Topic: Economy of Need: Artist-Writers of Singapore
Date: 21 Jan 2016
Time: 1100-1230 h
Venue: Container at Car Park B of Gillman Barracks in Singapore, in conjunction with the popup event, SCOUT.
Speakers: Ho Rui An, Megan Miao, Susie Wong and Jason Wee (with responses from Rachel Ng, Mok Cui Yin, Shirley Soh, Adeline Kueh and Yen Phang)
Moderator: Michael Lee
Synopsis: Why do artists write? Michael Lee gathered four Singapore artist-writers to share about their motivations and challenges of waxing lyrical about fellow artists’ work.
Supporter: National Arts Council, Singapore
0:00 Michael Lee (ML)
Perhaps one way to start the conversation (today) is to refer to George Orwell’s autobiography writing, “Why I Write”. He cited four reasons, which local writer Lim Kok Boon also referred to. They are—if I understood him (correctly)—the four reasons are somewhat similar to why artists make work: One, to create and share beauty, or an aesthetic experience. Two, to speak the truth, to have a stake in…, put something on record… to have a stake in the world of ideas. And three, to change the world; that’s what he called the political impulse. Number four is egoistic impulse, otherwise known as vanity. But if we into the case of the artist-writer, perhaps these impulses are a bit more nuanced than, say, the pure writer or the artist who only makes work. One of the attractions that will appeal to the artist-writer is that you could be known as not just a good maker of interesting things but also an acute observer, someone with discerning taste, someone who can write stylishly, critically, with a flair with words as well. We’ve gathered 4 artist-writers, all of whom are based in Singapore; some of them also have studios outside of Singapore like Jason Wee who flies to New York quite a bit, and Rui An who flies between Singapore and New York. (To Rui An:) Not true? I will do a general introduction that all five of us sitting here are both the maker of objects and situations but also involved in the production of written texts, whether it’s in the form of reviews, commentaries, editorial or curatorial introductions for our work.
I thought it might be interesting to start with Megan who was born in Shanghai, and has been trained in Singapore as well as in London. Megan is interested in dialogical art, art that engaged with society, especially to look into social problems; she is also very interested in the internet generation and the genre of post-internet art. She has done quite a fair bit of curating and also writing, but she, according to her bio, she also does a lot of sai gang [Hokkien for shit work]. Sai gang worker: It’s her way of saying that she’s a very helpful person. So, I’d like Megan to perhaps share with us: how did you start on this helpful path?
03:50 Megan Miao (MM)
Ermm, I think the person whom I do the most sai gang warrior duties for isn’t here right now, but she might be late. Unless Cui (Yin) is here somewhere, but that’s how the sai gang warrior label came in. So the project that I might want to share on was a project called renji. So renji is Chinese for human tracings, ren being human and ji being tracings or remnants of actions they leave behind. So I was paired with Cui for a Singapore art show in London that paired artists with non-artists. So I think her coming from an anthropology background got her termed as a non-artist in that sense, and we decided to embark on a project in which we started on a blog individually. So we met up once to discuss the terms of the project, and over the few months, unlike the other pairings which decided not to meet physically. So we were already dislocated already in London, being from Singapore, so we wanted to explore the city and maybe also to explore that sort of human relations between two virtual strangers online. So I think over the course of nearly over a few months, we just wrote this blog to and from each other. And at first when we started, you know, we would be quite almost religious, and trying to write every single day, and this ritualistic thing of sitting down, and writing about the cities we were in, the commutes we were on, and the things that were happening in our lives. And the nI remember that at a certain point of time, we both started writing posts about not being able to remember who each other are, anymore? And so describing ourselves as 'virtually strangers' as in almost strangers, as well as virtually in being internet, online strangers, who'd write posts towards each other, but not necessarily to each other. It's the blog stuff that comes with the platform, but you know there's always an exchange going on, where you provide your links to each others' posts that we found interesting, that we could relate to. I mean, we eventually had to present it, and that's the point where we ran into a bit of trouble, because we had so much writing that we'd accrued and accumulated, so much writing, so much virtual writing, that we weren't sure how exactly to make it accessible to an audience, or whether we should discard the writing , and find the art that might come out of it? We tried a few different iterations, as well. I think the first iteration we made, there were collages where we picked up bits from each others blogs, that resonated with us. In the second one, it was also roughly the same format, it was sort of finding bits of writings that, chronologically, might not relate to each other, but somehow, conceptually, did. So, yeah, from the project I think we were raising quite a few issues—to ourselves, mostly, that still mostly remained unresolved. Which is kind of—what's the value of writing virtually? What's the value of a blog where, I mean, there's a chronological order but you jump from box to box? And what happens when two sort of blogs relate to each other, when there's a conversation, a dialogue between them? How do you present that dialogue in the form of an artwork?
Thanks, Megan. Next up, Ho Rui An, who identifies himself as an artist and writer. He also does a bit of curating, in the form of a book show co-curated at the Substation a few years ago. His studio practice involves him writing, thinking, and talking around images, especially how they start, how they circulate, and disappear. He's also the desk editor of the art magazine Art Asia Pacific. He's written a novel commissioned by the Substation in 2011, titled Several Islands. So, Rui An, I remember the first time I met you was you attending either the opening or the artist talk of an exhibition I curated. From my earliest memory, you started as a writer, and then you also later started making things. Could you share with us the early motivations of how you—the first moment when you—realised that you wanted to both make things and also write about them.
