20 – 31 January 2021
Tanjong Pagar Distripark

Considering Access with Joselina Cruz

Joselina Cruz is currently Director and Curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art and Design (MCAD), De La Salle-College of Saint Benilde, Manila. Cruz has worked as a curator for the Lopez Memorial Museum in Manila (2001-2004) and the Singapore Art Museum (2005–07). She was a co-curator for the 2nd Singapore Biennale (2008), and a networking curator for the 13th Jakarta Biennale, 2009. She curated the Philippine Pavilion for the 57thVenice Biennale in 2017.  From 2012 she has produced exhibitions with artists such as Michael Lin, Paul Pfeiffer, Lani Maestro, Manuel Ocampo, Tiffany Chung, Michael Lee and Maria Taniguchi at MCAD in Manila (Philippines). She has been invited for curatorial visitorships and residencies amongst which include Asialink, the Mondriaan Foundation, Office for Contemporary Art, (OCA), Norway. and the Center for Contemporary Art (CCA ) in Singapore, and is a Fellow of the Nippon Foundation’s Asian Public Intellectuals Grant. She is currently an Asian Cultural Council Fellow 2019-2020.

MCAD distinguishes its position as a “non-collecting institution”. In a landscape where collections have historically been and continue to be perceived as the raison d’être of museums, why is such a position important or advantageous? What, then, grounds MCAD’s programme and practice?

MCAD was initially positioned as a laboratory for students to experiment, but at the same time there was at its core a proposal to create a collection on the history of design, thus the use of the word “museum” in naming the space. The latter never came to fruition, and when I took on the position as Director, I proposed for it to follow the framework of a kunsthalle (a temporary art space, not-for-profit, and one which, usually, does not have a collection) which allowed for curated exhibitions which would also allow for the space to create an identity or brand. I think at the time when I came in it was important to acknowledge the landscape of the art scene in Manila, and the Philippines in general. Most spaces – museums or otherwise – were collecting spaces, and had been formed from collections by private individuals or families, focusing heavily on Filipino work (historical and contemporary). This was the general pattern amongst spaces in Manila.

One has to realise though that collections are incredibly demanding, of manpower, space and financial backing; and despite the visionary decision to conceive the current space of MCAD, the college still had not realised the potential of their idea with that sort of space. It was an opportunity to engage with another trajectory of institution-building, and being part of a young art and design college that was open, flexible and truly forward-looking, it seemed like it would be a good fit. MCAD, after Marian Pastor Roces, had become an ‘events’ space which would accommodate everything from fashion shows, embassy shows to concerts, independent art events, even becoming an enrolment area. It had turned into a shell, a large industrial space where things could take place, without a distinct idea. I initially proposed a programme of temporary contemporary art exhibitions that would engage with ideas and artists within categories of the local, regional and international. Curatorially it was necessary to engage a wider set of publics and artistic practices, and at the same time have exhibitions and/or artists that considered the architecture of  MCAD. There were, then, few spaces which were looking at bringing in international work, or even the scale of the space that MCAD offered, or afforded contemporary art works.

The programming, at the moment, for MCAD is three exhibitions per year at the space, and one external project. Each year we work on a monographic show, whether retrospective, new commission, or survey (or a combination), and an exhibition which deals with the Philippines. The latter has largely been exhibitions with Filipino artists,  but I have been thinking recently of expanding what it means to produce a Philippine exhibition; what does it mean, what it can become, what it could look like, etc. This is one of the things which has been preoccupying me lately.

As a kunsthalle , MCAD programming has the space to produce large scale contemporary art exhibitions that engage with global concerns through artmaking. The exhibitions are planned way in advance; however, we allow ourselves the flexibility, seeing as we have the capacity to speak to current events and engage with the now, and not end up producing exhibitions which may appear reactionary. The MCAD team is purposely small which allows us to be more flexible, more agile, more responsive.

The notion of access, in its various facets (social, physical, intellectual), characterises MCAD’s vision. What is access to you, and how should it shape the posture of an art institution?

My team and I have now been looking at the manners and meaning of access in an art institution. What is access? I think access means many different things, and does not always redound to audience numbers (although that too is important in other ways, as we all know). But access for cities like New York, London, Tokyo, and Hong Kong surfaces differently from a context like the Philippines. And we become more specific: what is access for us, here at MCAD, which is on the ground floor, which has its main entrance on Dominga Street, whilst housed in a 14-storey college building where students and anyone entering the College need to go through at least three security protocols to enter? This is access, physically. Access to our exhibitions — MCAD is committed to showing contemporary art in its many guises, through independently curated exhibitions, but we are also only one space, thus only one exhibition at any one time. Such specificities and distinctions are important to us.

We have a continually robust public and education programme, which not only address our many publics, but I insist, the many knowledges that enter our doors. Sometimes exhibitions can be so tightly curated, or even over-curated, that there are no spaces where your audiences can ponder on their own terms. The exhibitions are curated with a conceptual backbone, and the works and the artists invited to be part of the show, to engage with the show, necessarily speak to the (exhibition) concept.  While the concept is overarching, there are always various trajectories and many entry points where the audience can question, agree, disagree. And from this sort of curatorial gesture, the learning programmes are shaped. We have produced exhibitions where the conceptual frame questioned the very core of the show, and invited the audience to share their knowledge on the ideas presented by the show with us. A museum is a learning institution, but there are many kinds of learnings, many ways of teaching, and in all directions must permeate the generosity of ideas.

