Contextualising Curatorial Practice in Singapore with Kathleen Ditzig

Kathleen Ditzig is a curator and researcher based in Singapore. Her work unpacks the enduring legacies of the Cold War, and examines art as an exceptional site and system of speaking to power.

She is a PhD candidate at the Nanyang Technological University, School of Art, Design and Media and recently was a fellow of the research platform Modern Art Histories in and across Africa, South and Southeast Asia (MAHASSA), convened by the Getty Foundation’s Connecting Art Histories project. She is also a co-founder of, a curatorial and research collective that examines contemporary flows of capital and art. 

Her art historical research has been published in Southeast of Now (NUS Press, 2017) and presented at international academic conferences and platforms. Other than being featured in artist catalogues, her writing has been published by Artforum, OSMOS magazine, Art Agenda, Art Review Asia and Flash Art, and in books such as Perhaps it is High Time for a Xeno-Architecture to Match (Sternberg, 2018). 

She recently curated As The West Slept (World Trade Center, 2019) as part of Performa 2019 and was assistant curator to Ute Meta Bauer for the exhibition Spring of Democracy (2020), commissioned by the Gwangju Biennale Foundation. Ditzig will be curating Heman Chong’s first solo exhibition at STPI Gallery (Singapore), Peace Prosperity And Friendship With All Nations, which opens in February 2021.

In a presentation you gave at the Yusof Ishak Institute back in 2017, you suggested that opportunities for exhibition-making in Singapore were possible during the 60s primarily as a result of personal “associations”. Is this something that holds true for the Singaporean art scene today? What would some contextual differences be?

You are referring to the lecture, The Import of Art: Exhibiting Singapore’s National Development through MoMA’s Visionary Architecture, which presented an exhibition case study from 1963 of a MoMA exhibition that came to the region. Unlike other travelling MoMA exhibitions that travelled to the region, it was funded ‘locally’ by the Housing Development Board and ‘found’ by the librarian Priscilla Taylor, then the Director of Singapore’s National Library. She encountered it in New York in 1960 and subsequently facilitated its travel to Singapore. Most other MoMA exhibitions were facilitated through the United States Information Service (USIS), which was really the administrator of American cultural diplomacy. The USIS didn’t believe that the exhibition was American enough and didn’t support the exhibition, so Taylor organised the project and found the necessary partners to realise this exhibition in Singapore.

With this exhibition case study, I sought to point to the significance of ‘small’ art histories, that a librarian through her own gumption could navigate the agendas of nation building, international diplomacy, and the Cultural Cold War to bring an exhibition to Singapore. It was a way for me to advocate for the importance of the detailed study of the processes of exhibition-making and the agency of individuals in global art histories. It pointed to how the international circulation of art was not just the purview of artists and diplomats, nor initiated by national agendas or American cultural diplomacy. It is part of a larger body of research that I am doing as a PhD project that historicises the evolution of ‘Southeast Asia’ as an exhibitionary idiom before the establishment of ASEAN or the emergence of the nation state as the primary vehicle for interlocuting with ‘the international’.

Extrapolating this to your question about the current landscape and its differences, I think that independent curators have the agency to intervene and contribute to the international circulation of art. I think perhaps the primary difference between Taylor and a curator today is ‘access’. I’d argue that the landscape today is more ‘democratised’ in terms of access. One doesn’t need to work for an institution or come from a wealthy, internationally mobile milieu to participate in the ‘international art world’ or regional discourses. It is of course easier to do these things when you represent an institution or have that privilege, but I think there are more openly available opportunities for independent curators or individuals to develop the necessary resources that perhaps were once only open to someone like Taylor, who was able to act through and on behalf of the state.  

It should be said that Taylor was not a curator. Another difference is that today there is a quickly expanding professional class of curators in Singapore. Establishing a practice in Singapore for independent curators is difficult because I think there is just not enough freelance work. There are definitely more aspiring curators today than jobs, incubatory programmes and exhibitionary platforms and resources for young talent than when I started. I think most of my peers find that they do something else to support their curatorial practice or the spaces that they open up. Sustainability is a key challenge. This is not new or unique to Singapore. In fact, compared to our peers in other countries, I think we have more resources that we can tap on to sustain our practices.

