Features – S.E.A. Focus

Leong Puiyee: “Being a part of Southeast Asia, it is only natural to highlight the stories from the region.”

Understanding short films as an artistic medium for storytelling

Leong Puiyee is senior manager at Objectifs – Centre for Film and Photography, a non-profit visual arts space in Singapore. With more than 15 years of experience in the field, she curated the ‘Women in Film’ and ‘Asian Film Focus’ annual programmes at Objectifs, and was also Programme Manager (Short Films) for the Singapore International Film Festival (2014-19). She has also been a member of the selection committee for the Busan International Film Festival (2023), Bangkok ASEAN Film Festival (2020-21), and SeaShorts Film Festival (2017-18), among others.

‘Objectifs Cinema: Now Showing’, 2022, exhibition view. Image courtesy of Objectifs.

What is it about the medium of film/short films that sustains your interest?

Film is a reflection of life, our emotions, the people and world around us. Being immersed into a world for that 10 minutes or 2 hours allows us to feel sad or happy, to ponder about certain social issues, to understand a culture that we are unfamiliar with. To me, that is the beautiful thing about film, as sometimes you do not know what to expect when you are in that world for that time period.

Objectifs Film Club: Tenebrae’ by Nicole Midori Woodford, in dialogue with writer Crispin Rodrigues. Image courtesy of Objectifs.

The Objectifs Film Library is an educational and research resource focused on short films from Southeast Asia. Could you talk more about the approach to this collection and the public programming around it?

The Objectifs Film Library collection was started with a focus on short films from Southeast Asia, and to bring attention to the importance of the short film medium. Being a part of Southeast Asia, it is only natural to highlight the stories from the region.

As part of the Library’s focus on short films, a programme we organised around it is the Objectifs Film Club. The Film Club is a quarterly event that highlights a short from the Film Library, and it features discussions between the filmmaker and arts/film practitioners about their films.

We also did an exhibition titled ‘Objectifs Cinema: Now Showing’, to celebrate the richness and diversity of Southeast Asian short films from the Film Library. Selected short films were screened over the course of the exhibition based on a thematic approach. There were public talks with film professionals to complement the exhibition.

Through these programmes, it offers the opportunity for filmmakers and enthusiasts to gather and exchange ideas.

Puiyee with the filmmakers of the ‘Bodies in Motion’ short film programme, presented as part of ‘Women in Film & Photography 2023’. Image courtesy of Objectifs.

You have curated a number of film programmes such as ‘Women in Film’ and ‘Asian Film Focus’, and was also Programme Manager (Short Films) for the Singapore International Film Festival from 2014 to 2019. What is a trend you noticed in organising these events?

Because the world and people are constantly changing, the stories that people are telling tend to be a reflection of the times. Personal stories continue to be a constant in the film landscape, as it is a rumination of the filmmaker’s self and life.

Artist talk with Rirkrit Tiravanija after the screening of his Super 8 short films, presented as part of ‘OFF Focus 2023′.

Objectifs collaborated with S.E.A. Focus on the film screening programme ‘OFF Focus’ for this year’s edition, and will be doing so again in 2024. How do collaborations with art platforms such as S.E.A. Focus align with Objectif’s mission of fostering dialogue and advancing appreciation of visual storytelling?

Collaborating with a partner like S.E.A. Focus is an important part of what we do at Objectifs as it not only allows us to support artistic networks, but to also foster a dynamic and creative environment for both parties.

Building on the previous question, can you talk about the differences and/or the draw of artist-made films as compared to those made by filmmakers?

The wonderful thing about the film medium is that it can offer a breadth of perspectives and there can be many ways to present an idea or story. With the ‘OFF Focus’ programme, it allows us to present works that challenge our understanding of storytelling, and to broaden one’s outlook on films.

‘Antiphony’ short film screening, presented as part of ‘Women in Film & Photography 2023’. Image courtesy of Objectifs.

What are your hopes for the future of short films in Singapore and the region?

I hope that the short film medium can be seen as an art form in its own right, breaking away from the notion that short films are a “stepping stone” to a filmmaker’s feature film career. Short films are more than that. It allows for experimentation, play and you can take more risks with short films compared to a feature film. And of course, I would wish for more people to embrace and appreciate the beauty of short stories.

This interview has been edited.

Jirat Ratthawongjirakul: “We wish to be a place that nurtures young artists and encourages established artists to continue experimenting and shifting their practice.”

Getting to know Gallery VER, an artist-founded initiative in Bangkok with its sights abroad

Co-initiated by Rirkrit Tiravanija, Gallery VER was established in 2006 as an artist-led initiative. The independent space was a response to the lack of opportunity for young artists to gain exposure outside of government and corporate-sponsored competitions. While there were commercial galleries operating in Thailand at the time, most were reluctant to take a chance with artists who did not already have mainstream recognition. Gallery VER came at an important juncture in the development of Thai contemporary art, with a dynamic programme that continues to champion conceptualist modes of thinking and art-making.

