Thinking and Talking about Arts and Culture in Southeast Asia

Singapore Biennale 2016: The Performative Curator

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By Eunice Lacaste, Finalist, The Best Essay by an Emerging Art Writer Competition*

(2900 words, 30-minute read)

Introduction

Entering the Singapore Art Museum[1] during the media preview of the Singapore Biennale 2016[2], we could barely disregard the museum staff installing wall text decals. Other artworks were still being shifted around. Some of the art viewers did not mind this. After all, the media preview and the vernissage were exclusive to an initiated public who were familiar with the backend of art installations. The compartmentalisation of the audience through three segregated openings (that is: the media preview, the vernissage, and the public opening) was a workable strategy for the curator to manage the various biennale audiences. The highly exclusive media preview comprised of critics, writers, historians, and other highly active members of the art world while the listed vernissage audience were composed of collectors, the government, and select art viewers. This convention of audiences from high society and power function differently from the public audience. Inadvertently, art openings are unfolding into social events that apportion less importance to the artwork themselves.[3] Such spectacular events construct social sites for performativity. In such cases, art exhibitions serve less as spaces for the display of the artworks than as stages for the performative curator, audience, and artists.

From the 27 October 2016 to 26 February 2017 the fifth SB displays more than 60 artists across six venues nucleated around the country’s central area with a few satellite programmes on the outskirts of town. The SB2016 marks the biennale’s 10th year since its inauguration. As we follow different SB instalments we can notice the succeeding biennales have been consistently different from their predecessors. The first through third SB instalments had relatively similar curatorial structures where there was a head curator whose voice had more weight than the two to three other supplementary curators. Most of the them stepped into Singapore from the international scene and worked with a haggled number of local curators. The SB2013 saw a crowd of 27 curators from all over Southeast Asia collaborating in the absence of a directing head. The curatorial team decided to take a plural approach, echoing the plurality of the Southeast Asian region. The bawling heterogeneity in religion, political climate, economical structure, language, and culture between the adjacent countries resulted in white noise – the individual voices of the SB2013 curatorial team were drowned amongst their own chatter. The curators found it difficult to have a homogeneous tone.

One of the blatant deviations of the SB2016 from 2013 is its curatorial structure; a curtailed team of 10 curators directed this year’s biennale; less than a third of the SB2013. This biennale is not as minimal as the 2006-2011 and not as populous as 2013. During the exclusive previews, the museum visitors were sifted in groups under the 10 curators’ jurisdiction. Minus the director, each curator, paired with artists, gave a tour around the nine subthemes respectively. Throughout the four months that the biennale is running, six of the 10 curators will periodically give tours. In addition, a symposium (as a reflexive representation) will be held on 21-22 January 2017 involving all the 10 curators. These shifts in curatorial structures are telling of the seismic changes perfused by the biennale trends in contemporary times. The biennale model has always encouraged rigorous experimentations, thus, biennales across international scenes shapeshift at a vigilant pace. These turns necessitate not only the art but also the curatorial practices to keep up as well. In addition, critical lenses have been dialled away from looking at individual artworks to looking at mega-exhibitions as artworks themselves. Often, exhibitions are considered as art objects exhibited by the curatorial team. There are different angles we can consider to explore how the young SB keeps step to these trends and practices. However, peeking through the changes in the function of the curator will provide us an encompassing scope that can help us understand other aspects of the biennale. How does this distinct curatorial structure contour the SB2016 perception and experience for the biennale audience?

The Performative Curator

SAM is the nerve centre for the curators and it also appears to be the main exhibition site. It has absorbed most of the biennale audiences whereas the other peripheral exhibition sites appear to be garnering fewer visitors. SAM alone displays half of the total exhibiting artists and collectives. During the media preview on the 26 October (as unlimited cocktails and canapes were served) executive officers, directors, commissioners and the curators made inaugural speeches. From this it is hard not to notice that the curators themselves were taking on a performative role. It is during these events that they are highly visible. What is a performative curator? How do these turns in curatorial practices alter the structures of the exhibitions, modes of display, and audience reception? We can specifically look at two curators. It will be necessary to discuss the role of the curatorial director here. Observing Susie Lingham[4] will demonstrate to us the performative nature of her responsibilities through her inaugural speeches, talks, and tours. This is especially evident now that the curator has educed from a caretaker position or an architect of art shows to a more visible, performative role. Another curator who is more socially participative than the others is Tan Siu Li.[5] We can attribute her hypervisibility to her participation in social media platforms. These social media posts carry performative texts and images. Through such online sites, the audience also becomes performative and they participate in the moulding of the biennale through online media. We can expound on how Lingham and Siu Li undertake these performative curatorial strategies to calibrate audience perception in the case of SB2016.