08:37 Ho Rui An (HRA)
I would say, personally, it's a bit difficult to draw or identify a particular marker where I identify myself as an artist, or writer, or artist-and-writer, because for me, writing, even when I'm writing about the art works of other artists, it's still a - it's a profoundly aesthetic act, in terms of the way you use language, and the way you use words. And, in fact, it's always difficult to—more difficult than any kind of writing where you're trying to conjure, or to re-create a certain sensuous experience that you have in art. So on that level, I find it difficult to draw a straight distinction between the two things that I am working on. I mean, the chronology that you drew was that you knew me as a writer first, and then as an artist. But I would say that at the time that I met you—was it five or six years ago? Yes, something like that. And at the time, I was doing my National Service, so naturally—I mean, writing was the most effective or efficient way I could continue engaging with art; I was an art student before that. I was still involved with art-making even as I was doing writing then. Writing was also a very effective way for me to really get to know my local arts scene. So that was—I think during those two or three years before I went abroad for my studies, that was when I tried to understand what was happening in Singapore. It really started as a sort of personal project—you know, you see a show, you try to consolidate your own impressions of the show, and writing for me was also a mode of clarification. When you're trying to work through your own experience of the show, and your own perhaps contradictory or paradoxical feelings towards it—so in a way it was very much a personal project, starting out, just writing on my own basis. Because there really are so little—at least at the time—people writing about art. Artists starting asking me to write for their catalogues and so on—I think you mentioned Lim Kok Boon? At the time, really, the blog that he was running, I think it still continues running, that was really one of the key places I would go to to see the review of a show, to get a second opinion also. I was also writing on my own blog, at the time. In a way, both of us kind of started out as a kind of personal project, because if you love an exhibition—or if you really hate an exhibition. So I saw it as a space in which to negotiate all these ideas. Soon it became like a thing that I was doing.
Thank you. We're not going to go by age, or experience. I'm going to skip Jason and go to Susie because I think in many ways there are affinities between what Rui An does, and what Susie does—which is to be quite a regular producer of art reviews. Susie's own practice involves a sustained interest in portraiture and landscape, and often finished in the form of drawing and painting. She writes regularly—initially for the main papers, like The Straits Times, and—
12:23 Susie Wong (SW)
—used to, yeah? More recently, she's a regular contributor to this architecture and design magazine d+a, and she's also involved in various editorial work; some of the journals that LASALLE College of the Arts has put out over the years, like ISSUE. So, Susie, share with us what motivated you to not just draw and paint, but to also write about it. Is it the same motivation as Rui An, or slightly different?
Where Rui An started was quite an important point, which was—artist first, or writer first? I think when I started writing, and still today, I would consider myself an artist first. So the writing was very secondary to me—I think when I left my mainstream occupation and all that, it was just to be the artist. And writing then came about, for me, incidentally, actually, and really it is a means of financial support. [audience laughter] And then it became, just, the opportunity just enlarged itself. I think in the 90's there was a lot of interest in art reviews, you know, and that's when I started writing, and I had very good editors at that time, like Sasitharan at The Straits Times. There was a lot of interest, and a lot of—what do you call it—wanting to put arts out there in the 1990s, in the papers anyway. That's how I started writing.
Thank you. And then we have Jason Lee - Jason Wee, sorry. [some audience laughter]
14:35 Jason Wee (JW)
It's okay, happens all the time.
Jason Wee. I'm not trying to bring you into the Lee family. Okay. Artist, writer—on top of writing and curating, Jason also founded and runs Grey Projects, which is an art space and residency programme. Your editorial work included you editing for the poetry website Softblow, and at one point you were the editor of the now-defunct Vehicle arts journal published by PKW. Your work in writing also goes beyond the bounds of visual arts—your script, which you co-wrote with Sean Tobin, Tongues, was a commissioned work of the M1 Fringe Festival in 2012, and your latest book, The Monsters Between Us, was a (TODAY) top pick of 2013. So, in various ways, you have set out for yourself quite a number of things to do, and I think you have to hit many KPIs, but—[audience laughter]—Let's move back to your earliest memory of—perhaps what you could remember as a motivation or influential moment that, when you realised that you should be engaged in the production of writing, besides art production.
Um. You make me sound very Singaporean, when you talk about KPIs [laughs]
Especially since—if for nothing else than the fact that I've been educated here. But there's something about the question of why we write, and motivation, that suggests a process of active, deliberate, conscious decision-making about how, or what, or when to write. With that, it also implies a certain mastery, if of nothing else, then of will, of choice. I think—Michael introduced the session by referring to Orwell. I think of him as a, I can't help but position him as in a certain time, of modernity, where you could think of a writer/journalist with influence that is congruent with that idea of mastery. But then I also think of the assumptions of a person who could say, "my writing could change the world, my writing can produce beauty," and I think that really depends on an idea of writing almost as a given social estate, that actually has a place in that society. And I think about Singapore in my writing, because if I'm going to refer to a place, I'm wondering if in Singapore writing has that kind of place. I think I will answer the question by instead of saying when or how I choose to write, or feel confident enough to write, I think of my friend Cyril (Wong) who, when he was asked the same question, about the kind of poetry he writes, he said, it's actually—you know what? in some way, the themes chose him. Not so much that he always chose the themes. And he elaborated by saying that he works in a place that gives no space to a kind of queer and profoundly narcissistic self. And, as a result, it necessitates writing from the self about the self. So that's where you can see [???]. So I feel like in my case there are some things that about me that inevitably come out in my writing, and so those things in some way determine me as much as I chose them. So some things I write are close to me, but they're also about Singapore—what's the place of a gay man in Singapore? How do we queer spaces? What's the space for difference; and along that difference, poetry for me is a different kind of writing, and it's always been the kind of writing that I'm drawn to. And so that in some ways is kind of my answer, lah.
The origins of Jason Wee's writing practice, cool. I'm interested to know, in your writing career... do you have any mentors or influences? A major figure, whether this be a fellow artist-writer, or someone from another profession who might be a source of inspiration—a guiding light in dark times, a mentor. [panelists' murmurs] Does anyone want to share—do you have an artist-writer idol? I mean, I personally find John Berger's writing to be like the standard that I would like to aspire to because while he's left-leaning, he's trying to look for social injustices as manifest in social processes and in art. He uses the simplest English to explicate very complicated matters. Do you have an idol like that?
