Islands: Reflections on my artist residency
Updated: Jul 23
Written by Residency Artist, Nathalie Dagmang
I first arrived in Singapore as a tourist with no knowledge of its art scene. My first impression was how “smart” and aestheticised the city of Singapore is because of its efficient transport system, manicured sidewalks and spectacular shows and man-made attractions. My residency with Artesan Gallery was designed for me to get a clear picture of the Singapore art scene and its culture in general outside the spectacles of tourism. I flew to Singapore on the 22nd of May in 2018 and, the day after, met with the director of Artesan Gallery, Roberta Dans, known by the artists she worked with as Bunny. The next four days were filled with meetings with artists and curators, which she scheduled for me. The last five days were left open for follow up meetings that might have come up.
We met Bala Starr of ICA LASALLE on the 24th of May, which happened to coincide with the Lasalle Graduate show. It was a brief yet fruitful meeting and an apt start to my Singapore itinerary. After introducing myself and my art practice, Bala retrieved several books from her office library, which she generously handed to me. She immediately knew what kind of art I would be interested in and which artists and art spaces I should look into during my residency. She introduced me to the works of artist and writer Shubigi Rao whose interests ranged from archeology and literature to neuroscience and natural history. Rao’s use of objects and methods of display akin to Archeology was very similar to how I presented my own work – as evidences of history and as cultural “texts”. Bala also gave me a book on the performance of Jesse Jones for Venice Biennale, whose methods of building her concept were similar to my methods of research. Bala then led me to contact Rao and to visit independent spaces such as Instinct Gallery and I_S_L_A_N_D_S.
I_S_L_A_N_D_S was a particularly interesting art space that utilised display glass boxes along the walls of a corridor passage leading to the Excelsior shopping centre. In their website, the founder uses unconventional terms to describe this quasi-art gallery: “hybrid social network”, bulletin and “transitory space for dialogue and exchange. ” Its aim was to shift the focus from the individual artist to the “flow of the tides” that is the network of relationships formed in the artspace. Situated in an old and modest shopping mall, the alternative artspace is likened by its founder to an island ecology, with its “increased speciation and biodiversity to islands, due to their isolation and high concentration of empty niches.” Many of the art spaces and initiatives that I visited, later on, fit well into this island metaphor.
One of the first art spaces I visited was the NTU-CCA Block in Gillman Barracks, a site developed by government agencies into exhibition and artist residency spaces. Much like I_S_L_A_N_D_S, the compound seemed isolated in an unexpected location quite far from the city center. The blocks were surrounded by lush greens and the nearest bus station was minutes away from the compound’s gate. Gillman Barracks was built as part of the government’s attempt to place Singapore as the cultural hub and arts destination in Southeast Asia. I arrived there in the evening, with most of the galleries and other establishments closed. I found this very odd as I imagined that their target audience was people who want to go to art spaces for leisure after work. Bunny mentioned that its tenants have always found it challenging to draw crowds.
On that day, I was able to catch the open studio of a local artist who talked about the intersection of colonialism and modernity, the “tropical imaginary” in visual arts and his film project produced as part of his artist residency. Partly because of the exhaustion from traveling, I was not able to follow most of the artist’s points. I kept staring blankly at his PowerPoint that showed images of the 1955 exhibition, Paintings by Singapore Artists in London, of postcards showing the lush greens of Singapore’s landscape and some sketches of mangrove forests, the context of which I completely missed. Two of the members of the audience threw questions at him that meant to clarify his arguments but both guests seemed to be unsatisfied with his answers.
On the 25th of May, I was scheduled to have coffee with another local artist who brought me to the opening of a new art gallery near Joo Chiat road. It was the home of a veteran Singaporean artist, the first floor of which was converted into an art space. Here, I was able to talk to other artists, both young and old, over some drinks and bee hoon. The paintings and sculptures were hung not too far apart, alternating with furniture that were still being used during the opening. Artists were going up and down the loft, bringing their food and bottles of Tiger beer. Some were touching the artworks, even lifting them to see the backs of the canvasses.
