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Interview: Tan Siuli on Her Independent Curatorial Projects and Art in Singapore

Interview: Tan Siuli on Her Independent Curatorial Projects and Art in Singapore

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Interview: Tan Siuli on Her Independent Curatorial Projects and Art in Singapore

Tan Siuli, 'Turning the Axis of the World' (2020). Image courtesy of STPI

With over a decade of curatorial experience, Tan Siuli is an independent curator with a focus on contemporary art from Southeast Asia. She was formerly the Head of Collections and the Senior Curator at the Singapore Art Museum (SAM) where she oversaw the Indonesian portfolio, commissioned and curated two editions of the Singapore Biennale (2013 and 2016), and curated the President’s Young Talents exhibition series.

Leaving SAM in 2020, Siuli now works as an independent curator on various curatorial projects and a Contributing Editor (digital publications) at ART SG. Her recent projects include 'Flesh and Spirit: Selections from the Linda Neo and Albert Lim Collection' (2020-2021) at Primz Gallery; 'Turning the Axis of the World' (2020) at STPI; and 'Into Air' (2021) by Dawn Ng presented by Sullivan+Strumpf at 2 Cavan Road. 

This week, The Artling had the opportunity to speak to Siuli on her curatorial projects, the art community in Singapore, and her perspectives on the contemporary art world. 

'Violent Attachments' at Sullivan+Strumpf. Image courtesy of Sullivan+Strumpf

We last caught up with you in 2016, when you were a curator at the Singapore Art Museum (SAM). Tell us what you have been up to over the last couple of years, after having been at SAM for almost 12 years; what projects have you worked on since then?

That does seem like a lifetime ago! Since we last spoke, I went back to university (SOAS in London) to get up to speed on classical Asian art history, which was a big gap in my knowledge. My own art history education was focused purely on the Western canon, and I had to learn about contemporary Southeast Asian art ‘on the fly’ when I worked at SAM. However I always felt handicapped by my lack of understanding about older Asian art, as many contemporary artists in the region continue to draw on its visual vocabulary and conventions, so I took time off to get up to speed on that. It was a complete paradigm shift for me initially, and difficult to wrap my head around, but I grew thoroughly fascinated with it. It’s my dream to one day realize an exhibition bringing older art and artefacts in conversation with contemporary art, to tease out ideas and philosophies that have persisted over centuries, and which illuminate the human condition.

I left SAM in 2020 and have been working on curatorial projects independently since then. Speaking of the human condition, one of the exhibitions I recently worked on was Flesh and Spirit, which draws on the private collection of Singapore-based collectors Linda Neo and Albert Lim. It’s a selection of works by Southeast Asian and Asian artists, which explore how we reconcile our embodied experience of the world with our aspirations towards the transcendental and divine.

I also had the pleasure of working with artist Dawn Ng and the team from Sullivan + Strumpf on the former’s solo exhibition at 2 Cavan Road. The poetics of painting, space and time came together beautifully in that very special project.

More recently I’ve taken on the role of Contributing Editor (Digital Publications) at ART SG. Aside from contributing exhibition reviews as well as editorial pieces surveying developments in the region’s contemporary art scenes, I’ve also produced a number of artist interview videos – again, very new territory for me, but I’ve enjoyed the process thoroughly. I do think they are an important way to reach out to audiences: not everyone is inclined to read curatorial text, and arguably, visuals and compelling stories grab attention far more easily in our attention-starved times. So my goal is to introduce an artist and their practice and ideas, within a short 5 – 7 minute video, so that art lovers and collectors alike immediately understand the gist of their work. 

'Turning the Axis of the World' at STPI. Image courtesy of STPI

Many media articles (especially those published in Singapore) focus primarily on the investment aspect of art - what are your thoughts on this? How do you think this narrative affects cultural development (if at all) and how do you think this could change?

It’s unfortunate, but the narrative in our mainstream media doesn’t seem to have changed much over the decades. Just last month there was a piece that discussed the growing interest in Singapore and Southeast Asian art in terms of sales and auction numbers, which I think is doing the art a great disservice. There are many other reasons why collectors are passionate about the art of the region, and I wish a more balanced perspective could have been presented, to create more awareness about the skill and unique visual vocabularies employed by our artists, and the compelling narratives and timely issues addressed in the art of our time. It did make me wonder if it was a case of our journalists not being adequately equipped or confident enough to discuss art in terms other than hard facts and figures. A lot of investment has gone into Singapore’s cultural institutions and programming since the initiation of the Renaissance City Plan in 2000, but clearly we still have quite some way to go in terms of engaging the wider community and equipping audiences with visual literacy.