How have the museum’s location within and association with De La Salle – College of Saint Benilde shaped its programming? What are some projects, past or ongoing, that seek to engage with the communities right at the museum’s doorsteps?

Continuing from the previous question, I think the presence of a museum with a conscious direction for learning, gives the College and its constituents a built-in alternative to formal learning, and a space where new ideas can be tested. The college is our first audience. Not just the students, but its faculty and its support staff, the president and his vice-chancellors, everyone who is part of the College of Saint Benilde. We then have our immediate community, which are the barangays to which we belong. We have had artists, speakers and resource people choose to directly speak to the barangays. I have to say that our most direct one was the project we produced with Michael Lin, who was so invested in creating a unique engagement with the surrounding communities that we had pedicabs riding into MCAD to pick up passengers. This was a fantastic opportunity, and while we had already sought to work with the communities before that, this gave us a way to ‘break’ through.

After that, we have continually had visitors from the community come, with less hesitation. We have an Open House each year, where we post fliers inviting the immediate community and only those who are from the barangays get to come and take part in the activities for that day. We now have school children and really, our neighbours (the museum is located in a street of residential homes, student dormitories, a public school, also our entrance faces a sliver of a street which is also a public thoroughfare) who come to the museum to watch our film programme, see the exhibitions, and the children who come use the activity worksheets. The same ones return, time and time again. Often they end up bringing other friends who may not be from their school.

Thinking about audience engagement and outreach at MCAD – we can’t help but notice how put-together and engaging your social media channels (particularly Instagram) are. What are some of the strategies the museum is employing to approach and attract an ever-evolving range of publics?

We have tried to be consistent with our identity, but one that is flexible across all platforms and publics. We have an in-house designer, but each of those announcements, truth be told, gets seen by the entire team. At least once, whether these be Instagram posts, email blasts, etc. An opinion is generated before it’s sent out to the ether. Each one of us in the team is part of a variety of communities, and we take that into consideration; on top of that, we know not only the museum’s publics, but also the publics who use these specific media. I think understanding that your public, as you recognise and say, is ever-evolving, is key to figuring out how to deepen initial contacts and how to bring in a wider audience.

Unearthing Cultural Realities with Shubigi Rao

Artist and writer Shubigi Rao’s interests include archaeology, neuroscience, libraries, archival systems, histories and lies, literature and violence, ecologies and natural history. Rao has also been featured at international biennials and festivals such as the March Meets 2019 as part of the 14th Sharjah Biennial; the 4th Kochi Biennale, India (2018); the 10th Taipei Biennial, Taipei, Taiwan (2016); 3rd Pune Biennale, Pune, India (2017); Singapour Mon Amour, Paris, France (2015); Digital Arts Festival, Copenhagen, Denmark (2013); and the 2nd Singapore Biennale, Singapore (2008). She is currently Curator for the upcoming Kochi-Muziris Biennale 2020.

You’ve been appointed as curator for the fifth edition of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale. What do you regard as your primary cultural and curatorial responsibilities in this role?

As the first curator for the Kochi-Muziris Biennale (KMB) not based in India, and as a Singaporean, I see this as an opportunity to spotlight the vivid practices and discourses in South and Southeast Asia (while simultaneously examining the terms), especially in relation to the global south. 

I see the KMB as being more than a cultural staging area; it is a crucible within which these intersecting discourses and practices can occur. As a possible knowledge commons, the conversations that would emerge from the exhibition, the seminars and other programming would be vital in demonstrating the diversity of strategies that artists employ. Though we may share the same concerns of land, migration, the climate crisis, rising neo-fascism and the future of technology for instance, we diverge in our methods and approaches in thinking and in making. This is what I’ve been looking for during my curatorial research and travel over the last six months. This diversity of strategies, methods, and production can be emphasised and shared. It is not a new approach, and is evident in places and practices such as the significant work increasingly being done by artist collectives. A powerful example would be the multiple acts of remembering and reintegrating precolonial community-based thinking and practices in performance. Active decolonising initiatives, unearthing of overlooked histories and bodies of knowledge – all these are of keen interest to my plans for the biennale, as they have always been in my work as an artist. 

The idea and site of a biennale often trigger critical discussions around the spectacle of exhibition and how localities are accessed, read, and exploited. To challenge this you speak about “reposition(ing) discourse and practice through acknowledging intersecting contexts”. What does that look like?

Given the scale of the Biennale (touted as South Asia’s largest arts festival), it can be challenging to ensure that the biennale doesn’t descend into a flattening spectacle, and the invariable fatigue of encountering so many artworks doesn’t devolve into shallow readings. While there are multiple ways to alleviate this, it becomes vital to recognise the importance of site as extending context. It is important to ensure that sites, especially heritage sites with immense historical baggage, do not subsume the works displayed.

Ideally, sites can provide sensory or cognitive cues to viewers that would, I hope, make the reading of regional specificities more fluid. A lot of contexts intersect – the most obvious one would be the similar and divergent ways that post-colonial nations continue to grapple with generational trauma, or the way so much of the global south continues to cater to the north, in terms of resources, but also in the neo-colonising of our nations as ideological battlegrounds. It isn’t simply about the ‘balance of power’ – itself a hierarchical phrase that denies other forms of power within communities and collectives – but about acknowledging that the rhetoric that privileges certain groups over others is already being reframed or dismantled, and a key aspect of this reframing involves the acknowledgement of intersecting contexts. 

