Wednesday, 29 August 2012

Journal | liminality

Taking Carol Duncan's The Art Museum as Ritual as a jumping board, I want to bring attention to and explore museum spaces in Singapore as a secular ritual site.  The Art Museum as Ritual is very much a layered piece, speaking of the site, the performance of moving through the museum, the ideological force of the museum and as where power and history intersects. Although these are all points that will bear down on what I am about to say, here I want to focus on the particular aesthetic experience that museums stimulate, and how the museum space in Singapore evokes that experience (or rather, fails to).

To just briefly summarise what was said, Duncan adapted the notion of liminality to the art museum to analyse it as a ritual site/artefact. She has spoken of art museums as "complex totalities that include everything from the building to the selection and ordering of collections and the details of their installation and lighting... this totality is best understood as a ritual setting, a ceremonial monument in its own rights and not just a container for other monuments." Duncan here has set the scene of the museum as a ritual site where a particular category of liminality, that of being betwixt-and-between the normal, that is, where a particular mode of consciousness operates, to elucidate how we encounter the objects on display. When Duncan says "like most ritual sites, museum space is carefully marked off and culturally designated as reserved for a special kind of attention - in this case, contemplation and learning", she is comparing the liminal experience to the aesthetic experience as a mode of receptivity thought to be most appropriate before works of art.

Do museums here in Singapore evoke that type of aesthetic experience?

I would say no. (I'll be frank and say I'm not that well read on history and policies here, so I'll be breezing through the points.)

The many points from Duncan that I had listed above are relevant here. Firstly, the performance of moving through the museum: If visitors to a museum are enacting a performance, then they are performers reacting to cues in scripts, and some visitors read these cues better than other. Are visitors here in Singapore clued in to these cues? Compared to European societies where museums have had a long history as an Enlightenment project, such history is lacking here. Are there other socio-historical factors at play? What are they?

Then there is of course the ideological structure of museums here. What can be said of museums that constantly have 'Open house' during public holidays or festivals? Is this in line with a particular vision and policy on museums? Perhaps my next point will shed some light on this.

Lastly, the site, which refers to its architecture and its surroundings. The building of Singapore Art Museum was formerly a school, the National Art Gallery was the City Hall and former Supreme Court, and the Asian Civilisation Museum used to house government offices. Do the histories of these buildings have any impact on the aesthetic experience? Well, I think they do. The obvious is that these buildings were not designed to be museums. Also, and perhaps this is reading too much into symbolism but I've always understood such urban planning to be a microcosm of society, what does it mean to house museums in former colonial/colonial-era buildings? What effect does the architecture have when it blends in with similar buildings next to them? Especially, as in the case of the latter two museums, they are located in close proximity to the buildings of state institutions and, in the case of all three, cramped in by shopping and/or business districts and offices on the sides?

In my view, the three museums here have failed in composing a dramaturgy. The liminal experience is one that occurs from the outside, betwixt-and-between the normal, yet the museums are located in the midst of such banal spaces as shopping centres and office buildings. And the buildings of the museums itself held normal day-to-day function of education and administration.

The National Gallery of Victoria (International), in Melbourne, Australia provides a telling comparison. And I've chosen NGV only because it is an example I am familiar with. The building itself is of monolithic proportions and its design, literally a large plain rectangular box, is one you won't see anywhere else in the area and sets it apart. At the front, it has a moat-like pond running around the side. Its large entrance is blocked by a glass panel with water running down, so that it channels visitors to come in from the entrance located on the right of the panel.  The exit is on the left. Each element serves its purpose to isolate the visitors. The moat-like pond is almost like a symbolic threshold separating the museum from its surroundings. And the glass panel, a permeable barrier. It is not just the design of the museum that adds to the dramaturgy. The NGV is located on the bank opposite the CBD - another separation by water, this time a river that cuts through and separates the city area. It faces the same street that leads up to the Shrine of Rememberance, itself a ritual site of national importance. Do such physical elements echo in our mind? Does it unconsciously prep us for an aesthetic experience? All I know is that each time I've passed through the entrance of NGV, I've always felt a tingling of trepidation.

I'm also interested to know if the aesthetic experience is the same if we were to encounter art in open public spaces. There is that slight disjuncture when you encounter something quite out of the ordinary. Could that experience be called liminal? But I think that's a topic for another post.

Sunday, 26 August 2012

Journal | Once more with feeling

Shamelessly, I'll jump on the bandwagon here with Kent and Rachelle's posts on the 'liberal' use of the word "curate" recently. Much like how markers like "indie" and "artisanal" seem to be thrown around these days for 'intelligent marketing', there's this fear now that "curate" might just suffer the same fate of becoming the buzzword (unless it already has?) Can we afford to be nonchalant about this and who cares about curating? I suppose we do.

I'll go back to Kent's brilliant point here:

From the keepers of a collection, whose job was to care for the collection, the role and definition of the curator has expanded greatly to what it is today. Contemporary curating presents new context or experiences to approach existing conditions or perspective (emphasis mine)

Most of us would be familiar with the etymology of the word "curate" pointing to the rather curious verb of "care" - which, as Kent pointed out, used to refer to the caring for a collection of objects. What has changed or evolved is this notion of caring; what do we care for? how should we care?

And it is precisely these two questions posed by curating today that we ought to come back to this rather flippant use of the word "curate" today. Of course, we can always argue for it on the basis of 'poetic license' as such with the liberal use of the word - as I suspect those guilty of it would. Yet, we need to and ought to be aware of how the word is being thrown around, and for what purposes. In short, we need to care about the concept of curatorship here. While others may be comfortable using the word liberally in a non-reflexive manner, I doubt that those of us with an investment in the concept of curatorship can. That is to say that one of the ways in which we can care for the use of the word here is to constantly be reflexive about it and to critique others about their (flippant) use of the word here - even to the extent of unpacking their agendas: What is the context and conditions in which they are pushing the word "curate" in our faces? Why? To what end?

