Ming Wong’s Life of Imitation exhibition opened yesterday at the Singapore Art Museum. But since everyone has been going on and on about Ming (us included), we thought why not chat with the other dude who also had a big hand in the Venice Biennale work. Here ya go.
How did this collaboration between you and Ming begin?
Even when I was in London and he was also in London, we never thought we could work together. We thought we were very different. But along the way, I noticed that his output was specifically cinematic a few years ago. I saw the P Ramlee piece, I saw the Filem-Filem series, I became very excited.
Around this time, I was also doing early cinema research, focusing on Japanese and South-east Asia. That’s how I came in touch with the private collector (Wong Han Min, who presents his memorabilia in Life of Imitation), for example.
The Venice Biennale last year was, for the first time, an open call. So then via Skype we connected. He was in Berlin and I was in Bangkok. It was quite an interesting way of collaborating. We still have records of the exchange a year ago. It’s purely virtual in building up this proposal.
And along the way, the proposal changed for Venice such that it took this current form. (It was initially supposed to be Devo Patire. Domani., a “remake” of Pier Paolo Pasolini’s film Teorema, which will be exhibited at next year’s Singapore Biennale.)
But (to clarify) it’s not about the history of Singapore cinema. Ming and I are not academics. We are not here to deliver history, we’re here to deliver artistic interpretation of history.
I find it interesting that you were both initially from theatre in Singapore who collaborated when you were both outside of Singapore and also, on something that’s not theatre per se, which is visual arts.
Before Venice we never worked together. I was from TheatreWorks and Ming was from Action Theatre. So in terms of theatrical approach, very different.
Coming from the theatre (scene), we are very aware of space, particularly aware of how the ‘scene’ is laid out. In Venice, it was very difficult (working around) an old house with many rooms (and dealing with things like) how to master the architecture, plus the narrative and the audience as they journey through (the work).
Obviously he’s the artist and you’re the curator. What was the division of labour?
So yeah, in terms of function, it’s the artist and the art curator. Then he takes care of the authorship of the work. I have no claims to the authorship. And then in terms of organisation and conception of the presentation, that’s my work. But actually, in building the contents of the work, I worked with him like a dramaturg would. Of course he’s the one with the idea and we talk about the implications of the different options and which one would be best. And then finally, he decides.
And the archival materials from Wong Han Min, Sherman Ong’s short films, and Neo Chon Tek’s billboard paintings?
It’s also very mixed. The three contributors were basically from me. Sherman, because I wanted him to make something that’s kind of docu-fiction, which is of course what he does. And also to have a kind of referential take on the subjects themselves.
For Mister Wong, it’s because I had met him from before and I knew he had this treasure. And none of the museums dared to approach him because he’s quite an introvert by nature. For Mr Neo the billboard painter, it was Ming who said he wanted to design (posters) so we went together and negotiated with (Mr Neo).
And of course, even as the curator, I don’t finalise the decisions. I always ask Ming. It’s very discursive and negotiated. If we were younger, this relationship would have been difficult. We would have been a bit more opinionated in our own way. This was the right time. We understood the fragility of collaboration. Of course some days, we still do not agree (on certain things).
So would you say that in filmic terms it’s like a director/producer partnership?
It’s not so hard and fast. It’s quite porous. But if we need to name the functions, then by those classical ways, then one is producer and the other is director.
I think Ming and I can work together because our experiences have been quite similar. We’ve lived in London, Berlin, I’ve circulated for the first five years since 2000 in Europe. And the last five years, I’ve moved to Bangkok.
Both of us are very Chinese, specifically Cantonese. Certain sensibilities, values, tendencies are formed by this Cantonese-ness.
And also because being outside Singapore has given us a kind of disposition that we can be a bit more ironic about our own culture.
I moved to (Bangkok) to work. I was a bureaucrat. I was working for the government, a heritage agency. It is a regional office but based in Bangkok. I was in charge of immaterial heritage. That’s also one part of my work. My works straddles quite vastly from heritage, like dying endangered elements, to contemporary art. And in between are various disciplines.
You’ve stopped performing per se.
I’m still very much in performing arts. I’ve been presenting, curating. As a performer, no. Creation? No. Because I’m not so challenged anymore by creation itself. I would enable creation. As producer, dramaturg. But to create? That’s another story.
Why decide to take on dance as a critic and dramaturg?
When I was with TheatreWorks, it was the period where we were doing a lot of physical theatre. And of course, in that period I was interested in the moving body, space and time, what they mean. When I left TheatreWorks, the last (piece) I did was with (Ong) Keng Sen in 1999. And after that, I was in New York. One of our last stops was performing in Berlin and I fell in love with Berlin.
And at that time, I decided to leave performing. I was keen to exercise another faculty, which was the more mental, writerly capacity of the dramaturg.