One of the roles of cultural institutions, artists, writers, academics, etc. is to grapple with the issues of their times. In doing so it is easy to become disenchanted with, or apathetic about the state of our societies, our collective futures, and the planet. Yet I would argue that our fears for the future do not detract from our abilities to think and to make, but fuel our yearning to articulate through art the complexities of our realities. This affirming power of artistic work, no matter the medium, has been a keystone in my practice, and will continue to inform my curatorial work for the KMB. The ability of our species to flourish artistically in fraught and dire situations, this refusal in the face of disillusionment to disavow our poetry, our languages, our art and music, our optimism and humour, is a stubbornness to be celebrated. The communities that come together to make this happen are to be celebrated. This is what I hope to foreground in the next edition of the KMB.

What are your thoughts on how the term “Southeast Asia” is used to approach and frame the paradigm of art and cultural production in this region?

In formulating the curatorial structure of a biennale such as this, it is important to consider the problem of how we construct region. A key issue, for me, will always be the dangers of the appeal to authority, or the claim to speak on behalf of a region from a position of knowledge that, as a curator, is sometimes expected. Southeast Asia is a difficult term to reconcile, as it would appear to bring together states that diverge quite radically, but also given the complex geo-politics, histories, and cultures with porous ‘boundaries’ here, it presents them as a supposedly unified geographical region.

For me, the term is especially troubling because it assumes that we must read this rich tapestry, this multiplicity, primarily as state (or nation) first. This is especially applicable when we see how the interaction between cultures or communities is invariably framed as transnational or statist, where national identity is regarded as the signifier of all parties in the conversation. At the same I do recognise the importance of cultural production (in thinking, writing, and making) in postcolonial states having to grapple with what constitutes statehood, nation-building, and regional allyship. 

As an artist you’ve worked extensively with ink, from fluid ink renderings on paper that evoke old natural history illustrations, to publishing Pulp, a film, book and visual art project, in five volumes. What is your relationship to the medium and substance of ink?

I enjoy working in ink for many reasons, primarily for its unpredictability and because it resists control. I’ve worked with ink in its more fluid form as well as in etching and intaglio printmaking, and of course in bookmaking. I find it embodies the diffusion of contradictory impulses, of the impossibility of perfect clarity and communication. Ink is indelible, yet archivally fragile and prone to fading. My drawings hold that tension – from the shortness of the word to the expansiveness of bodies of knowledge signified by that word. Ink signifies the history of writing, drawing and print, but is destructive as well. In referring to the historical destruction of libraries (in this case the specific destruction of the House of Wisdom in 13thcentury Baghdad), I made River of Ink in 2008, an installation of a hundred handmade books filled with drawings and text about a hundred different fields of knowledge and then soaked the books in the same ink, destroying most of the content.

Shubigi Rao, River of Ink (detail), 2008

Your work is also frequently shaped by the notion and passage of time, particularly Pulp, a project that is 10 years long and that examines the history or histories of book destruction. How would you describe the character of time? How have your motivations for and sentiments towards a long-term project like Pulp shifted and transformed since you first began it?

We measure our lives in decades, and this is my second ten-year project. I do sometimes feel trapped — I miss making ironic work, playful and bizarre works (in the past I’ve even made satirical board games). Now, it’s just this project — which is why I can’t restrict myself in terms of media — I’m publishing five books, because one is not enoughand am making multiple short films and will make a couple of feature-length ones, or perhaps just a mountain of never-to-be-edited testimony.

The commitment to a project such as this, spanning the whole history of book and library destruction, and the history of books as resistance, is almost absolute, because the subject matter is so dire and demands that I not be removed from it. We have a fear of commitment because we have to live with our decisions, and I want to be able to live with this decision – to live with a project that would haunt me.  

Shubigi Rao, Pulp: A Short Biography of the Banished Book Vol. I, 2016. Photo credit: Maria Clare Khoo.

As for my shifting sentiments towards the length of the Pulp project, I’m reminded of what I wrote in 2015, in the afterword to the first volume of Pulp: “This has been an impossible book to write. To convince myself, I’ve had to play the long con, telescoping it from an eighteen-month project to one that now spans a neat decade of my existence (paltry in the grand scheme, I know), and broken into ‘bite-sized chunks’ (ha) of two years each. This is a hire-purchase scheme, where each instalment involves a year and a half of travel, research, filming, recording, then crunching numbers into a cohesive tome with aesthetically arranged text and image (all balanced just so), with adequate academic cred and literary flourish, and where the outrage, anger and despair are tempered with humour and a pretend-objectivity… As I write this, I think of ISIS and what they have done to Hatra, Mosul and more. But more than that, I think of how dated this example of ISIS will have become, because of how much more will be lost (and how fresh tyrants are yet to be hatched) between this moment and the time these five books, this project, will be complete. This is a futile chronicle, but at the very least, I hope to point to that body, that corpus, that library, the book as collective humanity.”

What comes to mind when you are thinking about the forces driving art production in Singapore?

While the primary drivers may appear to still be heavily market-driven or state-supported, there are heartening outliers. It is gratifying to see the work of artist-initiated and -managed spaces like soft/Wall/studs, for instance, and for the programming they do that ranges far outside of standard exhibition production.