I went on an art hop for the rest of my free days. I went to the NUS Museum for a talk by Fyerool Darma and Kate Pocklington, mediated by Filipino Curator Sid Perez. I visited the Singapore Art Prize exhibition where I got the chance to personally see a work by Shubigi Rao. The works by said artists used archives, texts, and images and audio of narratives, as integral parts of their artworks. All these “islands” of art spaces and practices were different from the homogenous image of the Singapore art scene that I initially visualized.
I also made use of my free time to meet some Filipino artists living in Singapore. I asked them a question that had bugged me since the start of my residency: What is the character of Singapore’s art? “It’s the kind of art that you need a text to understand.” (non-verbatim) My first thought was, what makes an artwork really speak for itself? One of the Singapore-based Filipino artists, Elaine Navas told me the stories behind her paintings displayed in her living room, as well as those by some prominent visual artists back home with whom she went to college. Elaine’s works do speak for themselves. Her brushwork is expressive, which makes her very personal subjects come to life. The streaks of color barely mixing into one another and strewn across her canvas in different directions seem to make the flowers move on their own. She talked about one of her painting series titled Wallflowers, an expression of what she felt as a wallflower herself during a school dance, leaning on the walls as displays for men to choose from. Her concepts were very simple, yet relatable. With one sentence (or none at all) the viewer can easily connect with her subject. Another Singapore-based Filipino artist I encountered during my residency was Dengcoy Miel. He works as an executive artist at Singapore Straits Times. His best known works were political cartoons and caricatures. In his large paintings and sculptures, this style shows through. His works were equally expressive and appealing because of their frankness. As he flipped through his visual diaries, we talked about his experience as a Singapore-based artist trying to build his name in the Philippine art scene.
I ended my residency with the same question I had when I first arrived in Singapore: What is Singaporean art? I hastily concluded that there are two poles of contrasting approaches and styles. On one end is the spectacular, often large-scale and interactive, forms of art – be it in video form, installation, performances or even mural paintings. On the other end is what seems to be in the style of a sterile “laboratory” where you have to engage with the works intellectually. Otherwise, the displayed work would seem lifeless, confusing and somehow alienating if you choose not to (or if you cannot do so). The first one makes use of grand forms, while the latter deploys grand ideas. It was after much thought that I realized that these two categories might be too limiting and polarizing for the multifaceted art scene of Singapore. And this assumption is coming from my lack of knowledge in Singapore’s history and diverse art community.
It is on this note that I got to reflect on the limitations that I had set for myself before starting my residency in Singapore.
For one, I had the tendency to limit identities into simplistic definitions. My initial project proposal for this artist residency required a thorough investigation of the experiences of Filipinos working in Singapore as domestic workers, in order to build on what I had done during my first residency awarded by the Ateneo Art Gallery in Liverpool Hope University. For my residency in Artesan, I envisioned photographic and video installations that would serve as a straightforward exposition of the narratives that I planned to gather from domestic workers. This topic and execution seemed to be the logical direction for my new project. It seemed easier to work on this topic and deepen what I have already started on. It felt like something I needed to do.
One of Bunny’s initial questions was: why not include Filipinos who are also working here successfully as professionals and not just domestic workers? A similarly striking question also came from curators from the National Gallery who a colleague recommended that I meet during my visit. They were working on a curatorial project that would involve migrant workers and wanted to get some advice on how to go about it and if there are artists from the migrant workers' community I can recommend for their program. They asked, “why are you working on the topic of domestic workers? Do you have relatives who are working as OFWs?” I had three close relatives who work abroad, but none of them actually endured abuse from their employers while only one of them is a domestic worker. But limiting the image of Filipinos working abroad seemed like an easy way out. Because I knew that I wanted to extend my research on how research methods in anthropology can be applied in art, I had the urge to choose a subject that I knew had experiences of “suffering.” This urge to select experiences that can easily highlight the subject’s otherness has long been questioned in the field of Anthropology, a field where I am currently taking my postgraduate studies.
