Our feature on Singapore Tyler Print Institute director Emi Eu came out today. But again, there was much more to share, so here’s our unadulterated Q&A transcript. Enjoy!
Perhaps we can start at the beginning – how did you get into art?
My parents are Korean. My mother (Chung Young Yang) is a very renowned scholar in textiles and an embroider herself. For her PhD dissertation in NYU, her book became the only English language historical reference to the textiles of Japan, Korea and China, of court robes. She studies the patterns and symbolism, and she knows about the fabric. She had an amazing collection which she donated to this university in Korea. So there’s a museum named after her.
But she recently established a private foundation (Seol Won Foundation) to promote, nurture and revive all forms of Korean art, including embroidery. It was launched in New York in March and in Korea last week. She’s really a remarkable person.
I grew up surrounded by all these robes and drapes. She prompted me to do an internship at the Metropolitan Museum as a high school student, which at that time was very competitive. I was very lucky. She used to give lectures (there). Her work is there as well. She made new ways of embroidering stuff, from the traditional way.
I did my first internship there and I still remember, at that time, they had a Monet show. So I started looking at the artworks then.
So it was by osmosis? You could have very well gone into to fashion design…
(laughs) I’m not fashionable at all! My mom also did some pattern designs for fabrics when she was in school and did a degree at Parsons. She’s very artistic. But I think I was more inclined to music more than art in the beginning. I played classical piano. All I had was classical music. I really didn’t know very much about pop music—the only people I know, really, are Michael Jackson or Madonna. Like, you know, really popular. It’s okay what!
When I think back and look at my children, and see people who end up in the arts field, whether it be music or visual art or performing arts, you can tell who is really inclined. I guess I was meant to be in the arts, but somehow it became the visual arts.
I really loved playing the piano. I could spend hours just practicing. I loved to listen and just play. My mom was also a very good oil painter, and she kind of forced me to do some stuff, which I didn’t really like. (smiles)
But after I had gone to college—I took up a business degree at Boston University—she really gave me a unique opportunity to go to Venice on a holiday. I ended up working for this gallery, Contini Gallery. (The owner’s) now the exclusive dealer of Botero. I slowly became the gallery director. I was there for four years.
I started going to art fairs since I was 21. I’ve been going to Art Basel since 1991. And I remember, when Jay Jopling was showing Damien Hirst, I just thought, “What is that?”
I was much more familiar with the (works on the) first floor (of the fair). It was always modern art. When I went to the second floor, I was like, “Is this art?”
I remember different structures, it could have been Tracey Emin or anybody else. I was so young I didn’t understand anything. And I was in Italy and it was much more conservative.
I saw so many Piero Manzoni paintings, the assemblages, so many (Lucio) Fontanas. But I didn’t know any art. I was just starting out.
But it sounds so cool. Like, “Oh, I think I fancy a bit of art. I think I’ll just head to the Venice Biennale down the street.”
No, it’s still far! Anyway, I decided I must learn French because a lot of people from Paris have homes in Venice. And quite a lot of our clients were French. So I enrolled myself in Sorbonne to the Language and Civilization diploma course. I stayed in Paris for two years to learn French. While I was there I was kind of floating around and didn’t work for any gallery.
But I got offered a job in Singapore. (Dale) Chihuly was doing his installation for the Ritz Carlton. He had met my parents through a mutual friend in New York and in the course of their conversation, my mother mentioned that I did this type of work. They called me and asked if I wanted to go to Singapore and man their gallery for six months. I said I’ll go for three weeks, so I came to Singapore in 1996.
I didn’t even know where Singapore was on the map! I’ve known my (future) in-laws since I was young, and that’s why I knew that Singapore was a country. (laughs) But I had never been to a tropical country, having lived in the Western hemisphere for so long. When I got out to all these hawker centres and saw all these Asian people, I just had a culture shock. And then it was hot. (laughs)
I went to SAM, which had just opened then. For me, coming from America and Europe, I thought the place was cultural barren. I was 24 or 25 then.
Ouch. So what was your first encounter with prints?
I went to New York and did my Masters for two years—and for my second internship, I wanted to know what it’s like to be a curator. So I applied for the position at MOMA’s Paintings and Sculptures Department. I got it, but the curator at that time didn’t have time for me and told me to try out at the Prints and Illustrated Books department. So I was, like, sure I’ll go. (laughs) So there it is! I was there doing the cataloguing stuff and just helping them out in the office.
Did you have an affinity for prints back then?
It wasn’t fireworks. Just like the majority of people, you just think print is boring. But once you get to understand it and appreciate it, you (realise) it takes a lot more than just painting or drawing. It’s more difficult. So when I was given a chance to join (STPI), I really jumped on it.
