Monday 18 August 2014

journal | Honestly Speaking: Controlling Art’s Enigma

by Wong Yeang Cherng

A few weeks ago, I attended a curators’ discussion at the CCA with June Yap, curator of No Country and Zoe Butt, the curator of San Art. The discussion about the craft of curating was engaging, informative and very illuminating. June went in-depth to discuss her championship of a curatorial strategy that encourages exhibitions to pose narratives but at the same time refrain from curtailing other forms of interpretations. Yet, from all that was said that night, the only sentence I remembered verbatim was June’s deceivingly perfunctory comment, “You don’t see it there but it is,” — it being the context and meaning (or narrative) of the art piece. But, how can I know it without being able to see it?

Art, especially contemporary art, by its very nature can be abstract. And at most times, it is too abstract for a self-certified art goon like me. I am certain I suffer from one of those symptoms outlined in Shubigi Rao’s prognosis of the deranging effects of art on the brain in her lecture-performance Visual Snow. Each time I view a show at the art museum, I leave feeling confused. To be fair, I do take a while to give myself a chance to converse with the artwork, to try and put its presence into perspective. But more often than not, I tune out, often too quickly (the same way I would when someone starts nagging). Yet, I see other visitors deep in discussion, pointing this way and that way, gesturing at the little details and flailing their arms to make a statement about what they saw. And all I could think of is what I should eat for lunch.

As someone who has never engaged with art at a level that would help make the vicissitudes and uncertainties of art works understandable, I sincerely feel for those who are intimidated by art and who choose to leave the museum minutes after entry because they simply catch no ball*. As a student of history, I am comfortable handling crumbling pages, yellowed documents and never-ending stacks of academic books dog-eared by years of incessant flip-throughs, but certainly not art. Yet, as part of Curating Lab, I have to not only handle art but but curate my first art exhibition early next year. It’s exciting but also, quite unsettling.

So I guess the trip to the Asia Art Archive (AAA) couldn’t have come at a better time. About a week and a half into the programme, we visited the rather nondescript, cosy, two-storey research facility nestled in Hollywood Centre. I truly appreciated the visit. AAA made everything about art curating make sense to me.

Maybe it was the Mapping Asia exhibition, or that I was greeted with the familiar claustrophobic atmosphere of a library, but it was at AAA that I began to feel comfortable with art. All the while, art befuddled me because I know nothing about what I see. Or worse, I know nought about what I ought to see. And it was at AAA that I began to know what I want to see in art and art exhibitions — context. Since that visit, art curating appears more grounded in information and that made all the sense to me. Art became as much an expression of research as it is creativity and inspiration.

I like shows to tell me what I need to know about the art. Of course, we can all agree to disagree. Some people would rather look at art in itself, without insisting on knowing the context before assessing the art work. I wouldn’t but that’s just my preference. And I realised how important this is. One needs to remind oneself that beyond curating for the audience, the artist or the institution, one also needs to curate for himself or herself. One also needs to know (or rather admit) what he or she doesn’t know and wants to know from an exhibition. In time to come, I am more certain that the end product will end up being true to the curator’s ambitions.

Sure, even after the fieldtrip, I am still cautious about art curating. After all, I am still a greenhorn. I still spend most of my time in the museum staring at art pieces without anything substantial forming in my mind. I still don’t get it and I still wonder if my mental faculties are failing me. So I don’t mince my words when I say, “I felt dumb.” But I’m guessing that’s the reason I’m here — to be dumb, because it is only through ignorance that I figured out what I want and need to know. I guess then it’s really not so bad to take step back and honestly realise and embrace your stupidity because the only way forward is to get smarter isn’t it?

Yc out.

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