A Matter of Spaces, and Spaces that Matter by Singapore Biennale 2013 Co-curator Tan Siu Li

Singapore Art Museum
Jan 3, 2014 9:15AM

Unlike previous editions of the Singapore Biennale which presented art in evocative ‘found’ sites such as former army barracks (2006, 2008) and an old airport (2011), the Singapore Biennale 2013 is located squarely in the Civic District of Singapore. Locating the Biennale in this area, so rich in cross-currents of popular and official histories, presents an opportunity to realise artworks that seek to uncover this rich substratum of memory and consciousness. 


Urban Play: City Crossword 

The first is the intervention City Crossword, part of Jakarta-based artists Irwan Ahmett and Tita Salina’s Urban Play project for the Biennale. It transforms the square tiles of the pavement at the Singapore Management University (SMU) into a colourful crossword grid, with the public invited to collectively solve the puzzle. The puzzle questions seek to uncover the histories of the site. This is pertinent and pressing in Singapore, where layers of history are buried under unceasingly constructed layers of the new.


Innocuously playful on the surface, City Crossword raises important questions about the nature of urban planning and the public’s role in actively (re)claiming public space. The artists’ modus operandi of transforming the uses and functions of existing features of the cityscape challenges the functionalism and pragmatism that drive urban zoning imperatives in Singapore. It is in the spirit of play – play as breaking from control, and spontaneous (re)invention or improvisation – that the Urban Play interventions present an approach to rethinking the spaces we inhabit and what they mean to us.



Wormhole by Indonesian artist-architect Eko Prawoto, comprises three large bamboo mounds pitched in front of the National Museum of Singapore. These structures reference the forms of mountains and volcanoes, and the installation interrupts the genteel architectural facades of the Civic District with its thatched bamboo structures. The contrast between the rustic, organic mounds of Wormhole – at once elemental and primordial - and the august architecture of the museum throws into sharp relief the constructed-ness of the National Museum, both in terms of its Neo-Palladian architecture and its role in constructing a national identity.


Here also are two differing experiences and expressions of monumentality; the phenomenological encounter offered by Wormhole introduces viewers to a celestial cosmology in which the mountain is regarded as an axis connecting and mediating between the earth and the heavens (see Wright, 1991, pp. 98–116). There is something almost eternal about the qualities of time, light and space in Wormhole, removed from the hustle and bustle of urban life outside, just like the enduring mythologies that pervade life and beliefs in Indonesia. Wormhole returns us to ‘something we once knew from before’ and invites a rethinking about how our world has changed, as well as what we may have gained or lost along the way.


Lumbung Ilmu 

Also sited on the grounds of the National Museum of Singapore, not far from Wormhole, is Lumbung Ilmu, a small wooden hut sheltered under a banyan tree. Created by self-taught artist Rosid, Lumbung Ilmu (‘Granary of Knowledge’) began as a small personal museum to house the artist’s books and artefacts of his identity as an anak petani (‘son of farmers’). It quickly became a community space in Bandung, where people came to meet friends, socialise, read and pray.

While Lumbung Ilmu was assembled with Rosid’s own hands and the assistance of his friends, the National Museum, in its vicinity, was built by the British colonial government and is today used by the Singapore government to house and present national heritage and identity. This begs the question of whose values are being enshrined at the National Museum and who ‘owns’ its content, in contrast to the ground-up approach embodied by Rosid’s humble structure.

At the same time, the lumbung reminds us of another library that once stood nearby. The former National Library on Stamford Road was built in part due to the generous contributions of philanthropist Lee Kong Chian. The passionate public debates surrounding its eventual demolition in 2004 were perhaps one of the first waves of post-prosperity civic dissent in Singapore over governmental decisions to remove popular landmarks. What remains of the former National Library today is a red-bricked entryway in the middle of a grassy patch, a few paces away from Lumbung Ilmu.

The siting of the Biennale in the Civic District offers opportunities to plumb and perhaps uncover the layers of histories and narratives in this rich terrain. It is worth noting too that the word ‘civic’ is defined simultaneously as being related to a town and its administration, as it is also related to the duties and activities of its citizenry. It is in the Civic District that the ongoing contestations and negotiations between a people and their government over the use and ownership of public space can take place, and art – as demonstrated by these three Biennale works -- can play a role in initiating these conversations. 



Ooi, G.L. (2004). The Future of Space: Planning, Space and the City. Singapore: Eastern Universities Press. 

Urban Redevelopment Authority (Singapore). (6 December 2012). Revitalising the Civic District: Creating space and improving walkability. Retrieved from http://www.ura.gov.sg/pr/text/2012/pr12-135.html

Wright, A. (1991). Soul, Spirit and Mountain. In Soul, Spirit and Mountain: Preoccupations of Contemporary Indonesian Painters. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press. 

Singapore Art Museum