Who are some of the art collectives in the Southeast and wider South Asian regions you feel excited about and challenged by?

Too early in my curatorial research to disclose, but I would like to mention the effectiveness of collectives in decolonising and recording subsumed histories. I’m excited by the growth and quality of art historians, archivists and writers in Southeast Asia now, a number of whom are also working with living artists and artists spaces. 

Rao is a panellist for the S.E.A. Focus talk The Future of the Singapore Art Scene alongside Usha Chandradas, Connie Wong, and Honor Harger. Click here to find out more.

On Liminality with Luke Heng

Born in 1987, Singaporean artist Luke Heng is interested in the dialectics between painting, object, and picture-making. He graduated with a BA (Hons) in Fine Art from LASALLE College of the Arts in 2013. In 2012, he was the recipient of the LASALLE College of the Arts Scholarship and the Winston Oh Travel Award (Practice). In 2014, he was awarded the Dena Foundation Artist Residency at the Centre International d’Accueil et d’Echanges des Récollets in Paris, France, supported by the National Arts Council, Singapore. He has participated in group exhibitions in Indonesia, France, Germany, Malaysia and Singapore, and has presented solo exhibitions in Singapore, Kuala Lumpur and Paris.

What is so enduring about the medium of painting? Do you find yourself consciously engaging with or provoked by its history? 

I suppose every medium has its own charm, its own ways of seduction; my interest can be found in the tactility of painting. I find the event of painting exceptionally cathartic and it simply envelops my entire faculty. What is also fascinating about the agency of paint is that it takes on a certain relationship with its environment during the process of solidification, from liquid to solid. And in the course of this change, it allows us, the painting and me, to have some form of exchange and negotiation between what the painting can do and what I want the painting to do. But this is probably half of what interests me in the context of painting. The other half would be dealing with painting as a subject. By using other forms of production, I do also introduce the notion of painting through sculptures, drawings and installations.  

You’ve mentioned abstract expressionist painter Robert Motherwell as a key reference in your practice, particularly in the aspect of experimenting with space. Could you expand more on this? 

Motherwell was a huge inspiration when I started making paintings. His works – both his paintings and writings – informed my interpretations of images, spatial consciousness, forms, etc. I suppose at that point in time, which was roughly 5 to 6 years ago, looking at his practice really helped me get going in my own paintings. Of course, over the past few years, I’ve also looked at artists and professions that enable me to develop and locate my own artistic language.   

In your new series of paintings to be shown at S.E.A. Focus 2020, you are very much invested in the idea of liminality, of a liminal or in-between space and time. Why do you find yourself drawn to such an indeterminate paradigm? 

This interest in the in-between states has been an ongoing fascination – I feel that it is something that resonates with us as we move through our daily lives. It does not only respond to our circadian motions but also our innate self, be it in philosophical or spiritual states. Things are usually in flux and they never quite settle; I find this transitional phase rather charming. Its suspended time catches one in the solace of allowing things to happen, but creates a certain discomfort not knowing how deep this void is. Hence, these few paintings are trying to position themselves between a certain form of stability and conclusion. They allow themselves to sit within undefined pockets that sporadically appear in the midst a flux. 

Luke Heng, Non-Place (Drawing), 2019, Inkjet print on aluminium composite, 34 x 31 cm

Employing a language of abstraction, do you find yourself working reflexively with its structures, materials, contexts and histories? Is your engagement with abstraction more formal or cultural, or both? 

The wonderful thing about practicing in this day and age is that we can draw from any pool of resources, using history as a wellspring of material. You can break down a certain framework and reconstruct it within your own practice. Abstraction is probably just a mode of digesting certain information that influences the process of the work. It could be both formal and political when it comes to the use of abstraction, depending on the context of the show. I suppose responding formally or culturally could be banal and rigid. Fluidity seems more fun for me. 

Any artist practising in Singapore you feel excited about and challenged by? 

I quite like what painter Jon Chan is working on. He is currently working on a new series of paintings that brings together ideas shaped both by cinema and sequential art, focusing on the history of Hong Lim Park and its various elements that constitute a ‘zone’. I’m really looking forward to his next presentation.  

You are about to complete your MA in Fine Arts at LASALLE College of the Arts. How has the programme grown and challenged your practice so far?  

It is always good to challenge my preconceived ideas and understanding of how things work. With this course, I was really looking forward to experimenting with a different working process and manners of solving certain issues, and I feel I’ve been able to do that – whether it’s deciding on how to go about resolving a particular concept, or considering technical probabilities.   

Works by Luke Heng will be presented at S.E.A. Focus 2020. Click here to find out more.

New Museum Perspectives with Aaron Seeto

The Director of Museum MACAN, Aaron Seeto, has a vast experience working to advance the goals of contemporary arts organisations and curating significant exhibitions of artists from the Asia and Pacific regions. Seeto was formerly Curatorial Manager of Asian and Pacific Art, at Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art in Brisbane, Australia where he led the curatorial team at the eighth Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art (APT8) in 2015. For eight years prior, he was the Director of Sydney’s ground-breaking 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art. 

What characterises and drives the energy of Indonesia’s art ecology, and does it vary from city to city?