Okay, I'm not going to—in some ways, I like the word idol as far as it implies something as idolatry, as resistance against a divine, transcendental figure—an idol as a common object that I enjoy, rather than something far away and above me. I think the things that I treasure are best [??] like almost any writer, are books. In some ways it's an obvious answer, but I strongly, strongly, actually feel that no writer can start writing without reading. It's almost such a crucial, simple axiom to say that, but it's also a tendency that art writing wants to borrow from art history, to draw a lineage to say that, as far as in art history, you refer painting to painting, and installation to installation, you create history as a result, then you do the same thing with art writing. Art writers refer to and associate with other art writers, [???] writerly father, and hence you get a lineage of useful idols. But I just read, in some ways, the things that I enjoy—not just that I read poetry and novels and draw as much from them, sometimes, if not more, than I do art writing. So in Singapore I tend to read people who are my friends, and/or—and the best thing about being a writer working in Singapore is that sometimes you meet someone you like, and then you go and make a friend of them. And there is something limiting about friendship, because people think of it as incestuous. I also think about what Wittgenstein said about the limits of my world being the limits of my language. In some ways, I see some liberation—I see some freedom in that. That, in some ways, in reading the people I like—and interpret the word 'like' in as many ways as you like—this like-ness tends to describe, it begins to describe, me, my writing. So if I read Cyril, or if I read [???], or if I read Arthur Yap, in that reading, in liking them, the like-ness seeps back, you know, and I can see it affecting me as a person, and also as a writer. So I would say that, you know, I think it's also interesting to broaden the ecology of writing to think of art writing, to think about also how much we are influenced by writing [from the other parts??]
Coming back to ... also how much we are influenced by writing from the other parts... no? Am I going to be the only one who [???] Actually, I—coming back to your question, I can't think of anybody. Yeah, I mean, reading is essential to our writing, but maybe I'll just make this point about... George Orwell. You can correct me; I may be wrong, but isn't he also the one who talked about trying to avoid terms like 'concept,' 'abstract.'
Is like art—is it especially in art writing, it's full of all this nonsense.
Art-writing, that's right.
Jargon, art jargon, yeah. So I think it's just to—perhaps this is where I come in and talk about, you know, when I started writing, I knew very little about art. It's also at the same time that I'm learning about art. I think it's by interviewing people, by looking at works—I'm not sure about readings. I mean, you begin to create a vocabulary—for me, a vocabulary essential for myself, and maybe it is about doing a very simple art review, very economical. And that's why I think—
When do you know your vocabulary is not just idiosyncratic?
It probably is! You know, I think if you would excavate all my writings—I really would abhor the idea—I'm sure there are quite a number of bloopers, and slips, and that sort of thing. It's all, for me, a real learning journey. There, I put it on record.
So what you got from George Orwell was the reminder to communicate rather than to obfuscate, to have smoke and mirrors with beautiful words. Is that...?
Beautiful words, yeah, in a way. It's become too abstract and difficult to talk about something clearly, I suppose, for a way to... I don't know how else to actually describe it.
I'll really agree with that, actually. I think I'm at a very different stage of my art practice from the other panelists here, and I'm at the stage where I'm still gathering, and I'm not quite sure exactly which direction I'm heading towards. And I've noticed, especially since just sort of freshly coming out of art school that there's a lot of artists, especially young artists, who tend to use big words just to almost sort of obfuscate the reader, and go, like, 'you might not understand this, which means it's important.' And I've noticed that's a bit of a worrying trend, so when I was doing quite a few of my minor little personal curatorial projects, often with other student artists who're pretty much just like me. And I think we realise, you know, the process of dialogue is really important, and what I really like, I think, it's not the final point of the artwork, but sort of how they got from stage one, where it's pretty much nothing, to stage two, stage three, and stage four. Dialogue's really interesting from one stage to another point in time, because when you've got those big art jargon words, nothing gets across and it just stays as a concept and it doesn't become work, and I find that quite worrying. Maybe also to go back to the question, I don't think I've got a particular idol yet. I do enjoy the writings of Hito Steyerl, or I like Rebecca Solnit, even though she's not technically an art writer, she's really great.
Her travel writing's great.
Yeah, I think A Field Guide to Getting Lost, I think that was a pivotal moment where I was like, "it's okay, I do not know what I am doing in life." [laughs] Yeah, it's brilliant. I consume a lot of writing, at this point in time, but I don't think I can answer your question yet, because I haven't found that one figure who sustains me, or makes me feel like I should look up to them.
Yeah, I agree that we are very much what we read. It's hard for me to identify maybe, you know, particular figures, but maybe I can just talk about people I've personally engaged with. One of these persons would be... [Cellular phone interference] Uh, okay. So one of these persons would be Kodwo Eshun, who is an artist of the Otolith group and a writer. Kodwo was—I mean, he comes from a very interesting background, he comes from music criticism. So it was a very journalistic tradition which he came from—but now he's known more as this artist-academic figure. And I think for me what was liberating about his writing was that it really came from a kind of fan-culture, or even a cinephilia, when he writes about films. It really comes from an act of love, and I think what's also fascinating for me is really that he concentrates on—I mean, always we think about the different traditions; what we're taught at school is that we first describe, and then we analyse and interpret the artwork. But Kodwo's writing demands that we in many ways remain at the surface of things, and to think about what that surface demands of us, what that material surface itself, rather than just immediately trying to penetrate that surface, to get to, necessarily, a kind of interpretive mode immediately. So, this kind of love is surface—this demand to look, and remain at the surface, was something that was quite important to me in terms of refreshing my own ideas about what it means to write about an image, or write about an artwork. The other person would be Michael Taussig, anthropologist, and really, as a person, as a writer, he has really re-worked what it means to write ethnographies, or what it means to—if you look at a lot of ethnographies, they're actually very compelling forms of writing, which is where I tend to gravitate to these days, because to write an ethnography is to narrativise, to try to make sense of an observation that is unfolding as you are watching it. In many ways, Taussig's writings are about trying to remain in the ethnographic moment. So it's not about him retrospectively going back to the office and reconstructing the whole narrative. A lot of his writing is about him being in the field, and sweating, and experiencing the heat of the field, and at the same time trying to record a certain observation as it is unfolding. So this negotiation with something, this negotiation with uncertainty, this thing which is still incomplete, is something that I find very inspiring. And writing not necessarily as a mode of knowledge, but perhaps even unknowing. I would say these are two people who have really kind of influenced the way I shape my own writing.