The name VER

The gallery takes its name from VER magazine which artist Pratchaya Phinthong published from 2000 to 2004 when he doubled as the gallery’s director. A shortened form of “over” in English, “ver” is used as a common Thai slang. In adopting this name, the gallery is interested in different aspects of the word “over” such as to move or span across and to invert. 

Kamol Phaosavasdi, Supernatural Delight’, 2019, exhibition view. Image courtesy of Gallery VER.

Move to N22

2016 was an important year for Gallery VER as they started a new chapter after moving into the N22 complex, where they continue to reside. The gallery has come a long way since its first iteration in 2006 at a riverside spot in Bangkok’s Thonburi district, accessible mostly by boat. Located within walking distance from both Bangkok Skytrain and MRT Subway stations, the new space has a 100 square-metre main exhibition gallery and a second 25 square-metre room. This allows for the possibility of hosting two concurrent shows or a larger single presentation. Other galleries in the N22 community include Cartel Art Space, founded by fellow Chiang Mai artist Mit Jai Inn, Tentacles Gallery and La Lanta Fine Art.

Niwat Manatpiyalert, ‘Area 721,346’, 2023, exhibition view. Image courtesy of Gallery VER.

First international showcase

At Rirkrit’s recommendation, Gallery VER participated in the inaugural S.E.A. Focus in 2019 with a presentation around the theme of ‘Pressure of the Inner Mind’. Notably, it was the gallery’s first art showcase to an international audience and they featured three artists: Udomsak Krisanamis, Wantanee Siripattananuntakul, and Nuttapon Sawasdee. Director Jirat Ratthawongjirakul says, “Our aim was exposure hence we chose artists of different ages: established, mid-career, and emerging, respectively.” The trio represented Gallery VER’s diverse programme and commitment to work with artists at different stages in their career.

Kamolros Wonguthum’s solo exhibition at Gallery VER, 2023. Image courtesy of Gallery VER.

Gallery VER stays true to its artist-led roots, giving space to new ideas and voices. “Running a gallery is not only about the sale of the artworks,” Jirat explains. “We wish to be a place that nurtures young artists and encourages established artists to continue experimenting and shifting their practice.” A number of artists have had their debut solo exhibitions at Gallery VER over the years, including Niwat Manatpiyalert, Kamolros Wonguthum, Nontawat Numbenchapol, and Thavika Savangwongsakul amongst others. Operating in Thailand, where there is a history of art censorship during its junta regimes, the gallery has built a reputation of supporting their artists in spite of potential political backlash.

Wantanee Siripattananuntakul, ‘The “end of history” will not come tomorrow.’, 2022, exhibition view. Image courtesy of Gallery VER.

Future plans

Looking ahead, Gallery VER aims to regain momentum on their international engagements which were halted during the COVID-19 pandemic. One major programme is their participation in Frieze London in October 2023, under the fair’s new ‘Artist-to-Artist’ initiative. In this section, eight internationally-acclaimed artists are being invited to propose artists for solo exhibitions at the fair and Rirkrit has nominated Wantanee Siripattananuntakul. In addition to her presentation at Frieze London, Wantanee will also be exhibiting at the 3rd Thailand Biennale, alongside Mit Jai Inn. Audiences can look forward to the upcoming edition of Thailand Biennale in Chiang Rai when it opens in December 2023.

Dr Diana Tay: “Whether it is done by a professional or by the collector, regular checks are key to minimise risks of deterioration.”

On caring for artworks and the future of art conservation in Southeast Asia

Dr Diana Tay is a paintings conservator and the founder of BARC Labs in Singapore. She has more than 14 years of experience in the field, having worked at institutions such as Heritage Conservation Centre (Singapore), Tate Britain (United Kingdom), National Museum of Philippines, and QAGOMA (Queensland, Australia). Her portfolio includes designing institutional policies for the acquisition of contemporary art as well as working with private collectors on their collection management. 

A look at Diana’s studio. Image courtesy of BARC Labs.

What motivated you to start BARC Labs in 2022? How does it differ from existing conservation studios in Singapore or Southeast Asia?

Well, to be honest, at the top of my mind, my first response would be a fear of post-PhD depression. After being hyper-focused on a project for five years without a break, you can imagine feeling lost the moment you submit your thesis. What will I do next? There are no conservation schools in Singapore so continuing an academic profession would not be possible. The one thing I knew for sure was that I had to come back to Singapore – for the people who have supported my research from day one and believed that there was value in conservation research outside of institutions. I do not think I would have done it any other way. They have motivated me to start BARC Labs and I do see my value here in Singapore, sharing and generating conservation knowledge.

The first significant distinction is our strong emphasis on research and the provision of research services. Through technical examination and archival research, we delve beneath the paint layer, enabling us to provide valuable insights into an artist’s materials and techniques. This process is particularly captivating as we explore artworks by artists who may no longer be with us, allowing us to journey back in time. Our endeavours contribute to the expansion of our material knowledge concerning artists in the region. We are delighted by the positive reception of this service! It has been well received by private collectors who seek to enhance their understanding of their artworks and collections. Additionally, it has proven valuable for retrospective exhibitions, providing curators with insights into the artist’s materials and techniques!