Indonesia has a very diverse artistic scene, but there is definitely a need for stronger infrastructure for artists, such as regular venues to exhibit, galleries with continuous programmes, funding opportunities, etc. But despite this, artists always seem to find creative solutions. Perhaps this inventiveness is what gives the scene its energy? I saw this very clearly in the current Jogja Biennale, which introduced so many young artists to new audiences and which had an infectious energy and a real sense of urgency, despite what were limitations on the exhibition.

There are variations from city to city, and this has much to do with their very specific art and social histories, which inflect the teachings of art schools and the creative outputs of its artists. 

How would you describe the relationship between private patronage and public cultural provision in the Indonesian art scene – how distinct or diffuse are their boundaries?

In places like Singapore, the role of public institutions and their connection to civic space is clear. But in the developing context of Indonesia, I would suggest that both philanthropy and government support for the arts needs further development and encouragement, in order to sustain a truly effective civic discourse.  

At the core of the mission and vision of Museum MACAN, is a principle which revolves around art education; it has an important civic aspiration that it seeks to share as widely as possible. We have opened a private museum developed through private means, which serves a very public function ­– we understand that our activities occur within the public sphere. I have been thinking about these divisions between public and private quite a bit, and I think that how they operate is not so clear-cut as they may have been in the past. The situation should not be either/or – governments of all persuasions and individuals of various means should be encouraged to do more.

Museum MACAN opened fairly recently, in November 2017, with a mission to support “interdisciplinary education and cultural exchange”. What are your thoughts on the urgency and cruciality in invigorating art education in the country?

On a global context, arts education is in decline and it is crucial that it is supported. I would say that there is an urgent need to support art education in Indonesia, where the national development is vast and the people need a way to reflect on the societal changes happening around them. This is where arts education come into play. We really need to build a robust education programme that is relevant to citizens from different ages and backgrounds. At the moment, MACAN is focusing on arts education for children and students, as a way to spark critical thinking among the young minds. 

Could you share about the museum’s practice of commissioning artists – how does it effectuate new perspectives?

Our UOB Museum MACAN Children’s Art Space Commission is one of the programmes which involves commissioning artists. Developed for young audiences, the process of commissioning always sparks conversations that challenge how we understand our audiences and involves artists in a very unique relationship with the institution. In two years since the Museum opened, we have worked with Entang Wiharso (Indonesia), Gatot Indrajati (Indonesia), Shooshie Sulaiman (Malaysia) and Mit Jai Inn (Thailand). Our most current commission is Color in Cave by Mit Jai Inn, who has completely transformed the space into an almost anarchic zone of free play and colour. 

UOB Museum MACAN Children’s Art Space Commission – Color in Cave, 2019. Photo courtesy of Museum MACAN.

What are some memorable moments and projects you find yourself returning to and reflecting on, in your role at the museum?

Before we officially opened, we developed a two-part performance project called “First Sight”. It was two, one-day only performance programmes that included an amazing line-up of artists including FX Harsono, Heman Chong, Yin Xiuzhen, Justin Shoulder, Melati Suryodarmo, Tisna Sanjaya, Xu Zhen, and Duto Hardono. The audience response was completely unexpected, and the production which tested my team to its limits was a great success.

Melati Suryodarmo, Fins und Eins, 2016. Performance at “First Sight”, Museum MACAN, Jakarta, Indonesia, 2017. Image courtesy of Museum MACAN.
Duto Hardono, Variation & Improvisation for ‘In Harmonia Progressio’, 2017. Performance at “First Sight”, Museum MACAN, Jakarta, Indonesia. 2017. Image courtesy of Museum MACAN.

What I learnt from this is how receptive Indonesian audiences are to performance practice, as well as how well my team operates under pressure. To be honest, I don’t know if an event like this could have been pulled off anywhere else. Months later, we saw the impact again with the totally mesmerising exhibition by Lee Ming Wei, “Seven Stories”, which included seven major performance works which saw us collaborating with teams of singers and dancers from across Indonesia – again the audience impact was extraordinary. The visitor responses outlining how the exhibition impacted people were incredible.

Lee Mingwei, Guernica in Sand (performance), 2006. Performance at “Lee Mingwei: Seven Stories”, Museum MACAN, Jakarta, Indonesia, 2019. Image courtesy of Museum MACAN.

I suppose I constantly come back to the reflection about how much the team and I have achieved in only two years. 

How do you see Museum MACAN positioned in the artistic landscape of Indonesia, and more widely on an international level?

I see Museum MACAN as being one part of the conversation in Indonesia. Indonesia has such a vibrant scene, great artists, great collectors, an extraordinary art history; the museum forms a part of its developing infrastructure. There are of course internal ambitions when it comes to programmes and projects, that bring together local concerns with artists from elsewhere. I hope what we do continues to generate interest and conversation, and contribute to much needed discussion about modern and contemporary art from Southeast Asia.

How do you feel about the use of the term “Southeast Asia” to frame the paradigm of art and cultural production in this region? What effect does it have on the way such production is perceived?

All of these kinds of terms which attempt to define a geography are double-edged. For our friends who are unfamiliar with the nuance of the various situations and geographies, it can be a useful means to locate artists and territories. But for those of us who are working in this context, as much as it can help to generate a sense of collegiality across the various geographies it denotes, we also know that it elides so many complexities of colonial and national histories, migration, ethnicity, language, economic experience, social and political realities, and so on. We should be grateful that it can help to bring so many interesting people together under a shared rubric, but we should also strive for depth and complexity, not flatness of experience.

