Singapore Biennale Creative Director Susie Lingham speaks about curating, censorship and the Singaporean art scene at Experimenter Curators’ Hub 2016.

Susie Lingham, Singapore Biennale curator and former director of the Singapore Art Museum, shares her experience of curating exhibitions and comments on her directorship of the upcoming 2016 Biennale, in a talk during the 6th edition of the annual Curators’ Hub at Experimenter in Kolkata, India.

Susie Lingham at ECH 2016. Image courtesy Experimenter Gallery.

Susie Lingham at ECH 2016. Image courtesy Experimenter Gallery.

Presented by Experimenter Gallery in India, the Experimenter Curators’ Hub (ECH) has been held annually since 2011 to encourage conversations in the dynamic art realm by inviting leading curators and artists from India and all over the world to deliver talks. Covering a broader scope of art disciplines and including curators from the field of architecture and design as well as those of the visual arts, ECH 2016 was held from 28 to 30 July 2016.

During the three-day event, a total of 11 participating curators helped decode the term ‘curatorship’. Among them, Singapore-based interdisciplinary curator and art writer Susie Lingham shared her vision on new contemporary art museums with reference to her previous curatorial experience at the Singapore Art Museum (SAM) and discussed the issue of censorship and her role in the upcoming Singapore Biennale, opening on 27 October 2016 and running until 26 February 2017.

Susie Lingham's presentation at ECH 2016. Image courtesy Experimenter Gallery.

Susie Lingham’s presentation at ECH 2016. Image courtesy Experimenter Gallery.

Singapore’s changing art scene

Lingham was once the director of the Singapore Art Museum, which was the only art institution in the country until the National Gallery Singapore opened in 2015. Since then, the museum has shifted its focus to contemporary art, whereas the National Gallery focuses on older modern collections. Lingham, being the former director of SAM, has taken part in crafting the new direction of the Singapore Art Museum with the managing team. After reading out loud the new vision of the museum, which states that “SAM will be pivotal among contemporary art museums in the region and on the region, inspiring humane and better futures,” Lingham comments:

This, in itself, sounds incredibly idealistic. It is [idealistic], it’s meant to be [idealistic]. It’s a rare thing for Singapore because we’re such a pragmatic country. Really, I got worn down by pragmatism. So, there is a need to renew, and I thought, ‘now, it’s the time.’

Click here to watch Susie Lingham at ECH 2016 on Vimeo

Curating as a Forum

Lignham has her own view on the identity of a curator after overseeing museum exhibitions for years. She says:

[A curator] is a multi-headed creature, you have to keep shifting, and moving, and thinking. You have to think about the artists; you have to think about the writer. You have to think about the theories; you have to think about the story. Not just act, do, negotiate, commissions… all those kinds of thing. There’s a lot of work when you really think about what curating is.

Lingham observes that as the trend of art practices changes in time, the way of curating changes. Curators nowadays have to always bear a contemporary mind – to question traditional forms and to consider different subject matters and methodologies. ‘To curate’ means ‘to care for’, and that curators have to look at things from the art practitioners’ point of view, as well as from the audiences’ position. “Curating is evolving,” Lingham remarks. For her, curating is a forum in which curators and fellow artists communicate in the same channel (the modern way) and challenge each other to stimulate thoughts and creativity.

In Lingham’s eyes, the new contemporary museum of SAM looks beyond art itself, but it also treasures the process of art-making and further researches. More significantly, it provides a platform for the marriage of different art disciplines. Past SAM exhibitions, such as typical contemporary art exhibition “Medium at Large” (2014), community show “After Utopia” (2015) and political exhibition “5 Stars” (2015), were mentioned during the talk as examples of how different types of shows ought to be dealt with using different curatorial approaches.

Susie Lingham's presentation at ECH 2016. Image courtesy Experimenter Gallery.

Susie Lingham’s presentation at ECH 2016. Image courtesy Experimenter Gallery.