If we can concede that every curatorial gesture is also a kind of ideological force, I would venture to say that every liberal iteration of the word "curate" today is also guilty of reifying certain ideas about curatorship and we ought to be on our guard against that. This is for me perhaps one of the roles of curatorship - which is to care for the concept of curating itself. To take poetic license with the word is one thing (and an excusable one at that), but to remain nonchalant about the ideological context(s) within which such utterance of "curate", to let it pass without a care, so to speak, is perhaps akin to (intellectual) suicide for those of us with an investment in curatorship.

Saturday, 25 August 2012

Journal I on awareness of the curatorial

Picking up from Rachelle's post, personally I'm not too concerned with the proliferation of the word, "curate". Admittedly, I think there are moments when the adoption of the word had seemed a tad odd. Case in point, the change in designation from film programmer to film curator in the local film scene, seemingly just to keep in sync with the changing art trends. Despite the fact that the programming of films, its context and most importantly, its experience (within the theatre) remain unchanged.

From the keepers of a collection, whose job was to care for the collection, the role and definition of the curator has expanded greatly to what it is today. Contemporary curating presents new context or experiences to approach existing conditions or perspective (be it about the past, present or future). Through a combination of artefacts, artworks, situations, etc. they provide that encounter. 

Perhaps a thin line that exist between an artist and a curator is that the former creates, whereas the latter orchestrates? But even then, this is a bit of a generalization. While turning to design, the often cited distinction between art and design is that; design was made with specific purposes and functions in mind, while art's purpose was merely for itself and the artist. While the former largely holds true, the latter is flimsy at best. Particularly in contemporary art making, with the growth of art institutions and market. In a related manner, while economics was once predicated upon production, it is now defined by consumption.

To draw an example, I saw a talk by one of the founders of this company:

In the About Us, they described themselves as "uncovering latent needs, behaviors, and desires". Evidently, there is a distinct consumer angle, but this doesn't undermine the fact that the way they approach design (at the macro level, which is for whole companies) is by and large the same as curating. They curate a costumer experience, they re-interpretate the context of consumer service and at the core of their practice, is impeccably aware of the consumer's (audience) behaviors and desires.

As the boundaries of art making and design practices (and also other practices) expand, they collide and overlap with the curatorial. I think what's interesting is the arrival upon and identification with the curatorial - the very moment when the practice of curating enters the public sphere, which it inevitably has, as neither sphere (institutional and public) exist in isolation of each other.

Similarly, over the last few decades we have seen plenty of examples of art making gaining awareness within the public sphere, particularly the appropriation of pop art aesthetics into mainstream aesthetics. Of course and thankfully, this appropriation is never just one-sided. In many ways, this trafficking provides a form of acknowledgement to the relevance of both spheres.

That being said, to what purpose this relevance serves, is of course, for each and everyone to decide.

Journal I everyone is a curator

at future perfect's second session, we discussed how the term 'curating' is pretty loosely used these days ... and thrown around in a variety of contexts - anything and everything can be curated, from fashion to music playlists yadda blah. it's almost as though the word 'curate' has become a trendier replacement for anything that means 'organise'.  recently, at work, i also came across situations where architects are starting to use phrases like 'curating space' when they actually just mean 'designing space'.

we also talked about curators' rite of passage to becoming one, and if getting a curatorial education is actually a healthy thing for the scene. david's view was that most good curators are not made by attaining degrees, they just become better at their craft by doing, and making mistakes, and then doing better. i'm not so sure if i agree entirely with him because events like this one gets off the hook pretty easily.

Friday, 24 August 2012

Journal | conservation

With coffee in our system, we headed off to the Conservation Studio to speak to one of its inhabitants, Lawrence Chin. Amidst all the organised clutter of ziplocked strands of cloth and fiber, a reused jam jar of cotton swabs, an experimental set-up, a tyrannosaurus rex affectionately named buddy, and of course, paintings, Lawrence gave us a very brief but candid introduction to the conservation of objects and how he works. Conservation is both art and science, as conservators must have a detailed understanding of the materials they are working with, but also make aesthetic judgements on their restoration work guided as they are by the ethical principles of minimal intervention, reversibility and the full documentation of their work on a particular piece.

But even with such ethical guidelines, there is still much unstable ground to negotiate through. Materials used by conservators are hardly manufactured for the sole purpose of conservation but rather, are appropriated from other industrial purposes. As such, in the principle of reversibility where the conservator should be able to undo his or her intervention, the conservator finds himself or herself often balancing the considerations of easy reversibility and strong durability. Similarly, the restoration of an ethnographic object is a matter of balancing aesthetics and minimal intervention. In restoring an ethnographic object, where does the conservator stop so that it still looks worn and aged yet is visually attractive? In restoring an artwork, most often, the conservator does the minimum so that it blends in from a metre away. But what if a large area needs restoration? What more if it is the focal point of the artwork? These are certainly considerations that curators should have a deep understanding of working as they are with the conservators, the artists and the institution in which the artwork is displayed in, all of whom have views on the presentation of the art.

Especially now with the contemporary art world making use of materials that have not been fully understood, such as acrylic paint, and branching off into various mediums, using ephemeral materials and creating installations that are complicated to take apart and even more complicated to put back together, what is the conservator and the curator to do?

Some weeks from now, when we're off tramping through the flea market at Chinatown and on Sungei Road, checking out shops run by karang guni men, and exploring the collection of systematic comic collectors, understanding how they go about conserving their collections is something we could explore too.

