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Singapore Arts Club: Interview with Jack Tan


Singapore Arts Club: Interview with Jack Tan
Poster design for “Mythologies” by Jack Tan Image courtesy of the artist and Singapore Arts Club

As part of a series, The Artling interviewed three emerging Singaporean artists specially selected to curate this year’s Singapore Arts Club, a public arts project organized by Arnoldii Arts Club and Gillman Barracks. In this edition, we talk to Jack Tan about what he is most excited about for Singapore Arts Club and how he tackled the theme of ‘myth’ in his commission this year.


Tell us a bit about how you became involved in this edition of Singapore Arts Club and what most excites you about the programme this year.

I am really excited about working with the children in my lantern parade and with a professional choreographer like Susan Sentler. Early on in conversations with Audrey Yeo about this project, we were keen to use this project as an opportunity to bring new audiences to contemporary art and to Gillman Barracks. It seemed to me that children as a constituency for contemporary art would be really interesting to work with, and to relate to them not just as consumers of art but participants and producers too.

Image courtesy of the artist
Photo by

The theme of this year’s Singapore Arts Club is ‘myth’, which seems very broad. What was your creative process in undertaking this theme and were there any challenges you faced during the conception of your work?

Mythology has been something that I have been interested in since childhood. While we think of it as something that exists exclusively within the imaginary sphere of story-telling or movie-making, in actual fact, myth operates as a contemporary interface. If you think for example of what fuels the so-called Islamic State: it is the myth of a past (erroneously perceived in my view) for a mythic future by which very real present actions are executed. But there are also positive uses for myth too. I grew up in Singapore in the 70s and 80s and I guess what I am walking around in today is a myth made real: one that has avoided a future of insecurity and poverty. I don’t mean that myth is the same as ‘aim’ or ‘future vision’, which, in part, it is. But myth to me is a special kind of futurity that is informed by the past and that selects and makes particular present characteristics durable into the future. In myth, we make ourselves who we want to be.

Myths don’t have to be happy either. Many well-loved myths are sinister, sad or tragic and many are a mix of all kinds of emotional and moral tones. Think Ramayana, Monkey King (Sun Wukong) or Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Therefore one of the greatest challenges for me in conceiving this work has been trying to understand the complex aesthetic and ethical matrices that go towards constructing myth, and to hit the right note in translating this for a contemporary art performance and public installation.

But in doing this, I became interested not in epic myth, but personal or domestic myth: the instinctual beliefs or superstitions we cling to in order to get through each day and to make sense or amusement of daily life. I asked myself what behaviours or ways of being do I see around me that are already myth.  Then I made 8 mythic creatures as signposts of these. For example, I realised that the ongoing battle with the ants in my flat has been something I have dealt with since a kid and a fixture of life here. Hence this was worthy of becoming myth as a creature called ‘The Flying Sto’. Also my fascination with how once familiar places in Singapore have completely changed, and my horror at forgetting what and where they had been before became ‘Limendragen’. So in a sense, myths are transitional objects that reveal persistent concerns and provide a means to cope. They seem to carry us even though we made them.

Last year my father passed away (as did Lee Kuan Yew) just before I conceived this project. Of course, the idea of ‘father’ has always had mythic qualities about it. But it seems to me that upon death, a person passes into myth as a transitional object for loved ones who are still living. In this way, through the mythic function, those people and places lost to us still continue to hold us and converse with us. So although myth is quite a big topic, I'm talking about small myth.


The Singapore Arts Club is a joint project with both Gillman Barracks and Arnoldii Arts Club, the latter of which focuses on creating opportunities for people in Singapore to learn more about art. What do you think about arts education in Singapore and how do you think we can improve on our current programmes?

In terms of creating opportunities for more people to learn about art, I see that there are very good arts education programmes run by galleries and museums all over Singapore. But we should be clear that this is often institutional learning, i.e. education programmes that forefront the prevailing art canon or to promote museums’ own collections or missions. This is all well and good because art is now a global conversation and how well you speak in that conversation depends on what grasp you have of received knowledge. But outside, beneath and around institution, artists have always educated each other, developing movements and ideas that don’t necessarily find recognition within formal museum contexts. This is a kind of zeitgeist that artists share with each other and it helps create the overall feel of a particular country’s arts community. It is a kind of professional composting as it were. If anything, rather than improving existing programmes, I consider that more funding should be given to artists to peer educate, and to create a vibrant atmosphere of debate and ideas in which younger generations of artists can take root and contribute to in turn.

“Karaoke Court: An evening of arbitration and performance” by Jack Tan that was held at Lasalle
Image courtesy of Lasalle College of the Arts

Many of your recent works such as Karaoke Court and How To Do Things With Rules tend to straddle the two different ends of static word-based art and live performance art. However, Mythologies appears to be a slight departure from your general practice, focusing on visual and performance art. Is there a reason for this, or was it just part of an organic process for you?

To me, making art is always an organic process. How can it not be when the artist’s expertise is in dealing with and producing from the unknown, in ascertaining the visual, emotional, factual, spatial and ethical (i.e. the holistic) context of something, and to respond? But to answer you directly, Mythologies isn’t really a departure from my practice or interests. I was trained as a visual artist and a ceramicist. So the role of image, material, shape, colour and texture has always been central in my work. Even the word-based work you mentioned is ultimately positioned as ‘visual’ (in the fine art wide definition of that term), otherwise it would be literature and wouldn’t need to be presented within a gallery context at all. But while things are organic, art making in my view is precise and pithy. It is no accident that my recent works find form in text and performance. This is because I have been exploring law as an art medium, and much of law happens within text and in performance. For my practice at least, form is derived from where it touches or encounters the subject matter. My next project explores voice and the law. You can possibly guess what art form that might take in future!



Read the other articles in this series, including our interviews with artists Sean Lee and Joo Choo Lin.


Singapore Arts Club runs from Friday, 22 January till Monday, 22 February 2016 at 1 Gillman Barracks, 1 Lock Road 01-01, Singapore 108937. For more details see their website and Facebook page.


The Artling is an official Media Partner for Singapore Arts Club.


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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