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Natasha is Vague and Hard to Understand, and she wants it to be that way


A review of the Singapore Biennale 2022, named Natasha. Written as part of an art criticism module at LASALLE College of the Arts



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Natasha is Vague and Hard to Understand, and she wants it to be that way

Natasha isn’t a curator, neither is she an artist, yet, she has been the talk of the town since her announcement in March 2022. Ongoing from 16 October 2022 to 19 March 2023, Natasha is the Singapore Biennale. Indeed, the7th edition of the biennale was named, not themed. The public reception toNatasha has been mixed, with many asking: Who, or what, is Natasha? On the surface, naming the biennale Natasha feels bizarre. Moreover, the naming felt underwhelming when compared to the themes we’ve seen in the past, such as An Atlas of Mirrors in 2016 or If The World Changed in 2013. However, as Natasha comes to a close in March, I’ve grown to appreciate the challenging nature of the biennale. In hindsight, Natasha ‘herself’ may be vague and difficult to grasp, but I wholly believe that this is by design.


The lack of spectacle, on the surface, contradicts the intentions of the four co-artistic directors — Binna Choi (South Korea), Nida Ghouse (India), June Yap (Singapore), and Ala Younis (Kuwait) — where they hoped for audiences to have an intimate experience with the biennale. After all, how can we engage the audiences without something grand to pull them in? Unfortunately, while attempting to engage the public with a more personal experience, Natasha has inadvertently confused the audience and, more critically, potentially alienated audience members who may not be as engaged with the arts. Furthermore, with over 100 works featured and a biennale named — not themed — the biennale left itself open to interpretation, a surprising move, given the tendency for art and art events alike to be ‘over-explained’.


I was obsessed with understanding why they chose to name Natasha. In hindsight, perhaps her naming was a distraction; I left my first few visits missing the exhibited works' true impact. However, as I began to focus on the art rather than the biennale’s naming, my appreciation for each one of them grew; indeed, I did find myself having — as the co-artistic directors intended— an intimate experience with the works and the biennale. It wasn’t aboutNatasha or the spectacle we associate with biennales; I best enjoyed the experience up close. Looking past Natasha, I found a delightful smorgasbord of works, each with its charm, unbound by any overarching theme to dictate what they might mean; each work stood on its own. In other words, Natasha wasn’t here to hold our hand — she was challenging our understanding and appreciation of art.


Split across 11 different venues — with the majority concentrated in the Central Business District (CBD) of Singapore —each of Natasha’s venues varies in its space, design and atmosphere. For example, the space at 22 Orchard Road is housed within the iconic stretch of houses near Dhoby Ghaut MRT. The walkways along the stretch are often used as such, hardly the destination itself. As a result, Natasha blends in with the other shophouse fronts, only identifiable by her logo on the display window.


On the contrary, 39 Tanjong Pagar Distripark —SAM’s newfound home — was much more elaborate, with art thronging the space.The gallery at level 1 can almost feel overwhelming; upon entering, you’re met with a cacophony of artworks, all of different sizes and mediums, including video installations, sculptures, paintings and installations. The gallery is dimly lit, creating an intimate atmosphere. What becomes very apparent is also the wide range of subject matter and themes showcased across all the works — a strong statement of what to expect of Natasha. Not limited to the CBD, Natasha can also be found at Woodlands, Jurong and Tampines Regional Library. Those seeking to venture beyond the main shores will also find Natasha on St. John’s and Lazarus Islands.


Natasha was everywhere, adopting a different form in every space she occupied, with each location embodying a different energy. Likewise, the works featured within each location fill the space accordingly. While anyone could find more explanation of each work on the biennale’s website, the physical wall text accompanying each artist only went as far as to introduce the artist and the context of the work but not tell us what to think about it.


Typically, one would expect the art in an exhibition to ‘talk’ to one another; where the curatorial placement creates a gentle ebb and flow in the narrative, allowing for an easy transition from work to work. Instead, Natasha’s curatorial placements had no singular dialogue; however, much talking was still happening. Rather than a smooth singular conversation, the curatorial placement felt like walking into a public space, with each ongoing dialogue as interesting as the other.