How would you describe the current challenges faced by emerging independent curators in establishing a practice and presence within Singapore?

Other than perhaps the limited number of gainful employment opportunities there are to sustain the growing number of aspiring curators and the inherent difficulty of making independent curating sustainable, I think that there is also a lack of opportunities for curatorial development. When I started exploring curating 8 years ago, there seemed to be ‘dedicated’ paths to a career in curating. Today these paths don’t seem as accessible to a younger generation. 

Other than the usual internships and degrees, my peers and I could also look to curatorial development programmes like Curating Lab (2009 – 2014), which was commissioned by NAC and run by NUS Museum, and conceptualised by Ahmad Mashadi and Heman Chong. It was a great opportunity for an aspiring curator because it provided both academic and discursive rigour and the necessary networking to begin forming a practice. Curating Lab was very formative for me. I became invested in exhibition histories because of the project we worked on for that programme. I met Kenneth Tay, a long time collaborator whom I’ve worked with over the last few years to develop new discursive frameworks for reading Contemporary Singapore Art. Curating Lab also guided me to Heman Chong’s practice. His practice has become an important case study in the research I am doing into global post-conceptualism, while Mashadi’s work on Southeast Asian Art in the 1970s is the intellectual inspiration for this research.

Curating Lab 2012 participants including Kathleen Ditzig (first row, first from right), with facilitators Ahmad Mashadi and Heman Chong (second row, first and second from right), Patrick Flores (first row, first from left) and presenter Pauline J. Yao (far left). Photo courtesy of NUS Museum, National University of Singapore.

While Objectifs has just started a young curators programme and the NTU ADM offers a curatorial studies related graduate degree, I don’t see that many mentorship platforms comparable to Curating Lab with the same accessibility in terms of being fully-funded, and providing dedicated mentorship with an international perspective today. So beyond even talking about the structural challenges of independent curating in Singapore, I think it is even more difficult today to start out. I believe that the best curatorial practices grow out of the community around you – the people and practices that you spend time with, as well as the network that you collaboratively grow with. It gives a practice context, meaning and sustainability. Incubatory programmes like Curating Lab enable these networks and communities that foster an individual’s practice in relation to their peers and the generation that came before to grow.

Similarly, NTU CCA residencies and their open studios were also essential for emerging curators like me to build our networks. It was one of the only ways for young curators to develop an international network without travelling. It will just not be as easy for a younger, emerging generation of curators to build the important and formative networks that are integral to establishing a practice. In the long term, I’d like to see more diverse forms of curatorial practice. I’m particularly excited by the prospects of Wong Bing Hao’s work and others who work with methodologies that don’t conform to meta-narrativising (like I do) but I think if we can’t sustain the existing opportunities (as what we have seen with NTU CCA in 2020) then the question of how we enable the establishment of a healthy diversity of practices is really a question we can only ask in the future.

You have previously encouraged a reconsideration of the inextricability of the art fair from aspirations for Singapore to be an internationally recognised “arts hub”. Would you say that the Singaporean art scene is still predominantly characterised by a reductive, capitalist model of financial exchange? What are some projects or efforts that are actively problematising this and proposing new or other forms of exchange?

I think you are referring to my reviews of previous editions of Singapore Art Week for Art Agenda and Art Forum and my attempt to point out that the demise of Singapore Art Stage wasn’t that big a deal. This line of inquiry/argument was informed by my belief that Singapore’s art scene’s value proposition to the international art world and discourse is not based on its commercial ambitions. 

This being said I don’t think the Singapore art scene is or has been characterised by a reductive capitalist model of financial exchange. I think it’s something more complicated – state capitalism – which can’t be read purely through financial exchange, or through the culling of profits within the art sector. My colleague Robin Lynch and I have come to regard the dramatic and seemingly anticipated combustion of Singapore Art Stage in 2019 as particularly revelatory of the nature of Singapore’s state capitalism. We discuss this in a paper recently published by Southeast of Now and point to the irony of Lorenzo Rudolf’s describing the establishment of S.E.A. Focus as “unfair competition”. It is ironic that a for-profit art fair should complain about competition and expect the state to intervene in its favour. Yet, it does tell you something about how a commercial art world can be reliant on state support and that the system we work within isn’t defined by ‘free-market’ capitalism. 