Second, I limited myself to how I was supposed to use the language of art. The execution that I had in mind was so sterile that I had to rely on the pain of my subject in order to move and affect my audience. I saw art as a mere presentation of data, similar to its conventional use in the field of Anthropology and the social sciences in general. I was conscious of my research methods and religiously applied methods of ethnography such as interviews and participant observation. I ignored the fact that working with materials and creative work is a theory and form of research in itself, and that the act of art-making is already a form of participation and observation. I had limited myself to making art as a mere outgrowth/by-product of research and doing research as a pre-condition to art. In this framework, I isolated myself in the studio/library, completely detached from my audience and community. I completely omitted the possibility that as an artist, my research would only progress with the act of art-making, as the UK-based anthropologist Tim Ingold explains through his concept of thinking-through-making. I limited myself by imposing the binary of idea and form, and treating its productions as two separate spheres, one always happening after the other.
Once I had forgone these limitations that I set for myself, I became aware of the overflowing abundance that the Singapore art scene can offer.
From one perspective, we can look at its abundance of infrastructures – of art grants, institutions, knowledge, artworks of massive scale, shows and performances – a kind of abundance that local artists long for in my home country. I knew that I was lucky to be provided opportunities to access these resources. But from another perspective, not all Singaporeans, the viewing public, benefit from it nor do all artists rely on these resources to fuel their projects despite the programs’ productivity and efficiency.
As artist-activists Jennifer Teo and Woon Tien Wei, founders of the curatorial team, Post-Museum, told me, the Singapore public highly values efficiency and intelligence in their leaders. This reflects in the efficiency of Singapore as a “smart” city and, in my observation, in its highly productive art community, some works of which are quite intellectually taxing. But in order to maintain their autonomy amidst state censorship, they had to deal with the challenges of sustaining their practices through private funding. Their works may be highly conceptual and research-based but, unlike others that work with the same methods, are still warm and engaging. Their works include the Archive of Future Commons, a library of books that can be used to rebuild the future, Singapore Really Really Free Market, a pop-up market based on an “alternative gift economy,” and a Soup Kitchen Project. After our lunch meeting, they brought me to the kitchen where they prepare the bee hoon that they will be distributing to the residents of a housing block in Lavender street as part of their Soup Kitchen Project. We knocked at the doors of each resident who signed up for the free bee hoon. Most of the recipients were the unemployed and the abandoned elderly. Here, I saw an image of the locals of Singapore that I had not imagined before coming here.
Moving away from the monumental ideologies of the state, Post-Museum chooses to focus on things that are close by, on what is happening on the ground. Their itinerant status allows them to work with different communities where there is an urgent necessity to engage. In an interview for the website www.on-curating.org, they said, “… We are not trying to establish an art “centre” but a peer-to-peer network… adopting a nomadic strategy is a way (for us) to see the city-state as a site to operate and at the same time as a place which needs to be practised.” In their works, the site is not treated as a space merely for displaying ideas but also for practicing the city’s aesthetic based on empathy and hope (as articulated by Berger in his seminal essay, White Bird), rather than one that is based on efficiency and spectacle.
From my interaction with art practitioners during the course of my residency, I found another side to the abundance of Singapore that can be seen at the peripheries and in-betweens of its art scene – coming from pockets of experimentation within independent platforms such as I_S_L_A_N_D_S and the quiet gestures of the Post-Museum. These “islands” built their own bridges to foster engagement with the public when other institutions are not able to give them assistance without strings attached.
I am writing this report more than a year after my residency. A lot of opportunities had come up because of the two residencies I received as part of the Ateneo Art Awards. As of writing, I plan to go back to Singapore in 2021 for another project with Filipino migrant workers and academics at Yale-NUS. This time, I am more open to exploring the abundance that Singapore has to offer.