Steps in the Right Direction

We speak to Patrick Flores, artistic director of Singapore Biennale 2019, on moving the biennale beyond the art world and rethinking the region.

Interview and photography by Lee Chang Ming
Additional images courtesy of respective artists

Straddling between art and academia has afforded Patrick Flores a perspective few can provide. An established curator, art historian and educator, he is one of the most prominent figures in the region’s artistic landscape. He is currently Professor of Art Studies at the Department of Art Studies at the University of the Philippines and Curator of the Vargas Museum in Manila. In 2015, he curated an exhibition of contemporary art from Southeast Asia and Southeast Europe titled South by Southeast and the Philippine Pavilion at the Venice Biennale.

More recently, he was appointed artistic director of Singapore Biennale 2019. Proposing a bold vision that reworks our understanding of the current state of the world while being rooted in our immediate conditions, this year’s biennale is titled “Every Step in Right Direction”. We sat down with Flores to talk about this year’s framework for the biennale and the urgency of contemporary art.

Film still from Funeral. Image courtesy of Vandy Rattana.

As an art historian and academic, does it inform your approach to curating the biennale?

I was trained as an art historian so my curatorial work extends from that. Unlike curators who studied curatorship, I come from a different generation of art historians who, at some point in their practice, had to curate. I find that relationship between art history and curating contemporary art very productive. It allows me to situate contemporary art in contexts. At the same time, curating allows me to rethink certain ideas in relation to actual material that they present.

Sometimes as an art historian, it’s just between you and the archive. But as a curator, you deal with material and living artists. You also deal with the manner of presenting material in space and also create certain conditions for the audience to come into contact with the material in the space. I think the curatorial situation complicates certain art historical ideas, which tend to be axiomatic or sometimes they harden into orthodoxy…but curating loosens that and releases that from preconceptions.

As a curator you actively produce or co-produce artworks.

Yes, the co-production is creative. I look at the curatorial gesture as a creative gesture. We’re not merely reactive because we co-produce – we enable work to find its presence.

This year’s theme for Singapore Biennale is “Every Step in the Right Direction”. Could you elaborate more on the inspiration for the theme? You mentioned you were inspired by 2 women: Amanda Heng and Salud Algabre.

I take inspiration from, in a way, a certain feminine instinct [and] a potentially feminist politics from those two women who invest in patience as they do in agency. We tend to implicate agency with the power or capacity to produce things, sometimes at the expense of patience – meaning waiting for things to grow and mature, or being persistent in pursuing a practice. So I think these two women lead us there.

In the case of Amanda Heng, it’s a self-reflection about her presence in society as a woman artist and inviting people to walk in her “Let’s Walk” series. In her “Let’s Chat” work, there’s a certain patience present in the process. [This patience] is present in Salud Algabre’s reasoning that no movement fails. Because a different mind might say, “it didn’t succeed, so it failed”. But in Salud Algabre’s mind, it might have failed in the conventional sense or maybe tactical sense, but they had done something to push things in a certain direction. Maybe they changed minds, learned a few things about organisation and so on. I think these things matter.

Sometimes, when something doesn’t succeed, the lessons of the failure are neglected. But what Salud Algabre is saying is there is no failure in that sense; everything is part of an investment in the right direction. Of course one may say, “what is the right direction?” Well, that depends on the values the person has: What is important? What is human? What is justice? It’s the responsibility of the person to think through what is the right direction.

But I must also say that the right direction cannot be achieved if one doesn’t make the step. That’s why “every step” has to be seen always in relation to the “right direction”. Because even if you have this idea of what the direction is, when you make the step, the process might actually change your mind about what you had preconceived as the right direction.

It’s always difficult because you, in a way, struggle with other steps being taken by other people who might have different ideas of what the right direction is. So you come into a certain situation of deliberation and dialogue. Which is what political work is all about. You process difference and maybe create a certain condition of commonality or solidarity or a certain agreement to live with difference but at the same time maintain difference. It’s not a conclusive thing.

It’s difficult to be prescriptive or programmatic as everything then becomes ideological, not really political. So the title “Every Step in the Right Direction” tried to invest in a longer process or even more difficult process of deliberation in the public sphere.

Zai Tang – Escape Velocity II, Image courtesy of Tuckys Photography.

With the public sphere in mind, you also mentioned about possibly working with non-arts groups for the biennale?

Yes, we’re in the process of doing that because we’re trying to broaden the sphere of the biennale beyond the art world. We’re not reinventing the wheel, because there are initiatives on the ground in Singapore that touch base with the wider common culture. We’re trying to co-produce something with them but also to respect the impulse that has kept them going.

Sometimes biennales, in their earnest effort to bring the public in, tend to co-opt initiatives that have different energies and dynamics. We respect those dynamics because they will be there even after the biennale and they had been there before the biennale. At the same time, we also enhance their position in relation to another platform, which is the biennale. We’re working with a range of groups. I cluster them around heritage, moving image and performance.