The second differentiation is that we are big on education. We have just conducted the Little Art Detectives series, a children’s workshop at Singapore Art Museum in early June, where we showed children how to spot damages on paintings, have a think about how it happened and they also had a hand at trying out some retouching techniques! Public outreach is important to change the way we think about conservation and the way our shared cultural heritage is being cared for. Right now, conservation or restoration is usually thought of only when there has been a change or damage. Thinking of it this way is quite like you going to the doctor only when requiring surgery. We can begin thinking about the health of our collection and minimising the risks of deterioration – much like a yearly check-up at the GP! I think conservation has a lot more to offer. We are always on the lookout for the next outreach opportunity.

‘Little Art Detectives: Learn How to Detect Damage and Preserve Art’, a children’s workshop at Singapore Art Museum, 3 June 2023. Image courtesy of BARC Labs.

From your perspective, what types of conservation or restoration issues are easiest to remedy?

The deterioration issues of paintings are complicated and unique to each case. Paintings are essentially made of materials, and these materials are very much alive. Within a painting’s anatomy, there are many layers – the canvas, ground, paint and possibly varnish. Sometimes, the deterioration may be happening in the middle layer. Sometimes, it could be an abrasion or a scratch that caused surface damage. For instance, a tear across a painting could be straightforward if the tear is neat and can be treated relatively quickly. However, if a tear is on an acrylic painting, and the paint layer has deformed from the impact, then it would be complicated. However, not all deterioration mechanisms can be remedied. Sometimes, the materials themselves result in inherent changes. If a paint layer begins to powder because there is not enough binder, that would be complicated.

Diana’s studio bench. Image courtesy of BARC Labs.

How easily can these deterioration issues be avoided?

The key is maintenance. This is something that is often neglected and its importance is seldom emphasised. Think about it. After purchasing an artwork, it is then displayed in a house or kept in storage. What are we doing to take care of it? I think it is quite interesting to observe how we care for other assets such as cars, where owners are constantly thinking about maintenance routines, mileage, and whether the dent is new. I know that it is quite different but as a material-based asset, I would suggest we start thinking the same way when it comes to caring for our artworks too. 

There are risks we cannot run away from such as mould, especially in Singapore. Even buildings or institutions with the most consistent and regulated temperature and humidity can still have mould challenges. The spores are microscopic and if we think about the conditions of where artworks are produced, or stored, it is seldom in a climate-controlled environment. So, it is always better to take care of artworks from the onset and have them checked frequently.  This is because it is impossible to restore some damages back to the artist’s original intention. When we take maintenance seriously, we can avoid many risks.

Diana working with a swab. Image courtesy of BARC Labs.

Can a layperson look out for these “symptoms” or do you think that only professionals can properly do maintenance checks?

With the right knowledge and purpose, a layperson would be able to do it. I have guided some clients on what to look out for in their artworks. They are the first set of eyes! However, with some clients, they prefer having a professional conservator in to help maintain their collection. Whether it is done by a professional or by the collector, what matters most is the acknowledgement that regular checks need to be done. Looking is the first step. Now, the next step is addressing an issue when you spot one. This is something for which you definitely need to call on a professional. 

Works in oil, acrylic, paper, and print are some of the commonly collected mediums. On the topic of care, what are some precautionary measures collectors based in Southeast Asia can take?

Well, the first thing is to pay attention to the storage conditions of the work. Good air circulation is important. Do not store artworks in their bubble wrap after they have been delivered to your place.  Much irreversible damage is caused by packing paper or bubble wrap getting stuck onto the paint layer, leaving behind their marks, especially in warm and humid Singapore. At the end of the day, it all goes back to maintenance. Things like mould, bubble wrap damage, tears and holes can be easily prevented. Artworks should also be professionally cleaned to minimise dust accumulation. 

For artworks on paper and print, I think foxing is one of the biggest challenges I have seen in Singapore. This can be caused by the humidity, the way it was framed or by the paper quality itself. If it is the latter, there is nothing much you can do as it is inherent to the material. I would usually tell collectors that as long as they like the work and can accept the visual anomalies, they should just acquire it. It is unreasonable to expect something material to not go through change. Even we get wrinkles! When we see old master paintings, we might find the cracks beautiful. So why might we find that difficult to accept when it comes to artworks we own? That said, the responsibility of using good-quality materials begins with the artist, and that is where conservators can also collaborate with artists to understand the impact of using certain materials.

There is ongoing research on the conservation of artworks and its materials in tropical climates. Our climate is different from that of temperate countries so it influences how materials react, the type of pests we might have or how we start thinking about our storage conditions. Our challenges here in Southeast Asia are quite specific.

Removal of old restoration work. Image courtesy of BARC Labs.

I would like to dwell on paper as a material. Paper quality is one factor in the mix, could you talk about other variables we should consider?

Sure. It is not only about the acidity of paper. Its absorbency could also affect the way paper interacts with humidity. At times, the artists may want the surface to absorb pigments in a certain way so they prepare the surface differently. All that said, I do not believe in altering an artist’s practice or interfering with the artist’s intention. They should not change materials for the sake of conservation if it affects the final outcome. 