Firstly, we would need to define what is performativity. As mentioned earlier, the vigilant pace that art is morphing into under the pressure of the international audience’s craving for newness requires neologisms which need to be made clear. There are many uses of the term performative as a prefix such as performative sites, performative objects, performative text, performative images, and so on. It must be clear that we use the performative as an act that is very distinct from performance. J.L. Austin was one of the first who theorised about the performative.[6] It purports the act of uttering constative speech. It is a repetition of oral statements that are strongly intentional (in contrast to nonsensical babbling). Within the context of the SB2016, we can look at speeches, tours, talks, and symposiums as performative activities. They function in the same strand as illocutionary and speech acts which were also expanded on by John Searle and Judith Butler.[7] Butler has explored the ways in which performativity can construct identities that are not naturally inherent in an individual. Thus, meanings and identities are not congenital but are constructed, deconstructed, reconstructed through repeated performative acts. These theorists staged the performative under the social site where it is used as a strategy to embody meanings and identities. Thus, it is highly salient in biennale events and programmes.

The Director’s Tour

Susie Lingham has a dangerous charisma that lures the museum audience. The director’s tour last 16 November was sold out weeks before. Most of the participants of the tour were well-initiated viewers; art students, writers, journalists, and seasoned collectors. This was evident through the accurate responses to Lingham’s pedagogic tour questions that prepared contexts of the artworks and artists. Throughout the museum trek, Lingham directed the museum visitors through the morass of artworks. She asked questions and the audience were ready to participate. She explained a portion of her curatorial strategies that tightened the screws around the biennale. The use of the atlas as a visual language was propped by the nine themes that acted as subdivisions to compartmentalise the artworks. These themes functioned as paradigmatic displays for the audience to read accordingly. She mentioned that the suggested trail for the museum visitors is through the courtyard but she did expect the audience to wander off this path. Thus, the curatorial erected signposts in the form of wall texts to direct the viewer through the exhibition space. Furthermore, Lingham explained the blueprint of SAM, where the artworks were aligned through an axis of nature and culture – which are important pillars for society and were perpetual rubrics for the artworks. At times, she would gesture to certain architectural features of the museum that were mimicked by her favourite artworks. The curators hoped that the artworks’ mirroring of the rich architectural pattern would solve the museum’s questionable decision to retain the convoluted designs of the repurposed cathedral that deviates from the neutrality of white cube spaces. These curatorial strategies are precarious efforts in displaying larger than life artworks that are cannibalised by the architectural space.

Director's Tour by Susie Lingham. Photo: Eunice Lacaste
SB2016 Director Susie Lingham explains Harumi Yukutake’s work, Parascosmos. Photo: Eunice Lacaste

 

Being well articulated, the performative role protrudes out when we look at Lingham’s curatorial tour. It was condensed with illocutionary acts that dictated how the audience could perceive the artwork. The director was in a position of power as she mapped the artworks while she herded the crowd. Whenever a tour participant asked about certain works, Lingham would reiterate that her readings of the artworks are her personal perspectives and one does not need to subscribe to them. However, her attempt to detach from the prescriptive curatorial role of directing audience perception of the artworks was not convincing.[8] She brought certain works to attention and discussed a good deal about the artists and their praxis. Consequently, artists became objectified as an extension of the artwork itself. The curator has become the exhibiting artist of the mega-exhibition where artists are the objects, creating an exhibition of an exhibition. In addition, as the director walked the audience through SAM, she could not help but to be policing of the visitors, cautioning them every now and then to be aware of the art objects’ fragility. More times than one can count, Lingham asked the visitors to step away from protrusions of certain art objects.