Thanks for sharing your influences with us. Maybe Rui An can continue on a slightly different topic of friends making—I think we once talked about how it is possible to make a new friend by writing about that person's work. And—
It's also possible to un-make a friend. [audience laughter]
Yeah, would you like to share your experience in terms of friend-making, friendship-breaking, through, because, or despite your writing? [audience laughter]
I try to not know what friendships I have unmade, or ruined even before they'd started. Most of the time you don't know about it. I think rarely people approach you to try to harpoon you and ask, "Why did you write that?" At least, I haven't had the experience. But yeah, as I said earlier it's—I think it comes from an act of love, and it really comes from an internal necessity when I see a particular work, or I see a particular image, it's really more like a demand that the image places upon me, that demands I write about it. So, very often, it comes from that place, and because naturally, when you are—and of course when I'm writing, as I've said, I prefer to really begin at this surface level of things. And that is where, fellow artists, they also find an affinity with, you know, to attend to the materiality of the image, and to begin at that level and then to start to slowly kind of unpack what that could possibly open towards. So I think in that sense it's—I mean, when I start to meet the artist itself, it's almost like being a fellow fan of a work, although the artist himself is the one who made the work. But it's also about being able to share an artwork, an appreciation of an object, I guess.
As someone who reviews exhibitions, that's really a luxury to just write about works that you like, that appeals to you, that you understand. And as for someone following you and harpooning you, I've got little incidents, where people will call me up, and say a few bad words. Yeah, it's quite terrifying, but I think I've come to a point where I really want to follow artists on more than just a surface level. And I think that I've done so many interviews—I've still got the notes, I haven't thrown them away, I do not know why—and I'm talking about artists you might barely know, probably, like artists from the 70's, and 80's and all that. I think it's quite a lovely exercise to actually follow them and to know more about their work, and more about their perspective, than trying to resist it and trying to construct something within the limits of your own knowledge and understanding.
I think I'm a bit young to, like, have any of such experiences. I'm not going to jinx it, because I'm writing for Alecia Neo, who's also in the show, so I'm just going to pass the mic on quickly. [laughs]
On the related point about how tricky it is to be writing about friends, or writing about someone you want to make friends with, I'd like you to share with us if you have encounted dilemmas or conflicts of interest. I cite an example: if you are invited by someone to write about that person's work—which you're not comfortable with, or have not liked before—that's one example. Have you experienced such dilemmas, or others, and how do you deal with them?
Actually, I'm going to use one of your definitions about writing to, and writing towards. That's actually a useful guide for me sometimes, when I'm asked to address a work that—like, Rui An is right: sometimes, when love is consuming, it's easy to write. When love immediately offers pleasure, often, I find that the pleasure is not sufficiently accounted for, either in the works, materials themselves, or words. Some important art writing isn't a pleasure to read, unfortunately. Some important art writing and art history is not a pleasure to read—it seems to deliberately position rationality as a pleasure. But there are some works where you just want to love, but can't, or don't. In those situations I often ask for sufficient elbow room to write towards the same point, so rather than addressing the work per se, I address what the work addresses. If that makes sense, I write towards what the work itself was pointing to. And sometimes the work does point to something outside itself, and at other times the work really stays—the image production stays on the surface of the material. But there are times when there is that room, when the work points to something outside of itself and I say, "Okay, I'll head to the same place," and hopefully in parallel without explicit, direct interpretation that I leave the room for the negotiation of interests up to the viewer. Like I displace it onto the viewer and say, "Okay, I leave it to the viewer to then draw the analogies, to make the connections, and so on."
Yeah, I think it's also a bit of a false binary when sometimes we think that a piece of art writing either has to be in praise of the work, or just critiquing it. Because there are so many different modes and registers of art writing, especially if you're not writing a review or a catalogue essay. I mean, I would just call it a response to it, and response can take on so many forms! And so, usually, when I am faced with such a dilemma, maybe an artist inviting me to write about a work—I mean, I probably won't write about a work that I don't feel that much for, but there is still something in there that I am interested in, that I'm not quite sure what it is—I think that is enough of an invitation to pull me in, to try to negotiate with that. Sometimes the writing can take the form of just basically thinking with the object—maybe not as an artwork, I can think of it as a cultural object. How does this work? How do I place this into a different context—how does it speak to, how is it symptomatic of a particular political paradigm? So even if there is something I deem to be negative, or something that doesn't sit quite well with me, that's my—one of the first steps I do is to try to think productively about this negativity. You know, how this negativity can perhaps teach us about maybe my own understandings of art, or even how it can point to certain [???] realities that don't work, maybe operating within.