What are some exciting programmes or plans in store for Museum MACAN in 2020?

One of the things which we strive for in our programme is to not only support Indonesian artists in the development of major exhibitions, sometimes their first solo or survey exhibition, but to also introduce artists who have never been presented in the region. Next year we have a major survey of Melati Suryodarmo and Agus Suwage, the presentation of the ambitious film work Manifesto by Julian Rosefeldt and a career survey by Chiharu Shiota that audiences can look forward to.

Works by Mit Jai Inn and Melati Suryodarmo will be presented at S.E.A. Focus 2020. Click here to find out more.

Positioning the Gallery with Can Yavuz

Can Yavuz is the Founder and Managing Director of Yavuz Gallery. Born in 1972 in Turkey, Yavuz grew up in Germany and completed his studies in Development Economics from the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. His first banking job led him to Singapore in 1999. Fascinated by the artistic voices in the region, he started collecting Southeast Asian Art. In 2009 he opened a commercial gallery space in Singapore and left his corporate job to pursue a career as a gallerist.

Do you feel the role of the gallerist has changed, in recent years? Have your motivations and vision shifted or changed since you first established Yavuz Gallery in 2010?

The art world and business models have shifted and changed over the last ten years. For instance, the incredible and swift rise of social media, particularly Instagram, has ushered in a shift in how we experience, share and conceive images and art. Collectors can now easily search at will for information, and likewise galleries are able to easily reach out and provide additional spaces (digitally or otherwise) to showcase their artists. This in turn has opened up a myriad of new roles a gallery must embrace, which is increasingly multi-faceted and complex. It has a democratising effect – we are part of wider dialogues and can reach broader audiences, including artists, art professionals and collectors. Personal and relationship management is still core to my business.

The gallery’s vision has remained the same since 2010. We predominantly work with artists from the region who have a strong social significance to their works, which is the guiding principle behind our programming. In the past three years, the stable of our represented artists has increased to include artists from Australia and New Zealand.

How do you see Yavuz Gallery positioned in the artistic landscape of Southeast Asia?

For us, focus and consistency in our programming are important. The gallery is committed to showcasing Southeast Asian and artists from the Pacific region and beyond. We work equally with young and established artists.

You lived in Hong Kong prior to moving to Singapore. Why did you choose Singaporeas the birthplace of your gallery? What aspects of Singapore’s scene and potential prompted your choice?

I think we are in a unique position here as a commercial gallery in Singapore. We are functioning in an environment highly supported by a government programme, which runs parallel. There is a lot of funding to establish Singapore as one of the key hubs, and as a hub that links Australasia up with China, Japan, Pakistan, the Middle East, etc. There are institutions here such as the National Gallery Singapore and the NTU Centre for Contemporary Art, and an incredible group of people run them – many of whom are well respected in the region and internationally. Eugene Tan for instance is voted one of the Top 100 Most Influential People in Art Review’s “Power 100” for the sixth year running, which is a reflection not only of him but of the efforts on every level, whether commercial or institutional.

I had previously lived in Singapore from 1999 – 2001 and started collecting Southeast Asian art during that time. The art from this region was my first love and remains what I know best. Singapore is home to me and I am happy to be part of a welcoming commercial and institutional community that supports each other. Having said that, Hong Kong is also much fun and I love visiting on a regular basis.

You’ve expanded to Sydney. Why Sydney, and what are some key differences between the markets of Singapore and Sydney?

Opening our second permanent space in Sydney was a natural progression for the gallery – Since 2013 we have been showcasing Southeast Asian art in Australia and vice versa. We have been working on building a bridge between the two regions and opening a space there cements it. Sydney attracts many of its local Australian collectors as well as collectors from New Zealand, some of whom might find it too far to travel to Singapore.

Installation view of Yavuz Gallery Sydney’s inaugural exhibition, Abdul Abdullah, Contested Territories (15 September – 27 October 2019). Image courtesy of the artist and Yavuz Gallery.

Your exhibitions prioritise a strong social significance, while balancing commercial viability. Could you share more about the challenges and opportunities of this often delicate balance?

I don’t believe that having strong social significance necessarily opposes commercial viability. As mentioned, the gallery champions artists with a strong conceptual basis who are leading in their own specific field. We love presenting exhibitions with an element of surprise like our recent solo booth by Ronald Ventura at Art Jakarta. If they happen to be commercially viable, that’s fantastic!

Within the gallery’s yearly exhibition programme, it seems that solo presentations feature more strongly than group exhibitions. What drives this approach?

I feel that with solo exhibitions, the artist has more freedom to explore and tease out the nuances in their practice and specific conceptualisations. It allows them to showcase their works in an entirety instead of pieces. The gallery associates with artists and their works that are socially significant, conceptually driven or otherwise, and I feel that solo presentations tend to fulfil that direction and vision more rigorously.

While you represent artists from a wide range of backgrounds, there seems to be a leaning towards painting practices. What is it about the medium and practice of painting that continues to compel and inspire, in an age many may describe as ‘post-medium’? Who are some important contemporary painters, or artists employing the medium of painting, in Southeast Asia today?

