Book Review: “Writing the Modern: Selected Texts on Art & Art History in Singapore, Malaysia & Southeast Asia”

In the vast firmament of Singaporean-Malaysian art history, no star illuminates as radiantly as T.K. Sabapathy. An art historian by training, Sabapathy initially began his career in the early 1970s by reviewing art and thereafter spent close to half a century doggedly writing art history into being in our corner of the world.

Seven years in the making, Singapore Art Museum’s Writing the Modern: Selected Texts on Art & Art History in Singapore, Malaysia & Southeast Asia, a painstakingly conceived book containing some of Sabapathy’s most seminal essays, articles and speeches, is a weighty tome befitting a scholar of his stature. The breath, depth and range of his scholarship are indeed staggering; the last 14 pages of the book charts a timeline of Sabapathy’s writings from 1973-2015 and from my count, there are 441 entries. Writing the Modern only reprints 57—a mere 13% of his corpus—and editors of the volume acknowledge that the timeline is by no means exhaustive.

Just as he has laboured to historicise art practices, the editors, Susie Lingham, Joyce Toh, Ahmad Mashadi and Peter Schoppert, have also strived to historicise Sabapathy’s works by categorising them into four distinct sections and contextualising each section so as to clarify the specificity of Sabapathy’s historiographical reach. The editors’ perspicuous essays serve as scaffolding for a more layered understanding of each corresponding section. Reasons for the selection were given judiciously and important writings that relate to the sections but did not end up in the book were, nonetheless, referenced and attended to.

Every dip into the book’s textual tensility yields novel insights and elaborate apprehensions of the push and pull of history upon art, and art upon history. One senses, through Sabapathy’s writings, a man with an extraordinarily consistent and genuine desire to deeply engage with artists as human beings who participate in the act of history-making in distinctively critical and indispensably creative ways.

Reading his monographic writings and interviews with artists, one cannot help but admire Sabapathy’s uncanny ability to delve into and decipher the works and ideas of artists via a micro history of their oeuvre, intercut with a macro history of their milieu and zeitgeist. Sabapathy’s profoundly insightful essay on pioneering Singaporean artist Cheo Chai-Hiang, for example, simultaneously excavates the evolution of Cheo’s thinking during the 1970s as much as it delineates the impact of Singapore’s separation from Malaysia on the Singaporean arts fraternity. The essay is a perfect demonstration of a masterful art historian at work, carefully teasing out the many complex strands of an artist’s life without losing sight of the latter’s unique contributions to the world.

Apart from collating his writings of artists and artworks, the collection includes Sabapathy’s articles on public and private art institutions. Sabapathy’s institutional memory is long and replete with the kind of historiographical rigour one has come to expect from a man so keenly engaged with and also incisively critical of exhibition making. His 2002 essay on the genealogy of the university art museum in both the University of Malaya as well as the National University of Singapore, is an exemplary testament of how fastidious he is about scrutinising institutions via the people who lead and manage them.

Sabapathy’s account of how his mentor and former undergraduate teacher Michael Sullivan implemented his vision for an art museum is incredibly thorough, as can be expected, but his treatment of Sullivan’s predecessor, William Willetts is no less scrupulous. Sabapathy leaves no stone unturned and even condenses his observations of Willetts’ publications from 1959-1972 into three compendious bullet points.

As generous as he is with his praise and critique of artists and art institutions, Sabapathy is similarly unstinting when pointing out his own shortcomings. He is acutely self-aware of topics he has had to gloss over due to time and space constraints, and is quick to note his biases and affinities, although he seldom apologises for them. A prominent example of this would be during his academic paper presentation on art historiography in Southeast Asia at the 1995 SEAMEO SPAFA Symposium on Southeast Asian Art History and Regional Aesthetics, where Sabapathy readily admits, “I have cast my account of the state of affairs in the domains of Indian and Chinese art histories in somewhat brusque terms, and in doing so having undoubtedly overlooked nuances and subtle differences.”