And also maybe Rui An's own work points—I mean, this idea of the modes and registers of art writing, other than maybe praise or critique, it can also take place in forms other than the essay. Rui An himself has written a novel that is essentially also a history of the space; it's also about artists. And that's actually an area that I'm just deeply, deeply intrigued by: the possibility of the poet writing about an artwork as poetry, but in poetry that's not simply a description of the work, you know. It doesn't simply just translate the effects of the work into its literal, you know, counterpart. So not just like saying, this painting has red, it has these lines, and so on, but actually providing, in words, a counterpoint that—again, it's poetry, it doesn't necessarily provide direct interpretation for the work, but it provides another access. Sometimes the access isn't about argument: it's not about saying "this work is going to be about this." It's not about making those connections, or possesses these sorts of meanings, but provides you with a different access? The wonderful thing about poetry is that I don't have to limit—I don't have to say what the connections are in order for it to mean something to you. I can see how that takes place, usefully, for a number of practitioners, where I can see how it might be interesting for a science fiction writer to take on Vertical Submarine, and explore the role of fantasy and speculation that comes up in their installations. Or of parallel worlds.
I'd like to follow-up the kind of binary thinking that you spotted just now, with another polarising question that was contributed by a friend: do you think you become a better artist, or a better writer by engaging in both art-making and writing [audience laughter, a panelist says "Big sigh." and "Arrow!"]
Being quite a provocateur today. Again, it depends on what you mean by 'better writer' and 'better artist.' So I'm really not sure how to answer that question, but I think writing for me is always a mode of reflexivity, but that itself can be a good or a bad thing. When you write, you—writing always demands a certain distancing, because when you write you listen to yourself speak, and there is always this kind of very implicit feedback already as you start to write, and writing always offers re-reading what you've written. And so that whole process is always a deeply reflexive process. But it can also become a very consuming process, that you kind of lose yourself when you try to pursue a particular argument, or a line of thought, and maybe that line of thought is not doing to work that it's supposed to when you just keep pushing it on. For me there really is no definite answer to that—it really depends on how you work with that reflexivity that writing gives you? In many ways now, with my own practice, because I work with text, I work with the form of the lecture, the form of the essay, I would say that I suppose it's benefited in some way, because of the nature of my practice. Well, at least I find it productive in that sense. But I think it really differs for each different project, I would say.
Susie, can I ask you—because you've written over many, many years, have you seen your writing change over time, and how do you describe that change? Can you identify why, as well?
Wow, I think you're asking for a lecture. [laughs] Really, I'd have to think about that. I mean, I know it's changed a lot—I know that I have pulled back. As I said, you know, you must also consider what a review is—what it's meant to communicate.
47:36 [indistinct question from JW]
Oh, no, I'm not reviewing for The Straits Times any more. I do have more of a space to enjoy just writing, and putting in some things that I've come across or read lately, or thought about, so it becomes really nice. Can I just leave it there? And I can develop more ideas into articles and books, rather than just keeping it to a short review. In terms of coming back to what he was saying, I think it's double whammy for us, because we are our own worst critics, in terms of the production of our work. I mean, I'm always working, and I'm thinking, okay, I hope—you know, I've got to think about so many of the issues, and the points, and the arguments that are going to be made against my work. And then when I put it up, there are going to be talks about it. [audience laughter] Okay, I will actually point out this is why I'm using this, and this is why I'm using that. So it's kind of strange.
That's the weird space for writing? You know, when you write, there's the primary production of writing, when you put out a review. But then it's like a stone thrown in to a silent room, and echoless rooms, so it doesn't even—there's no resonance, often. It's weird, because in other contexts, your writing might develop other writings—someone might disagree with you and generate another piece. You know, that doesn't happen. I always wonder about what it means to write in this sort of particular environment, here. It's not perfectly unique to us in Southeast Asia, but again, at the same time, I can't help but think about the local conditions that produce that vacuum.
Can I add to that? Because it's interesting that T.K. Sabapathy is very keen to tell me he has finally cited me in one of this books. It was a review done on Kumari, and it was in a book he wrote about Kumari Nahappan and her work. I haven't received a copy of that, but I think what he's done is he's criticised my use of 'feminine.' It was the 1980s or early 1990s when I called her flourishes and brushstrokes feminine. That's interesting, you know. I mean, yes, by all means, critique, and I think as art writers, we should bounce it off each other, and bounce our own writings, and at the same time I'm thinking, "Okay, I'm going to Sabapathy's work, and look at Chia Wai Hon's work, and look at, in fact, Liu Kang's writing, which I came across recently. Let's actually bring them all together and talk about them, and critique, in that sense. Okay, just read them, and analyse, and, yeah.
I'm not quite sure yet about the sort of 'better artist' and 'better writer' thing, which is pretty difficult to separate out, for me. Because I realised, very recently, that all my sketchbooks from the past… [cellular interference]… Like, all my past sketchbooks, from the past, maybe, five, six, years, they're mostly writing? There's not a lot of sketching at all. I was never sure whether it was just me, but I feel like I do the two processes in tandem, like making work, I do a lot of planning and I don't sketch it out—I'm always writing. And similarly, if I'm just making an artwork without writing, I find that to be really difficult thing to do, and I can't imagine that ever possibly being a thing? I find writing, by itself, quite difficult unless there is a visual component, unless I can engage with it on a very artistic level. So I don't know if it makes me a better artist, or a better writer, because I can't really separate out the two processes very well. I feel like they just work kind of rather fluidly, as a general process for me.
Sometimes, I think the question of better writing sometimes cuts into the question of the enforcement of boundaries? Between one form of writing and another? So that let's say you'd be an art writer, you begin writing reviews, and then you move onto something like a longer-form, and employs a little more—it draws from journalism and photography—it's a question of whether, is that better, necessarily? For the event that the artwork produces—or is it just different? Then, the other question comes in about whether it is still art writing, in that case. I find that really kind of [???] like some people want—there are certain kinds of certainties about writing. Which also means that people often don't read each other. So that's the other thing about primary production. You could put up a piece of art writing, but then a poet might not read it, or even artists might not read it—only art writers read you. [laughter] And then you could put out a catalogue essay, then the reviewer won't read you. Then reviewers only read other reviewers. There are these sorts of things happening, that I find a little sort of puzzling about the mechanisms of the scene.