Thursday, 23 August 2012

common programme: Curatorial Roundtable 03

Date: 28 Aug 2012
Time: 6pm
Venue: Evil Empire, 48 Niven Road

To RSVP: Please email or call 6516 8817 / 8428
Limited to only 30 seats (floor seating only)

Presented in conjunction with Curating Lab 2012, the Curatorial Roundtable series is a public talk series that gathers together curatorial and industry pratitioners across different spectrums, to discuss their latest exhibitions and projects. Although presented primarily for the participants of Curating Lab 2012, this series is an opportunity to bridge the gap between the curator and the audience, providing opportunities for interaction and stimulating discussions on curatorial practices and process.


Alan Oei is an artist-curator who has exhibited in Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, Hong Kong, Melbourne and New York. As a curator, he has initiated public projects such as Blackout, a warehouse exhibition that drew 3000 people to an industrial estate, and OH! Open House, the annual walkabout featuring art inside real life homes in neighbourhoods like Marine Parade and Tiong Bahru.  He has a BA Art History (magna cum laude) from Columbia University (NY) and a Diploma in Fine Arts (distinction) from LASALLE College of the Arts.

Tan Shir Ee is an arts consultant, manager and curator who traverses artistic disciplines and cities. She cut her teeth at the National Arts Council and the Esplanade before joining the Akram Khan Dance Company in London. She coordinated the United Arab Emirate's inaugural participation at the 2009 Venice Biennale before returning to Singapore to helm the 
Freedom to Create Prize which advocates social change through the arts. Other projects include curating the commissioned art at the award-winning New Majestic Hotel. She is currently lecturing at LASALLE College of the Arts and working on the Land Transport Authority's Art In Transit programme. 

Khairuddin Hori graduated with a Master of Arts from LASALLE, Singapore in 2006. Prior to his engagement as Senior Curator at the Singapore Art Museum (SAM), Khairuddin worked as an artist and independent curator focused on artists’ collectives and emerging talents from Southeast Asia with a particular focus on Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia. In 2007, he employed six Asian curators as his art-makers in his solo exhibition Trading Craft which was presented in Bangkok and Singapore by the Institute of Contemporary Arts Singapore. Khairuddin recently co-curated the exhibitions Negotiating Home, History and Nation: Two Decades of Contemporary Art from Southeast Asia and The Singapore Show: Future Proof at SAM.

Wednesday, 22 August 2012

Journal I Week 2 Internship w SAM

This time round we had the following readings:

1) David Carrier - The Poetics of the Art Museum

2) Visual Thinking Strategies - Image Selection for Beginning Viewers

3) Iwona Blazwick - Temple, White Cube, Laboratory

4) Henry Jackson Newcomb - The Roles of the Artist & Curator, In Relation to The Exhibiting of Art

These bunch of readings gives a basic understanding of the roles of a curator, the art, the space, and interesting relationships in between them.

In David Carrier's text, he mentioned "in today's dramatic reversal of the relationship between art and its setting, art must accomodate the building". I truly believe that the space around the work is just as important as the work. Be it white space, 'shadowed' space, or the physicality of the building. This is due to the fact that art is being cradled in a vessel known as the building. And the growth of architecture in today also deem it to be a work of art. Hence the need to be critical about the both 'works' is especially emphasized in light of the growth of site-specific installations.

My question to all is how relevant is this to SAM, FP & NUS Museum? I do see differences in the relationship between the art and building with reference to the institutional/political baggages tied to each organisations. This affects the choice of work acquired to a certain extent, which de-prioritizes the accommodation of the building.

While we are talking about spaces, I felt that Henry Jackson Newcomb's text of "The Roles of the Artist & Curator, In Relation to The Exhibiting of Art" does surface some interesting things that I want to highlight. Brancusi did his exhibiting without the gallery, but instead he opened his studio to show his works. We do not see much exhibitions in an artist studio. However one show in 2011 caught my eye - The Art Garage, a show curated by producer, Terence Tan. A hall meant for theatre was decked with artworks (some on floors, walls, and even in their storage baskets). The works made sense of the space around them. It gave the viewer an experiential encounter of not just the works, but also the space. This project proved that we need not be limited to traditional art spaces like formal galleries. Through creative improvisations, spaces can be transformed and made into something completely new. The exhibition itself is an installation. We could take reference from Robert Morris's BodySpaceMotionThings exhibition at the Tate in 1971. In today's context, art cafes are sprouting up in town like 15 Minutes and the Orange Thimble. Such cafes allow one not just to enjoy a cup of good coffee, but enjoy it with art. I do have a exhibition at the Orange Thimble currently which you may want to check out. Probably in the future we could have more art restaurants and maybe even art spas?

Iwona Blazwick mentioned that the "This is Tomorrow" Exhibition held at the Whitechapel Art Gallery in 1956 emphasized the interaction between the art and the viewer. She also drew its comparisons to a department store. I like art exhibitions that engage viewers to a point where he/she 'purchases' something from the experience. The viewership takeaway from the exhibition is good while the exchange between the viewer and the art is even better. The latter has been heavily used in new media arts whereby the the viewer becomes the artwork. This interaction stemmed from the heavy influence of Marshall Mcluhan's famous theory of "The Medium is the Message". I wont go deeply into explaining that conceptual text. But what I do foresee in the next decade is more of such new media works are in the making. What we have seen and experience is just the tip of the iceberg. The gallery's role is to transform art from being a window to another world.

Tuesday, 21 August 2012

Journal | reflections on the first session at SAM

Why curate? What is the role of the curator?