Of course, Tyler was the name that really attracted me most. He’s such an important figure in American art history. I really jumped on it. He was involved very, very much. He oversaw the construction fo this place, he designed this place, after which he was training people. He wrote strategies after strategies to get this place going.
Tyler really believed that in order for us to attract artists from abroad, we have to provide something that nobody else has, which is a one-stop shop. We have an apartment, the workshop, the gallery…
And he left after three months. What happened?
We were very far away from any of the decisions at senior management. It was all happening upstairs. From my observation, what happened was, the vision was the same, but the means to get there were different. They just couldn’t agree.
At first it was quite panicky. We didn’t know what to do. He had actually worked on our first residency programme with Donald Sultan, so we had all these works. And we had a beautiful show by Frank Stella – our first exhibition. But of course, everybody had to take a step back.
After Frank Stella, I organised a show from the Tyler archive, because we didn’t have any work. At the same time, in the workshop, we brought in Chua Ek Kay.
STPI got a lot of flak in the early years for the amount of money being poured into it, its affiliation with a Western brand and the fact that it focused on a “lesser” medium. Thoughts?
It’s not unnatural for people to have an aversion to print because a lot of people do think that prints are reproductions and are much inferior to paintings. And therefore they’re not really drawn to it. And for the government to have spent so much money on this, people I think had a lot of difficulty understanding it at that time.
People didn’t know what was gonna happen. And from my perception and observation, (the idea was) this was government wasting money – who wants prints? But in the meantime, the board, with Mr. Liu (Thai Ker) as chairman, worked really hard to figure out how to really make this happen.
Without him, STPI would not be here because nobody foresaw it. Who would buy, in 1996, S$15million of just pure equipment and stock and no guarantee of expertise because Ken Tyler was on contract basis.
The Singapore government will never put one single cent into something that they don’t know will have a definite outcome. Liu Thai Ker brought it to the cabinet and got an approval. And I’m sure he also got quite a lot of flak when Tyler left but he believed that this was something that Singapore can use. `Cos nobody else had it.
Would you say that it was initially a kind of outpost for Ken Tyler?
No. Basically, Ken Tyler was reaching this age where he had a workshop that had everything except the gallery. He had a beautiful studio, Tyler Graphics, he had a showing room, but his dream was to really leave a legacy. He had one daughter who wasn’t interested in any of this. And because he was very well-known, he used to travel to this part of Asia. He met Brother McNally who was so passionate about art and really wanted Tyler Graphics to be part of LASALLE College. But somehow, things weren’t developed. Then NHB was formed and this was the plan.
When did things calm down?
The first two years were really rocky and I think things started to really form when Irene (Lee) came in 2004. I kept asking Mr Liu to ask Irene. She was with Christie’s then, the one who set up their office in Singapore.
I didn’t know her very well but I knew she could work us in all our best areas to make this work. The weak link, I think, was we didn’t have someone sitting in the position with a vision and direction. We didn’t have a leader. She came in as director and she really put us right. She worked with us for 4 years until 2008, on every single corner of this operation.
She’s really an amazing mentor for me. I was a not-for-profit person and she changed me tremendously. I’ll still never be a businesswoman but I would like to think that I’m one for STPI because I know my product, my resources and what we can offer.
What would you consider as milestones in STPI?
I was able to do the Asia Society Portfolio and from there we were later able to work with Lin Tianmiao. She didn’t know who we were but because we engaged with Melissa Chiu, the director of Asia Society Museum, she came in and thought it was an interesting idea. The milestone was the four MOMA-acquired works. Even before the opening of her show, MOMA curators came down and picked the works.
Before that, Ashley Bickerton did an amazing project. His gallery, Lehmann Maupin, brought his works to the Armory Show in 2006. The work that was made here was on the cover of The New York Times.
It gave such an encouraging to the workshop and to us because when we choose to work with an artist, we don’t how it’s going to go. But when you get a public validation like that, it could only encourage us to trust our instincts.
The STPI has always had a strong international flavor. Were there criticisms about how you engaged the local arts community?
Ken Tyler thought that in order to expedite our reputation—and he was banking on his past experiences—it was much easier for him to bring artists he’s worked with already. So they were all Western artists. But his departure was a blessing in disguise. Yes, it took a bit of time, but it actually created a new market for works (from the region) that are made in an institution like this, to be able to market it to collectors around the world.
It was inevitable that we would get some sort of negative comment – the fact that STPI is a Singapore institution and getting government subsidy and why it isn’t doing more for artists.
Our pool is small. But we do make sure we had at least one artist a year and that’s why we are actually focusing on our time and effort to cultivating the market for the young artists we believe and that’s why we’re bringing them to the fairs.
Speaking of fairs, STPI has been very active on that front internationally. How did this come about?
Irene and I were in Lin Tianmiao’s studio in Beijing once and here comes this big Swiss guy. It was Pierre Huber. He had a legendary gallery called Art & Public in Geneva and worked with Maurizio Cattelan, Subodh Gupta before anybody else.
He was starting this SH Contemporary (in 2007) in Shanghai with Lorenzo Rudolf and he told us, “You gotta come, you’re the best in Singapore.” Irene looked at me and (whispers) “He’s a big guy!”
It was our first time ever. Instead of spending money to do ads in magazines, we used that to go to an art fair and see if we could sell stuff. And we did. We asked Tianmiao for some of her canvas works and we sold two.
We did SH Contemporary for two years in a row, and then we participated in Art Hong Kong when they started. We put in our name and (fair director) Magnus (Renfrew) said, “Oh you know the committee members aren’t really convinced of your proposal.” So we redid the application, we proposed Ghada Amer and Reza Farkhondeh—and everyone remembers us having the best booth.
Our goal has always been to do one in Asia, one in America and one in Europe. Singapore doesn’t count because it’s our home turf so it’s a given that we support.
We’ve always been trying to go to Art Basel and always get rejected. We got a waitlist letter for our first application and we were like, “Yeah!” – but of course it meant nothing.
We’ve also been applying for the Armory Show (in New York) and we got in this March. We brought our Teresita Fernandez, whose works resonates very strongly in America and of course we brought Heman (Chong)’s works as well, because he was also based there.
Besides the fact that we did make good sales and had really good exposure, I strongly believe that STPI’s presence in these places will contribute to rebranding the image of Singapore. Because so many people came and said all kinds of things—and mainly it was, “Wow, you guys are from Singapore.” And a few Singaporeans living in New York came to look out for us because they saw the gallery name.
I can talk to people until the cows come home about how wonderful our place is, how great the works are, but all you have to do is to show. That’s really one of the biggest reasons why we decided to go to the art fairs. We need to show the world and build our reputation as a place that actually does good work.
The day we get into Art Basel is a confirmation of our quality and professional work. It’s not about going there to sell but having made it.
Of course this comes at a time when it seems like Singapore’s participation at an international art event—specifically the Venice Biennale—is apparently being reconsidered.
Well, I really think that whatever we do outside, whether Venice Biennale or the art fairs, we must be very knowledgeable about the turf where you’re presenting. You must make a connection with that place and yet have the Singapore-ness. If you don’t achieve that, it doesn’t do anything.
There’s so many ways to do that and in art, it has to be the type of art that fits into a bigger context. So whenever we go to an art fair, we always think about what we’re bringing that can give us the benefits we’d like to have—because although it’s a big component, it’s not only sales. What are we gonna get by doing this?
This somewhat aggressive art fair tactics has been criticised in some circles for being a bit too much – that you’re functioning as any private gallery would. Any thoughts?
Selling was always part of the deal from the very beginning but nobody ever talked about art fairs at that time. But the question I guess, was for a not-for-profit (institution) going to an art fair.
But because the mandate was that the government was going to give us a grant for a certain number of years, (after which) we’re supposed to find our way to be on our own. And because such nature of works on paper is that it will never be able to achieve that kind of price range as canvas or sculptures, we do so many other things and we’ve become entrepreneurial in finding other ways to make money.
But we don’t compromise on the quality of work that we do. We are very careful in the projects that we take.
So what kind of animal is STPI?
It’s a fantastic animal. (laughs) It’s all in one. Where can you have something like this? Because we’re here, there’s a diversity—we have museums, galleries and this. We just filled that gap nicely. Artists come and create, and these are the ones shaping the path of contemporary art now. It’s coming hot off the press and we’re showing it.
But we’re also doing our education exhibition, like our annual show. It’s such a treasure trove. I don’t want to brag too much but even if I wasn’t here, I really believe this place is very unique.
The gallery functions as a private gallery because we need to promote the works that come out of the workshop. We must embrace the practices of other galleries to compete on that level, otherwise we’ll be left behind.
Back to you and printmaking. Have you actually tried making prints?
When I was doing my internship at the Metropolitan Museum of Art as a high school student, we went to visit the ULAE (Universal Limited Art Editions), the place where Jasper Johns did most of his printmaking. I remember something about the litho stone—and how I didn’t understand a thing. It was so complicated.