To your last question: I applaud the many attempts of cultural producers who host parties that charge a cover to dance capitalism away or who raffle artworks in a lottery – the penultimate form of extractive capitalism – because they don’t want to play into a capitalist art market. Critique is at its best when it is funny. These are all interesting initiatives, but it is really the operation of Singapore’s art system administered in part by GLCs that bring together the art institution, art market and the state in a concerted and shared project of developing Singapore art, that actively problematises free-market capitalism. This, in my  mind, offers a compelling apparatus for the accelerated decolonisation of the international art world. 

I have to add that the practices and forms of conceptualism that emerge out of this system are what I consider Singapore’s real value proposition. In 2015, Slavo Zizek, the popular philosopher, surmised that Singapore’s state capitalism was “an ideology set to shape the next century much as democracy shaped the last.” If the future has already arrived in Singapore, then in my opinion it is the critical practices that thrive here that can address Contemporary Art’s existential crisis in the face of the failure of capitalism.

Let’s perhaps extend this discussion to consider Singapore’s freeport, which the project – of which you are a co-organiser – was centred on from 2015-2016. Could you share what your research revealed about the role of the freeport, and how it contributes to Singapore as an arts hub and Southeast Asia as an art market?

Presentation hosted by Grey Projects. Photo courtesy of Jason Wee.

Robin Lynch and I have published two peer-reviewed articles on this research. The first, ‘Finance and Society’, published in 2016, mapped out what we called value chains that connected the Singapore Freeport to museums like the Pinacotheque at Fort Canning which was founded in 2015 and closed in 2016. What we tried to do was understand how the freeport worked as a mechanism and the agents that created the networks that defined the Singapore Freeport rather than just accept descriptions of it as an alchemic box that accrued the value of a particular artwork. After that piece was published, we thought at the time that the freeport might be a form of infrastructure that might solidify or create a literal place for a Southeast Asian, regional art market – not necessarily one that sold Southeast Asian art, but one that coalesced flows of art within the region. The Yves Bouvier Affair that started in 2015, the Panama Papers in 2016 and a series of other related controversies had us re-examine our assumption about the regional function of the freeport.

More recently, we have published a peer-reviewed paper with Southeast of Now in which we examine the evolution of the public representation of the Singapore Freeport over the last 10 years in relation to the growth of a Southeast Asian art market and to the associative effects of the Bouvier Affair. Basically, what we concluded is it serves the needs of its users for secure arts storage and cultural policy in imagining Singapore as an art logistics hub. In terms of the Southeast Asian art market, it seems to be something conveniently ascribed onto it by financial advisors and at the mercy of public perception.

Debbie Ding/OFFSHOREART.CO Freeports are often presented as obscuring mechanisms serving the elite – a speculative storage hub for accumulating value where art or assets are like Schrödinger’s cats, possibly existing within the ‘box’ or ‘freeport’ (or perhaps not), but accruing value through speculation. 

In June this year, your and Soo Young Leam’s work on the project Spring[s] for Democracy sought to draw intimate sociohistorical connections between South Korea and Southeast Asia. More recently, you are co-curating In Our Best Interests: Afro-Southeast Asian Affinities during a Cold War with Carlos Quijon Jr. which opens next January at the NTU ADM Gallery. Do you think that a geopolitical notion of Singapore – or, more broadly, Southeast Asia – is strengthened through the relational praxis of the trans-local?

Yes. Unavoidably so, because much of the available funding and resources that enable ‘trans-local’ praxes are informed by geopolitical shifts and the national agendas and frameworks of art history that are tied to them.

I was asked to define what the Cold War was by a prospective patron of a project I am developing. I was at first quite baffled by the question because the Cold War isn’t a debated term outside academic circles. I then realised that the question was informed by the increasing competition between China and the USA and the parallel renewed stakes of reviewing Cold War art history and its associated histories and imaginaries of the Third World, Global South and solidarities. 

The two projects that you reference resist the penchant for a false nostalgia that you find in some art projects that speak about international solidarity movements; they are also invested in deep curatorial research of the geopolitical and geo-poetic stakes of cultural production that emerge from this history.