The role of a curator, or, more essentially, who a curator is, can only be discussed upon an understanding of what it means to curate. Curating has been described as the acts of
1.       ‘caring’ for the art works in all its aspects,
2.       Communicating the significance of a collection to the public
3.       Filtering or selecting, much like the editor of a book. 

(This is of course a non-exhaustive list which could go on to include logistics of exhibition making, talent scouting, writing, art dealership, etc.)

However that being said, Flores, in his article, reminds us that the concept of curating itself can be culturally specific (in Thailand, for instance, the ‘curator is pantarak, which literally means keeper of things’, and ‘some Thai artists had initially thought the curator to be a broker, an assignment akin to marketing careers and commodities.’).

What it means to curate, and the role of the curator in the messy context of the contemporary is no longer clearly defined. Dealing with the commercial is now seemingly part and parcel of curating, especially if the curator is an independent one, and is thus more vulnerable in a ‘survivalist’ setting. Another factor that shapes the role of the curator is the institution within which he/she works in – exhibitions always have to serve to perform the institutional mandate, something that is perhaps most apparent in state museums. 

So, why curate? For me curating allows for a focused narrative to come through, whether this is a narrative that is personal for the curator, or echoes the institution attached to the exhibition, etc. What is important here, is for the curator to be self-reflexive about his/her practice. 

I have failed to cite decently in this short reflection piece based on our first internship session at SAM last week, but I draw references here to Patrick Flores, Past Periphery: Curation in Southeast Asia and
Robert Storr, Show And Tell. Another book I have found very helpful in understanding curating is titled Who Cares? 16 Essays on Curating in Asia (

Friday, 17 August 2012

Journal | Amassing Collections and Other Interests

The conversation was already lively to begin with but our excitement brewed over when Ashraf revealed that he had, among his friends, systematic collectors of comic books, toys and a myriad of other objects. Why do individuals collect objects and how have they given order to their collections? How can we make sense of their collections and what do their collections say about them? We pondered too – how do these private collections compare with exhibitionary institutions? Speaking to private collectors and viewing their treasure troves would help us answer some of these questions and prompt even more issues regarding collecting and collections to surface. We brainstormed on possible places to visit together, including the storage spaces of Karang Gunis, bomohs, Chinese medicine dispensaries and the homes of private collectors (but not dealers, who would be more commercially-minded). The word ‘collector’ is often associated with adults who are sufficiently well-to-do to maintain such a hobby. There is even a stereotype we heard that collectors must be rich bachelors! Yet, Zaccheus reminded us that children/teenagers can be collectors as well – on weekdays, primary and secondary school students (usually boys) can be spotted at Bishan MRT station exchanging ‘magic’ cards. How do these unacknowledged young curators make sense of their collections?

In addition, we shared about our research interests which could be further explored during the internship. For me, postcards and photographs featuring humans from colonial Malaya offer insights into the colonial gaze and relationships between anthropology and colonialism. Posters promoting tourism in colonial Malaya can be visually interesting, as well as telling of the essentialised, apparently alluring traits used to ‘sell’ this location to consumers. These are blurred photographs that I took of some colonial-period, discoloured tourism posters on a noticeboard outside Tanjong Pagar Railway Station in July’ 2011 (the last week when the station was still operational):

Working with the community is important for Zaccheus, who suggested that we make films about changing landscapes in Singapore and invite residents familiar with these changes to the film screenings to share their experiences. With such interaction, the line between curators and their public would be blurred. Perhaps, the categories of curator and public can also be challenged should we invite residents to select personal objects related to the investigated sites for display and provide short write-ups framing these items. Theoretical grounding for our suggestions was broached when Kamiliah introduced the notion of ‘autoethnography’. Self-reflexivity, she pointed out, is a central concern in the discipline of anthropology as well as in curatorship (as highlighted in several of our assigned texts). Curators could provide write-ups about themselves that would help to impress on their audience the crafted and subjective nature of exhibitions. We need to reflect on and be upfront about the question that Heman first posted to artists: what are our positions as curators?

Lee Min (on behalf of the NUS Museum group)

Journal | Internship at SAM - Session 1 | Contentions and Constraints: What is the role of a Curator?

By Riya de los Reyes


Patrick Flores, Past Periphery: Curation in Southeast Asia
Robert Storr, Show and Tell

The first session was casual, candid and informal even though Siuli told us to lay our "burning questions" down on the table from the get-go. The session was mainly about understanding how SAM functions as a government-funded institution, how it negotiates its role as a regional player in contemporary art and how it positions itself as a museum for the public. We got a first-hand account of what a curator at a contemporary art museum does and the duties that the job entails - research, outreach, organization, residency, etc.

What I gathered from the readings and the discussion last Tuesday is that curatorship is "an activity rather than the position, status, or convention [...] identified with the aura of the museum" [Past Periphery, p.10). At the same time, it is also problematic that curating has become a ‘buzzword’, with people throwing the word about and claiming themselves to be curators without properly defining what curating actually means. And this is understandable, since Flores admits that curatorship is a contentious term, on top of being a dexterous practice that – according to Robert Storr – involves self-discipline, selection, respect, representation and ‘art diplomacy’.

·         Understanding Curatorial Practice in Southeast Asia
In Past Periphery: Curation in Southeast Asia, Flores outlines how the curating of contemporary art has evolved in Southeast Asia, particularly in Thailand and Indonesia. The article also delineates “the shift from the modern to the contemporary” in Southeast Asia, such that curators consequently “serve[d] as conduits of artworks and careers, facilitating exchange between the art institutions, the artists and the public.”