Such tours further stretch out the audience experience of the biennale. Programmes, workshops, satellite exhibitions, talks, forums, and symposiums were also used by the curatorial team to exhaust the perusal of the SB. Under the arching theme of Atlas of Mirrors, nine additional subthemes were conjured to give the concept more weight and appear encyclopaedic. There are six curator tours for the biennale conducted by Susie Lingham (who held her tour twice), Tan Siu Li, Louis Ho, Joyce Toh, John Tung, and Michael Lee. On top of this, there are regular docent tours, tours for educators, corporate tours, and community tours. Also, there will be a two-day symposium to further explicate the biennale agenda entitled “Why biennale at all?” This symposium will probably include experts from different disciplines to expound on curatorial approaches. In case this is not enervating enough, the audience is also invited to a trek around the 7 biennale venues along with a field expert and an artist for an exhaustive survey of the artworks and sites as they read and map the biennale by walking. The need for intricate thematic strategies justify the proliferation of biennale extensions that attempt to shed light into the tunnel they themselves have dug into. These performative and discursive programmes coerce the audience into a commodified experience of the biennale where one is expected to view the exhibition multiple times through multiple reiterations. Such curatorial approaches swamp the audience with alternative ways to perceive and experience the artwork.

The Performative Text in Social Media

We can also look at Tan Siu Li as a performative curator. Individuals as celebrated as Siu Li are dubbed “social media opinion leaders” who prescribe the flow of circulation in the art world.[9] She has been ornamenting her social media accounts with art works, studios, galleries, artists, gallerists, and other curators. Her extensive use of social media platforms echo the institutional turn to online displays, engaging the public audience at a more intimate distance through hand-held screens.[10] Gone are the offline days where elites display their invested artworks of choice within the privacy of their living rooms or salons. Today, auctions, institutions, and collectors exhibit through their personal social handles[11] in a “space without walls”.[12] The way that art is circulated is translating into the online platform.

Metichtild Widrich has demonstrated the capability of exhibition sites to be performative owing to social media participation.[13] The performative text is pronounced through social media posts by curators, institutions, artists, and the audience. When these agencies post a status such as “I am here at SAM, come and look at the SB2016 now!” we can consider this as a performative utterance. However, we can look at social media less as a marketing tool than a performative site where cultural industries are able to display and circulate themselves without walls or bothers. Initially, artists use social media as a perpetual exhibition site where they have free reign over what they display. Ai WeiWei has been using Twitter to project his activism in the same way that Takashi Murukami has been using Instagram to promote his social self. Also, start-up art collectives and initiatives who are financially limited use online sites as an affordable alternative. The effectiveness of online spaces as exhibition sites demonstrated by independent collectives and artists necessitated institutions to use social media. While independent collectives have been using online platforms as actual exhibition spaces, museums and galleries, on the other hand, started using these virtual platforms to shorten the distance between the viewer and the art object while creating hyperlinks to offline sites.[14]

Instagram post by SB16 curator Tan Siu Li. Image: Eunice Lacaste.
Instagram post by SB16 curator Tan Siu Li. Image: Eunice Lacaste.

 

The social media participation of curators, institutions, artists, and audiences uses performative captions, where image captions sound more like speeches. Social media inclusively allows an unrestricted utterance of individual opinions. The curators then harp on this social media chatter about the biennale through the use of hashtags as collective hyperlinks that develops an exponential and contagious viewership. The hashtag is a metadata tag that allows the social media posts of the international biennale audience to be bracketed within the SB2016 branding. These hashtags are functioning as exhibition sites where mediated displays enable an intimate viewership for the audience outside of Singapore. It provides a platform for plural commodified experience, depicting indulgent, plural perspectives of the same artwork provided by the audience body. This lets everyone participate in the shaping of audience perception and experience of the biennale. A distinct tension is fabricated between the online and the offline where the online perception and mediated experience branches away from the reality of the offline platform. Through this, a global art village is mapped.[15] Other biennales and celebrated curators’ social handles are also mentioning and tagging the SB2016, which not only prescribes the SB to other art audiences, but also reframes the SB from a position of power.

Instagram post by Singapore Art Museum. Image: Eunice Lacaste.Instagram post by Singapore Art Museum. Image: Eunice Lacaste.
Instagram post by Singapore Art Museum. Image: Eunice Lacaste.

 

Shifting back to Siu Li, her participative social media account is a provisional case study to see how curators and museums have been using online spaces to extend the visibility of their exhibitions. Looking at this, we can surmise an ongoing reconstruction of the curated self, tagged with the embodied performative captions. Such social media posts are performative because they constitute identity by textual utterance. Furthermore, the digital text and images provide intimacy and accessibility to a personal, offline, oral existence. The audience is involved in the validation of her posts by liking and commenting. The viewers themselves become performative due to their participation – which is accountable through likes, comments, mentions, tags, and reposts that act as new currencies that keeps the online biennale experience afloat. This way, one bad review about the biennale barely does damage amongst a sea of repeated posts. In addition, this allows the biennale to extend beyond its four-month duration due to the residual echo within online spaces created by hashtags. All this is done through perpetual reiterations and reframings of the biennale by the curators and the audience. Realising the importance of repetitive utterance in the construction of the biennale, echo corners were positioned around the biennale spaces to encourage the audience to reflect and contemplate by posting online with the SB hashtags. The SB website features hashtags of audience from Instagram in a photo stream.