I tried to make paper here (in STPI), it was horrible. I confess I haven’t done direct printing but I went close to it. And when I organised the very first show after Ken Tyler’s departure, I studied a lot. So I have a head knowledge, I just don’t have practice.
What goes on in your head when you see artists at work?
Well, that’s the thing. I never wanted these artists to make prints—from day one.
Excuse me? Are we talking about Singapore Tyler Print Institute here?
I never ever wanted them to do prints. This is a place to make something unique using print and paper techniques that we have. Well, yes, you can make a lithograph screenprint etching but after you’ve done the other thing. Show me something else.
Even with Chua Ek Kay—he didn’t do prints but he actually did pulp paintings. And we’re like, this is the way to go. Ashley (Bickerton) did something else using printmaking technology. This is more exciting. I can’t compete with ULAE, Paragon Press, Gemini, Pace Prints – they’re accessible to all those artists and so much nearer. If they’re gonna come here, they’ve got to do something different and there’s got to be something else we can entice the artist with.
Back then, what was the typical reaction of most artists when you invite them to come to STPI?
It was very hard! In the beginning, nobody knew who we were. Ashley really helped a lot. Tianmiao helped a lot. Artists were talking to other artists. Cultivating relationships with their galleries helps a lot.
In `08 or `07, Irene and I were in Beijing and thinking we must Zhang Xiaogang. So I called my contacts to arrange a meeting with him. He could come for drinks at ten o’clock but Irene didn’t go because it was too late for her.
So there I was and my friend comes and says, “He’s coming but by the way, I’ve asked another friend artist who’s my favourite.” “Who is it?” “His name is Qiu Zhijie.” “Oh, okay.”
I didn’t know him then and my mind was just “Zhang Xiaogang”. But he didn’t speak English very well and I didn’t speak Chinese. So there he was, smoking his cigar, then Qiu Zhijie comes in—very thing, tall, with a crew cut, speaking his really good English with a very heavy Chinese accent.
And I had to strike up a conversation because Zhang Xiaogang’s not talking right? So he told me how he had just got back from Lhasa. He had retraced the steps of this British spy who was Indian and in the British MI5 and did the whole map from Lhasa to Katmandu blah blah blah…
And I was like, “Oh my goodness, this guy is a genius.” So I told him, “Do you want to come to STPI?”
The next day, I went to Irene, “I have an artist. Qiu Zhijie is coming!” “Who is Qiu Zhijie?! What is he gonna do?” “I don’t know!”
Irene is truly amazing. She trusted me. And I trusted the artist.
And many of them don’t really work with prints, right? Tabaimo and Qiu Zhijie are video artists, Thukral and Tagra are really skewed towards popular culture, etc…
Many times, yes. Some don’t even want to entertain (the idea of printmaking). Some artists, I just have to keep nudging.
Qiu Zhijie, he’s just so brilliant, he’d do anything. But somebody like Do Ho Suh took me five years. He was very unconvinced about us. He was also very busy with other projects and flies all over the place. I just persisted.
Rirkrit (Tiravanija) same thing. I met him at LASALLE in Goodman and I didn’t even know who he was. So I googled him and found him very interesting. I started writing to him and made sure I went to every single event. When I was in Basel, he had a theatre show with Philippe Parreno, so I went and made sure he sees me at his events to show that I’m really serious. So he finally said yes last year and came to visit.
With Tabaimo, I went to Hara Museum. A video artist – yah, what can video artists do here right? I went to Eitaro (Ogawa, STPI’s chief printer). “I found this video artist and she seems really interesting!” “Yah, she’s quite interesting—but what is she gonna do?!”
She did such a wonderful project.
Has any STPI work found itself in auctions?
The fact that they’re not in the auctions is a good sign – it means collectors buy to keep. The prices are always in comparison to their studio works. And the entry point is always accessible.
We’re probably wrapping up now. Thoughts on the local scene?
I think it’s really, really exciting. It’s getting to a place where it would compete on a good level. And I think Art Stage has done that successfully—it has contributed to bringing up the level in such a short time. That jump was easier. And I think it was very timely also because we see a lot of younger generations being interested in art and they’re much more exposed than before and they also travel more. And their whole lifestyle is very much different when I was their age. It’s a very different world now and it’s changing very fast. Now, I think our business plan has to be on a yearly basis.
So, care to share who’s on your STPI wishlist?
We’ve finally confirmed Suzanne Victor for next year. Jeff Koons. Murakami has been here and loves this place. We would like to work with Zhang Huan, a performance artist based in Shanghai. Zeng Fanzhi, Liu Wei… We would love to work with William Kentridge. Maurizio Catellan. Philippe Parreno. We’ll get there someday.