Maybe to add to that point, a couple of years back, I think Weng—Weng Choy was someone I should probably have mentioned just now—said something very interesting. He said there's actually no lack of writers in Singapore. There are many people who can write. The question is, are there readers? When you talk about writing, you cannot also leave out the equation of reading. It really is about this broader culture, you know, art writing culture and art reading culture. And that's something he's always been interested in cultivating readership. Because if we don't cultivate this kind of critical mass, who see these pieces of writing as an integral part, or at least of one part of the artistic experience—there's no point if we keep harping on about, oh, why is there not enough writing, when we should be questioning, are there enough readers, or why are people not reading? So I think it's great that we actually have discussed that today, the fact that we're even talking about it.
I think this might be a good time to open the floor to the audience—if I'm not wrong, a lot of you are artists and writers yourself. Would you like to make a comment, or raise a question? You can shout out your response from there, and then I'll repeat it.
And give your name.
Yeah, give your name. Okay, this lady here.
55:33 Rachel Ng (RN)
I'm Rachel, from Rogue Art Malaysia. After working in the gallery business for nearly 20 years—I'm the manager, so I don't write. I read the other stuff the curators write, and art reviewers write. I can tell you one thing: that I enjoy reading those essays that are the most basic—the easiest to understand. Because I come from my buyers' and my audience's viewpoint, and I know that, okay, you don't need to dumb down your for them, because they will also feel like, "Eh, I'm not that stupid," you know? But try to make it easy for people to understand. And also after many years, the illustrations for the text—that's what I want to see.
Okay, so the first point is about communication—write clearly and simply—even if what you are talking about is complex. And the second is about illus—are you talking about examples, textual examples? Or visual illustrations?
Visual illustrations. Because sometimes when you refer to something, it's like so vague, it's like—and then you describe in detail. But it's still very hard to understand? So, you know, a lot of the people always complain, "Aiyah, I don't understand what is this, can you point it out to me." Then I have to Google search the image, and this is what they meant. For us, it's already slotted in our heads—visually, we already know how that work roughly looks like. Or when we talk about a Rembrandt, we know what kind of thing we are talking about. But for certain viewers, readers, they don't understand that.
So, what do you think of this point, that a piece of art writing must have the exact image of the artwork. Or do you think that the power of writing is seen in the power of vivid description?
Because it is art writing, mah. Right? So if you don't have the visual thing to go with the text, I think it's [indistinct]
Is it really missing? Because generally, if I recall, thinking of all the essays that do have the accompanying artwork—
Sometimes you're talking about something behind, or a reference to, or inspired by, that kind of thing?
Well, if the copyright regime were a lot easier, publishers have—
But again it is the writer that has to get that copyright, you see?
What I mean by—writers could get that copyright, but what I mean by copyright regime is that you can't just ask for permission, anymore. You have to pay for it.
Oh, well, there's a way of cheating it. Take the picture yourself! [laughs]
58:36 Mok Cui Yin (MCY)
Can I just jump in here? As a reader, I'm not a writer, not an artist, and I actually don't draw any line between art writing, or art, or writing, or even non-textual forms of things that—you read culture, you read signs and symbols, language and syntax. I think it really just boils down to the reader, and how they approach the thing. They read a piece of art writing, and hope to get some information, then maybe writing in a Wikipedia-style would be better, where you have references and direct links and a bibliography. But, ultimately, if you're just reading for the sake of reading, and you're more interested in engaging with the writer at the point of writing—once you transmit something, in your preferred form, it's just about keeping open, and actually there's a prerogative on the reader to go and read up on the things they don't really understand, to see references, because they are trying to share something with you anyway. But I think I want to throw back a question to the panelists, regarding language and syntax. I don't know whether you're talking straight up about English, Mandarin, or any other languages that you guys might write, or think about, or live in—whether this happens in your work, but how does the act of translation manifest in your process? Because it's all about translating your ideas to writing, and for Megan it's like art-making and writing are simultaneous, almost. So how do you grapple with translating your ideas, which may or may not be in English, or even textual, you know, into words?
I think I've got the opposite problem, to what you're describing. Because sometimes, I feel like, when I'm conceiving an artwork, it's [???] writing? And I somehow feel like there's a bit of pressure on visual art to be visual. So that's what I was describing in the very beginning, when we were doing [???] that I felt like, somehow, we had to discard a huge part of the writing just for it to be able to go up on the wall, and to point at it and go, oh, there's my artwork. Yeah, so I don't know if I can fully unpack it at this point of time. I think translation is such a big part of my work, especially since I choose to deal a lot with conversations and dialogues, and it's about how you can very authentically authenticate that dialogue in another form, and to translate it to different forms, especially to experience it, which I find is probably the most difficult—anyone can walk into and experience something different altogether. Sometimes, I feel like there're different values placed on images and words, in different contexts, and I somehow feel like, you know, that problem of having to discard the writing, therefore we view them with such separate lenses, instead of seeing them as possibly very much entwined.
Yeah, I talked about writing as an act of love, and I think, in many ways, it's an act of pain, and maybe that's why love is painful. [audience laughter] Sorry, very cheesy. Yeah, but I mean it is a true thing, because especially when you're writing about images, the need to find—and you know that words cannot ever fully encompass an image. But it is also precisely that gap which cannot be bridged, that becomes a source of motivation. So it's definitely going to be a painful process, because you know, however you reconfigure the rhythm of the sentences, however you try to move things about, you know, this can never fully replace the work of art itself. But yet this proximity, I would say this kind of getting-near-but-never-ever-fully-getting-there, is also something I find incredibly about writing, about artworks especially. So it's always an imperfect translaton. But I also think that the kind of aesthetic labour exactly comes in this space of imperfection and incompleteness.
