Singapore puts the humble recorder in the celebrated Venice Biennale spotlight
Artist Song-Ming Ang and curator Michelle Ho's Music For Everyone makes the musical instrument from every Singaporean's childhood an international star.
When the prestigious Venice Biennale opens to the public this weekend (May 11), the playful sounds of the humble recorder played by Singaporean children are set to lure curious tourists and art lovers to one corner of the Italian city like a Pied Piper moment.
The music they’ll hear (and see performed) is part of Recorder Rewrite, a three-video installation by Singaporean artist Song-Ming Ang, who is representing the country at the 58th edition of what is often regarded as the international art world’s version of the Olympics, which runs from May 11 to Nov 24.
Ang’s 15-min video piece – which features 20 children either performing or playing (or both at the same time) at various locations at the Singapore Conference Hall – is the main component of the five-part show Music For Everyone: Variations On A Theme.
The show was unveiled on May 9 at the Singapore Pavilion, located in the Arsenale complex. At the opening, a group of children from Venice also fittingly performed a new composition on recorders, which was inspired by the video piece.
The exhibit takes its cue from the Music For Everyone series of public concerts organised by what was then Singapore's Ministry of Culture back in the 1970s and 1980s.
Conceived by Ang together with Singaporean curator Michelle Ho, it also includes a series of poster reproductions from the 1970s: Huge textile banners of old Music For Everyone concerts as well as watercolour paintings of lyric and songwriting contests of the time.
There are also sculptures of reassembled parts of the recorder and a series of blank music manuscripts that have been turned into quirky paper art through folding, crumpling and splicing.
The 38-year-old contemporary artist is known for making works that are music-themed, which has previously included everything from reassembling an old piano to holding “listening parties”.
“You can go to many places with music, and in my practice, it has an anthropological aspect. Most of the time I don’t even make music. I make art about music, so there’s a bit of distance. I think a lot about contexts in which we consume music, how music reaches us,” said Ang, who incidentally, will be presenting another separate work back in Singapore this month during the National Gallery Singapore’s Children’s Biennale.
The presence of the recorder – whether reconfigured as sculptures or played by children in the video installation – is a nod to the musical instrument’s ubiquitous presence in the lives of Singaporean children.
“In Singapore, we inherited the recorder as part of our music education due to the legacy of British colonialism,” he added. “But if we look beyond the instrument’s history, what we see is that many people around the world actually share a common experience through it. Ideally, the audience [watching the video] should walk away feeling excited, thinking, ‘Ah, I didn’t know you could do that with the recorder!’”
Curator Ho, meanwhile, pointed out how the show offers two perspectives of what the idea of “music for everyone” can be.
Citing how the Music For Everyone series began during Singapore’s early nation-building years, she said: “From the Ministry of Culture’s point of view, music has been put into somewhat neat categories [such as] the genres of instruments or types of performers. And when we start to look at Song-Ming’s works, there’s a much lighter sense of free play going on. There’s a lot of improvisation techniques; how to expand on the possible forms of a music instrument that turn into sculptures.”
In his opening speech, guest-of-honour Baey Yam Keng, senior parliamentary secretary for the Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth, and Transport, announced there are plans to bring the exhibit to Singapore next year.
“It is fascinating to see how historical archives are given new life through this exhibition,” he said, referring to the show’s posters and banners.
He also highlighted the show’s use of the recorder, recalling how he and his children had also learned it in primary school. “Today, it is still taught in primary schools in Singapore as well as in many other countries as one of the earliest introductions to music.”
Paul Tan, deputy chief executive of the National Arts Council, which commissioned the show, added: “It shines a spotlight on a humble and familiar musical instrument and through it, retells Singapore’s cultural history and the story of music education.”
Singapore has been participating in the Biennale since 2001, and Ang follows other previous artist representatives, including recent ones such as Zai Kuning (2017), Charles Lim (2015), Ho Tzu Nyen (2011) and Ming Wong, who won a Special Mention prize back in 2009.
Since 2015, Singapore has been presenting at a space in the Arsenale’s Sale d’Armi building, where it has a 20-year lease.
Ang isn’t the only Singaporean or Singapore-based artist in town. Elsewhere, sculptor and painter Kumari Nahappan is exhibiting a huge sculpture of entwined chillies titled Talktime at the Giardini Marinaressa as part of the Personal Structures international exhibition.
It’s Nahappan’s second consecutive participation at Venice Biennale parallel show. In 2017, she exhibited giant saga seeds at an indoor venue, but this year, her sculptures are out in the open.
“So far, everyone’s been taking a lot of photos,” she said, with a laugh. “Two years ago, (my work) was in a closed space where the impact was intense, whereas this is free and open, and it kind of draws people’s attention while they’re walking.”
Also participating in shows running parallel to the Biennale are new media artist Urich Lau, performance artists Adeline Kueh and Lynn Lu, photographer Teo Chai Guan, painter Laila, as well as curators Annie Jael Kwan and Erika Tan.
Elsewhere, there was news of artist Shubigi Rao being was appointed curator of the fifth Kochi-Muziris Biennale, India's largest art event, which will be held in 2020.
Early this year, Rao was part of a joint exhibition with actress-artist Lucy Liu held at the National Museum Singapore.
This year’s Venice Biennale features a slew of events including a main exhibition that revolves around the theme May You Live In Interesting Times. There are also 90 national pavilions, including a handful from the region.
Aside from Singapore, other South-east Asian countries present include the Philippines, Indonesia, Thailand and Malaysia, who will be participating for the first time.