“Professional Obligations” in the Artworld

By Alan Oei and Lee Weng Choy

(1330 words, 14-minute read)

Lee Weng Choy (a former artistic co-director of The Substation) and Alan Oei (the current artistic director of The Substation and also director of OH! Open House) have known each other for about 20 years. They met in the late 1990s when Alan was a student at LASALLE College of the Arts and Weng Choy was teaching there part-time. Alan was previously an Associate Artist at The Substation, and he had two solo exhibitions during Weng’s tenure. During that time, Alan was also awarded a special commission, His Master’s Voice, an outdoor billboard painting that is still installed in The Substation Garden. Their relationship has evolved from the early days of student and teacher, and in some ways, has come full circle, with Alan now at the helm of The Substation. Since its founding, the arts centre has been a dedicated public space for art, even as it has consistently questioned the parameters and possibilities of what a public means in Singapore.

Alan: Let me confess that I didn’t attend the 2016 Singapore Biennale. I have been slowly disengaging myself from the art industry. First, it was from visiting art fairs and biennales overseas. Then I stopped going to Art Stage by its third edition. And finally last year, a combination of overwork and the always-lingering art fatigue made it easy for me to skip the Biennale. Friends in the arts concurred it was a show about boats and maps; that didn’t seem particularly exciting to me. If anything, my reluctance to not go was out of an obligation to dear friends working with and for the Biennale. Decisively, that obligation made me resentful too. So no biennale.

If you work in the arts, you’re likely to conflate life and work, friends and colleagues. Our obligations meet at an indistinct intersection. Of obligations, we could loosely divide them into two: professional and social.

Professional obligations are public facing; that is, as an artist, writer, curator, most of your work tends towards the viewer or recipient. You make work for, you talk at … but you might never actually meet — it’s little wonder that we often aggregate the public into one amorphous bloc of … nothing. Weng, as you’ve pointedly asked, who is the reader? (you raised this question in an essay on the digital future of artwriting). [1]

For instance, what is the professional obligation of the curator? You might start to answer that by looking at the history of curating, then you might argue about what a curator should aspire to do, and how she should operate, drawing examples from extant debates or from anecdotal experience. The point is: one could make reasonable judgments — whether they are ultimately right or wrong — and one can arrive at some position through some established methodology.

The latter obligation, which spuriously I’ve called “social”, is a trickier proposition. These are the people you work with. How does, how should, one deal with that?

This image was printed as a postcard in circulation for His Master's Voice (2001) billboard. Image: Alan Oei.
This image was printed as a postcard in circulation for His Master’s Voice (2001) billboard. Image: Alan Oei.


Weng Choy: I suppose the arts are indeed a profession, as well as an industry. It’s not just that one wants and needs to get paid. But, also, that people have their careers. If the world, and not just artworld, were a better place, perhaps, we would have mostly professional commitments instead of obligations. Though even in that utopia maybe we wouldn’t be able to get rid of social obligations. Obligations can breed resentment, as you’ve noted.

Commitments, on the other hand, seem more framed by idealistic purpose. But then would a failure to live up to one’s commitments be worse than feelings of resentment? Would it result in deep doubt over one’s moral integrity — but, hey, what’s a little existential crisis now and then. To be honest, I’m not sure I buy your distinction between professional and social obligations. Is that where the critical difference lies? Though I’m not sure if I’ve clarified anything by contrasting “commitment” with “obligation”. Maybe that’s not the point.

Knowing you, I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that you wouldn’t shy away from admitting what might be seen by some as a dereliction of duty. As a curator — as director of The Substation and Open House — you’re expected to see what’s going on in the artworld and attend its major events. And not just see these events, but be seen at them. Isn’t that what your social obligation is, as a public figure in the Singapore arts scene?

'Here is an image of Weng I took surreptitiously, perched on the fire extinguisher while I was doing publicity images for "Horizontal" (2003)' - Alan
‘Here is an image of Weng I took surreptitiously, perched on the fire extinguisher while I was doing publicity images for “Horizontal” (2003)’ , Alan Oei.

Look, I empathise. Over the last decade, speaking with artists and curators, a pattern has emerged: we find ourselves disliking and distrusting the artworld more and more — or let’s use your term, “art industry” — with all its politics and egos and assholes. [2] But I still haven’t given up faith on the artists, curators and writers whose work I believe in.

I think where we might disagree is that I wouldn’t recommend disengaging from the art industry. Not for someone with your interests and agendas regarding public culture. Or maybe what’s at stake are the terms of strategic disengagement. It’s complicated. Speaking for myself, I’ve written a number of essays about writing about biennales. I’m still trying to figure out a critical perspective on these spectacular events that isn’t defeatist or dismissive. Is “big” always the enemy of the “good”, the “local” or the “authentic”? I don’t believe in retreating to only small or medium sized spaces. Today, if we concede the mainstream — the public at large — and not just in art, but in culture and media more globally, then we can end up with situations like Brexit and Trump.

Alan: At the level of discourse, it’s absolutely imperative that we continue to not only engage the artworld, but also the world at large. However, at the level of everyday practice, at the level of how porous work and social relationships are, it can be indeed tiresome when it seems the art matters less and less.

You pointed out it’s not only about seeing, but also being seen. There is a kind of performativity that one is acutely aware of — friends and colleagues become audiences and vice versa. There is a game. A system highly codified into particular gestures of seeing and being seen, networking and proximity to power or fame. Does all that really matter?

In choosing when to engage and when to disengage, it’s a calculation, a search for a real space of possibility. And in some strange way, I like to think that The Substation’s role almost demands, not an obligation, but a commitment to being wilful, even recalcitrant.


1. Lee Weng Choy, “Regarding the Reader”, in Broadsheet Vol. 44, No. 1, Adelaide: Contemporary Art Centre of South Australia, 2015. The text can be found online.
2. For a critical take on the art industry in Singapore, see Alan Oei, “As cities become brands and deploy art to create identity, can culture exist as a contested space?”, ArtReviewAsia, Winter 2016.

Alan Oei is an artist-curator whose work and projects examine the intersection of art history and politics. As artist, most of his current practice revolves around his alter-ego, Huang Wei, the post-war painter of dead children. His work has been shown in Singapore, Malaysia, Hong Kong, Australia and the USA. He is the co-founder and director of OH! Open House which runs site-specific art projects like No Man’s Land and The Bizarre Honour, in addition to its annual art walk. He is also artistic director of Singapore’s first independent contemporary arts centre, The Substation.

Lee Weng Choy is president of the Singapore Section of the International Association of Art Critics. From July 2000 to December 2009, he was artistic co-director of The Substation. Weng Choy has taught at a number of places, including the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, the Chinese University of Hong Kong, the Sotheby’s Institute of Art Singapore, and LASALLE College of the Arts, and he has done project work with arts organisations like Ilham Gallery Kuala Lumpur, National Gallery Singapore, the NTU Centre for Contemporary Art Singapore, and ZeroStation Ho Chi Minh City. He writes about contemporary art and culture, Southeast Asia and Singapore.

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