I feel there has been a resurgence of painting practices, particularly with young painters from the region in response to the advent of said “post-medium” age. We are encouraged to see this return in our repertoire of artists, for instance with Alvin Ong, Yeo Kaa and Luke Heng

Could you let us in on a few young artists from the region you’ve been excited about and provoked by?

There are so many! To start, Singaporean artist Khairullah Rahim creates these complex mixed-media assemblages that blend the found and the new, from objects sourced through specific sites that minority and marginalised communities occupy. These sites, and therefore objects in the artwork, are imbued with powerful symbols that refer to their lived experiences and realities, which are often hidden in plain sight. He provides a powerful voice and platform for these communities. Khairullah is also currently part of the Singapore Biennale with one of the largest installations he has made called Intimate Apparitions.

Ronson Culibrina from the Philippines, paints these lush colourful paintings that depict the clash between tradition and modernisation. Oftentimes, he looks at this through the prism of ecological damages, inspired by his own coastal hometown in the Philippines. While inspired by a crisis, Ronson injects playful elements with references to pop culture (such as a Kusama-like polka dotted tentacle rising from the sea and chasing fishermen). Ronson was recently named one of the Top 10 Young and Inspiring Filipinos, and he has been chosen by Forbes as one of its 30 Under 30 Asia in the arts.

Ronson Culibrina, Walk the Talk, 2020, Oil on linen canvas and bamboo, 122 x 152 cm. Image courtesy of the artist, the Working Animals Art Projects and Yavuz Gallery.

With the Singapore art scene in mind, do you think there is a need for commercial galleries and public art institutions to work in closer tandem? How can closer cooperation bring about more fruitful dialogues and offerings for the public?

Absolutely, both commercial galleries and public art institutions are part of the larger art ecosystem. One cannot do without the other; there is a symbiosis in the relationship. Galleries present and nurture younger and emerging artists, as they have the capacity and flexibility to do so. This in turn ideally feeds into later shows at institutions. In doing so, institutions support the galleries, allowing them to be able to do what they do. It all comes full circle.

What are some exciting programmes or plans in store for Yavuz Gallery in 2020?

We have an incredible line-up this year with upcoming shows in 2020. The first one in Singapore will be with Ronson Culibrina opening during Singapore Art Week. Later in the year we will showcase leading Burmese artist Po Po, as well as Tada Hengsapkul from Thailand.

In Sydney, we are opening shows with Australian artists Debra Dawes and Dean Cross, as well as husband-and-wife-duo Isabel and Alfredo Aquilizan for the first half of the year.

Aside from this, the gallery is also participating in art fairs in Tokyo, New York for the first time, alongside our staple participations in Taipei Dangdai, Art Fair Philippines, and Art Basel Hong Kong.

Yavuz Gallery will be participating in S.E.A. Focus 2020, presenting works by Luke Heng. Click here to find out more.

Exploring Yogyakarta with Mella Jaarsma

Mella Jaarsma has become known for her complex costume installations and her focus on forms of cultural and racial diversity embedded within clothing, the body, and food. She was born in the Netherlands in 1960, studied visual art at Minerva Academy in Groningen (1978-1984), Art Institute of Jakarta (1984) and at the Indonesian Institute of the Arts in Yogyakarta (1985-1986). She has lived and worked in Indonesia ever since. In 1988, she co-founded Cemeti Art House, now called Cemeti Institute for Art & Society with Nindityo Adipurnomo, one of the first spaces for contemporary art in Indonesia, which to this day remains an important platform for young artists and art workers in the country and region.

Mella Jaarsma’s works have been presented widely in exhibitions and art events in Indonesia and abroad, including: ‘Dunia Dalam Berita’, Macan Museum, Jakarta (2019); the Thailand Biennale (2018); the 20th Sydney Biennale (2016); ‘The Roving Eye’, Arter, Istanbul(2014); ‘Singapore Biennale’, Singapore Art Museum (2011), and many others. Her work is part of the collection of the Queensland Art Gallery, Brisbane, National Gallery of Australia and the Singapore Art Museum, amongst others.

Under what socio-cultural and socio-political conditions was Cemeti birthed? Are you still responding to those conditions to date, and have your motivations and vision for the space shifted or morphed since its establishment?

By the late 1980s, well over a decade after the founding of the New Art Movement, there were only a handful of artists who continued to challenge the political status quo in Indonesia. The newly opened Cemeti, however, provided space for experimental practices and diverse art forms, thereby becoming a playground that nurtured an emerging generation of artists who in the 1990sre-engaged with socially and politically focused works. Cemeti provided a place for artists to meet and to present their works free from state, institutional, or market regulations and conservatism. We went on to create diverse programmes and encourage audiences to become part of the art scene, participating in group discussions, artists’ talks, events, etc. When selecting artists to work with, we were not so much looking for the “new” in the sense of “avant-garde”, but rather for work that had something to say, raising questions and proposing different perspectives through its visual language.

We have been running Cemeti for ten years under the Suharto regime. The different eras since then are very much reflected throughout our programmes and projects, but the basic concept of providing space for diverse perspectives, discourses, and dialogues through the arts is still in place. Shifting social and political contexts, as well as the work and practice of different artists across generations, have also changed the form and focus of Cemeti. When we started in 1988, our goal was simple: to create a space for artists to meet and exhibit their work. As time went on, we engaged with the social and cultural climate, hoping to learn from it and develop projects that were relevant to the conditions in Indonesia at any given moment. Our main tactic for survival was to stay under the radar while connecting to local realities. Our exhibitions and projects were connected to the local public in a fast-changing society, while at the same time we tried to make the work of the Indonesian scene visible to the international art world.