I initially found the article to be rather dense (art history-ish) but upon close-reading, I noted that Flores tended to first put forward generic assumptions most people probably have concerning what curating is about and then proceeds to expound on ‘curatorship’ situated in the Southeast Asian context. He is basically trying to clarify these assumptions based on his knowledge of how curatorship of contemporary art has evolved in the region – to which he concludes that:

…the motivations of curators and the impulse of their practice:
1. extension of creative activity and theoretical/discursive reflection;
2. art education and communication to the public on contemporary art;
3. institutional power; and
4. professional development. (see p. 19)
·         What is contemporary art? Why curate contemporary art?
The curation of contemporary art functions as a means to bridge the generational conflict that arises “with the shift from the modern to the contemporary”. Flores notes Apinan Poshyananda’s observation of the “dynamism” shared by the contemporary and culture:“‘culture’ whose root defined as developing force...Different generations hold different definitions of ‘contemporary culture’. I am saying that being extreme is like perceiving culture from the perspective of a seventy-year-old versus seventeen-year-old individuals. Although coming from different circles, there must be some similarities when the two meet. [...] As a matter of fact, they should socialize and mix since they do live in the same period and society.”

The contemporary means “being in the same period of time” in the same way one might call peers within one’s age bracket as his/her ‘contemporaries’. This definition reflects continuity/change, particularly because what was considered contemporary years ago “was pretty much different from today”. The contemporary, therefore, is a critique of the modern... but very quickly and quite ironically can become self-conscious/self-critical the moment (and this is inevitable) a “new contemporary” replaces the incumbent. It is characterized by a shifting fluidity that exposes the dynamism – but also the fickleness – of the ‘here and now’.

But why bridge this generational conflict? Flores highlights “the link between the curation of contemporary art and the politics of heritage, democracy and globalization”. The contemporary discourse is inevitably intertwined with “issues of modernity and identity, which had been ratified quite strenously by nation-building projects in Southeast Asia from the sixties through the eighties.” This remains pertinent, with many Southeast Asian nations still uncertain – if not, in contention or in constant negotiation – of what ‘nationhood’, ‘heritage’ and ‘identity’ really means.

To explain contemporary art, Flores quotes Jim Supangkat:

...a very basic principle of contemporary art: to bring into awareness that the paradigm of world art in a modernist point of view, that we have been familiar with us so far, was based on a limited reality.

·         Curatorial Roles: Selector and ‘Exhibition-maker’
Flores and Storr similarly defined the curator as a selector, with the former distinguishing the curator from merely being ‘a keeper of things’ (also see Wikipedia entry about Curator) and the latter describing the curator as an‘exhibition-maker’. During our trip to the NUS Museum two weeks ago, Mustafa related his encounter with a woman who wrote a letter to the newspaper about a document featured in the exhibit (I can’t remember what the document was exactly but it’s something to do with the British returning to Singapore after the war). She became the keeper, the ‘guardian’ of that document. The curator –in this case, Mustafa – was not a ‘keeper’, but rather the ‘selector’ who consciously decided to include the document in the Camping and Tramping... exhibit.

Flores cites the art historian, John Clark, regarding the role of the curator: “selector; thinker; mediator of thought; cohort provider; talent scout; theatrical agent; journalist; market maker; cultural provocateur, prototype designer, entrepreneur”. Siuli, for instance, informed us of her role in choosing upcoming artists through the President's Young Talents (PYT) platform, which was apparently the brainchild of Ahmad from NUS Museum. Curators judge artworks, as well as artists – their techniques/craftmanship, the way they communicate their artwork and also how they prove their passion for their work. The curator chooses to place value on certain artworks, but also determines the value of the artist – effectively, promoting “a particular style of thought, through the dissemination of knowledge”. Curators therefore “validate the art in ciculation” (i.e., influence the ‘zeitgeist’ in contemporary art), and decide what qualifies as valuable artworks and who personifies a dedicated/deserving artist.

In his article, Storr likens the curator to an editor (which, of course, struck me immediately since I work in a publishing house). The curator as an ‘exhibition-maker’ is “the first, most critical reviewer in the way that a good editor is the first, most critical reader”. Storr emphasized two important 'values' of the curator/selector/exhibition-maker: Self-Discipline and Art Diplomacy. The curator has to negotiate the interests of the institution and the artists, so he/she has to make the call with regards to, say, the feasibility of the exhibition, and also to 'not give in to pressures' should artistic merit be in opposition with institutional interests. Quoting Siuli (though not in so many words), "As a curator, and particularly when judging/interpreting art or negotiating the institution's or artist's demands, you need to find/have found your 'core'/your own voice."

·         Curatorial Responsibilities: Representation and Respect
As such, I would like to bring up the points that I found most important and definitely relevant to 'finding one's own voice' as a curator - i.e. Representation and Respect.

i. Towards the artists and their artwork

Within the Southeast Asian context, Flores stresses that - as representatives of the artists - the curator "intervenes in making the voices of the artists heard, of speaking on their behalf in the global art world's main language, which is English, or serving as informant of foreign curators who roam the world for prospective talent."

Storr, on the other hand, believes that - as representatives of the artists - the curator is tasked to explain the artistic work by "revealing itself" (ie. 'showing', as opposed to 'telling') in and through the exhibition. Selecting and ascribing value to their work are not the only ways through which a curator gives an artist respect. He/She must be able to give "friendly skepticism" and be able to refuse (and "backed by clearly articulated reasons") the artist's suggestions, for instance, if they would be unfeasible/detrimental to the 'success' of the exhibition. Being critical, provided done with a generative/productive effect, is an expression of 'care'/cure/compassion to spot shortcomings and provoke discourse on how something might be improved.

ii. Towards the public

For a curator working in a public institution, he/she is supposed to represent the interests of the public and therefore required to treat the public with what Storr termed “democratic respect”. The exhibit catalogue, for instance, should neither contain ‘jargons’ nor should it bear the tone of ‘talking down’ to the reader but at the same time refrain from oversimplifying difficult issues. is plain both as a practical matter and as a matter of principle that the ultimate decisions are made by the viewer. The job of the exhibition-maker is to do all that can be done so that those decisions will be well-informed, rooted in perception and, in a positive sense, inconclusive.

