Art talk

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By Sam L. Marcelo,
Associate Editor, High Life

MEANDERING AND THOUGHTFUL, the jurors’ panel at the Asia Pacific Breweries Foundation Signature Art Prize covered a wide range of topics and raised questions — a few of which became even thornier as the discussion progressed. Here are excerpts from interviews and from a conversation featuring Bose Krishnamachari, president of Kochi Biennale Foundation (India), Joyce Toh, head of content and senior curator at Singapore Art Museum (SAM) (Singapore), and Wong Hoy Cheong, artist and independent curator (Malaysia), moderated by Louis Ho, SAM curator and curator of the Signature Art Prize 2018 finalist exhibition.

Nominators, more than jurors, wield the power.
Every country included in the Signature Art Prize is covered by a nominator — or nominators, depending on how active the art scene in that place is — invited by SAM. It’s up to them to make a case for the artworks to the jurors.

“It [the nomination process] gets a little bit overlooked because everyone’s eyes are on the jurors and the winning works, but it’s the first cut. And it represents what the nominators believe or what they want to project as the art of the country, something they want to say about the art of a particular country or region. Or it might be even their own interest — maybe they have an interest in video art. Maybe they feel that a certain kind of art has been overrepresented from their country in the last few years and they want to show another side that has not been seen,” said Ms. Toh in an interview that took place after the panel.

Much like lawyers making their closing arguments in a courtroom drama, nominators have to be eloquent but refrain from bullshit — because jurors have finely tuned bullshit detectors. “We’ve seen nominations where the talking is so good but when you look at how the work is expressed, it doesn’t match up,” said Ms. Toh.

When it comes to awards as big in scope as the Signature Art Prize, a lot rests on a PowerPoint presentation.
“It’s very difficult to look at artworks using slides,” said Mr. Wong. Unfortunately, these are the parameters that jurors must work with when it comes to any art prize of this scale. This dependence on slides resulted in what he called “the flattening of an idea.” “What could be more stunning is flattened. What was less interesting became prominent,” he said.

Added Ms. Toh: “The first round may be something that the artist struggles with as well. So much of their heart and soul is poured into the making of the work but the first point of reception for this work is then either through social media or a slide. Multilayered works, monumental works — how do you shoot and document this kind of work knowing that people are going to see this on screens?”

Jurors sometimes had to make a leap of faith, dependent as they were on slides, and wait to be vindicated. “There’s a kind of sigh of relief when you see the way the work manifested in the flesh,” said Ms. Toh.

The art world is bifurcated in several ways: there’s the “Basel vs. Biennale” bifurcation and the “cosmopolitan artist vs. provincial artist” bifurcation, among many other bifurcations.

A collector seated in the audience theorized that the dearth of paintings submitted to the Signature Art Prize was due to the gaping, untraversable chasm between art that appeals to collectors and art that appeals to curators. “Very few collectors would ever buy what you’ve put in this award, which is perfectly all right,” he said. “You can see this difference when you go to the Venice Biennale and Art Basel: the art is completely different. Even if it’s the same artist, what they produce for the Biennale will be completely different from what they produce for Basel. And that’s why I believe there are no oil painting in your awards show, because that’s for Art Basel. Painting is not grand enough, conceptual enough, or deep enough. So the artist would rather send it to Basel.”

“The difference between entering the Biennale or Documenta or Manifesta and an art fair is that an art fair is completely commercial artwork,” said Mr. Krishnamachari, although he did concede that Art Basel makes an effort “to be curatorial” in its Unlimited section. “As a collector, you have to make up your mind as to what kind of things you are looking at, whether history is important for you, whether the visuality is important for you, or the market.”

Meanwhile, Mr. Wong sidestepped the question and shared what he thought was a more worrying divide: “I think what is important for curators — again, this is a very personal point of view — and art professionals to think through is the bifurcation or the polarization between the cosmopolitan artists articulate in the international transactional language of English as well as so-called ‘provincial’ artists who are not very articulate, who work in more traditional forms, whose worldviews are ‘trapped’ in provincial ideas.”

He called for reflexivity among art professionals so that “provincial” artists aren’t further marginalized. Both Mr. Krishnamachari and Ms. Toh agreed that patronage is part of solving what the latter characterized as “a very deep, complex, and fraught topic.”

Does the selection process — and the art world, in general — favor artists who are more skilled with words?
It is acknowledged that those who do not speak the language — the “international transactional language of English” as Mr. Wong called it (perhaps a variant of International Art English/art speak?) — don’t get to play in the rarefied realms of the contemporary art world. From where this reporter was sitting, Mr. Wong and Mr. Krishnamachari seemed to have differing opinions on this point.

“The disjuncture between what is thought of, what is articulated, and what is seen — all this happens. Some people are more articulate but then if you look at the work — oh, dear. There are all these concepts but where are they translated. Have they been mistranslated, or lost in translation?,” he said. “And so, in this world, the ability to present yourself has become so important and those who are not articulate, those who do not speak this international language are left out.”

Where Mr. Wong previously called for reflexivity on the part of curators (see previous bullet point), Mr. Krishnamachari placed the burden of fluency on the shoulders of the artist. “Artists needs to know the language of what they’re working on, especially those who have contemporary international practices. They definitely need to know what is happening around the world if they want to be in the mainstream. ‘Mainstream’ in the sense of presenting their work and not in the sense of commercial art world,” he said. “Whether you live in Kerala or Singapore, communication is important. You need to know about the world. Opportunities — you have to find them. If you are not building a career, it is your problem. If you are passionate and if you are committed, you can make your career successful.”

The Philippines has nothing to worry about.
Apart from Club Ate, a Filipino-Australian collective based in Sydney, there were no Filipinos among the finalists. That none of the six nominees were short-listed shouldn’t alarm anyone.

“I am fairly familiar with the scene in Manila and there are plenty of good artists from the Philippines. I hardly think that you guys have anything to worry about. It just so happens that for this edition of the Prize, the selection was a little bit narrow,” said Mr. Ho in an interview. “The Philippines is always a strong contender,” said Mr. Ho.

In a separate interview, