Tuesday, November 21, 2006

The Fifth Column

Actually, this is my first column with Today newspaper. I just felt a vague sense of betrayal at times, criticising my own friends, who really did work pretty hard on getting info out (the Exhibition Site Officers were quite well-informed, the signboards were often helpful, us tour guides were around,they had walk-the-talk for some events, etc).

Anyway, this was printed in Today Newspaper on Wed, Nov 21, 2006, p44. Substation Artistic Director Lee Weng Choy had the following to say about it:

1) a number of factual errors in your piece, including the
designation of Low Kee Hong as Artistic Director -- he's General
Manager; Fumio Nanjo is the AD.

62 I don't know how your being a guide makes you a work of art (at
least it's not clear in the way you describe your role as a guide).
And your contention that the biennale was loved by all international
experts sounds as reliable as Donald Rumsfeld's claim that Iraq had
WMD ... (or it seems to didn't meet and talk to the people that I did).


So, in Weng Choy's eyes, I'm Rumsfeld. Quel horreur.

Here's the original text, btw, which includes the snide comment at the IMF Conference.

The Biennale Talk
s Back

An insider's review by Ng Yi-Sheng

For two and a half months, I was an artwork with the Singapore Biennale.

I'm not kidding. I was part of a project by the artist Luchezar Boyadjiev, who trained us volunteers as tour guides, giving visitors a behind-the-scenes glimpse into the art world. I got to talk about Rizman Putra's changing hairstyles and Santiago Cucullu's habit of stealing aeroplane blankets - little details that helped guests get inside the strange, brilliant minds of artists.

Now the whole shebang's over, and it's safe to say it was a critical success: I had the chance to meet jet-setting critics who'd been to every biennale from Marrakesh to Manhattan, and they were usually impressed by the art (regardless of their views of our IMF conference). It's partly thanks to the risks the curators took in displaying daring works on religion and politics - a big step forward for censor-happy Singapore.

So hooray, we won over the experts. But what about everyone else?

As a guide, I don't think we communicated enough. I met plenty of people on my tours who'd never been to a gallery before. Without guides, they were pretty lost; they said the signboards (put up late) and guidebooks ($10) didn't always give clear introductions to the work. If explanations were available, they were willing to listen; to appreciate the ideas behind the crazy displays.

Artistic director Low Kee Hong has said the next Biennale will focus on education. But communication isn't just his problem. Media coverage of the Biennale events was often heartbreakingly superficial.

Yes, some good articles were published about the opening and featured local artists. But no-one tried to interview foreign artists after they'd left Singapore - an easy matter in this age of e-mail and IDD. Instead, generous proportions of adspace and airtime were wasted on dumbing down the show - one paper kept issuing ah beng impressions of the artworks that told readers, "You won't understand this, but come anyway!"

Contemporary art is a joke, but it's the kind of joke that gets better when explained. My real ah beng friends laughed when I told them why the Orchard Road trees were covered with polka-dots: the clinically insane artist Yayoi Kusama hallucinates these patterns, but instead of taking medication, she makes art, so the world can see the polka-dotted walls of her mind.

The Biennale team's more experienced now, but they've a monster reputation to live up to, and without the buzz of S2006, the next event might not get as big a budget. So don't hold your breath for two years - try visiting the other contemporary art spaces in Singapore. Our cutting-edge artists are working smaller shows at the Substation, 72-13 and the Little India Arts Belt, with events publicised on lesser-known portals like the excellent Farm.sg.

Ultimately, the Biennale's just part of a wider arts community that doesn't have as much funding, but still tries to speak to the general public. Congrats to my friends at the Biennale, and thanks for the T-shirt. Sure, I'll miss being a work of art, but it also means I get to be human again. Eventually, everyone has to leave the museum.

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