Interestingly, Natasha found herself at the tail-end of a global pandemic. As noted by Edmund Cheng, the chairman of SAM,“COVID-19 brought to the fore many pertinent issues surrounding contemporary society in the globalised hyperconnected world we live in.” The curatorial direction ran parallel to what we see today: conversations happening worldwide, tackling different stories, issues and experiences. In that context, it feltlike Natasha presented a sampling of the different stories and voices happening worldwide. Unsurprising, given the culturally diverse backgrounds of the co-artistic directors too.


The intentions set by the co-artistic directors have resulted in a myriad of works in Natasha. These vary in size, theme and medium. This diversity has brought on socially engaged art that introduced a reality vastly different from ours. Two can be found in 22 OrchardRoad, — Malaeb: Pilot 1.0 (2022) by Malaeb and One Room School by S.O.I.L Community with CONA PROJECTS.


Installation view of Malaeb: Pilot 1.0 (2022) at 22 Orchard Road as part of Singapore Biennale 2022 named Natasha.


Malaeb: Pilot 1.0 can be found right by the entrance on the first level. The work, at first glance, is rather unassuming; it’s played on two old bulky televisions, back to back, propped upon two white podiums with its back right by the shophouse front window. Aside from the occasional creative edits, the video felt like an ordinary homemade video. It featured the process of children and adults assembling a playground, occasionally intercut with aerial shots of an empty plot of land. Malaeb: Pilot 1.0 on its own arguably has little artistic merit; rather, its merit lies within the content of the video.The work’s inspiration stems from Malaeb’s observations of the uneven playground distribution in Jordan. What we see documented in the video is Malaeb’s efforts to correct that imbalance.


On the second floor, we find One Room School. Unlike Malaeb: Pilot 1.0, the work is displayed on a flat-screen television, propped up by a TV stand. Accompanying the work are headsets and benches for the viewer to use as they watch the work. The video features an array of clips, typically of children and adults interacting in an educational setting. The video has no creative edits and plays as a montage. The video felt even more homemade than Malaeb: Pilot 1.0, with inconsistent aspect ratios between different clips. The video has no clear narrative, and we are left to observe the children’s experiences in that educational setting. Without context, the work feels very ordinary.


To understand One Room School, one needs to look at its ‘artist’, S.O.I.L Community with CONA PROJECTS. However, S.O.I.L (Sanctum of Inspired Learning)comprises not artists but rather parents. Describing themselves as a‘Waldorf-inspired learning space’, the parents focus on creating a heavily hands-on and experiential approach to learning. What S.O.I.L makes clear is that rather than the video itself, OneRoom School is what we see documented in the video — as a learning curriculum for the children. The montage of unedited videos shows us an unprocessed view of said curriculum.


What is also interesting is the lack of fanfare surrounding the piece and featured ‘artist’. Aside from the biennale's official website, a quick google search comes up with very little results or information about S.O.I.L or CONA PROJECTS, unexpected for any artist featured in a biennale. Natasha subverted the expectation of spectacle and big-name artists at a biennale, reminding us of the validity of the artistry of lesser-known artists, especially those who impact their communities.


It felt voyeuristic to watch the two videos, catching an intimate glimpse of the artists’ processes. While the video’s content felt insignificant to me, what dawned on me was how different the reality must be for the communities involved in the videos. Both videos showed the artists’ work to impact these communities. While many a debate exists surrounding the merit of socially-engaged art, I think the presentation of Malaeb: Pilot 1.0 and One Room School brought up an important point — the videos themselves were not visually outstanding indeed, yet, the beauty and impact of the works lie in their context. As I stand, or even sit comfortably, in the air-conditioned venue in an upbeat part of town, I’m watching the lives of communities whose experiences are a stark contrast to mine, a sobering reality of how differently some people can experience the world.


What became clear as I saw more of Natasha was how empowered each artist’s voice was, no matter the content presented in their work. While a small detail, I thought it was a nice touch that the programme booklet, rather than being organised by location, prioritised organising the artists via an index, with most artists writing in first-person to introduce themselves — reinforcing the focus on the artist rather than the locations.This indexing of the artists reflects the out-of-the-box approach Natasha tookto exhibit her artists. Daniel Lie, for example, can be found at both 22 Orchard Road and Tanjong Pagar Distripark; the context of both locations influences how his work is experienced.


Installation view of Dife and Leath (2021) at 22 Orchard Road.


