Step in the Right Direction – that signals a framework in which to think about and around how each curator might wish to curate his or her own satellite of the whole.

The title derives from a phrase Salud Algabre (a Filipino revolutionary) used in response to a scholar who asked her about the supposed failure of the peasant movement she played a critical role in; she said: “each one is a step in the right direction”. The team hopes through the openness of this title and the non-prescriptive methods of their curation, that audiences can address in their own ways, what they consider a ‘right step’.

What’s your role in this entire process?

My role in this Biennale is just a bigger version of what I do at the Singapore Art Museum where I am an assistant curator. The Latin cura translates as ‘to take care’ and that is literally what we do; we take care of artists, and their artworks. An artist faces difficulties in their personal life; we are there to hear them out and where possible support them (note: this can happen at all hours of the day). An artwork needs help in achieving the right aesthetic; we source for the right components to achieve that. An artist does not get along well with installers/exhibitions team; we throw ourselves into the line of fire.

What is your approach when it comes to curating?

I like to describe myself as a practical curator – as opposed to an academic one. My methods of researching are through fieldwork. I learn by experience and so my approach to curating is through spending as much time as possible with artists whilst they formulate, experiment and produce their work. Discussions, dialogue and debates are where I locate the richest information and I am lucky that I get to work in contemporary art where all of this is possible.

Aside from working very closely to and with artists, my other favourite part of curating/curation is working with spaces. Many fail to realise how an effectively managed space can make or break the effective experience of an artwork. Curating is so much more than just working with artists and artworks (and managing egos, so much managing of egos…); the space you present the artworks is the biggest component of an install/exhibition.

How do artists get selected for the Biennale? What do you and the team look out for? Can artists submit themselves for consideration?

Each Biennale operates differently. For the Singapore Biennale we did/do not launch an open call selection for artists. Instead, through each of the six curators and also Patrick Flores the artistic director, we embarked on researching artists who we felt resonated strongly with our individual curatorial directions within, ‘Every Step in the Right Direction’. My curatorial strand was one that attempted to disrupt and cause discomfort to the status quo and I decided to embark on this attempt to distabalise the norm through the tropes of humour, satire and surrealism.

What’s the daily nitty gritty that most people don’t get to see in your line of work?

Haha, see my reply to qns. 2 and 3. The aspects captured in reply to qn. 2 aren’t Instagram worthy so they’re not what’s seen on social media. And the approach spoken about in qn. 3. isn’t for the faint hearted. Peeing concealed amongst prickly bushes, or else sometimes completely exposed because you are working on a riverbank, isn’t to everyone’s fancy, but I’m lucky that it is to mine!

What are some of your favourite works at this year’s SB?

Le Quang Ha

One of my favourite works is by Vietnamese artist Le Quang Ha. Located at the National Gallery Singapore, the work is a mini exhibition unto itself. Another work I find powerfully charged is the installation by Thai Busui Ajaw. Housed in Gillman Barracks, it comprises a suite of paintings and sculptures that reveal a charm characteristic of artworks produced by individuals without formal training yet rich in a heritage of craft.

Busui Ajaw

Emerging local artists taking part at this year’s SB to know:

Artist Nabilah Nordin is an exciting emerging artist whose new commission for the Singapore Biennale is located at Gillman Barracks. Titled An Obstacle in Every Direction, it speaks allegorically to the Biennale title and is a work that local audiences will find refreshing in the way it challenges our perception of what is expected of us (in the reception of art; in what we think is right or wrong or doesn’t need to be considered either).

Nabilah Nordin

What else to look out for:

I haven’t yet figured out how to tackle everything but SB runs for 3.5 months so there’s no excuse, you must see them all! Pay particular attention to one off events such as Jason Wee’s twice-this-biennale performances (19 Jan – 7pm and 9pm and 16 Mar – 8pm and 10pm) that takes place at Wild Rice’s gorgeous new theatre at Funan. There are also fringe, but no less important programmes, such as Lorongs of Wisdom – Geylang Adventures that are quintessentially Singapore focused and should not be missed.