Most often, for me, I find that the syntax is an inadequate fit for the idea, at least in my head. So that means if I compare, in terms of size, the size of the idea, often I find, is much larger than the syntax I can immediately come up with. And for me, actually, that difference, that gap, actually becomes a very productive one, because I do something, to try to get the idea out, and then it's not enough. Then that spurs me on to find the next syntax, whether it's more English sentences—sentences in English—or yet another piece of writing on the same subject, same idea, or I actually shift completely away, and go, well, I'm going to not write. Because it just might need another syntax than what I've made—still not enough, then I come back to writing, in that sort of oscillating [???] In my head, the way it works is that it's never syntax-led, you know, it's never led first by syntax. That helps. I don't think like I must, I must write poetry and then squeeze everything into the poem, or something like that.
1:04:15 Shirley Soh (SS)
Okay, I think, many interesting points raised, but I think I'll just ask this question, which is also related to other question by the gallery owner there. Susie mentioned that in the 90's, there was a lot more art writing in the newspapers; you had Sasi as your editor—and today, you know, we hardly see art reviews. Well, we do have Mayo Martin, Bruce Quek, Deepika Shetty; and I'm just wondering, this word, 'review,' I mean, who is the most qualified to write that? And whether artists should write reviews. Because I think there's a bit of an awkwardness—I mean, it's already raised—and I'm always thinking about Susan Sontag's Against Interpretation. And I feel that artists do not write [???] that over-interpretation? So I thought you could share some comments about how do we bridge this thing between getting some thinking and reflections about art on a different plane from just like a review in the newspapers. How do we get that out there, to people who are not necessarily trained in art, but love to see art? Some issue there, I always feel.
So, basically when an artist writes a review of an exhibition, or an artist's practice, how does this artist negotiate between explicating what the work is about, or could be about, and on the other hand, not overly robbing it of potential significances through over-reading, or a literal search for symbols.
I think artists don't, anyway, and I think it's great, that you don't over-interpret, that you're never a reviewer reviewer, like a journalist. So my question is how do we bridge this thing between getting some kind of quality of thinking about art, in the common papers—maybe the internet is fulfilling that role, but how do we bridge this point made by the lady over there, and how do we get this kind of thinking? It's not just a description of the work, and [coughing sounds from audience]
I want to think about what Weng said again, because I think he was right that there are many people who are very capable writers—the question is, why did they all choose to write something else? They write poetry, they write novels and short stories—there's a great deal of production in that area. Comparatively, there's not as much richness, for me, in art writing—and even if they did, let's say we found someone, the question is, when it's out there, I'm interested in what you think is the way to find readership. Because let's say we found that clear, basic voice, right? How do you propose it find its readership here? Would it work as a blog? Would it be sufficient just to put him in line for the Straits Times? Is that your proposal? To just make sure this person gets hired by The Straits Times, do we make sure this person is always in a museum catalogue? Is that sufficient to find readership?
Because, in Malaysia, what happened was than an art collector started writing art reviews. So the way that he wrote was very easy to understand, because he was writing in a very, very general sense, you know, not using big words. Maybe some use of art words to describe certain and whatever, but it was always quite basic. And he has managed to grab in quite a number of people to read what he writes! And not just talking about art writers, but also artists, and art collectors, people who want to know more about art can search and they find him, you see. Like I said, you don't need to dumb down. The other thing I could maybe say is the newspaper is a very wide-reaching thing, and not everyone has a degree in art history, so you can't expect them to know all these words. But when you have your own art writing, really serious art writing with lots of research, criticism and whatever, that one can be in a separate forum, where proper dialogue can be had, and you don't have people asking stupid questions. Because it's not that kind of audience, you see. You have your own peers, that're actually having this dialogue session—why do you write like this, why do you write like that? I'm just making it very [???]....
1:09:24 Adeline Kueh (AK)
I was just thinking about the issues that were raised, one, about differences, and as Rui An mentioning a gap. And one of the things that struck me was, are we at this stage in our society, in our community, where we still don't have enough, for lack of a better word, visibility, or a platform whereby we have all these reviews that are put together? I mean, it sounds like a very simplistic idea of anthologies, where, you were talking about Gloria Anzaldua, [Jerry Moraga?], talking about differences and how people approach differences, so it could be poetry, it could be a more reflexive writing like Trinh Minh-ha, combining poetry and reflection! And I say this because for the past 15 years, I'm struggling to get artists at the Masters' level to write about their practice. And that is such a difficult process as you rightfully mentioned, that there are gaps in how we translate our ideas onto paper. And also reviewers and writers writing about artists. So should we really just do as Trinh Minh-ha says—we don't speak about, but we speak nearby? So it's a kind of getting-to-know, and never really coming from that position of imposing. It's just a bunch of questions and thoughts.
1:11:14 Yen Phang (YP)
Actually, Rachel, what you were saying brought me back to an earlier question of yours, Jason, the—not really a question, but thinking about the conditions that led to this, which links back to what you were saying about a lot of ways of writing. As many ways as there are of writing, there are also many ways of reading, but in Singapore, I think we might have actually provided a little bit of a clue to what you were thinking about. In Singapore, we have one way of reading, a functional way; we are in a transactional system. We talk about information, we talk about transmitting that information, the syntax being merely the vessel, being secondary, something to be passed on as currency. Maybe we need more useless reading. [audience laughter] We need more useless reading which is not in a Ten Year Series, which is not in the form of legislation of what you can or cannot do, of, like, your government brochures—this is what I am reading for. And you talk about KPIs—you guys do not write for something, the forum is just to support the writing, to sustain it, but it doesn't govern it? The function doesn't govern it? A bit of a [???] reading, useless reading. [audience laughter]
But that's the thing, you see—
There's the A List, which I'm disappointed by [audience laughter] I mean, come on, the A List is a glorified listing. It could be so much more, but it's not.
But because that one has KPIs.
