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An Interview with Tan Siuli, Curatorial Co-Head of the Singapore Art Museum


An Interview with Tan Siuli, Curatorial Co-Head of the Singapore Art Museum
Image courtesy of Tan Siuli

As the Curatorial Co-Head of the Singapore Art Museum, could you tell us a bit about your role and what a typical day at SAM is like for you?

My colleague Joyce Toh and I head the Curatorial Department at the Singapore Art Museum (SAM). We oversee the exhibitions presented at the Museum, and plan SAM's exhibition calendar and curatorial initiatives together with our colleagues. We also deal with management and strategic matters, for instance, SAM's curatorial direction and positioning in the coming years. 

What I enjoy about my job is that there is no such thing as a typical day. Some mornings start with a meeting to discuss managerial or organisational matters. Sometimes whole days are dedicated to curatorial and / or Biennale meetings, especially now that we're nearing the opening of the Singapore Biennale 2016 (yikes!). Or, you might find me at an artist's studio, checking out some new work that we've commissioned, or at the Heritage Conservation Centre receiving an artwork that we've acquired. The rest of the day could be spent in a number of ways: more meetings and trying to clear a deluge of emails (I wish I could make this sound more exciting, but it's the plain truth!), brainstorming on upcoming projects, researching and writing artwork captions or essays, doing a site recce, or if it's near the opening of an exhibition, overseeing installation in the galleries and hosting visiting artist. The best kind of day for me is when I am in the galleries and hosting visiting artists. The best kind of day for me is when I am in the galleries during the installation, watching an exhibition finally come together, or when I'm out of office and on the road on a work or research trip, looking at new art, and meeting artists and other curators. Never a dull moment!


What do you think are the greatest challenges you face as being part of a major institution of Singapore's art scene? 

There is immense responsibility attached to this role, and I believe this extends beyond Singapore's shores as well. For many years, SAM was Singapore's only dedicated art museum, and till today, continues to be a major art institution in the region that advocates and presents contemporary art from Singapore and Southeast Asia. As such, many look to SAM for directional and validation, and regard SAM's role as that of a barometer of the local stakeholders. People expect a lot from us and it's a fine balancing act between these expectations and our own aspirations - for SAM, and for the kind of curatorial work we hope to undertake. 

That said, I would like to think that we are still relatively small and nimble enough an organisation to be responsive, and to find our own way. Something I always try to keep in mind is the longue durée - when you work in an institution you need to have longer-term goals in mind, and to remind yourself that with time, things can change, and time gives you the opportunity to change things. 

Singapore Art Museum
Image courtesy of Singapore Art Museum.

This year marks the fifth edition of the Singapore Biennale organized by the Singapore Art Museum, with the theme An Atlas of Mirrors. Could you tell us a bit more about how this theme was selected? 

The title came out of the several discussions we had as a curatorial team, where we looked at ideas and themes that interested us and which would address the relationships we wanted to explore in this edition, between Southeast Asia, East Asia and South Asia. A lot of the keywords that emerged from our discussions related to mapping, (relative) perspectives, journeying, cartography, shared histories and resonances. Hence the title An Atlas of Mirrors, which enfolds these ideas in an unexpected and evocative way.


This year's Singapore Biennale builds on the previous Biennale's model, with a 10-member curatorial team. What is the process for working on such a large team?

The collaborative approach we initiated in the 2013 edition of the Singapore Biennale was a rewarding experience, albeit unwieldy at times. For this edition, we elected to have a smaller curatorial team so that conversations between all involved could be more engaged. The SAM team met with our team of Associate Curators (from China, India, Malaysia and Singapore) over a series of curatorial workshops held in Singapore, where we worked through ideas, artists, artwork proposals, sites, themes and curatorial narratives. 

The Singapore Biennale 2016 Curatorial Team
Image Courtesy of Singapore Art Museum. 

How do you think the Singapore Biennale factors into the local art ecosystem? Has this changed since its first inception? How so?

Biennales play an important role in any art ecosystem in that they often serve to take the pulse of the art scene, and present current or resonant ideas in art and society. They are also opportunities to present artworks and practices, which may not be so easily accommodated within other frameworks of presentation, for instance, at commercial gallery exhibitions. 

The first few editions of the Singapore Biennale featured mostly well-known international artists and spectacular works. With the 2013 edition, when SAM took over as organiser, we looked to shift the focus to Singapore and Southeast Asia, in order to differentiate the Singapore Biennale from the plethora of other Biennales mushrooming around the world. We wanted the Singapore Biennale to be a biennale of discovery, and an opportunity to present the spectrum of art practices emerging from this region.