We also need to think about how the artwork is displayed and the materials used in frames. Some artists may choose to exhibit their paper works by pinning it up on four corners onto the wall. I think we have seen this before where bulges or undulations occur, especially if it is in a  room that has the air conditioning turned on and off!  When it comes to framing paper works, we need to be aware of how it is mounted, whether it is adhered, as well as the materials used in framing.

Getting painting cross-sections ready to be scanned under an electron microscope. Image courtesy of BARC Labs.

Lastly, could you touch on the relationship between conservation and the art market confidence?

What I hope to work on is establishing artist attribution and building a conservation material record for Southeast Asia, starting with modern paintings in Singapore. To do so, artworks need to be accessible for research. This applies not only to private collections but institutions, galleries, and artist estates too. This process is usually done in our studio and involves collecting 100 data points from the artwork through technical photography, visual examination and material analysis. Only when there is breadth in the data collected, can we move towards the conversation about artist attribution and possibly, authenticity. I think what we need in Singapore are joint research efforts by institutions and private stakeholders. 

That said, I am excited for the future. There are currently quite a few Singaporeans undertaking their Masters in Conservation overseas and they are interested in researching our local cultural heritage. The conservation discipline in Singapore is slowly developing and people today are more aware of the profession. With the right support for research, I do believe that we will see a significant change in three to five years’ time when these locals complete their studies and bring their expertise home. 

This interview has been edited.

Finalists for the 2023 Sovereign Asian Art Prize Announced

Seven Southeast Asian Artists Shortlisted

The Sovereign Art Foundation has shortlisted 30 artists for its 19th Sovereign Asian Art Prize. Founded as a charitable organisation in 2003, the foundation also launched a Make It Better (MIB) programme in 2013, where a dedicated team of art therapists run expressive art workshops to support the mental health and well-being of children in Hong Kong’s disadvantaged communities. The proceeds from an auction of the works will be shared equally between the artists and the programme.

Initiatives like the Sovereign Asian Art Prize and the SAM S.E.A. Focus Art Fund are forms of art patronage that provide important opportunities for artists to sustain their practice, including introducing their work to a wider audience and offering financial rewards. Whereas the SAM S.E.A. Focus Art Fund is built on the generosity of sponsors like the Yenn and Alan Lo Foundation by the arts patrons Yenn Wong and Alan Lo, the Sovereign Asian Art Prize seeks to raise funds through a selling exhibition as well as a special auction of the winning works. They share the common aims of promoting and preserving representative works of contemporary art, uniquely in Southeast Asian art for the SAM S.E.A. Focus Art Fund, and more broadly for Asian contemporary art for the Sovereign Asian Art Prize.

A panel of judges made up of art practitioners David Elliott, Yuko Hasegawa, Christopher K Ho and Siuli Tan, as well as the 2022 Sovereign Asian Art Prize winner Azin Zolfaghari, shortlisted the artworks based on nominations by a board of independent fellow art professionals. They will now also decide on two finalists, who will win a USD30,000 Grand Prize and a USD5,000 Vogue Hong Kong Women’s Art Prize respectively.

In this edition of the Sovereign Asian Art Prize, seven Southeast Asian artists have been shortlisted. They are Bjorn Calleja, Cian Dayrit and Luis Antonio Santos from the Philippines, Faris Nakamura from Singapore, Justin Lim from Malaysia, and Alisa Chunchue from Thailand and Nguyễn Thế Sơn from Vietnam. We check in with Cian, Faris and Justin, to find out about the inspiration behind their shortlisted works, and what it means to them to be a finalist for the prize.

Cian Dayrit. Image courtesy of the artist and The Sovereign Art Foundation.

Cian Dayrit

Cian Dayrit was nominated by Erin Gleeson for the work ‘Espasyo at Soberanya’ (2022). “The piece is a subversion of one of the most overlooked yet sinister tools of conquest: the colonial gaze,” says Cian. “My practice aims to find ways to redistribute power to the masses.” Elaborating further, Cian says, “My work is an affirmation of solidarity to all disenfranchised populations as I aim to appropriately echo their collective aspirations.”

Cian Dayrit, ‘Espasyo at Soberanya’, 2022, 140 x 110cm, embroidery and digital print on fabric.

The Filipino artist, who exhibits with Mono8 Gallery, a participating gallery at S.E.A. Focus 2023, notes that The Sovereign Art Foundation and similar entities are important to the art ecosystem. “I refuse to believe that contemporary art platforms are echo chambers and therefore it means a lot to be shortlisted and have the opportunity to share my work to a larger audience,” says Cian. “I encourage all cultural workers to anchor their practices to forging deeper alliances with grassroots organisations that push for progressive ideals.”

Faris Nakamura. Image courtesy of the artist and The Sovereign Art Foundation.

Faris Nakamura

Faris Nakamura, who is represented by Richard Koh Fine Art, another exhibiting gallery at S.E.A. Focus 2023, was nominated by Milenko Prvački. Faris says about his work, “Midnight Hour is a culmination of my inquiry of spaces in Singapore.” He adds, “Investigative, poignant with a poetic scrutiny, this work embodies the questions that I have had about privilege associated with the limited space in Singapore and its inevitable aftermath on the country’s architecture.”