The display of Daniel Lie’s works can only be described as an experiential journey. Lie uses motifs such as plants or fungi to create large-scale drawings exploring the themes of life and death. For theSingapore Biennale 2022, Lie researched and gathered materials to create a large-format multimedia work. Natasha’s use of its multiple locations helped complement the themes of Lie’s work. Life and death, across the world, are subjects treated with solemnity. Ironically, for how major those themes are inall our lives, it’s not something most people think about daily. Rather, it’s always there in the background; until it isn’t. The presentation of Lie’s works reflects that narrative, with their prominence slowly creeping up in their various locations. At 39 Tanjong Pagar Distripark, Lie’s Micro/Macro (2020) drawings can be found towards the back of the gallery, hiding in plain sight. The works are displayed on large pieces of paper, suspended with two bars holding the works steady. However, at 22 OrchardRoad, Lie’s works are much more prominent. The first floor features drawingssuch as Dife and Leath (2021) and Scales of Decay (2020). Aside from Malaeb: Pilot 1.0, the rest of the space is taken up by Lie. Here, his works envelop the space, with the bright colours of his work accentuating it. While the space on the first floor is right by the street, the stark contrast in the atmosphere is eerie, almost as if I’m a spirit within the space, watching the world go by beyond the glass window.


Lie’s FragilityGame (2023) — the result of his research for the biennale — acts as a coda to the rest of his exhibited works. Before entering the room, you’re greeted with an unsuspecting curtain covering a door, hiding the contents of what lies behind it. Upon opening the door, I first noticed the smell — reminiscent of a rainforest — before realising the monumental installation before me. Fragility Game comprises two large decaying logs, laid out in a ‘V’ formation, propped against two support pillars in the room. Twine attached to the logs suspends it from the ceiling, with earthen pots supporting its weight from below. The front of the installation is donned with what looks like a giant garland, and running down the middle is a suspended yellow banner, adding a pop of colour to the otherwise earthly-toned piece.


Entrance to the room containing Fragility Game (2023) at 22 Orchard Road


The silence and isolation of the room made the work feel like asacred monument; with the door as the only entrance, I had to move further into the room to see the front of the work. I was surrounded by decaying matter, left alone to reflect on the piece. It was hard to believe that right behind me, beyond the room's windows, was a loud bustling street — the room and installation felt like a liminal space, lost in time. I thought this difference in the curatorial placements of Lie's works paralleled our human relationship with life and death — death often isn’t at the forefront of our lives. Instead, we’re always focused on what is happening immediately around us. Still, death will always creep up slowly from behind till we meet our maker.  


View of Fragility Game(2023) from the room’s entrance at 22 Orchard Road.


The thought of multiple ongoing ‘dialogues’ amongst all the works within a single space has pros and cons. At times, the placement of works can feel somewhat jarring next to each other. For example, at 39 Tanjong Pagar Distripark’s level 1 gallery, works like Samia Halaby’s Kinetic Paintings (1986-1988) are a little too close to the works from Brightworkroom, an artist group from South Korea that empowers neurodivergent artists “who would otherwise not be part of the ‘institution of art’” as stated on the Singapore Biennale’s website. Neurodivergent people are known to have sensory processing difficulties. Halaby’s works stand as a testament to media art — the works generated by a computer programmed by Halaby herself, an impressive technological feat, given that Halaby created this in the 1980s. Kinetic Paintings is visually appealing with bright and contrasting colours, never a dull moment in its runtime. However, in its video format, these kinetic paintings’ colour, brightness and sounds are easily overstimulating. While the Kinetic Painting’s placement in situ is sound, its placement near Brightworkroom’s works was not. Digital paintings with bright, flashing colours so close to the works of Brightworkroom felt tone-deaf; the representation of other neurodivergent individuals was promising, but it needed to come hand-in-hand with creating a space accessible to the very people being represented. Being neurodivergent, I found it hard to focus near the area, and the Kinetic Paintings were harsh on my eyes and hearing it was a hair-raising experience; not pleasant by any means. Individually, Halaby’s and Brightworkroom’s works stood their ground.Still, their unfortunate proximity points to a large downside in Natasha’s curatorial placements. As much as she tried, no art in an exhibition could truly stand as an island. More care is needed when curating an exhibition lineup that is meant to be inclusive.

KineticPaintings (1986-1988) by Samia Halaby at 39 Tanjong Pagar Distripark


There were, however, moments in Natasha where having contrasting works side-by-side emphasised the impact of each work, akin to adding a pinch of salt to bring a sweet dish’s flavour out. For example, the placement of 39 bricolage paintings and 1sculpture by Joo Jae-Hwan and Sawangwongse Yawnghwe’s The Opium Paradox (2019) and Footnotes(2019) does an effective job of highlighting and differentiating each other’s qualities.