That's true. It gets readership, you know, as in eyeballs, but—
...maybe the useless reading is all the blogs. There are so many little journals and online zines and everything. Although they can never really get a lot of eyeballs, but a lot of the time people create journals, and publications and platforms, for things that they hope to have exist, and want to read, and I think these things do exist, and I really disagree that, oh, there is only one form of reading in Singapore. It's just the predominant, functional way of reading, everywhere in the world, actually, and it exists in every language. It's not an English thing, it's not post-colonial, it's not a single thing—it's everywhere. And it's something that we're sort of like choosing to of say, oh, is my reading functional? I mean, if you free the writer of that sort of expectation where I want my audience to be this, this, this, this, this, then you're free. You can just write whatever the hell you want, and who care whether anyone reads it or not.
Thank you very much for saying that. I always think about what Kurt Vonnegut says, which is: You write only to one person. If you open the window, and make love to the world, you get pneumonia. [Ed: actual quote: "Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world , so to speak, your story will get pneumonia."] [audience laughter] Which, for me, is very true! Because every time when you try to imagine this lowest common denominator of audience, I really don't know what that is! I mean, as an artist, especially. Sometimes I find reading that people find very, very difficult, and I like to grapple with the difficulty? But some forms of difficulty I find totally alienating. Sometimes other people may not feel the same way. So for me it's perfectly fine that there's a piece of writing I find alienating and I can't connect with it, but with the knowledge that someone else would possibly do so. About the kind of functionalisation and instrumentalisation of writing, I do find that to be a huge problem, especially in the arts. Because if you think about writing, you think about circulation. Writing is one of those things that every single art form needs, whether you are a theatre company, a dance company... So, very often, writers are— I used to write for theatre, and different forms also, and very often there is always this demand placed upon writers: "Hey, can you write for my show, this exhibition, can you rush out this new catalogue essay for me?" I'm very sceptical, and very wary of this instrumentalisation of the writer. Because, in a way, the writer is extremely important in an art economy where circulation is everything. And writing circulates much faster, you know, it can go online—it's such a flexible form. In a way, quite abject in the way that it can fit into any kind of [???] or any piece of paper, really. So, at that level, in many ways, I would say also that art writers are a bit exploited, in the sense that you are made to quickly rush out something, sometimes for no fee at all, because it's out of exposure, writing... [audience laughter]... I mean, really, people have said that to me, you know, I write a piece of something for you, for your exhibition, but it's not you getting the exposure, but I'm getting the exposure. To that effect, I'm actually very wary when we start talking about writing in such functional terms, particularly in an economy like Singapore.
We have time for one last comment, or question, anyone?
If not, maybe we'll just go round the panel, to ask if you have any wishes for—questions, or summary comments, on this, the figure of the artist-writer. [audience chatter, laughter] Final comments?
Maybe kind of going with the flow of pushing it back to the question of the reader, I think maybe I would personally be more interested to think about the audience-reader, and I know a lot of artists in Singapore have tried to start out things like book clubs, or reading groups. But nobody attends them. [audience laughter] Yeah, so in the end it's only artists talking to fellow artists. So, yeah—maybe the question I'd like to open up to everyone is, you know, what kind of reading practices, or maybe looking, viewing, sensing practices, can we develop?
I mean, as—I hope that, of late, I've been getting a lot of pleasure in reading stuff that comes out of Singapore, which I'm kind of very gratified by. Which also in turn makes me, as a writer, conscious of producing pleasure. And, for me, it's not—sometimes, pleasure can be about the struggle. And it's the struggle to understand. And that's where I place, often, difficulty, and question of complexity. Sometimes, the pieces of writing I love, and the novels I love, are the ones that I do not immediately get, and I just keep going back to, or I take a long, long time to read, and that produces a certain kind of pleasure. And I would wish, as a reader, as a writer, to just, to emphasise that place for that effort. For that depth of feeling.
Again, George Orwell. I think pleasure is one of his no-go words [audience laughter] Yeah, so, I mean, about readers, I mean—I can count, in all these decades, two people coming up to me, and saying, telling me about what I've written. Or rather, Michael is one of them. Michael says he's reading my articles in this architectural magazine, and I was thinking to myself, "Oh god, I hope nobody reads it," and that's why I wrote what I did! [audience laughter] But he reads it! Or whatever. And then another person, I think, Choy Weng Yang, came up to me more than a decade ago, and was saying, "Susie, you know Anthony Poon actually painted that. He didn't airbrush it." And I was just, "Okay, you're right! Absolutely right." And I think this sharing, this kind of community, I mean, it's very celebrated? I mean, we're still talking to ourselves. I hope that can change, and that's all I've got to say.
I was thinking a lot about that sort of instrumentalising of art writing, I mean writing in general, and sort of relating that back to—sorry, didn't catch your name's question about, you know, writing that should be easily read, and I was thinking about maybe the purpose of art writing? I mean, that's sort of a big, broad question, because then it also relates back to what would qualify as art writing. I mean, what if I'm writing privately as part of my work, you know, and it's never published? Or what if I'm writing on a blog, or making, like, little blog posts that I mentioned, to one side—who's the audience for that writing? Is there a need, is there a responsibility, I guess, for art writing to kind of just sort of fuel that buyers', collectors' sort of understanding about art? It's a bit of a question to be asked during art week, but yeah. I think that's kind of my last thoughts, basically.
Thanks for your time, fellow panelists, and your time here in contributing to the discussions. Just to plug Megan's other presentations, you're part of this SCOUT event, and you have something showing in one of the other containers. So look out for that, and perhaps, I think we have about twenty or thirty minutes before the next session goes on, so you can carry on chatting. If there is enough—if the momentum and energy boosts us, there could be more of such talks, not just about functions of the art writer, but also methodologies and strategies of reading, writing, and also keeping a sense of comradeship and supporting one another's work. So thank you all, for being here. See you next time. [audience applause]
Transcribed by Bruce Quek
Edited by Michael Lee