The artist is known for creating minimalist works that are to be appraised from different angles for unexpected discoveries. “This work employs the distinctive trait of my practice, which is drawing the viewer in by coaxing alternate perspectives on viewing, conjuring different ways of looking at the obscured spaces in my work through squatting down, tiptoeing or shifting one’s regular movement and habits of viewing,” says the artist. “There is the constant motif of stairwells and suggestions of panels that maintain elusiveness, yet it is the focal point, calling on different layers in history such as the personal, the wider socio-economic environment and a certain political climate that anchors my continuing practice.”

The premise of the Sovereign Asian Art Prize to benefit disadvantaged children strikes a chord with Faris, who shares that he came from a single-parent family. He says, “It would be a full circle moment for me, being able to provide enriching experiences to the children and financial means of support for health and education that would improve the quality of their lives.”

Justin Lim. Image courtesy of the artist and The Sovereign Art Foundation.

Justin Lim

Justin Lim, who is also represented by Richard Koh Fine Art, was nominated by Tanya Amador. ‘Tell me about your daydream’ (2022) features a red plastic stool that is ubiquitous in Southeast Asian countries, and represents the artist’s experiences in the pandemic. “I spent many hours a day sitting and painting on one of these red plastic chairs,” says Lim. “Such an object to me can be seen as an invitation for someone to occupy an otherwise empty space or act as a reminder of a memory of someone dear who is now gone.”

The artist further ruminates on the built environment that we inhabit. “The chair itself can also be a signifier of class, identity, and hierarchies,” adds Lim. “All of these ideas seem apt to me during the pandemic, as this common everyday object accompanied me throughout this isolating period, and somewhat presented itself as a subject for my painting.”

Justin Lim, ‘Tell me about your daydream’, 2022, 64.5 x 79.5 x 4cm, acrylic on canvas. Nominated by Tanya Amador. 

The foundation’s goal to do good for the next generation resonates with the artist as well. Lim says, “I can’t think of a better cause if my painting can play a role in changing someone’s life for the better, and I am grateful for the opportunity.”

All 30 works can be seen online, and will also be shown at H Queen’s in Hong Kong from 10 to 18 May 2023. The public can visit for free, and vote for their favourite by 15 May. A USD1,000 Public Vote Prize will be awarded to the artist with the most popular work. Tiffany Pinkstone, Co-Founder and Director of the Sovereign Art Foundation expresses her hope that the audience will also bid on the finalists’ works, which can go towards starting or building an investment-quality art collection while supporting a worthwhile cause.

Please click here for more information about the Sovereign Art Foundation and the Sovereign Asian Art Prize, and to place a vote for your favourite artwork. The 2023 Sovereign Asian Art Prize Gala Dinner and Charity Auction will be held on 19 May 2023 in Hong Kong.

Tan Zi Hao: “Translation is a method of listening and a mode of care.”

Malaysian artist unpacks the layers in his installation ‘The Mercurial Inscription’

The work of Malaysian artist Tan Zi Hao contains multitudes. Though his subject matter spans the quotidian to the imaginary and mythological, he is committed to challenging essentialist ideologies in favour of complexity. One important facet of his practice is an engagement with text. For him, text is more than just a mode of expression or historical document. Equally important is its form and the fact that typography can communicate nuanced meanings.

This catch-up session focuses on Zi Hao’s ‘The Mercurial Inscription’ (2022), which was selected for acquisition into the Singapore Art Museum collection through the SAM S.E.A. Focus Art Fund. The artist unpacks the various components that come together in this ambitious installation, such as the dozen translations featured in the animation as well as the aluminium sculpture that audiences are invited to activate. Zi Hao’s deep research into Malayan history and the politics of language comes through strongly as he speaks about the impact of postgraduate studies on his artistic practice.

Tan Zi Hao, ‘The Mercurial Inscription’ (video still), 2022, video animation, aluminium, touch sensor, dimensions variable. Image courtesy of the artist.

Could you talk about the collaborative process behind producing ‘The Mercurial Inscription’? It is a large undertaking which involved translators, type designers, animators as well as fabricators who worked on the aluminium sculpture.

‘The Mercurial Inscription’ has involved a number of people with varying expertise. I approached the translators first. There are 10 target languages and 12 translations. Target languages are chosen based on specific personal experiences and resonance. I do not view translation as a representation of cultural inclusivity nor as an index of political correctness, but as a biographical inscription, as an expression in itself.

Some of the target languages, such as Hokkien and Javanese, are local and specific, and it took some time to find suitable translators. I did not face this issue with the more common languages, such as Arabic and Mandarin. I have also considered translating the stone inscription into Hakka, but no one I approached was willing to take up this endeavour. This is because Hakka speakers do not necessarily know the exact Chinese characters that signal the pronunciation in Hakka. Chinese languages such as Hokkien and Hakka, my parents’ mother tongues, are inaccurately understood as “dialects”. Hence, my intention of translating them in the work is also to provincialise the notion of Chineseness while drawing reference from the broader Sinophone world. 