39 bricolage paintings and 1 sculpture (1997 – 2022) by Joo Jae-Hwan is absurd yet humorous.Using everyday objects as art materials, Joo’s piece represents his musings of society and life. I particularly enjoyed Joo’s work simply because it was funny. The best way to describe 39bricolage paintings and 1 sculpture is to imagine if Duchamp was a Korean ajusshi (uncle) with fleeting thoughts captured through the items around his house. It is clear through the presentation of his works that Joo is self-aware of the silliness of his works, however. Knowing the potential criticism towards Joo’s work, while seeing its absurdity in person felt like I was privy to an inside joke; amused by the silliness of it all. With the absurdly large space it occupied right by the main entrance of Gallery 1, Joo's work emphasised Natasha’s intentions: IfJoo’s art elicited a strong response — whether for or against the work — then it has served its purpose.

A canvas faced against the wall. Part of 39 bricolage paintings and 1sculpture (1997 – 2022) at 39 Tanjong Pagar Distripark.


Given a corner of its own, The Opium Parallax, suspended from the ceiling, obscures the view of Footnotes displayed behind. The Opium Parallax looks like a cryptic code from the front, however, the work's true impact lieson the other side. Walking around the piece revealed further context, with details filling the spaces between the lines. Opium trading is already a well-known issue, but what the work does effectively helps people understand how complexthe entire opium trade ecosystem is — subverting our surface-level understanding of the issue. Footnotes complements this by providing us with the artist’s anecdotal experience, illustrating the real and personal effects the opium trade has on everyday life.


Front view of The Opium Paradox (2019) andFootnotes (2019) at 39 Tanjong Pagar Distripark.


Back view of The Opium Paradox (2019) andFootnotes (2019) at 39 Tanjong Pagar Distripark.


Next to a comedic piece, the tragedy in The Opium Parallax hits even harder. The comedic relief by Joo helps make the reveal of The Opium Parallax’s other side even more poignant. On the other hand, the solemnity of The Opium Parallax brings out the absurdity of 39 bricolage paintings and 1 sculpture. With the world we live in so complex, the works by Yawnghwe and Joo help remind us of the duality of tragedy and comedy — one can never be fully experienced without the other.


By naming the biennale, Natasha is meant to take its own shape. In other words, Natasha was not formed not by the SingaporeBiennale’s curatorial team alone but also through the personal relationships its artists and viewers have with her.


Throughout my visits to Natasha, I found myself running through a whole myriad of emotions, with each work telling a different story. For those unfamiliar with visual arts, the biennale can still feel disorienting — its unorthodox presentation and naming can confuse audiences about how they should interpret the art. While that was very much the intention of Natasha, I have reservations about whether it is easily accessible to the general public. As mentioned, Singaporeans are notorious for their art literacy. With such a drastic shift from the conventional large-format exhibition, Natasha risks alienating the general public. What Natasha did well, however, was empower the artists' individuality. Each work brought something unique to the table while exposing the innumerable lived experiences and perspectives that exist globally.


While Natasha did not necessarily strike a perfect balance between empowering the voice of the artists while ensuring the art was accessible to the general audiences, the biennale's bold move towards this ‘personal’ format is, I think, a step in the right direction. So often, many artists reach their hand out, attempting to be understood by the general public, an arguably one-sided effort. We’re used to exhibitions having clear signs and explanations of the artwork, how to interact with it, and how to interpret it. Natasha, instead, has left the works to speak for themselves. “No more hand-holding” is what Natasha tells us — it is up to us to find our interpretations with the art we see. Natasha has refused to tell us what to think, leaving us — disoriented or not — to find our own answers. And she wants it to be that way.


The genius of Natasha is in how commonplace the name is in our everyday lives. Most know at least one Natasha – she could be your mother, your sister, a friend or even an enemy – giving rise to countless memories, emotions and associations we have with the name. Perhapsdue to personal biases, I may have misjudged Natasha harshly. When we look atthe works and artists Natasha presents through that lens, the presumedrandomness falls into place; each work has a story of its own, and wesubsequently form our relationships with each of the works we see. Rather than a theme forming a singular narrative for the Singapore Biennale 2022, Natasha presents a polylogue, empowering each artist’s voice.