The exhibition “Medium at Large” (PDF download) showcases the museum’s interpretation of contemporary art and the flow of the core in modern art practices – form. Lingham shares that it is very difficult to collect and present contemporary art because of the materials that artists are using, especially when handling Singapore artist Jane Lee’s painting-like sculpture Status (2009), and other multidimensional art that challenges traditional definitions of shape and structure, and is therefore intangible in terms of idea and its changing form.

On the other hand, educational and community exhibitions are held with a lower standard about art in order to shift the major discourse to society and social issues. For a show like the 2015 “Imaginarium” (PDF download), in which children’s works about the waste in the ocean were shown, it is almost impossible to demand such a high artistic and aesthetic standard, because the main reason for holding this exhibition is to enhance public awareness on marine pollution.

Furthermore, Lingham thinks curating should be interdisciplinary and curators ought to think outside the box and consider more than just the artwork itself to ensure the show is not didactic and boring. She explains:

[Curating should be] allowing people to move between ways of thinking. So when you make the exhibition, it becomes about experience. It becomes about trying to create an experience that goes beyond simply the word on the wall.

Singapore Biennale 2016 (SB2016) curatorial team. Image courtesy Singapore Art Museum.

Singapore Biennale 2016 (SB2016) curatorial team. Image courtesy Singapore Art Museum.

No ‘censorship’ in curating

When being asked to comment on self-censorship, a sensitive issue in the field of curating, Lingham rejects the confusing notion of the term ‘censorship’ by using an example of wanting to put up an artwork as a huge mural but finding it too provocative afterwards. She replies:

It’s not censorship. It’s thinking what works, [and] whether the time is right.

For her, the most significant thing during the process of editing and selection is never the process itself, but to figure out what suits the exhibition the best – be it the theme, the style or the material. She adds:

Besides the individual artworks, there’re also the themes by which we run, so that it makes sense in many levels. Many strands, you can keep un-twirling them. So, I wouldn’t use the word ‘self-censorship’ because it’s too convenient for the us-and-them, good-and-bad thinking. And it’s not like that.

Susie Lingham's presentation at ECH 2016. Image courtesy Experimenter Gallery.

Susie Lingham’s presentation at ECH 2016. Image courtesy Experimenter Gallery.

To write is to make

The dual identity of being an artist-writer makes it easier for Lingham to realise the importance of writing and how hard it is when one has no time because they are occupied by endless job duties. Artists and curators sometimes have to write art labels and condense the idea of an artwork into words on paper that can enhance audiences’ understanding. Lingham strongly advises fellow curators who have insufficient time to take the post-event publication of catalogues more seriously. Lingham shares:

For me, writing is an important part of my own practice as well. Writing for many reasons. And I tend of think about it when rethinking the word—how you spell the word ‘write.’ I spell it w-r-i-g-h-t, wright. So [it’s] like a shipwright. It’s a maker. A wright is a maker. So I see myself, I see words as things I make with.

Susie Lingham at ECH 2016. Image courtesy Experimenter Gallery.

Susie Lingham at ECH 2016. Image courtesy Experimenter Gallery.

Leading the Singapore Biennale

Appointed as the creative director for the upcoming Singapore Biennale, Lingham aims for the event opening in late-October this year to be one that has representation. Quoting names from her curatorial team, like Suman Gopinath from India and Xiang Liping from China, the director explains that the Biennale brings in prominent figures globally, and that curators and art practitioners with different cultural backgrounds gather to brainstorm under the scope of Southeast Asia rather than merely about their own countries.

Lingham adds that the weight of organising the Singapore Biennale is heavier than holding any other city biennale because it is attached to the whole country of Singapore and its reputation. She emphasises again on the importance of the selection of artists as necessary during the process of curating, but that such acts should not be considered as censorship.

Susanna Chen


Related Topics: Curatorial practice, curators, lectures and talks, censorship of artevents in Singapore, biennals, biennales, events in Kolkata

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By Brittney

Brittney is a writer, curator and contemporary art gallerist. Born in Singapore and based in New York City, Brittney maintains a deep interest in the contemporary art landscape of Southeast Asia. This is combined with an equally strong interest in contemporary art from the Asian diasporas, alongside the issues of identity, transmigration and global relations.

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