Translation also takes place beyond language. The translated texts were drawn by type and graphic designers, mimicking the worn surface of the original stone inscription in Arabic Malay or Jawi. On this, I worked with frequent collaborators Tan Sueh Li, Low Hsin Yin, and Louie Lee of hrftype foundry. Designers Mohamed Hammam Chebel and Aditya Bayu Perdana were also involved. Visual surveys were conducted to approximate a 14th-century writing style for each different script because the Terengganu Stone Inscription was dated 1303 or 1308, depending on sources. 

The animators and fabricators came at a later stage and worked with visual references I supplied. The aluminium sculpture was created based on a speculation of a missing piece broken off from the upper part of the Terengganu Stone Inscription. This speculation was initially proposed by Syed Muhammad Naquib al-Attas in his book ‘The Correct Date of the Terengganu Inscription’ (1972). 

Tan Zi Hao, ‘The Mercurial Inscription’ (video still), 2022, video animation, aluminium, touch sensor, dimensions variable. Image courtesy of the artist.

Tan Zi Hao, ‘The Mercurial Inscription’, 2022, video animation, aluminium, touch sensor, dimensions variable. Image courtesy of Kenta Chai.

The work was first presented at the ILHAM Art Show 2022, what was the Malaysian audience’s response? Were they able to connect your interest in the Terengganu Inscription Stone with the 2019 debate on Jawi in Malaysia?

The Terengganu Inscription Stone was an artefact familiar to the Malaysian public as it graced the cover of an older edition of the Form 4 history textbook. Most could recognise the artefact and its affiliation with the Islamic heritage of present-day Malaysia, but very few would recall what was written on the stone. It is this surface recognition that I find fascinating. The Terengganu Inscription Stone is a pure image, iconic yet enigmatic and almost incomprehensible.

“My intent to translate an iconic object in the Jawi script is to consider how translation could play a role in navigating this conundrum. In ‘The Mercurial Inscription’, translation is a method of listening, a mode of care and of attending to others.”

I was exploring the topic of history and language with this artefact due to a nationwide debate in 2019 on the implementation of Jawi classes in vernacular Chinese and Tamil schools. The debate became intensely racialised as the Jawi script was inextricably linked to the Malay Muslim identity. The Chinese and Tamil vernacular schools were adamant about this imposition and sought for more conversations. Such resistance was often perceived as a challenge to the unquestionable supremacy of Malay culture in Malaysia. The stake was higher given the impression that the Jawi script bears an Islamic connotation. Collectively, these anxieties revealed a society with deep-seated Islamophobia, Jawiphobia, and Sinophobia. 

My intent to translate an iconic object in the Jawi script is to consider how translation could play a role in navigating this conundrum. In ‘The Mercurial Inscription’, translation is a method of listening, a mode of care and of attending to others. When the audience encounters a familiar script, it provides an opening for engagement. And yet, translation does not guarantee comprehension. The audience may stumble upon a familiar script at random but the translated texts are seldom readable, in part due to the incompleteness of the original inscription, and in part, its antiquity. A person adept in the Malay language may not be able to comprehend the inscription because it was written in old Malay permeated with old Sanskritic, Javanese, and Arabic terms. Another who could read Chinese characters, assuming them to be inscribing the Mandarin language, would be perplexed by a Hokkien translation.

It is through such dialectics of familiarity and strangeness that I hope to defamiliarise one’s own tongue, to create openings for rethinking alterity. Again, this does not guarantee a resolution. Imagine reading an enemy’s grievance translated into one’s own mother tongue. What does it take to listen? What does it take to be with that person whose language we could not understand and whose situation we could not resonate with? Translation is beyond comprehension, beyond the act of comprehending or apprehending a certain meaning, but of being-with.

Tan Zi Hao, ‘M’, 2017, solo exhibition at A+ Works of Art, Kuala Lumpur. Image courtesy of the artist and A+ Works of Art.

Tan Zi Hao, ‘Bhāṣā Jīva Vaṃsa’, 2017, spray-painted fibreglass, dimensions variable, edition of 3 + 1AP. Image courtesy of the artist and A+ Works of Art.

Why was the interactive element of touch sensors in the sculpture important?

The element of touch is extremely important in the installation. According to an account given by the colonial officer Paterson, the Terengganu Inscription Stone was originally placed as a step in a mosque. Devotees would wash their feet before prayers. The stone was therefore smoothened, and part of the inscription effaced due to friction. I find this account to be poetically affective, it epitomises the nuances of reading and translating. It is intriguing that an artefact of considerable salience was once frequently touched or stepped on, before being stored in a museum and clinically displayed for distant admiration. How a sacred object was musealised is consequent upon a colonial epistemology that enacts violence to the object itself. In certain parts of Southeast Asia, touching an historic object activates berkah or “divine blessing”, implying an unseen flow of intensity beyond visible matter. It is with these historical sensibilities that I insist on having an element of touch in ‘The Mercurial Inscription’. A touch is a gesture of care, curiosity even, but it also introduces friction and the potential of erasure.  

Your work has been selected for the SAM S.E.A. Focus Art Fund and will join the Singapore Art Museum’s collection. What does this mean for you personally and your practice?

