25 March 2011
Save Singapore Art History by Visiting an Exhibition 参观艺术展览--救救我们的新加坡美术史
We RAT on Koh Nguang How and his newspaper collection!
Posted at 10:40 am under Singapore,Uncategorized
(Photo courtesy of SB2011)
Artists In The News, Koh Nguang How’s work for the Singapore Biennale, is an explosion of newspapers, of words and images, of facts and opinions. It’s, as everyone knows by now, three decades worth of art reportage (mainly visual arts) in the English and Chinese newspapers.
It is a kind of spectacle in itself. You feel a sense of awe stepping inside the space at SAM 8Q and being confronted by that much material. The ubiquity of newspapers is heightened and concentrated into sheer visual force.
But of course, that’s only part of it. It is also a quiet, unassuming work. One that urges you to linger. And then you notice just how well your experience is framed – on one side, the archivist’s “office”, the other, a newspaper report on Tang Da Wu’s Earthworks, an installation at the National Museum Art Gallery in 1980 that was prematurely taken down because the museum director had some issues with the contemporary work. Between these two points, an entire, free-flowing discussion on Singapore’s contemporary art scene occurs within this place where time and space are compressed.
Standing in the middle of this maelstrom of words is Koh as performer, witness, and guide.
Last week we had a chat with the 47-year-old curator/artist/archivist. Read on.
How do you feel looking at your archive exhibition and seeing the reactions of people?
Of course I’m quite surprised too to see so many news (reports) up on the wall. They are not like that in my flat. The audience keeps asking me if I have them all pinned up in my house. The Biennale allowed me the opportunity to spread them out and group them physically, instead of just in the computer or in my head.
And of course, so many news don’t make it to the wall. It’s not practical or possible. Some artists ask me how come I don’t put up the news about them. Of course I just laugh.
I have my own criteria, and it’s quite random, too. A piece of news comes up, and then the next piece, which is related, goes up next to it. A third one, if it’s not related, goes to another wall. In the end, I have several groupings. The audience would see the relationship if they look at the news next to one another. I don’t have to put captions here and there.
Audience-wise, it’s from art students to old artists who I’ve not met for many years since I left the museum. They all remember me as a museum staff. But it’s good to see them again. Students are very important for me. One of the purposes of having this archive is also learning and sharing, especially since I’m from the privileged background of having worked for a museum doing art archiving. Not many materials are available to the schools.
Is there a kind of catharsis?
I’m happy that it’s like a real archive – and I’m the unpaid archivist. There’s a lot of satisfaction talking about the past with old artists and the young ones who are getting into the art world and telling them there’s a lot of things in the news that they can rely on.
So do you trust the news?
No. I don’t trust them completely. I notice mistakes made in names, dates, misquotes – I personally sometimes avoid certain journalists whom I do not trust or have proven to be not a reliable writer.
But then, ironically, the fact that you’re putting all these up on display on the walls – it’s a kind of stamp of approval in a way.
Well the title is Artists In The News, but I’ve added another line, which is Artists Not In The News? I try to balance the so-called imperfections. Journalists have also admitted that the press cannot cover every event that happens.
And yet, I noticed, you see the certain artists appearing once or twice…?
I have consciously removed or reduced – if one particular artist has 10 articles, I don’t put the 10 articles up. I just choose one, which I think is important that the public sees. Not how a certain artist wins an award but maybe like how he started or things like that.
In a way you’re also “editing” Singapore’s art history.
Yah, I’m like an editor. I have the privilege of selecting what goes up on the wall, can make some people even more famous. That’s what the press does sometimes. This is an exhibition, actually of the press, how they report, how they write, how they photograph even.
Has much changed?
Of course, through the years there have been so many different writers and actually I wanted to list out all the writers on my blackboard but I ran out of space so I erased all the names. Instead of listing the names of the artists, I had wanted to list the names of the writers. Through the years, some were very important, like TK Sabapathy, T Sasitharan, Susie Wong.
Has the press’ attitudes toward art changed through the years?
The popular type of question is Is It Art? It’s still the same. Of course if it’s the same editor, you get to see the same headlines. But maybe, during the last decade or so, (you saw) less controversial headlines appear about “crimes” committed by artists or artists in trouble with the arts council or the police. Previously if you go back to the `50s, `60s, `70s, artists were arrested. In the `80s, `90s, maybe it’s nudity or even urine. (laughs) Of course gay artists come out and have exhibitions and they’re reported in the media too. This was only in the `90s.
Do you now find that the fact that there’s less of that kind of controversial writing is a sign that local media has finally “got it” or understood?
Well, if you look at the change in the media, the people in the media, they’re probably younger too? Well, the older ones are probably retired already. And of course the level of understanding of art internationally. When Singapore gets into the international art arena and sends artists to international art events isn’t it that we have to be more open? And when you invite artists here for your own Biennale, shouldn’t you also not try to censor? That much? (laughs)
Any other observations?