What position does Cemeti occupy in the development of Indonesian contemporary art, and what existing positions or forces does it seek to challenge and problematise?

In the beginning, we had to fulfill the task of ‘promoting’, to get the Indonesian artists on the International map, when in the nineties slowly there started to be an interest of what was happening in South East Asia. So we started with documenting, creating artist’s files, publications and connecting the artists to curators, as well as trying to bring the artists further in career by seeking further studies, residencies, etc. The international exchange and the growing art infrastructure in Indonesia had brought many changes. The art scene is dynamic and nowadays it feels much more like we can work and collaborate on different issues with many partners, looking into different challenges like; government support, alternative education, the dominance of the art market, growing conservatism, public involvement, censorship, etc.  

The term “laboratory” or “laboratorium” is often used to describe art spaces, particularly artist-run ones, in Indonesia. What do you think is the allure or effectiveness of such a term? Would you describe Cemeti as a “laboratory”?

I think every space has their own vision and objectives. I think Cemeti is not a laboratory, because we care as much of communicating to our public as the development of artists and art workers. But anyhow, the work that we have been doing in Cemeti, I see it as being in a kitchen, experimenting, trying things out, with a focus on the process and discussion. We (the artists run spaces) are cooking, while the museums, commercial galleries, and art fairs can ‘eat the food that is ready’ to consume.    

How would you characterise the energy and spirit of collectivising in Indonesia, specifically in Yogyakarta, where collectives like MES 56 and Taring Padi were founded? Are there common urgencies that drive their approach, and how do they contrast or support art education in the country?

Yogyakarta is the melting pot of artists from different regions and cultures in Indonesia. Artists come from other islands and areas to study art in Yogyakarta, after which they often don’t return because there is no art infrastructure. I see the community-based art practices in Yogyakarta as a sort of alternative education system. With the character of the city in which it is easy to ‘go around’ and ‘hang around’, artists’ communities are sort of organically taking shape during or after official education.  Some of them arise from frustration, criticising the dated art education system, or from protests towards the government like Taring Padi, or because they share a passion in a specific discipline, like MES 56 with video and photography.  

With no government support, for young artists to work in a community-based manner is a liberating endeavour. They can set their own rules and it is an important playground to develop all kinds of aspects. But on the other hand, I also criticise the communities that sometimes play too safely – they can hide, and they don’t make an individual statement through their art; in this way, too much is compromised.

You take on multiple roles that, for certain, converge in many ways – as artist, teacher, “art worker”; do you find one taking precedence over the rest? What do you consider your work or your practice?

I think this also reflects the situation in Indonesia. If you want things to happen you depend on personal initiatives, which grow out of necessity. So working in Cemeti is as important for me as developing my work as an artist.  Throughout 28 years of running Cemeti together with the team, I spent 80% of my time at that job. I am now happy to be balancing this after stepping out for three years and being able to now spend approximately 80% of my time on my art practice.  

What is the significance of IVAA, and do you feel that the function of and engagement with the archive differs between Indonesia and Europe?  

This archive-cum-foundation was also founded out of urgency. When we started in 1995, no visual art archive existed, except the Jakarta Art Council archive. In that sense, it is very different from the European archives, in which an awareness of the importance of historical materials is part of government policies. Because of the lack of an established infrastructure with museums and other institutions in Indonesia, on one hand, most roles in the arts like curators, achievers, and art historians are self-taught and develop slowly, but on the other hand, this also creates space and freedom to work in non-conventional ways.

Who are some younger artists and/or art projects in the Southeast Asian region you’ve been excited about and provoked by? Why?

The contemporary art scene in Indonesia has been limited to Java and Bali and is particularly clustered in such cities as Jakarta, Bandung, and Yogyakarta. When we talk about Indonesian artists we usually mean artists from Java or artists from other regions who settled in Java, because of its art institutional landscape. I was very excited to see the Biennale Jogja XVEquator #5, which took place this year and had the title ‘Do we live in the same PLAYGROUND?’. It was curated by Akiq AW and Arham Rahman from Indonesia, and Penwadee Nophaket Manont from Thailand. Bringing together artists and collectives from Southeast Asia, it finally included artists from regions like Aceh, Kalimantan, Madura, Sulawesi and Pattani, drawing into the center issues of the periphery. This was also the first Biennale in Indonesia with a balanced selection of female artists.

What are some of your upcoming projects or collaborations in 2020 we can look forward to?

I am looking forward to the upcoming two-year focus on Cemeti’s programme ‘Rhizomatic Archipelago’, which will run land, sea and river residencies for diverse communities across the Indonesia archipelago. I am also working towards my solo exhibition at the National Gallery of Jakarta which will take place in July 2020, curated by Alia Swastika. I am excited to show my works from the past ten years, as they haven’t been exhibited together. I am concurrently working on a new series of work – after the exhibition in Jakarta, I hope to show everything back at my basecamp, Yogyakarta!

Mella is a panellist for the S.E.A. Focus talk Southeast Asia Art Watch: Indonesia alongside Dr. Oei Hong Djien, Mira Asriningtyas, Dito Yuwono, and Tom Tandio. Click here to find out more.