It is a tremendous honour for the work to find a place in the Singapore Art Museum, a prestigious institution in Southeast Asia. As a work addressing the politics of translation and multilingualism, I am equally curious to see how the installation will be curated or exhibited. Singapore is a locality that has a complex history of language politics, from the linguistic experiment with an idyllic “Engmalchin” (a portmanteau for English, Malay, and Chinese) to the contentious period of Nantah in the 1960s. Multilingualism is never a mere neutral language signalling diversity to begin with. It constitutes a space for linguistic and ideological contestation.

Tan Zi Hao, ‘Susur, Galur, dan Bahasa Melayu’, 2017, book, colour pencil, ink, and acrylic on acid-free paper, 35 x 61 cm. Image courtesy of the artist and A+ Works of Art.

What made you decide to pursue a PhD in Southeast Asian Studies at National University of Singapore? And how did it impact your artistic practice?

Pursuing a PhD felt natural because I am passionate about research, writing, and pedagogy. I am also a bookish person, obsessed with text in itself or text as an image. The latter could come in the form of typography, which manifests in some of my works. But very early on, I wanted to be an artist without entering into a fine art department. I am intrigued by knowledge gaps between disciplines, and epistemic blind spots which become more apparent when you move across disciplines. What I could not satisfactorily interrogate in an academic publication, I would do so in the arts, and vice versa. 

Nonetheless, years of academic writing have impacted my practice as an artist. I believe my later works are more layered due to my research interests, and perhaps, a higher expectation for critical engagement that came along with postgraduate studies. There is also a very delicate dynamic to maintain because academic thinking, by virtue of its demand for the written form and its tacit rationalism could impede creative thinking.

Any upcoming exhibitions or projects you would like to share?

Several projects are in order. I am developing a series of photographic works that capture a close-up of domestic debris gathered on the cocoons of household casebearers. Another series of works is relatively personal for it addresses mental health issues amidst the Covid-19 endemic. I have exhibited works from both these series before, so these are continuing explorations of existing projects. Concerning language and translational politics, I am currently working with the type collective Huruf (some of whom are from the hrftype foundry) to document the practice of hand-painted signage in select parts of Malaysia. The findings will eventually be published as a book.

This interview has been edited.

Angela Tan and John Tung on the Intersection of Art and Disability

On ART:DIS’s initiatives, working with neurodivergent artists, and what inclusivity entails

Angela Tan is Executive Director at ART:DIS, a non-profit organisation dedicated to creating learning and livelihood opportunities in the arts for persons with disabilities. Angela has a background in the arts, with a Bachelor’s degree in Fine Arts and History of Art from Goldsmiths, London, as well as more than a decade of experience at the National Arts Council, Singapore.

John Tung is a curator with extensive experience through his work formerly as a Assistant Curator at the Singapore Art Museum and numerous other independent engagements including for Singapore International Photography Festival, the Open House programme ‘For the House; Against the House’ and the upcoming S.E.A. Focus 2024 ‘Serial and Massively Parallel’. Recently, John curated ART:DIS’s 30th Anniversary exhibition ‘A Piece of Home’ and was on the judging panel for the inaugural UOL x ART:DIS Art Prize.

Team ART:DIS. Image courtesy of ART:DIS

Angela, what motivated you to join ART:DIS? And has your perception of the disability sector changed since?

Angela Tan (AT): Part of me was excited about shaping the next development phase of ART:DIS. I felt it was important to embed the organisation more deeply in the local arts ecosystem, not just as a community organisation but one that was serious about developing the artistic excellence and representation of artists with disabilities in Singapore. 

My perception of the disability sector has not changed since I joined. What has changed is the clarity and compounded urgency to shift the way the art world and its constructs perceive and position artists with disabilities, and the values they attribute to them. 

Emerging artist Abraham Koh with his mentor artist Tang Ling Nah. Image courtesy of ART:DIS.

ART:DIS has a tiered programme, which includes an Emerging Artist level launched in 2022. Could you talk about the enrolment process and the types of mentorship experience offered?

AT: Just like mainstream artists, our young artists, who are mostly neurodivergent, have the same desire and aspiration to excel and expand in their practice. The tiered programme allows us to support them at various stages of their artistic practice development, including those who wish to develop professional careers as artists. The emerging artist programme was newly introduced, and is based on a bespoke industry mentorship approach where artists are matched one-on-one to mentors who are practising artists or curators. Artists are selected through a public open call.

‘A Piece of Home’, 2023, exhibition view at Objectifs, Singapore. Image courtesy of ART:DIS.

Curated by John Tung, the exhibition ‘A Piece of Home’ is a highlight of ART:DIS’s 30th anniversary celebrations. What are the qualities/ criterion ART:DIS looks out for when choosing the curator to work with?

AT: This is not our first project working with an external curator, but contextually, it was quite rare to do so in the past. However, going forward, we hope to involve more curators in our exhibitions. It is critical that the curator we work with is excited about the artists and their works, as well as how they add a different dimension and texture to what is being presented in our contemporary art landscape.

Linocut prints by young artist Christian Tan. Image courtesy of ART:DIS.