Dawn Ng & Tan Siuli, 'Into Air' by Dawn Ng at 2 Cavan Road. Image courtesy of Sarah Isabelle Tan

'Into Air' by Dawn Ng at 2 Cavan Road. Image courtesy of Dawn Ng and Sullivan+Strumpf

What are some of the ways you think a genuinely engaged arts community can be built here in Singapore? What are some interesting art initiatives on your radar and what are some of the ways people can best support these?

An arts community cannot be manufactured nor mandated, it needs to develop over time through genuine interest and engagement. And I think for that to happen there needs to be a spectrum of offerings – different things will interest different people. There needs to be more diversification of the art scene, for instance, with organic, grounds-up initiatives complementing Government infrastructure.
I am hopeful for the future because I see a lot of the younger generation taking things into their own hands. They’re fearless, they just get out there and get things done. Within the past few years, a number of indie or pop-up art spaces have flourished, many of them initiated by a younger generation of artists and curators, such as Islands at Excelsior Shopping Centre and Starch at Tag.A. There’s also Comma Space, established by artist-curator Wang Ruobing and artist Chen Sai Hua Kuan. It’s exciting to see experienced practitioners establishing their own space and programme. These independent spaces are important in that they offer alternative platforms for the presentation of artwork and ideas, outside of the institutional and gallery circuit, and I enjoy checking them out to get a sense of up-and-coming artists, as well as to take in works or ideas-in-progress. 
How can one support these initiatives? Go visit, get a sense of what you like, what piques your interest. Chat with the artist and / or curator. Bring your friends. Tell more people about it, spread the word on social media. Maybe get involved, as a gallery assistant or volunteer. If you love the work and the idea(s) behind it, and if you can afford to, buy it. It’s an incredible morale boost for the artist and curator when their presentation is received warmly by audiences, and when they know that there are people supporting what they do.

'Flesh and Spirit: Selections from the Linda Neo and Albert Lim Collection' at Primz Gallery. Image courtesy of Primz Gallery

Linda Neo, Albert Lim, and Tan Siuli, 'Flesh and Spirit: Selections from the Linda Neo and Albert Lim Collection' at Primz Gallery. Image courtesy of Toni Cuhadi

What are some of the biggest shifts you've seen in the art world, both in the commercial and non-profit sector, over the last year? 

It’s inevitable that we speak about the pandemic and the impact that has had on the mobility of artworks and people. Coming from a museum background, I’ve been watching with interest to see how various institutions respond, and whether the tapering off of pandemic lockdowns will bring about more ‘business as usual’, or whether there will be some radical changes to how institutions operate, programme, and conceive of their public(s). 

Going online was obviously the strategy of choice for many museums (as well as galleries and auction houses), and although I was not able to travel, I was able to enjoy, from the comfort of my room, exhibitions such as the V&A’s Kimono survey, as well as Samurai at the Art Gallery of South Australia. It’s pure coincidence that these two examples I’ve given are about Japanese art and culture; what stood out for me was the effective use of short curator walkthrough videos to communicate the ideas behind the exhibitions, and to showcase the treasures on view. I’m sure a lot of work goes into making these videos, but the impact they can have on expanding the audience base is enormous. The art world has largely been slow to warm up to technology, but the pandemic accelerated all that, and demonstrated that well-crafted digital initiatives can carry the museum’s vision far beyond physical and geographical limits.

Lockdowns also put an end to the international blockbuster, and with many public institutions in a precarious position financially, I believe it will be some time yet before an appetite for these traveling (and crowded) shows returns. With external artwork loans looking unlikely, many museums have turned their focus on their permanent collections and local communities, which I think is fantastic because these usually take a backseat to the more glamourous blockbuster programming. Museum MACAN in Jakarta for instance, has convened a curatorium to look at art practices outside major or metropolitan cities in Indonesia, and this project is exciting because it has the potential to bring to light different perspectives and narratives of contemporary art from Indonesia. In August, the Singapore Art Museum is opening ‘Collecting Entanglements and Embodied Histories’, which arose out of a dialogue between the permanent collections of four participating art institutions, including two others from Southeast Asia. I hope this heralds the start of greater conversation and exchange between the major institutions in the region, and I am excited to see how this might shift the discourse. 

In a similar fashion, a lot of galleries have also turned their focus to local artists and art practices; many artists here have expressed how grateful they are for these opportunities. It took a pandemic for this to happen, but I do hope that this attention to and investment in our local art scene will be sustained well beyond.

At the same time, I have observed people getting restless because they are not able to travel as usual, and this has been an opportunity for them to get more grounded and involved in their local art scene(s). Some have realised the gaps here, and are thinking about addressing them with private initiatives, so I am looking forward to seeing these take fruit.


Any views or opinions in the post are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the company or contributors.


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