Singapore-based curator Louis Ho on silence, meaning and the insularity of islands.
From 31 August to 22 September curator Louis Ho brings the work of 20 Singapore-based artists together in “Between Conversations”, an exhibition concerned with meaningful silences in Singapore’s national narrative.
Louis Ho does not shy away from complexity nor, to a certain extent, controversy. Bringing together new works by 20 artists in his exhibition “Between Conversations”, taking place in Singapore’s Yavuz Fine Art gallery 31 August to 22 September, Ho uses the ongoing dialogue between artists and arts practitioners to delve into Singaporean social issues. Immigration, labour and wage inequity, gender roles, urban development and national identity – sometimes contentious issues in the city-state – are examined through painting, sculpture, jewellery and even tattooing, practices considered contemporary art in “Between Conversations”.
Ho spoke to Art Radar about meaning, meta-conversations and why Singapore can sometimes be a very ‘insular’ island.
“Between Conversations” takes “the interstitial implications within the space/s of conversation” as its starting point. Can you explain what this means?
The most common understanding of a conversation is a dialogue between two or more interlocutors, but all too often what goes unsaid and unheard lingers as an absent presence, a spectre haunting the gaps between the articulated. That’s a fancy way of saying that what a conversation omits – structurally, programmatically – is no less significant than what it pronounces. The silences, the interstices between utterances if you will, are more often than not fraught with meaning.
Also, conversations are platforms not just for communication, but exercises in the operation and imbalance of power: who gets to speak and to whom, who gets to say what, when, where. These things happen meta-conversationally: between words, between dialogues.
How did you convey an abstract, ephemeral concept like ‘spaces in between’ curatorially?
One can’t. Exhibitions are relational in that respect: you set up a space, an occasion for an exchange to happen. You present works in a certain manner and within certain frameworks, and the viewer derives from those juxtapositions and contexts what s/he will. Or not.
Is communication possible between artists and artist/observer, or do you adhere to Derridian theory that true meaning is interminably deferred?
Nothing quite so serious as Derrida! I don’t know that meaning is always deferred. Structurally, language may occlude absolutes perhaps, but at the level of the everyday – which includes art viewing – we negotiate the process of constructing meaning, of assigning significance, from moment to moment, however, one-sided those acts may be.
The works selected discuss issues relevant to Singapore’s contemporary socio-political environment. What are those issues and in what ways are they uniquely Singaporean?
Our point of departure was the national conversation exercise currently taking place, which the government hopes will usher in – or be seen to usher in – a more open, consultative mode of policy-making. While the brief given to the artists was focused on issues of a socio-political nature, the eventual form that the works assumed was informed by personal concerns, biographical details; conversations had with oneself, with their fellow artists in the show, with Singapore and Singaporeans at large. There are works dealing with the constitution, with the environment, with money, with history. And with, of course, the phenomenon of conversation itself: look out for a piece involving a rubber duck, a squeaky chicken, two tin cans and a length of twine.
How did you select the 22 artists on show? Can you talk about one or two of the works you consider emblematic of “Between Conversations” as a whole?
I hate to disappoint, but the [curatorial selection] process was a pretty ad hoc one. We have twenty artists in the show now; a couple had to drop out, unfortunately. It wasn’t exactly a conscious move, but the experimental, relational aspect of the curatorial framework seemed to bleed into the way the show was organised, how things were run. Artists came and went, and they just pretty much worked from the brief they were given, either in conversation or collaboratively, and came up with some surprising objects. There’s an installation by Wong Lip Chin that’s a whole bus-stop, moved piece by piece into the space of the gallery and reassembled on-site. It’s pretty awesome.
Identity and urban development are oft-discussed issues in the city-state. What happens in the spaces in between these national discussions? What are the undercurrents around Singaporean ideas of Self that might not be apparent in the officially accepted national narrative?
There’s plenty that doesn’t get too much positive press. The fate of the elderly, the poor, and the marginalised in an economy that increasingly privileges the English-speaking and the globally-oriented; gay men and women, and the transgender community; foreign blue-collar workers in our midst (and the way we view and treat them); our own anxieties in the face of burgeoning immigration and the sort of easy assumptions that we’ve grown used to, but are slowly, painfully realising don’t quite translate well outside of a specific socio-historical context, i.e. our own.
Islands can be terribly insular places.
Conversation is collaborative, but if you think about linguistic pragmatics, conversation can also be a way to control and coerce an interlocutor. Does this tension come into “Between Conversations” in any way?
Definitely. Power is something that quite a few works in the show are concerned with: the power to delimit, to define, to set the parameters of discourse and possibilities and production.
An open studio is incorporated into the exhibition. What will happen there and why was this an important element to include? What do you hope will come out of the open studio?
We held one mass open studio session for everyone involved, but conversations between artists, apropos of their work, were held privately. The results of which viewers will get to judge for themselves when the show opens.
Singapore’s art scene is growing infrastructurally and commercially; how long can the current curbs on artistic expression continue?
You often hear these days prognoses of impending doom for Singapore’s culture of censorship, but I think China provides a rather apt model of how regulation and individual expression can co-exist and negotiate their respective terrains, albeit antagonistically. It’s a pretty Hegelian view of things. Having said that, the art scene hereabouts is still largely driven by government grants and the like, which tend to prioritise certain forms of expression and thus skew art production at a fundamental level. Perhaps what’s needed is more private funding for the arts, a more mature art market here… but that of course comes with its own attendant drawbacks.
What kind of conversations will Singapore’s artists be having in the future, both nationally and internationally?
Your guess is as good as mine. I suspect though it may be a process of gradual awareness, of progressive inroads made into territory that is still off-limits at this point: the role of race; the fate of one-party political hegemony; the question of transparency; the issue of homosexuality; the possibility of failure, of not being at the head of the race.
Artists in “Between Conversations”
- Chloe Cheng
- Cecily Cheo
- Cheo Chai Hiang
- Heleston Chew
- Twardzik Ching Chor Leng
- Mithun Jayaram
- Leroy Sofyan John
- Kim Whye Kee
- Kng Mian Tze
- Stellah Lim
- Jennifer Ng
- Huang Wei
- Simon Pan
- Ezzam Rahman
- Regina de Rozario
- Vincent Twardzik Ching
- Wong Lip Chin
- Mark Wong
- Green Zeng
- Robert Zhao
- Lend me your ears: “Word Sound Power” at Tate Modern – August 2013 – the voice as protest tool takes centre stage in London
- Singapore artist Ryf Zaini and the mechanics of art – July 2013 – Zaini brings his background in electronics to bear on his provocative installations
- Singapore art scene booming? Gallerists give their opinions – June 2013 – are the good times really rolling for Singapore and its homegrown art spaces?
- Installation artist Nadim Abbas’s “poor images” – Para Site Hong Kong artist talk – April 2013 – Hong Kong artist Abbas discusses the tricky links between word, image and art
- Art Radar explores the use of words in Asian contemporary art: A series introduction – December 2010 – is it possible to define the evolving relationship between art and words? Art Radar makes an attempt
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