“Inconclusive” here means that the exhibition has to remain ‘open-ended’ as a space for discovery. The curator should not explain away or dictate the message/meaning of the exhibition, but rather craft the exhibit such that viewer thinks of it “as the beginning of a renewable acquaintance with someone or something that will take a long time to know well and whom one will never know completely.” (p. 27, Show and Tell)

By extension, Flores suggests that the contemporary art museum should be seen “in terms of either a ‘lure’ or an ‘activator’. Lure because it guarantees visibility (tourism, media, investment) for the locality in which it is situated and activator because it stimulates a new urban system”. He also highlights the tendencies of Southeast Asian contemporary art curators to ensure a ‘democratic’ representation of the region’s artwork and artistic community, so as to veer away from Supangkat’s assessment that modernity was based on a “limited reality”.

Although curatorship is a contentious term ("to curate is not the exclusive privilege of curators"), its role can be defined. It is important to anticipate what the viewer expects from the exhibit - to know how best to represent artworks and artists in an exhibition and how much the artwork 'reveals itself' to its viewer, and I guess also consider the institution's 'target audience' (in SAM's case, the public). The curator must balance the artistic expressions with the public's potential responses to them.

This also leads to understanding the different institutional intent influencing the character and nature of exhibitions, as well as how exhibitions engage its viewer. SAM apparently prefers to 'seduce' the viewer ("to lay the string that marks a trail in and out" - see Show and Tell, p. 25) rather than overwhelming them with shocking/'difficult' art that would confuse or turn off the viewer.

Over dinner, I talked about my love for fabrics (my mother used to run a dress-making business when I was younger). I initially disliked Indonesian batik (I preferred Malaysian batik). However, I developed an interest in it after my recent trip to a museum in Surakarta where I saw different types of Batik (e.g. batik Cina, different batik patterns denoting status, places, etc.) I lamented, "But I feel like there are only so many ways one can exhibit textiles..."

Siuli then informed me about Samantha Tio's recent exhibit: Admittedly, I have mainly seen exhibitions done by museums and therefore would like to explore and be exposed to how other art galleries or curating platforms (aside from museums) display different types of exhibits -- "to seek other perspectives and to find/maintain my own voice" as an aspiring curator.

Wednesday, 15 August 2012

Journal I Internship @ SAM

Our first internship session was mainly a conversation about the workings of SAM and the issues public institutions face in negotiating the various pressures from other government bodies. It was certainly an insightful dialogue on the role and responsibilities public museums have to both its audience and the ethos of contemporary art. One memorable takeaway for me was that curators of such institutions will have to be flexible in navigating through the various channels and parties that exert some form of power over the institution, but always remain firm in their personal and professional principles- "the core". Some food for thought!

Some thoughts about the readings given:

In a nutshell, Patrick Flores's article attempts to characterise and situate curation in Southeast Asia, while Robert Storr's piece focuses on instructing the curator of art on the dos and don'ts of exhibition making.

One illuminating point brought out by Flores is that the curator of today has to be firmly plugged into the contemporary. Now this begs the question, what is the contemporary? It is something which I find some difficulty in defining perhaps because its parameters are constantly changing, its meaning and interpretation constantly in flux. Flores describes the contemporary system as being created as it is practiced:
...the state of contemporary art is rather fluid, and given the uneven and asymmetrical modes by which modernity had taken root in these art worlds, certain practices and roles are practically makeshift, improvised and run on idiosyncratic rationality; the rules in the field are rather pliant, continuously modified by the practice of curators whose very practice creates a system, which had not existed before their sorties into this arena.
I think this brings some insight to the curator's position in the cultural sphere. We've discussed about the power the curator has in validating art through selecting and articulating. As a result, museums, alternative spaces and independent galleries etc create an ecosystem that generates and regenerates the art world as we see it, and is therefore part of the production of contemporary culture. It reveals to me, then, that the curator doesn't only need to be plugged into the contemporary, but s/he is at the forefront of creating aesthetic standards through interrogating conditions of the contemporary man:
Curation as an inventive mediation that produces exhibitions, events, careers, and values and the curator as an agent who actively selects and represents these within the social world of art becomes a compass that guides us as we navigate the vast realms of what is only vaguely invoked as the contemporary.
In other words, I think one can say that the curator creates the contemporary while being part of it. As a conduit of culture, the curator identifies and presents social notions, and also creates recombinant ways of seeing art and the world.

For Storr, he sharply states that the curator/exhibitioner is not an artist, but is a mediator, an advisor, a channel and a translator of ideas all at once. He strongly stresses the responsibility and obligation the curator has to the artist, the institution and the public. I think Storr refers to the curator largely as the middleman who is required to ensure that exhibitions do what they should with everyone's needs being met.

I think Storr's point that "the most important contract of all exists between the exhibition-maker and the public" is rather important, especially when it involves public institutions. It reminds me of what Flores said in his lecture that the curator is also very much a "patient" to his/her audience, and that the art and the intentions behind its presentation loses value if not rightly communicated. While there is necessity to ensure that shows remain open-ended, the curator ought to bear in mind how it will be received. As put by Storr: is plain both as a practical matter and as a matter of principle that the ultimate decisions are made by the viewer. The job of the exhibition-maker is to do all that can be done so that those decisions will be well informed, rooted in perception and, in a positive sense, inconclusive.
The curator thus has to be sensitive to the tensions that underlie the meaning of their shows, making sure that the audiences remain enthralled and also have the space to conceive their own responses. I believe that is where the challenge for the curator lies.