It would seem like we don’t have to wait for one article per week, which used to be the way. Now you may get two, three articles. Like the Chinese papers sometimes have four articles in one day. They’ve increased the coverage.
Your show is very “analogue”. But you’re also on Facebook. There has been much talk about the future of the physical newspaper. What are your thoughts on new and online media? There’s a bit of irony there that here you are with three decades worth of print – and counting — and art writing has exploded online.
Firstly, on my Facebook account, when the show officially opened, I only posted a photo of the entrance, the sign board. I never showed the inside. I want people to come and experience this.
Can we rewind a bit and give us a mini-refresher course on your ongoing Singapore Art Archive Project and its connection to Artists In The News?
This selection of newspapers for the Biennale is part of my SAAP, which of course is part of my collection since 30 years ago. Besides newspapers, I have art catalogues, books, posters, relics, objects found in exhibitions. Here in the show I have three relics. I also have photographs that document mostly performance art and installation events for arts festivals, I also do some audio recordings of artists interviews.
Are they here?
No. That will be for the full SAAP collection for maybe four times this space. I did Errata (Errata: Page 71, Plate 47. Image caption. Change Year: 1950 to Year: 1959; Reported September 2004 by Koh Nguang How) in p-10. That was only catalogues and books.
In the Chinese coverage it was mentioned that I did that six years ago, and this is the so-called “part two” with newspapers. What’s the “errata” this time around? Tang Da Wu’s Earthworks.
It’s not a print mistake but a mistake in (not) acknowledging it as art. It has to be put back in history as art. That was a work that was not accepted 30 years ago by the museum director. After 30 years, we have gone through all these new art policies, promotions, artists emerging and dying, 30 years of art news – and we go back to Da Wu’s work again. Is his work still valid or not valid in today’s mindset about contemporary art?
And this “office” of yours in this space –
It is to me a real archive. I’m the manager, the archivist, the designer. I allow the audience to come in and if they have a request or question, I will try to solve it. Some audience don’t read Chinese. So for example I have a Chinese article of (Ng) Eng Teng, that person can’t identify it easily. Then I’ll point it out to him or her.
At the same time, there’s a performative element to what you’re doing.
Yeah, well, it’s live art for two months. (laughs) The audience and me will create the energy, but it’s only seen by the camera – the surveillance camera (he points to CCTV camera in the room)
Were you conscious of that?
I don’t care.
I mean it’s also another kind of “survey”. Literally a surveillance of the art history within this space. So anyway, to clarify, the idea of archiving reports on art started 30 years ago?
I was doing art as a subject in JC, but I was in the commerce stream. Every student did art until at least secondary 2. And art was something I liked but I didn’t do O Level art. Then I flunked my commerce in so I had to repeat. Somehow I knew I could do art as a subject as an alternative to maybe accountancy.
Which is the opposite of what people thought back then.
So I was given a test by my teacher because she wanted to make sure we can pass. Because my college had a 100 per cent passing rate in art and she didn’t want create history by failing art. (laughs) So anyway I got to do art and I was happy doing it. But it’s very simple and it was all skill-based — nowadays people have to do art history.
And then after my A-level art and the army, I joind the National Museum Art Gallery as a museum assistant. I helped the curator and assistant curator of art. In my job, I met artists like Tang Da Wu in 1986 – he was invited to give a talk on contemporary art. I was helping him with his slides, the lighting, and listened to his lecture. Later I went to the museum’s newspaper clippings and found Earthworks.
So your encounter of Earthworks is very much like how we encounter the works reported about here in this space.
Correct, only news clippings. Later, when I knew him personally, he told me the story behind Earthworks and the problem that he faced, that the show was prematurely terminated.
In a sense you’re one of us and not coming from a position higher than your audience.
Yes, I imagine this is the future, that’s why I don’t have much captions or clues regarding this important news. (In a sense) this is the future, I am the future, you are the future audience or user of the newspapers. There is no Da Wu around to tell us, only newspapers.
So when did you start the collection?
1980 as a student, without thinking of whether I would work for the museum or not. If you do essay writing, you probably have got to have some clippings. Even more if you’re an art student.
But you don’t just collect clippings, you collect entire newspapers.
No, I used to clip. I used to cut. But, as I said in Facebook, I cannot cut straight, which is quite true. Because I didn’t have a proper cutter or cutting mat. And then later, when I started to provide things for people, I realised there were no dates (in my clippings). This was in the `90s when I became an artist and started providing things for writers and museums.
So there are stacks of your clippings somewhere?
Yes, but I never put my cuttings in scrapbooks. Some of them are in boxes, some are in my house. I chose not to show too many old clippings here, because it’s hard to handle irregular shapes.
At what point did you realize you had an archive going on?
When I started to help the Fukuoka Asian Art Museum in `96. I was invited to be a coordinator for an exhibition called The Birth Of Modern Art In Southeast Asia: Artists and Movements. That job allowed me to meet artists whom I’d never met during my museum work. I was also providing biodatas of artists – and I realised I didn’t have enough. Not even enough to conclude whether the artist is alive or dead! (laughs)
But that’s a full 16 years between 1980 and 1996. You mean for that long you weren’t conscious of an archive?
