Singapore Biennale 2006

Simryn Gill's Station

published in Flash, October - Melbourne, 2006

Walking along the concrete pathways bordering the compounds of Tanglin Camp - the military barracks converted into installation sites for the inaugural Singapore Biennale - my shoes scuffed the stencilled lettering of words placed at intervals on the concrete walkway. Words like "truth", "belief", "power" - actually, I can't really remember them because they were so meaningless to me, but I do recall they all targeted 'big issues'.

Most of what I could say about self-proclaimed acts of politicised art practice currently channeled through the world's 'biennalia' is as unnecessary as most of the art and its curatorial scaffolding. Politics may be numero uno on the agenda, but I can smell humanism downwind from 40 metres. I get the impression that most of the contemporary art world suffers from severe nasal blockage. The Singapore Biennale's late-announced theme of "Belief" could have potentially sent shivers down my spine - but it didn't. Despite the curatorial possibility that 'belief' may have reinscribed some personal and even artistic modulation of the world's 'big issues', I really don't care what anyone believes, nor do I think you warrant respect solely because you 'believe' in something - especially if your belief intersects with a 'big issue'.

Being lubed and inserted into the Singapore Biennale with my gorgeous work Fluorescent, I was hesitant as to how my work would (again) be presumed apolitical because of its refusal to flagelate my 'self' with 'relational humanism'. But curator Eugene Tan I think saw past the obvious in selecting me. Furthermore, many of the artists I met there were not so binary with political mandates of art. A number of them confirmed my long-standing suspicion that contemporary art 'practice' (yes, the word irks me) is problematised by a disjuncture between acts of declaration and actual artistic schismatism. That is, many artists now are interesting to talk to (trust me - in the 80s this was sooo not the case) but their artworks seem to contain uncoded glimmers of the spiky energy they express when simply discussing things and making ad hoc lateral connections through their conversation. The overtly obtuse nature of so much 'installation art' (surprise: that term irks me too) might be a global strategy against 'journalistic' art and its ethno/anthro/eco-centric finger-pointing, but its very obscurantism can fatefully reposition the artist as his or her own shamanistic myth-maker. Both strategies seem born of a muted crisis that stems from an inability to propose something freely decontexualized from the zone of one's actions.

Australian artist Simryn Gill deftly side-stepped this terrain in the Singapore Biennale. (And not just because her passport dictated that she be listed as a Malaysian artist rather than an Australian artist.) Her work Station - like a sizable portion of the works in the Biennale - is site-specific. But whereas much 'site-specific' practice is ultimately an act of urinary territorialization by the artist (yes, it's true), Simryn Gill's work is the extant site itself. The murals at the Tanjong Pagar Railway Station - like so much public art that has been accidentally preserved - seems to hover in an alternate dimension. A series of six looming vertical murals evoking stain glass yet composed of painted rubber sectioning depict archetypal colonialist endeavours in mock Indo-Chinoise. The standard fare of indigenous people harvesting the fruits of their labour for British colonists is emblazoned in each panel. Too high to be defaced, too bland to attract any sexy interventionist action, they bask in the station's ambience like lost sea-lions.

For her contribution to the Biennale, Simyrn has produced a small publication (Guide to the Murals at Tanjong Pagar Railway Station) where she matter-of-factly describes the contents of the murals - their actions, their actors, the stages for their tasks. The quietitude of her guide serves to amplify the 'alternate dimension' of these murals that seem to not notice how times currently frame their depicted scenarios. Accompanying her polite prose is a series of black-and-white photos she took of the station as it is now. The murals appear nowhere in these images (save for the beautiful front-cover fold-out poster), and instead she focuses on the use-level of the station - the people sitting at ground level, waiting for trains to transport them north to work along the Malay Peninsula. A melange of ethnicities and backgrounds, her head-cropped populace of indistinct shapes captures the silent yet visible workforce flowing in and out of Singapore.

Simyrn's Station operates at the meta-level of positioning itself not as an act or statement, but as an intersecting point between artist and place. Presented completely outside of the visible scaffolding of the Biennale (no 'big concept' stencilling here), it refuses to stand as an act of intervention in the space. Indeed, it can be purchased at the station kiosk as what most would presume to be an official guide. More a self-contained curatorial document of personal contemplation of public space, Station maintains itself at the level of conversation rather than blasts itself like a T-shirt slogan. In an era of platformed declaration and stencilled markers, Station is that brief but affecting chat by chance you have with someone waiting for the train.


Text © Philip Brophy. Image © Simryn Gill.