Journal I Day 1 Internship with SAM

Reading Material - "PAST PERIPHERY: CURATION IN SEA", Patrick D. Flores

Some thoughts I have in mind wrt this reading that we failed to discuss due to our overflowing dialogue.

1) It is not helpful to divide the 'independent' and 'institutional' curators. Patrick mentioned that curators that move in and out of both respective contexts carve a peculiar space within which they practice curation and break through the membranes of the art world. However in our context, there isnt much opportunities for curators to move in and out of the 'independent' and 'institutions'. It is a said achievement for one to progress from the former to the latter. But I am curious to know what incentives are present for him/her to move the opposite direction?

The exchange of ideas in such a movement combines both of them into a whole sphere of curatorial positions that is independent of institutional politics, notions of authority. This progression has the potential to allow art to manifest itself into a purer and saturated form - one that is true to its form and free from political restrains.

2) The 4 curator tendencies are someone similar to artistic tendencies - Past exotic artscape, renewal of tradition, advocacy, and search for the new. What I like about such similarities is the curatorial community of artists as curators, and curators as artists. Such tendencies serve as a base starting point for a whole progression of ideas and inspiration to be augmented through a conceptual discourse and eventually evolving into a new work(artist) and a new angle or position(curator).

3) The future of curation may move beyond found and intangible spaces. In some situations, curators are actually just asked to write curatorial introductions for a particular collection of ideas or narratives. Their roles will supersede exhibitionary practices while increasingly becoming more sought after in approaching unique angles into ways of seeing things. This is due to the fact that many other current roles of curation has the potential to be 'substituted', but we cant possibly substitute the curators ideas.


Tuesday, 14 August 2012

common programme: Curatorial Roundtable 02

Date: 18 Aug 2012
Time: 2pm
Venue: Unit 15 Lorong 24A Geylang

To RSVP: Please email or call 6516 8817 / 8428
Limited to only 30 seats.


Presented in conjunction with Curating Lab 2012, the Curatorial Roundtable series is a public talk series that gathers together curatorial and industry pratitioners across different spectrums, to discuss their latest exhibitions and projects. Although presented primarily for the participants of Curating Lab 2012, this series is an opportunity to bridge the gap between the curator and the audience, providing opportunities for interaction and stimulating discussions on curatorial practices and process.


David Henkel is Curator for Southeast Asia at the Asian Civilisations Museum (ACM). His focus is primarily on the Malay World and Tribal communities, as well as the early-modern period of Southeast Asian history. His research interests include weapons and warfare, religion and ritual, woodcarving, metalwork and textiles. His most recent exhibition was Land of the Morning: The Philippines and its People. 

Lilian Chee is a writer, architectural theorist and designer. She was trained at the Bartlett, University College London where she obtained her doctorate, and at the National University of Singapore where she is currently Assistant Professor. She is interested in the potentials and problematics of domesticity as it impacts the individual, the neighborhood, and ultimately, the city. Her interest has been explored across various visual media including architecture, art and film. She is presently working on a research film looking at domesticity within Singapore's public housing context.

Erika Tan is an artist and curator whose work has evolved from an interest in anthropology and the moving image. Her work is often informed by specific cultural, geographical or physical contexts; exploring different media to create situations that excite, provoke, question, confront and invite comments from an audience. Her work has been exhibited nationally and internationally including Thermocline of Art (ZKM, Germany 2007), The Singapore Biennale (2006), Around The World in Eighty Days (South London Gallery / ICA 2007), EAST International  (Norwich Gallery 2000), Cities on the Move (The Hayward Gallery, London), and Incommunicado (Hayward Touring exhibition). 

Saturday, 4 August 2012

Journal | Of Authors and Agency in the Museum/Exhibition

By Kenneth Tay

Perhaps it's because I come with the prejudices of being a student of literature, but I think that even as we continue to speak of curatorship as a kind of authorship (I think first mentioned by Ahmad) we need to examine what is meant by the figure of the "author", as well as what are some of its implications for the 'reading' of any (museum) exhibition.

For the convenience of this piece, I'd like to maintain that a curator is or can be an artist insofar as the curated exhibition can be thought of an artwork - a bricolage amalgamated from a selected series of art-works and objects. It is in this sense that I speak of "curator", "artist" and "author" all in one same breath.

Almost predictably, I refer to Barthes' seminal essay "The Death of the Author" (1967) as a starting point for a problematization of the "author" figure. In Barthes' case,

[t]he author is a modern figure, a product of our society insofar as, emerging from the Middle Ages with English empiricism, French rationalism and the personal faith of the Reformation, it discovered the prestige of the individual (emphasis mine)

To that, Barthes speaks of the "Author" as a particular and traditional author that has been normalized perhaps due to certain theological inflections (i.e. the "Author" as the god-creator of his text/work). That is to say that the meaning of the art-work or text resides alone in the 'intention' of its creator and that any reading or interpretation is merely a retrieval and recovery of this meaning: "To give the text an Author is to impose a limit on the text, to furnish it with a final signified, to close the writing" (Barthes). In short, the Author's intention is the only possible line of reading - the alpha and omega of our hermeneutics.

Against the figure of the "Author", I think it prudent for us to remember that the curator should not be seen as a kind of god-creator of his/her exhibition. On this note, I am also certain that in no way was Ahmad trying to suggest this either when he mentioned that curatorship is a form of authorship - well, not this Author-ship anyway.