Its art historical import notwithstanding, Writing the Modern is a vivifying read. Sabapathy writes with such flair, such verve, such density of purpose, it is not unusual to find oneself re-reading many of his sentences simply to revel in his consummate command of the English language. I found myself enjoying his penchant for liberally punctuating his sentences with delightfully placed adverbs, which usually serve to soften the forcefulness of some of his verbs, and the way he ended some of his art reviews with the most unforgettable self-coined aphorisms. For instance, “The history of art furnishes ancestors for artists; no artist is devoid of such a lineage” and my favourite: “Any action pursued single-mindedly to the point of its logical end or consummation, attains a sense of awesome finality.”

Sabapathy’s facility with words has afforded him felicitous tools with which to apprise and appraise artists and art. His penetratingly written art criticisms of the works of a great many artists—the Nanyang artists, Latiff Mohidin, Cheo Chai-Hiang, and Han Sai Por among them—remain unrivalled.

Apart from his musings on art, readers of Writing the Modern will also stumble upon his relish for poetry tucked among the pages. In his essay on Singapore’s second national exhibition of ceramic art held in 1987, Sabapathy starts off by tracing the rise and fall of the stature of ceramic art in the context of the broader art world, and he evokes Keats as a guide through this process. I am a huge fan of Keats but never really appreciated his “Ode on a Grecian Urn” until I encountered Sabapathy’s beautifully ruminative, intertextual reading of the poem here. Sabapathy’s explication of Keat’s very famous ode is a triumph of literary interpretation, as it infuses his own enduring appreciation and erudition of ceramic art with a perceptive grasp of Keats’ use of symbolism in poetry.

Ever the educator, Sabapathy infuses his words with a warm, professorial timbre—sometimes playful, often questioning, and even when plainly critical, he is rarely strident. The exception would have to be his 1983 letter to the Straits Times, admonishing the unnamed editor for a woefully deficient tribute of Cheong Soo Pieng upon the latter’s passing. In particular, Sabapathy drew attention to how Spanish filmmaker Luis Bunuel’s death and achievements were given more timely and prominent coverage in the Straits Times than a great Singaporean artist such as Soo Pieng. Sabapathy regarded the newspaper coverage as “an act of trivilisation” and did not mince his words when he said, “The photograph of Cheong Soo Pieng is unbelievably bad.”

Nevertheless, Sabapathy’s sternest rebukes are very often buoyed by strong undercurrents of wit and dry humour. Sabapathy is uncompromisingly critical because he is intensely invested in the discipline of art history and the people that he writes about. In his essay, “Thoughts on an International Exhibition on Southeast Asian Contemporary Art”, for example, Sabapathy takes to task politically-driven ASEAN art exhibitions and acknowledges that such regional exhibitions are rarely mounted to serve artistic interests but are, instead, “carefully managed, diplomatic fares in which discretion and decorum reign supreme.”

Yet his criticisms and elucidations are never irrevocable; Sabapathy is a discerning historian because he is acutely aware of the open-endedness of art historical writing, how it can be subject to multiple, diverse interpretations, all of which tend to be highly provisional. Just as he has changed his views and thinking over the years, he expects others to do the same, and his magnanimity, both through his writings and as a person, affords them plenty of room to do so.

Writing the Modern: Selected Texts on Art & Art History in Singapore, Malaysia & Southeast Asia was published in 2018 by Singapore Art Museum and distributed by NUS Press. It was edited by Susie Lingham, Joyce Toh, Ahmad Mashadi and Peter Schoppert.

About the author(s)

Carmen Nge is currently Assistant Professor at the Faculty of Creative Industries, Universiti Tunku Abdul Rahman (UTAR), Malaysia. She has been writing about Malaysian culture, specifically the visual arts, for a variety of publications for more than fifteen years. Her most recent book is Excavations, Interrogations, Krishen Jit & Contemporary Malaysian Theatre, co-edited with Charlene Rajendran and Ken Takiguchi. Carmen teaches broadly in the subject fields of Malaysian media and culture, games design, and creativity in education.

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