Conclusion

The performative strategy of the curatorial team efficiently buffers the audience perception and experience. This is highly discernible through the extended events and sites such as tours, talks, programmes, and online activities. The augmentations of the biennales through these approaches disallows a passive viewership and a static display of the art object. Though this is only one facet of the biennale, it is a relatively uncharted one. We were limited to looking at only two curators, however, it could be beneficial to explore the different performative acts of the other eight curators. Also, the biennale symposium is another grand stage we could have probed where the curatorial team can reiterate their roles two months in the biennale. At times, these performative representations could reflexively articulate the biennale through alternative mode of displays such as keynotes and slide presentations. In addition, there are other areas of the biennale that we can problematise through performativity, not just looking at the role of the curator but also the audience and the artists. It is vital to pore over these volatile developments and how they alter the reception of the Singapore Biennale 2016 spectacle to stay vigilant against the constant restructuring of wide-scale art exhibitions.

 

Endnotes

[1] Hereafter referred to as SAM.

[2] Hereafter referred to as SB or SB2016.

[3] Claire Bishop, Artificial Hells: Participatory Art and the Politics of Spectatorship (New York, Verso Books, 2012).

[4] Susie Lingham was the SAM director from August 2013 to March 2016. She was primarily an educator at National Institute of Education, studied and taught in Australia and obtained her doctorate in the United Kingdom.

[5] Tan Siu Li is the co-head curator at Singapore Art Museum. She and Joyce Toh has been holding SAM’s fort in the absence of a museum director during the crucial times that it is hosting the biennale. Siu Li oversees the museum’s Indonesian collection. She obtained her master’s degree in the United Kingdom.

[6] J. L. Austin, How to do things with words (London: Oxford University Press, 1962).

[7] Judith Butler, “Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory” in Theatre Journal 40, no. 4 (Dec 1988).

[8] Curators are performative namers that decide what an art object is and what it is not (oil painting and not sculpture). Viewer should want to have a congruent interpretation with the curator referenced by labels, wall texts, exhibition guides, catalogues, and articles. See Edwina Tarobsky, “the Discursive Object” in Objects of Knowledge. Ed Susan Pearce (London: the Athlone Press, 1990).

[9] “Johann Koenig on Instagram: the art market was always driven by opinion leaders”, ArtNews.

[10] Art is now perceived through a mediated environment of screen culture. See Larissa Hjorth, Kristen Sharp, and Linda Williams, “Screen Ecologies: A Discussion of art, Screen Cultures, and the Environment in the Region” in Art in the Asia-Pacific: Intimate Publics (New York: Routledge, 2014).

[11] A social media handle is a unique username for account users that are attached to a social media platform. For example, Siu Li’s social handle is “tansiuli”.

[12] Elaine W. Ng, “Beyond Institutional Thinking”, in Art in the Asia Pacific: Intimate Publics (New York: Routledge, 2014).

[13] Metichtild Widrich, Performative Monuments: The Rematerialisation of Public Art (Manchester: Manchester UP, 2014).

[14] See note 12.

[15] Ibid.


*This essay is one of 4 written by finalists of the inaugural Best Essay on the Singapore Biennale 2016 by an Emerging Art Writer Competition.The competition is a new initiative, jointly organised by ArtsEquator and AICA SG (Singapore Section, International Association of Art Critics). A call for entries in October 2016 resulted in 19 proposals submitted for competition. A jury of three judges, all members of AICA SG — Dr Adele Tan, Curator, National Gallery Singapore, Dr Kevin Chua, School of Art, Texas Tech University and Kathy Rowland, Managing Editor of ArtsEquator.com — selected four finalists, who were then commissioned to write a 3,000-word essay based on their proposal. From these four commissioned essays, the Jury will select a winner, to be announced on January 31st 2017. For this inaugural competition, each finalist receives an honorarium of SG$200, while the eventual winner will receive a total of SG$500.

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