Even as we continue to read the curator's statement(s) or the captions for the selected works in a particular exhibition, we are not bound to the 'intention' of the curator in our reading/engagement with the exhibition-as-artwork. In other words, the curator-author does not or should not tyrannize our interpretation of his/her exhibition into a single line of thought favored and preselected by him/her.

That being the case, we would be foolish to think of ourselves as free autonomous agents in the space of the museum or exhibition either. The curator does in fact manipulate and limit the possible pathways/vectors of our interpretation through factors as varied as the dramaturgy of the exhibition and the choice of object/works presented. In our role as readers, viewers and recipients of the curator's exhibition-as-artwork, we are never completely free. In short, our hermeneutic horizon has been foreclosed or circumscribed as such by the conscientious selection and deliberation on the part of the curator-author. The curator may not be a coercive "Author" but s/he is not politically innocent either in his/her mobilization of our thoughts. As reading subjects in the museum or exhibition, we are also subjected to the antics of the curator-author (eg. system of representation). In that sense, the idea that we are coming into the space of the museum or the exhibition as an autonomous subject able to hold the 'world' in an anthology of objects and images in front of us is a fantasy we need to be aware of, and that of our 'agency' as reader/viewer be problematized.We can no longer speak of agency purely in the simple formulation of whether we readers or viewers possess it or not, but that this 'agency' always operate in degrees and in shades of grey.

Returning to Barthes' frequently-cited statement "the birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the Author", we ought to remain vigilant to the fact that this birth is not one necessarily free of symbolic chains and that the death of the Author in the museum gives way to the curator-author who, though no longer overdetermines, nonetheless continues to yield a considerable (determining) force on our hearts and heads.

Friday, 3 August 2012

Journal I some arrows are better than others

Undoubtedly, one of the distinctive characteristics about Arrow Factory is its sense of humor.

Whether that's a conscious decision by the curators and/or the artists themselves, it is hard not to attribute it to the nature of the space itself. A small and supposedly unassuming space no more than 15 sqm situated along a small hutong alley in the Beijing city center.

Amongst its many project over the last 5 years, such as the video installation (It’s Not About the Neighbors) by Wang Gongxin that creates a simulacrum of Arrow Factory's neighbor or the kinetic installation (38 Jianchang Hutong) by Zhang Peili, these projects exhibit a particular sense of mischief.

Perhaps, it stems from the fact that it doesn't need to take itself too seriously. As compared to the big institutions, museums and galleries that exist because they have to exist, Arrow Factory seems to exist, simply because it wants to.

Thursday, 2 August 2012


Activity for Day 4 of the Curatorial-Intensive: Participants were asked to envision their own spaces with an annual budget of $50,000. They had to select a specific location and conceptualise the programming of the space.

Participants will be posting their concepts in the comments below.

Journal I (museum) space-hopping

hi, it's me rachelle.

today's curriculum was exceptionally interesting because we finally got to talk about the curatorial practice in an actual space - the museum/gallery setting. oh, do not get me wrong, i am not implying that the first 2 days were dull. i do appreciate and enjoy the discussions we've had so far:  curatorial motivations, political implications arising out of these motivations, theoretical/social concerns revolving around exhibiting, curator's responsibilities, etc. i would think these to be very necessary thought processes that drive any good exhibition-making. beyond asking questions and "interrogations", i wonder - as curators, is it not equally important for us to understand the dynamics behind our curatorial concepts/intentions and the act of translating them into a physical space? the naggy bottom-line is that people understand and experience an exhibition by walking through it. the interaction between the viewer and the object/narrative in space cannot be excluded from the curatorial language. if an exhibition fails to communicate spatially (with text or no text), then the entire curatorial storyline collapses alongside it. i guess what i am trying to say is that, without a proper understanding of "site", a curator could sabotage his own efforts.

i am commenting on this as a reaction to today's curatorial tours, and also as an inevitable response from having been trained as an architect and my cursed OCD-ish tendencies towards the physicality of any space.  the 4 places that we visited - NUS museum, SAM, Future Perfect and NMS - all handled their objects/narratives in space very differently, with some more successful than others. i understood these excursions as an activity that is v pertinent in understanding each institution's curatorship. simply because exhibitions are 3-dimensional in nature and should be perceived beyond imagery, text and concepts. reading and looking at Jia Aili's works from a brochure is quite different from witnessing them in real space. i appreciated how david considered the old saint joseph's building structures in his positioning of Jia's paintings. this is the juncture where architecture becomes a curatorial device. which is very exciting for me because i then begin to understand paintings beyond their frames and the idea of site-specificity comes into play. 

this post also seems to respond to one of the 6 modules (sadly not the one i was assigned to) where it discusses the "appropriating of knowledge as a curatorial commonplace" and how "information as a body of knowledges and ideas is synonymous to the internet landscape." my problem with curators not tackling issues of site/locality is that exhibitions produced are often spatially incoherent. and my very gut response is - why bother taking up physical space? why not a virtual museum instead? people remember TATE for both its art and its turbine hall references. and besides, we were all so drawn to the gillman barracks today, albeit sans art! siuli also commented how SAM's acquisition policy was largely based on the assumption that they will at some point move into a bigger space. the notion of site in exhibition-making should be talked about more among curators. the physicality of an exhibition space does determine the curatorial direction in a very real manner. back in school, i was trained to express architectural/political/social concepts and theories using drawings and 3-d models only. and in the words of pauline, "this was the fun part" because we were then forced to think with our hands. hence all these leave me wondering - why do curators talk so little through the arrangement and placement of things? is it not fun for them? so far, it appears only as an after-thought.