John, tell us about your experience working with ART:DIS and the artists on ‘A Piece of Home’ (2023).

John Tung (JT): The curation process of ‘A Piece of Home’ was the first time I had the privilege of working with neurodivergent artists or artists with disabilities. Having the opportunity to speak with all the artists about their work and practices, I was taken aback by the outpouring of honesty and authenticity that drove their creations, as well as the breadth of their imagination. In this respect, I also strove to embody their struggles, beliefs, and artistic triumphs in the selection and curation of the exhibition. 

Young artists Joshua Tang and Kenneth Lee, in conversation with curator John Tung. Image courtesy of ART:DIS.

Are there anecdotes you can share about the process of organising ‘A Piece of Home’ as well as responses from the public?

AT: Organising “A Piece of Home” at the Objectifs, which is an independent art space, shifted the dynamics of how one encounters the work of an artist with disabilities. I recall conversations with John, and Suzanna Low, my exhibitions head, where we spoke about intentionally presenting the artworks in a way that borrows visual cues of the institutional white cube, and not position the exhibition as a “community” showcase. It is important that the works of these young artists, though still in training, are treated seriously.

JT: To be frank, I presumed I would be unequipped to take on the curation initially. In fact, one of my first questions to Angela was whether the organisation would be able to provide me with training to learn to better communicate with these individuals. My question was met with an outburst of laughter, followed by “no training necessary”. I met with the artists with a genuine curiosity about their artistic creations, and that alone was sufficient in developing a deeper understanding about their works. 

With respect to how different the experience was, it was entirely uneventful. Uneventful in the best way possible, as the show developed smoothly. All of the artists and everyone on the ART:DIS team worked closely to realise the vision we had of the exhibition, and I am glad it came to fruition. 

Isaac Tan, Winner of the Emerging Artist category at the UOL x ART:DIS Art Prize. Image courtesy of ART:DIS.

Another new initiative is the UOL x ART:DIS Art Prize, which is a platform to recognise artists with disabilities in Singapore. Could you talk about the desired impact of this prize?

AT: The UOL x ART:DIS Art Prize had a simple intent, which was to recognise and raise public visibility of artists with disabilities in our cultural landscape. Some might argue this further focuses on their disability instead of their practice, and could pigeonhole them. Instead, I see it as a much needed intervention for now. Who knows, perhaps one day we would no longer need a prize like this as our cultural scene and society progresses.

‘Through All Vicissitudes: Prints & Sculptures’ by Chng Seok Tin, 2022, exhibition view at artcommune gallery. Image courtesy of ART:DIS.

In 2022, ART:DIS and artcommune gallery presented ‘Through All Vicissitudes: Prints & Sculptures by Chng Seok Tin’, an exhibition that features works made over four decades in the artist’s career. How did this project come about?

AT: Seok Tin had always been a constant presence at ART:DIS, then known as Very Special Arts. She participated in our exhibitions and events, and had a soft spot for the younger artists. She was an outstanding artist and somewhat an emblem that your disability is not a limit to your practice. In fact, as part of her legacy, her estate had set up an Education Fund for aspiring young artists with disabilities which supports the Emerging Artist programme.

In your opinion, what does inclusivity and accessibility entail? And what are the most impactful steps the arts community can take to work towards greater inclusivity?

AT: Everyone is jumping on the bandwagon now which is great progress but what should be considered in equal measure is the representation of their voices, their bodies in our mainstream exhibitions and cultural spaces. What is the point of providing access to exhibitions for the disability community if the content they see does not reflect them?

We start by including artists with disabilities in shows, collaborating with them, and stop seeing them as the community that we must do good for. They have equal parts to contribute to a more diverse arts ecosystem, as contributors, not as receivers of goodwill.

JT: I am quite certain that the disability label progressively fades away as an artist gains increasing prominence. After all, numerous established artists, Yayoi Kusama for instance, are not branded as such. I firmly believe that our approach to evaluating artworks should be uniform, albeit in accordance with our own rubrics. Personally, I give great emphasis to authenticity, which these artists have no lack of. Concessions granted, owing to “disability”, are in my opinion a disservice to the amazing stories, creative struggles, and heartfelt emotions these works embody. There is an inherent goodness in these works that we need to re-train our eyes to see. 

John Tung with the three artists, Kenneth Lee, Fern Wong and Isabelle Lim (from left to right), who will be part of the group exhibition ‘Turning Points’ in January 2024. Image courtesy of ARTI:DIS.

John, in light of the upcoming edition of S.E.A. Focus that you are curating, how do you think inclusivity in visual arts might evolve in an increasingly digital age?

JT: I have been pessimistic about this increasingly digital age.  Amongst other things, with the rise of social media, goodness seems to be determined by popular opinion/likes/upvotes. Undoubtedly, the emergence of these platforms is accelerating the dispersion of information and heightening visibility of these artists, but it also means that engagement becomes highly mediated and often pared down or truncated. We already do not spend enough time in front of a single work of art in a museum setting. How much attention does an image get from us amidst a doom-scrolling session?

The fact that more of such works are seen is a good thing, but it will need to be complemented by a growth in interactions with the actual works as well.