'Wormhole' by Eko Prawoto at National Museum of Singapore during the Singapore Biennale 2013
Image Courtesy of Singapore Art Museum. 

You have worked very closely with the Indonesian art scene, overseeing the Indonesian portfolio at SAM for the past eight years. How have you seen it change since you first became involved in it?

My first forays into the Indonesian art scene were during the years of the art market boom, and when international attention was starting to shift towards the region. There were so much going on, new exhibitions opening almost every month and artists at the top of their game producing so much strong work. My first few years working on the Indonesian portfolio involved a lot of catching up, acquiring works for SAM's collection since that was also around the same time we became a fully-fledged contemporary art museum. 

The Indonesian art scene is notably quieter these days because of the economic slowdown. It's not necessarily a bad thing as I feel it's important to have these periods of 'quiet time', so that artist can regroup and reflect on their practice. Many of the galleries are also not as active as before, but we're also seeing new players come onto the scene who are willing to take risks by presenting less commercially-oriented work. Artist-led and grounds-up initiatives are also coming to the fore to shape the art scene, contributing to a more varied and textured consideration of contemporary art and art practices in Indonesia. 


Southeast Asia has experienced a recent growth in the number of private museums in the region. What are your thoughts on these institutions and how they impact the arts ecosystem?

Private museums are primarily shaped by their owners' personalities and collecting tastes, and they vary in terms of their programming priorities. There are some which are essentially vanity projects, and there are also others which are run almost like public ones, with admission charges and publications, and which aim to present as comprehensively as possible an overview of art historical development. I am thinking of Dr Oei Hong Djien's private museums in Magelang, Indonesia, a compulsory stop for just about anyone interested in or researching Indonesian art. Dr Oei owns some very rare works by the masters, and has an extensive collection spanning modern to contemporary Indonesian art. In a country where public art infrastructure is lacking and often poorly supported, such private museums can play a role in addressing this gap and to facilitate the study and understanding of that respective country's art history. Their collections also present an interesting alternative to the curatorial and exhibition narratives presented by institutions, for private collections are often shaped by very different priorities and tastes. I am fascinated by what people collect, why they collect, and how they choose to present or display the art that they own, and for that reason I think the emergence of private museums in this region can only contribute to a fuller discussion about art and its importance in our lives. 

OHD Museum, Magelang, Central Java, Indonesia. The Facade by Entang Wiharso (b.1967), Aluminium Relief, courtesy of Dr Oei Hong Djien.

What do you think are some challenges that you think the Singapore art scene faces? Why do you think that despite all efforts by governmental and private institutions, Singapore still lacks a widespread arts culture? How do you think we can overcome this?

I often draw comparisons between the Singapore art scene and the Indonesian art scene - they couldn't be more different. In Indonesia, generally speaking, so much more of the initiative and energy driving the art scene is grounds-up - people coming together, artists, collectors, patrons - to make things happen, because there is scant support from the government for contemporary art. I feel this is what gives the art scene there its dynamism. Everyone is invested in its success, people help each other out (the term 'gotong royong' comes up very often), and forge relationships and connections. While funding is always an issue, there also seems to be more space to make things happen. In Singapore, there seems to be less impetus for people to become as invested in the art scene because there's always the assumption that the government will take care of things, that cultural policy will shape things. I think we could do with a little more breathing space and more support for independent initiatives. It won't happen overnight, but we have already come some way compared to a decade ago, and it's quite palpable that the younger generation are much more interested in the arts, much more willing to get involved. Hopefully as the Singapore art scene matures, there will be more of a balance between government-initiated projects and private initiatives. 

Installation view of "Passage III: Project Another Country" by Alfredo & Isabel Aquilizan at SAM's current exhibition, "Odyssey: Navigating Nameless Seas" 
Image Courtesy of Singapore Art Museum. 

What advice do you have for people who want to work in the arts?

The word that is most often invoked in relation to careers in the arts is 'passion', but I think of equal importance are 2 other 'P' words: Patience and Perseverance. In my time as a curator, I have tried never to take, nor give, 'No' as an answer. It's easy to feel defeated at times, but again, you need to think about the long road ahead, and you need to have the courage, conviction, and stamina to stay the distance. 


To find out more about the Singapore Art Museum and the upcoming Singapore Biennale 2016, click here.



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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