Dance specifically because at that time, there was no one writing about dance. And increasingly when I was overseas, I found my interest soley in dance. In New York I had gone to see all your avant garde (artists like) Richard Foreman, Meredith Monk. I was not happy just reading about them in textbooks.
I decided that dance was specifically the medium I would work in because there’s work to be done. What I don’t like to do is doing what’s already done. That’s why I chose contemporary dance. And within this field, I was writing, and soon I became unhappy with the way presenters were operating in those days – there was no curation so to speak.
In Singapore or overseas?
Everywhere. So I started to run festivals and curate for festivals. It’s a very difficult position. Because when I’m back in Asia, because I take what’s exactly at the most current edge (in Europe), I’m a bit lost because people can’t place me. I can push certain lines but you know, there are very conservative people. And when I’m in Europe, I’m seen as an oddity because I’m an Asian. And they really don’t know how to deal with Asians.
How fulfilling has it been switching from previously being a performer and a creator to now somewhat of a “middle-man” of the arts?
Very interesting. When you’re in creation itself, you’re just dealing with the entire world of the creation. But when you are taking on roles beyond creation, you see this structural world, how people are connected, how threads are engineered. Of course, I’m quite a festival whore – there’s absolutely no one else in Singapore who has the same network as I do. And as an individual. Major festivals, they know me but I don’t belong to any institution.
So what interests you as a curator/dramaturg?
I’m interested in this kind of mobility, this kind of knowledge, which can enable going in-between theory and practice. That’s why I see myself as a dramaturg because this is what I do. Between thinking and action. Between whatever structural links that I make to enable that into the making of creation itself.
You’ve done theatre, dance, visual arts and there’s also film. You’ve been doing a lot of varied things.
This is my profession. To know the different logics of creating in different disciplines. Because if you’re just looking at theatre, you’re stupid. There are certain visualities, intermedia perspectives that you must have in order to be contemporary. You cannot just be “theatre” or “visual arts” or “film”. It is really within my responsibility to look at different fields.
So who do you follow now in the film world?
Favourites ah? In the last five years, because of my work, I’ve been observing very closely the South-east Asian independent scene. I would mysteriously appear in (film) conferences! The filmmakers really don’t’ know me. But I enjoy it because I’m just there to find out and hear about their practice.
Within the region, I’ve seen the Malaysian scene grow in a very interesting way. Apichatpong (Weerasethakul) is of course very exciting to me. I like Aditya Assarat, his first feature film is really fantastic. But of course I’m also a bit wary lah, you know, people who just make their first feature, you can’t say (wooooh!). I loved Tan Chui Mui’s first short films.
I like auteurs who are very clear with their signature – meaning when you see the work you don’t have to think very hard, you know it can only be done by a particular artist. I like generally artists who already have a kind of clarity and vision in delivering their works.
You obviously like jumping from one arts form to another – which seems like a rarity in this very cliquish artistic environment that Singapore has. Thoughts?
They love to use these words like inter-disciplinary, cross-disciplinary. But I don’t believe they are truly aware of what intermediality is. I mean, especially with people working with theatre, I’m sorry, generally I think the visuality in most of the theatre productions I’ve seen in Singapore are very poor. I’m sorry if I offend most people here. But they are merely going for effects. Effects is different from the ontology of what we are dealing with when you pick certain images. I think most of the theatre companies here are just chapalang, anyhow rojak. Throw in many lines, lots of sound, and screaming… You know? When you present this in Europe, they’ll boo at you. That’s why so few artists in Singapore can make it outside, in that way. Their understanding of certain codes of contemporary art making, certain logics, are not fully informed I think. It makes it hard to be properly translated into a different context for a certain consumption.
Visual arts people? They are generally not very sensitive to theatrical elements, the theatricalisation of a narrative.
So what’s good about the arts scene now?
Actually one of the best things that the National Arts Council has done is arts housing. Along the way they did it very well. Then the last five years it’s been totally neglected and of course, fallen into abuse, and then people just started to hog and take things for granted. But that scheme was really win-win in making adaptive use of old buildings and giving housing to artists when funding is still scarce. But it’s gone a bit haywire now.
So what’s the last local good exhibit you’ve seen in Singapore?
By chance a series of shows that were linked to Singapore’s past. The Singapore Map exhibition, old Singapore maps, in the NLB. NLB has surpassed every institution in Singapore right now for having put up relevant and very pertinent and actually well considered shows. The maps show was incredible. That was also in conjunction with the (National Museum) show on landscapes from the old colonial times. And also Ivan Polunin (at NUS Museum). Terribly put up but he himself and his materials is fantastic. I don’t think we have done enough with that collection.
You’re pushing for contemporary art but you’re also stuck in the past.
Well, no. I’m very much in the now. Theoretically I’m very interested in the political philosophy of the now. But in terms of admiration for things seemingly irretrievable, forgotten, my passion is in those areas of heritage. And I really sincerely believe that those ostensibly polaristic worlds can co-exist. And they can inform us in very powerful ways.