The title of this post belongs to my friend L.Low, who texted it to me as a joke sometime last year while I was preparing my work ‘In The Skin of A Tiger: Monument to What We Want (Tugu Kita)’ for Singapore Biennale 2019. Gnarly is American slang for a tough, intense or complicated situation (the ‘g’ is silent).
I wanted to publish my proposal and budget, with annotations to show how projects change as they cross from idea into real life. 90 percent of how art actually gets made and shown in the contemporary art world is an opaque process. I hope this small crack in the wall will be useful to fellow artists.
Recently, Patrick Flores presented a paper about being artistic director of Singapore Biennale 2019 (SB 2019) for Conference: Contemporary Art Biennials – Our Hegemonic Machines in States of Emergency hosted by the Post-Graduate Programme in Curating, Zurich University of the Arts. In this recording he talks about taking an art historical approach to curating contemporary art in biennales. One of the threads he pursued at SB 2019 was abstraction. He mentions ‘In The Skin of A Tiger’, as well as the works of Boedi Widjaya, Alfonso Ossorio and Carlos Villa in terms of abstraction and how they sit alongside, ‘in critical adjacency’, with modernity.
Here’s a quote from the Q & A portion of the talk [42:30]:
“I’m a trained art historian. I tried to hijack the Biennale with some art historical methods. I tried to smuggle, like some kind of contraband, some art historical methods into the Biennale structure. I think this was one way for me to discuss the colonialism and modernity through the development of modern art in Southeast Asia. It was fortunate that the National Gallery Singapore was one of the sites of the Biennale. In that site, there is a huge collection of Southeast Asian modern art. I wanted to complicate that modernity, and to find out how that modernity relates to the history of the contemporary that is embodied by the Biennale.
Hence, the transitional nexus that come in the form of the work of abstraction, not only through the contemporary works of Boedi Widjaya and Sharon Chin, but also the neglected works in America of Alfonso Ossorio and Carlos Villa, who were also responding to abstract expressionism, but can nowhere be found in the art history of that movement. It was a good opportunity for me to do that in a Biennale. By doing that, I was doing art history, but at the same time, responding to the concerns of contemporary art, which are about racism, migration, colonialism and sexuality. But all of these were inscribed and embodied in material form, through the idiosyncratic abstraction of Ossorio and Villa.”
– Patrick Flores, June 2020
Below is my annotated project proposal and budget for ‘In The Skin of A Tiger’. I hope reading it alongside (in critical adjacency with) Dr Flores’ presentation will be fruitful, prompting deeper thought about how power and material conditions affect the production and dissemination of different kinds of knowledge, across all the stories we tell ourselves about time: the time-stories of modernity, the contemporary, art history or, that gift, scarcely understood, of the present, now.ITSOAT-SB2019-notesV3
A few notes about career opportunity, privilege and ‘getting selected’ for biennales:
This is not my first time at the Singapore Biennale. I did a public performance project ‘Mandi Bunga’ there in 2013. It’s rare, though not unheard of, to participate in the same biennale more than once. Biennales are not designed for continuity. Or rather, they are designed to continue certain structural aspects of the contemporary art industry, but tracking the development of individual art practice across different editions is not one of them.
Curators have their own reasons for selecting artists, and each biennale has its own structure for deciding on curators and/or artistic directors. The curatorial process of SB 2013 compared to SB 2019 was very different. I won’t comment on the curatorial process here because it’s not my purview.
What I can comment on is my choice to take part. In the case of Singapore Biennale, both times, I was invited by curators I had strong personal relationships with. For my part, this was the main deciding factor. The other was geographic proximity and the shared history between two nations. My works in both Singapore Biennales were about important socio-historical events in Malaysia. That ‘Mandi Bunga’ was staged outside an institution in 2013 and ‘In The Skin of A Tiger’ inside one in 2019, is one way to read the trajectory across these two works.
Another reason I accepted the 2019 invitation was because I thought there could be an opportunity to talk about biennales and the selection of who gets to participate. Let me be clear: meritocracy is one of the foundational myths of our times. I know biennales represent coveted career opportunities for artists. Participation brings one into the circulation of an international art circuit, market prices may rise along with recognition, acquisitions follow, etc. My antipathy towards this structure is ideological and publicly stated multiple times. I participate selectively because I too, like Dr Flores, wish to be a smuggler. Perhaps we all do, and perhaps that is how we all justify doing what we do. The question is, what do we smuggle and for whom? Here I’ll be quiet because true contraband is usually passed around in silence.
Anyway, if you’re an artist and want to increase your chances of being selected for biennales whatever your reasons, these are my suggestions:
- At the very least, have a website that archives your work. Social media accounts are good, but not enough.
- Language privilege is real: Write about your own work, invite friends or other artists to write about your work. Write about other people’s work. Interview fellow artists. Archive this writing together with your artwork. Do this relentlessly. If you’re not good at networking or forming relationships with powerful people, this is how you create currency around your work and your name.
- Language privilege is real, part II: most of this writing should be in English or translated into English. I’m sorry, it’s not fair, none of this is fair, but as of now, that’s how it is.
- Take every opportunity you’re given, whether it’s in speech, art or writing, to say and do what’s truly in your heart and mind. Treat it like there will not be a next time. Yeah, be too much, it’s fine, that’s your job. Be brave and rise to the occasion.