No, when I was in the museum, I got to read the clippings done by the librarian anyway. I was still collecting.
Is there no gap at all in your collection?
I try to ask my mother or father to buy (when I’m not around). Those six months in Japan for example, she continued to buy newspapers for me. So as long they continued to buy – because I stopped subscribing even though I still buy in the mornings – that when I return home I would go through the pile. Of course it’s not as good as reading them every day.
Weren’t you tempted to sell them to the karang guni?
At times yes, the classifieds. (laugsh) That’s the first thing I would sacrifice. But I still have some classifieds. Especially the Chinese ones. Obituaries are with the classifieds in the Chinese newspapers. English papers, classifieds are purely classifieds. If I do throw away, it’s the Straits Times classifieds.
And the ones that are featured in this exhibition?
From section two or three. If it’s section 1, it depends on whether art makes it to the front page, for example art policies or art “crimes”.
Do you consider yourself an artist or an archivist?
I am an artist. I use photography, I do mixed media collage, normally with my own photographs. I do installation, mostly site-specific installation, in the Substation Garden, in the gallery…
My practice for residencies is archiving for two or three months, to use the material for my installation. Then later, when I did Errata, that’s using art history material for my installation. It’s a two-in-one thing. It’s functional art.
Prior to this, the last solo show you had was Errata?
Yes. But of course I had The Artist Village show, the Drawing (as Form) show (in 2009), where I showed 200 over photographs.
I had wanted to show my photos of performance art at Substation once but I didn’t propose. If I have the chance, the next show will be photography from my collection. My documentation of art work.
The first one was catalogues and books, this one is newspapers. I hope to show the three components of my archive.
I actually wanted to do three shows with p-10 – first was Errata, the second on relics or objects and the third one one photography. But only one was realised.
You mentioned before that the fate of this newspaper archive is uncertain, that you’re thinking of letting it go and that no one seems to be interested in acquiring it.
Uhm, I don’t know. So far there’s no real offer to help me extend the life of this archive, to host it after the Biennale. But definitely the audiences have been saying that it’s something very useful for their studies, for their research. They would like to have such a place.
It’s interesting that in the Biennale context, it’s a work of art. But the reactions of audiences are based on its potential as source of very specific information. Of data.
Of course this is presented as an artwork, but I’m also the archivist in the artwork. So I have two roles. The artist has done the work already, now I’m the archivist. I’m performing the role of the archivist now. Towards the end of the Biennale, the artist will pack up.
Some institution was actually working with me to host it but now they have stopped. They withdrew acknowledgement credits in the Biennale. Now I was told that they will only spend for the carton boxes, no digitization, no further loan for five years… So I mentioned on my Facebook that I would throw them (the archive) because I’ve lost faith, I’ve lost hope.
Which is rather painful because in a way, this is three decades of you having hope.
Yah, and also in a way I’m continuing the hope of the artists before me. In fact there are more than 30 years (worth of art reporting). I say 30 years because as a story I can start from my Junior College years. But I have in my collection, newspapers from the `50s, `60s, `70s — they are from the older collectors and the artists. More than 70 years worth of Singapore art history.
And then, you’re very much aware that even as you collect, in two months time there’s the possibility of the archive disappearing. It’s a very sadomasochistic performance.
In a way, I look at this collection, the people who come, the story behind these newspapers, the history behind, I believe, whoever makes the choice of not supporting this project will regret it. This is our history, our heritage. I personally feel that they’re all with me – the artists who have already passed away, the artists who are no more in the news, they are on my side.
PS, I sent the transcript to Koh to verify his responses and, meticulous as ever, he elaborated on the Errata exhibition:
Errata went to NUS and Singapore History Museum after p-10. The finale at SHM had artist Chua MT and the author Kwok KC confirming the date of errata was 1959 in a forum. What a perfect situation and ending for Errata!
3 versions of Errata:
2004 ERRATA: Page 71, Plate 47. Image caption. Change Year: 1950 to Year: 1959;
Reported September 2004 by Koh Nguang How, p-10, Singapore
2005 Errata at NUS: Exploring Singapore Art History, a new version of the ERRATA show in 2004, co-organised by p1-0 & University Scholars Programme, National University of Singapore, at NUS Central Library. (2 to 16 March)
(The show is accompanied by a series of presentations and workshops)
2005 Errata: Page 71, Plate 47. Image caption. Change Year: 1950 to Year: 1959;
Reported September 2004 by Koh Nguang How
Presented by the Singapore History Museum and Curated by p-10 (15 Aug – 25 Sep)
Like I said in the papers previously, best work at this Biennale.
Tags: art reportage, Earthworks, Errata, Koh Nguang How, Singapore art, Singapore Biennale, Susie Wong, T Sasitharan, Tang Da Wu, TK Sabapathy