Children, often with guardians in tow, walk very carefully on the 16-meter glass bridge while gazing down at the bottomless infinity below. The distance between their feet and the space pit plumbing down to the unknown is measured by a mountain of books connoting the limitless galaxy of knowledge and discovery.
The dainty but difficult steps they make—difficult because the glass appears fragile and may perhaps break—provide the kid sojourners the vicarious Aha! experience of exploration and revelation.
It is such excitement of knowledge breakthrough that the second edition of Gallery Children’s Biennale seeks to elicit in the 11 interactive works by various artists from Southeast Asia that have been mounted at the the National Gallery Singapore (NGS).
The glass bridge is the work of Mark Justiniani, who is representing the Philippines in the 58th Venice Biennale this year. His installation, “Stardust: Soaring Through the Sky’s Embrace,” is a reprise of the one he did for the first edition of the Gallery Children’s Biennale in 2017.
Working with his choice media of glasses and reflective mirrors, Justiniani employs magic realism in his immersive work consisting of hand-drawn images, sculpted and kinetic objects and a glass infinity wheel, which takes gallerygoers on a quest to plumb the mysteries of the universe.
So successful was the first edition of Children’s Biennale that NGS and its Keppel Centre for Art Education won the 2018 Children in Museums Award by the European Museum Academy and Hands On! International Association of Children in Museums.
“With its free admission and mantra ‘Children first, parents second,’ the Keppel Centre is an excellent example of a dynamic 21st century education center within an art gallery, introducing children to art at an early age while acknowledging the importance of lifelong learning,” the jurors said.
“The exhibitions are constantly inspired by the permanent collections of the museum and encourage families to visit the National Gallery as well as the Keppel Centre. The involvement of local artists who are inspired by the museum collections, in collaboration with the dedicated education team, has led to the production of excellent, well-designed exhibitions for younger visitors.”
The theme this year is “Embracing Wonder.” The biennale, according to Suenne Megan Tan, NGS director for audience development and engagement, “seeks to develop curious and critical minds among children. We want them to ‘embrace’ openness and inclusiveness, and accept differences.”
It could be said that the 11 works are large-scale playgrounds of the young mind. The works seek to activate children’s senses and spark their curiosity and sense of wonder.
“The Gallery strongly believes that art plays a huge role in the development of our future generations,” said Tan. “Art is a place for children to learn about themselves, trust their ideas and explore what is possible, all of which are important in enabling children to become confident, independent thinkers. Hence, we are always looking at innovative ways to engage with young learners to nurture an early interest in art by showcasing how it can be fun, inspirational and educational.
“Through the Gallery Children’s Biennale, we hope to create a platform where younger visitors together with their parents, can come together and be inspired by what art has to offer.”
“Embracing Wonder” is quite literally interpreted in the installation, “Big Hug,” by Singapore-based husband-and-wife artists Milenko and Delia Prvacki.
The installation looks like a multinursery, with more than 30 interactive and educational activities in four main spaces under such headings as Discover the World, Friendship Room, Family Room and Self Room, all designed to stimulate the child’s imagination and enable them to discover the world and themselves.
One room has a telescope that a kid can peek through to discover the universe and, according to exhibit notes, “be reminded that the world is a perpetual embrace – where space embraces Earth, and Nature embraces Life.”
Other rooms evoke the warmth of family life and enable children to imagine their future professions.
For the sonically inclined, there’s “Chance Operations” by Song-Ming Ang, who is Singapore’s representative at the 2019 Venice Biennale.
Ang has set up a colorful formation of wind chimes out of steel pipes in different sizes, shapes and colors. Visitors are encouraged to throw cushion ping-pong balls at the chimes.
The interactive vibe is continued by Singapore artists, Hazel Lim-Schlegel and Andreas Schlegel in their “The Oort Cloud and the Blue Mountain.”
Visitors are made to engage with a 3D motion-activated wall-relief artwork with LED lights, sounds, handmade objects, and sensors that draw from landscapes and objects from the cosmos.
All of the installations thus far are colorful and vibrant, but in “Every World,” Donna Ong tries a different tack. She puts up five frosted colorless domes, where visitors are invited to go beneath and insert their heads in the vaults.
Much to visitors’ surprise, they would see magical paper-cut landscapes—English and Tropical gardens, and cactus, mushroom, underwater, and the underground.
Indonesian artist Eko Nugroho’s “Kenangan Kunang-Kunang (Memories of Fireflies)” draws from the Damar Kurung, traditional art of paper lantern in Java.
Nugroho’s giant lanterns depict scenes from everyday Javanese life to illustrate important values such as respect, peace, equality, collaboration, love and care. Visitors are invited to explore the lanterns by engaging in different interactive actions that transform the room with light, shadows, colors and shapes. These “changes” contribute to big ideas around democracy that the artist wishes to convey.
Nugroho has another work in the biennale—the wall mural “Tightly Hugging Care, Love, Peace,” a “dreamscape that encourages care, love and peace among mankind,” notes the exhibit.
Traditional Burmese childhood is the inspiration of “The Other Wall.”
Burmese artists Nge Lay and Aung Ko set up two traditional Burmese homes in gold (gold being associated with knowledge and enlightenment in Burmese culture), where visitors are introduced to local folklore represented by hand-carved woodcuts. Overheard are the narratives as read in English and Burnese.
Visitors, especially young people, are then invited to trace the stories by frottage on woodcuts.
Singapore writer Lorraine Tan and illustrator Eric Wong make an art installation and quite a very educational playground out of their book collaboration, “The Story of Karung Guni Boy,” about a boy who collects old items and repurposes them.
The art works in the original book—robots and other figures formed from recycled cardbboard—are recreated in a larger-than-life scale. Young visitors are invited to put on their “tinkering caps, to create new inventions out of recycled materials.”
“Dayung Sampan: Be Your Own Captain on Deck” by Singapore sculptor Zainudin Samsuri draws its inspiration from the Malay phrase in the title, which means “row your boat.”
Kids are invited to get inside an open birdcage with a limitless view of outside and “board” a giant foot resembling a “sampan” and go on a wild ride to where their imagination would take them.
Something of the same invitation is given by “Play by the River,” which references Liu Kang’s painting, “Life by the River” (1975). Visiors are asked to sit under colorful trees, play with a family of ducks, and enjoy traditional Singapore games such as “five stones” and “capteh” by the river.
“Gallery Children’s Biennale 2019: Embracing Wonder” will run till Dec. 29.