Key Members of Singapore Pavilion Withdraw from Venice Biennale
By Katherine Volk
On December 30, less than five months after the announcement of the team’s formation, the Singapore’s National Arts Council (NAC) revealed that the Pavilion’s curator June Yap and project manager Neo Kim Seng will not represent the city-state at the upcoming 57th Venice Biennale. Yap was set to curate local artist Zai Kuning’s expansive installation at the upcoming event in Italy, which begins in May. NAC claimed “differences in the operational approaches” as a key factor in the pair’s decision to walk away and that both requested to withdraw from the assignment in a “mutually agreed decision amongst the members of the project team.”
The NAC will continue to work with Zai to execute the original proposal for the event, which will be the artist’s most complex installation to date. Zai’s work for the pavilion, Dapunta Hyang, is a culmination of 20 years of research into Malay culture and the history of Southeast Asia. In particular, he explores the lives of the Orang Laut—pre-colonial nomadic inhabitants of the region that lived in boats as sea gypsies along coastal areas. The work is a continuation of a series of installations that were shown at various locations, including Singapore’s Ota Fine Arts gallery (2014), Art Basel Hong Kong (2015) and Palais de Tokyo in Paris (2015).
Local newspaper Today commented that many members of the Singaporean art community expressed shock given the close relationship shared by the pair. Last year, Zai recruited Yap due to her longstanding commitment to his work; she had previously written exhibition texts and essays on his practice. Their partnership for the Venice Biennale would have been the first time the pair worked together to present a commissioned work.
Yap is known for curating the 2011 iteration of the Singapore pavilion at the Venice Biennale, which featured a multichannel video installation by Ho Tzu Nyen, The Cloud of Unknowing. The immersive piece encompassed eight vignettes, each featuring a figure shrouded by clouds in an abandoned apartment block located on the outskirts of Singapore. In 2012, she took up a two-year residency at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York where she curated a traveling exhibition with the Guggenheim UBS Map Global Art Initiative titled “No Country: Contemporary Art for South and Southeast Asia” (2012–14). The show was then mounted at the Asia Society in Hong Kong, and finally at the Nanyang Technological University Centre for Contemporary Art in Singapore. The exhibition was bestowed the Prudential Eye Awards for Best Exhibition of Asian Contemporary Art. More recently, in 2016, she was a meber of the Singapore Biennale advisory committee.
With only five months to go before the Venice Biennale kicks off, NAC director Low Eng Teong quelled fears by saying, “Everything else, including the planned opening of the Singapore Pavilion at the Venice Biennale, is on schedule.”
Zai Kuning will open his studio to the public during Singapore Art Week in early January, offering a preview of the work in progress before it is sent to Venice.
Katherine Volk is assistant editor at ArtAsiaPacific.
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