THE FOLLOWING EXCERPT IS FROM OUR chat Between singaporean nominated member of parliament and artistic director of dramabox, Kok Heng Leun, and Melanie Chua, artist Yom Bo Sung and Kirin Heng ON 18 august 2017. THIS CONVERSATION was about various issues arising from ‘the’ Singaporean identity, as well as what the arts mean to Singaporeans. owing to the depth of each issue discussed, this Brackchat excerpt is split into four parts. It IS PART OF THE ARTIST-WRITER PAIR SERIES. READ MORE in the upcoming Energy Issue.
On local art
KH: [Regarding the Singaporean arts scene], do you feel that there’s enough or sufficient attention for local artists here? Because I notice many artists here are living out the starving artist cliché whereby they have to work hard during the day and they have their night job as their true passion as an artist.
KHL: Actually if you look at the amount of money from the government, it’s actually not. It’s actually another issue. Like do people actually buy artworks? Do people appreciate the artist?
KH: If you look at how international artists like Yayoi Kusama and their artworks being exhibited, there’s so many people on Instagram taking pictures of her work, but I feel there’s not as much attention for local art.
KHL: Of course if you were to qualify, when people go to her exhibition, what is it they’re going for? Is it for a photo opportunity?
KH: The superficiality of the situation.
KHL: So that number doesn’t tell you much about it. I mean you know the issue with a lot of biennales, because they create spectacle. So people go for biennale, because they want to be part of that spectacle. And in Singapore, biennales are the same thing. Some of the work that I saw, are really socially interesting pieces of work. But then you see people standing out there and taking photos of [and selfies with] a piece about poverty. [Which makes you question] what the relationship is between the artwork and the audience. Demand means two things. A: whether it is demand whereby people are willing to offer money in exchange for experience. Or B:
people give enough respect to art itself, so that artists, even when starving, know that there is a future because people will view his or her artwork with respect. That to me is important. And especially the kind of respect you will accord your art. Because that gives artists promise. I think it is very terrible when artists don’t even feel hopeful that Singaporeans will appreciate art. I’m not even talking about appreciating local artists. Sometimes they don’t even know how to appreciate artists from overseas.
So I think that is the thing that is more troubling than the starving artists. Because there are starving artists everywhere. I mean in the States, people will just work and wait. Then, they will work with anyone they can find. They don’t even get paid. They’re just looking for opportunities. Because somehow they know when their work gets recognised, they get a certain respect. The point here again is that it is sad when the artist here feels that his or her work or art is not [or has no hope of being] appreciated. If there was, there would be a chance they could make it here.
Y: But I also think Singaporeans, the majority of them are not ready. Because they’ve never had that kind of training or need to. So for them it’s like going to the movies. They’re there for the experience. I think they’re not ready to appreciate it on that level. For artists on the international level, they don’t have to [meet them halfway] because there’s demand and appreciation and respect. I think here you have to meet them halfway. Like give them a tour or a way to navigate your works and the arts scene.
KH: Do you think socially engaged art can help bridge the gap between the artists and the audience here?
KHL: Yes and no. Again when you talk about socially engaged art, I’m sometimes very afraid it becomes instrumental, through policy needs, just for social change. Then where is the aesthetic and poetic aspect of it? To people. Because sometimes, people don’t recognise that there’s some aesthetic in it. Actually, even artists themselves sometimes question socially engaged art. I do feel it needs a number of levels. Of course I think socially engaged art makes art much more part of their lives, without them even knowing. The question is how do they realise that they are actually part of the artistic process? How do you get that language?
Arts education becomes very important at every level.
You don’t need somone to say “I can understand a Picasso.” But you need someone to say “there’s Picasso, there’s something about him, I may not understand it, but it is special.” [Of an artist] “I don’t understand what he’s doing but let’s give him the space”. You give artists space, they can survive with that. That’s really very fundamental.
I don’t think we can turn everyone into avid arts appreciators. Because I also realise that theatre only speaks to some people. The visual arts speak to some people. Music speaks to some people. That’s why I’ve moved from theatre to use different forms, because if I want to engage the community, I can’t just use theatre. I’ve to use different forms because people engage themselves differently.
(Featured image from Dramabox official website, source: http://www.dramabox.org/eng/about_ad.html)