Like for heritage, we’re working Geylang Adventures because their tours are about land and property, so we want some kind of discursive tour. We’re working with the The Projector for a possible film programme, and possibly Drama Box. We invest more in co-curating whatever programmes they have for the biennale to mutually produce something. So that’s one way to enlarge the public sphere through heritage, moving image and performance.

Image courtesy of Dennis Tan.

Going back to the title of the biennale, you mentioned about raising the question of what is the right direction. Everyone has different values and politics is often people or groups claiming theirs is the right way. But in the end, who actually gets to decide? 

We think about these things, which is the point: that one doesn’t wait for a person to tell you what the direction is but we have to make a step to find out where you want to go. It’s an open invitation to take part in a difficult process. Likewise, contemporary art is very difficult. It has a language of its own, which is very dense discursively because it refers to so many contexts.

It’s a new language, but how do you learn a new language? You invest in time, you learn its grammar, you speak it with your own voice…but that takes time. It’s never easy, but in a consumer culture we want things easy. So again there’s that tension.

It’s also about creating a space for reflection as well. This year’s format has a seminar component, could you tell us more?

A seminar and a festival coming together. The seminar refers to the reflective part of the biennale. Situations of reflection which may come in different ways. It could be an actual seminar. It could be just looking at archival material. It could be also performance by an artist who will activate an archive. It could also be a reading session around the work. We’ll find ways aside from the symposium and the curator’s talk, which are commonplace in the biennale.

Film still from MONOLOGUE. Image courtesy of Vandy Rattana.

You’ve written extensively about Southeast Asia and art. Additionally, past editions of the Singapore Biennale has also included Southeast Asian artists. I read in another interview that you want to question or decentre this idea of Southeast Asia as a geopolitical category. For example if we talk about diaspora or heritage, it complicates that idea.

The region is geopolitically imagined by the Cold War. I’m not saying it’s not important, but we’re trying to not make it the only way to imagine the region. The region before ASEAN was vaster. In other words, we take cognisance of the geopolitical construction, but we also offer ways to reimagine it.

Southeast Asia geographically is east of India, south of China and north of Australia. But at the same time, we are surrounded by water. We’re surrounded by the South China sea, the Indian Ocean, the Pacific. We invest in that connection, because the connection can lead us to West Asia, to the Middle East, or the Pacific trade between the Philippines and Mexico. The colonial period might take us to Iberia or Latin America. Or the Austronesian route out of Taiwan could lead us to Australia and even as far as Madagascar. The South China Sea, of course, connects us to the silk road, which China is reimagining in the Belt and Road.

We are linked by the sea even as we stand on firm ground as islands in region. That’s why I asked the curators to find ways to reimagine Southeast Asia, but through Southeast Asia. If we expand beyond Southeast Asia, we cannot expand randomly. We have to choose artists from geographies that make sense to Southeast Asia.

Film still from Funeral. Image courtesy of Vandy Rattana.

I like that idea of rethinking history. It’s not just one narrative, but alternative accounts that are not told as much as the dominant narrative — to unearth these marginalised stories.

Yes, that’s why we have Arnont Nongyao from Chiang Mai, who looks at the market as a contact zone of various ethnicities in north of Thailand. His work might link him to India or maybe to the drug trade, which is a different cartography. The narcotic route is another interesting map which is not official. So we’re tapping into these cartographies, but we want this to arise from the work. That’s why we look at artists who diligently work with contexts, otherwise the context is just instrumentalised or used for some kind of appeal.

Poem from Nowhere – Image courtesy of the Heritage Space Team

You’ve curated exhibitions internationally. Are there special considerations when curating in Singapore that you have faced so far or that you anticipate?

All exhibitions are site-specific, so I have to deal with what is on the ground, and Singapore has its own history – how the public is formed is different. I come from a very improvisational culture in the Philippines, but here it’s more systematic and structured. The other [issues], I don’t want to anticipate so much. We’ll deal with it as they come.

I’m sure there will be problems with certain works of art in relation to certain perceptions, but they will be processed. Maybe that’s also a virtue in my history as a teacher, because contemporary art needs to be explained persistently. You have to have patience to talk about it.

Even the title went through a lot because it’s a delicate phrase that it can be taken in different ways – which I like – I don’t like a title that captures. I want it to be a bit elusive. I think this phrase embodies both urgency and ambiguity. However, some are uncomfortable with ambiguity, while some are uncomfortable with urgency. So I have deal with discomforts and try to, in a way, assuage or tell them that urgency is a process too and that ambiguity is a central aspect of art.

Maybe if it’s too coherent or clear it’s not art. Art is productive confusion. The contemporary is ambiguous and art is too. But in the same breath, [art is] urgent because it proposes something different that goes against what’s normal or dominant.

There are certain apprehensions that come into play, but we cannot second guess public perception and we don’t have to manage public perception. If we want to do that, then we don’t deal with contemporary art at all. By being committed to contemporary art we should be committed to the risks that it brings. Otherwise, I mean, we [would] do other things. So I remind people that if contemporary art is not just lip service, then we commit to it with patience and an open mind.


Singapore Biennale 2019 will take place from 22 November 2019 to 22 March 2020 across National Gallery Singapore, Gillman Barracks, and other cultural venues in Singapore.

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