Singapore will not be participating in the 55th Venice Biennale. In a statement released to the press on August 28, the National Arts Council (NAC) announced that the country has decided not to stage a national pavilion at the forthcoming edition of the internationally prestigious contemporary art show as it intends to “critically re-assess Singapore’s long-term participation” in the event.
The local arts community has responded with dismay and puzzlement to the news that comes at a time when Singapore has attained significant critical acclaim for its most recent participations in the world’s oldest contemporary art event. In 2009, Ming Wong won the Biennale’s Special Jury Mention award, a first for the country, while Ho Tzu Nyen’s video installation for the 2011 edition of the pavilion, The Cloud of Unknowing, received glowing reviews and was subsequently picked up by the 2012 Sundance Film Festival. Next year marks the first time the country will be the sitting out of the Biennale since the first Singapore Pavilion in 2001.
Janice Koh, Nominated Member of Parliament for the arts, expressed her disappointment in a note posted on her public Facebook page, suggesting that the withdrawal is part of “the huge and sudden swing in government’s cultural policy towards pushing community arts for the masses.” Prior to the official withdrawal from Venice, on July 31 the government had announced the setting up of a new Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth to which the NAC will be moved and housed under one umbrella together with portfolios relating to heritage, sports and youth. The NAC is currently under the purview of the Ministry of Information, Communication and the Arts (MICA) that will see “the arts” dropped from its name in November this year.
Over two hundred members of the arts community, including artists and curators who represented Singapore at past editions of the Biennale, have also signed an open letter to the minister of MICA, Yaacob Ibrahim. The letter, which formally requests that the Ministry reconsiders its decision, highlights Venice’s standing as the world’s preeminent contemporary art exhibition: “While we recognise that Singapore’s participation in Venice need not be the determination of artistic worth for Singaporean artists, the fact remains that it is one of the most important and invaluable channels through which Singaporean artists can connect with the international art world on our terms.”
It also points out that there are other issues at stake beyond that of artistic excellence, referring to how the visibility of participation in an international event like Venice offers the nation-state “an indispensable channel” through which it can negotiate how it represents itself to the world—something essential, as the letter asserts, to the “on-going national conversation about the direction and development of Singaporean identity.”
Echoing Koh’s concern over the sudden shift in the direction of the country’s cultural policy, it further calls for notions of culture and community to not be interpreted “in narrow provincial terms that preclude the engagement of Singaporean art with global movements and discourses,” adding that “greater community involvement in the arts does not, should not—and need not—be at the expense of artistic excellence.”