Patrick Flores, artistic director of Singapore Biennale

[dropcap size=small]S[/dropcap]ometime in the 1980s, Patrick Flores’ auditor father returned home with a magazine from the United States Information Agency in the Philippines. It had a long fussy title, Dialogue: Quarterly Journal of Opinion & Analysis on Subjects of Current Intellectual & Cultural Interest in the United States. And it contained serious analyses of the paintings of Willem de Kooning, the popular Robert Redford baseball movie The Natural, and other cultural phenomena of the time.

For the young Flores, Dialogue was one of the most fascinating things he had ever held in his hands. The idea that pop culture could be discussed with reverence, intelligence and sophistication electrified him. Over the course of his youth, he started to think deeply about various art forms such as visual arts, cinema and literature.

Art history

After graduating from university, he worked towards becoming an art historian and professor at the Department of Art Studies at the University of the Philippines and concurrently, the curator of Vargas Museum in Manila. He’s written extensively on the art of South-east Asia and curated high-profile exhibitions, such as the Philippine Pavilion at the 2015 Venice Biennale. Last year, he was placed on ArtReview’s Power 100 list of influential art figures.

Most recently, the 49-year-old Iloilo native (“I’m fond of that Ilo Ilo movie by Anthony Chen!”) was appointed the artistic director of the Singapore Biennale, in which he hopes to frame the region’s art more firmly within the larger arc of its history. His academic rigour will be a refreshing change for the Biennale whose last two editions have been criticised for lacking focus. Titled “Every Step In The Right Direction”, it will highlight art and artists proposing or taking steps towards transforming the world.

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Putting aside Singapore for a second, what have been your favourite biennales in recent years?

I really liked the 2012 edition of the Taipei Biennial curated by Anselm Franke. It was intellectually strong. It spoke to historical context of the modern and how the modern has shaped the contemporary. It was very rewarding for me, though I know it might be difficult for the ordinary person.

Can we expect something similar for the Singapore Biennale?

The Taipei Biennale worked well in that it was very discursive and intellectual. But that’s only a part of how I want the Singapore Biennale to look like. The other part comprises a strong “festive” element to hopefully appeal to the wider public. Contemporary art is difficult on its own; curatorial intervention can add another layer of difficulty. At the same time, there is pressure for contemporary art to be intelligible and accessible to the layman. So we’ll try to do both.

The Biennale’s title and statement suggest a leaning towards political art.

Yes, it does seems inclined towards the political. But we’re also trying to rethink what we mean by the political. We want to recognise small efforts or minor gestures towards this complex and general project of transformation. Hence the title “Every Step In The Right Direction.”

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There has been some turmoil in the region, particularly in countries such Malaysia, Thailand, Myanmar and the Philippines. Can we expect works that respond strongly to it?

Artists in the region are responding to these issues on a daily basis. They just mediate them in different ways. So I look for that quality of mediation, how they process the material in relation to certain forms. The materiality, of course, comes out of the artist’s resources, but the social context of how the two come together in a gesture or a project is important for me. The work doesn’t have to be direct or confrontational, but it should have a position in relation to the issues.

It must be said, though, that the levels of censorship in several South-east Asian countries, including Singapore, is anywhere between moderate and high.

It’s true, and some of the artists have internalised them. So for me, self-censorship can actually be part of the work, in that we see the artists internalising these obstacles but findings ways to get around or confront them. It may or may not be productive. It can be very subtle or even tangential. But I think these are all political dispositions at work.

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You’ve unveiled four artist names so far: Arnont Nongyao from Thailand, Dennis Tan from Singapore/Japan, Zai Tang from Singapore/United Kingdom, and Vandy Rattana from Cambodia. With the exception perhaps of Rattana, these artists are not known names on the international circuit. Is this a taste of what’s to come? Artists who are under-the-radar but whose practices you think warrant global attention?

Perhaps in our unconscious, we don’t want to just affirm reputations or careers, or sustain a kind of circulation of superstars. As it is, the Biennale platform has been criticised for thriving on superstars who keep appearing in all the shows. So we’re committed to researching the art world to discover new artists, instead of curating through catalogues. Having said that, we are also open to artists who are established and mature, if the work is strong.

How might the city look when the Biennale opens in November?

Although Singapore Art Museum is the organiser, the building itself is undergoing renovation. So there will be no anchor space to speak of. The Biennale will instead be dispersed across various locations, from the National Gallery Singapore and the Bras Basah-Bugis district, to Gillman Barracks. I see them all as nodes in a network, each with its own space and identity, and none being superior to the others. In keeping with the title “Every Step In The Right Direction”, you have to walk around from point to point, and in doing so discover or rediscover the city. We’re also working with independent cinema The Projector, theatre company Drama Box which does forum theatre, and Geylang Adventures which provides tours of the red-light district. Each has its own organic audience whom we’d like to connect with our own Biennale audience. That’s one way of making the Biennale accessible, while still positioning it discursively.

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This article was originally published in The Business Times.

Photo: BT/SPH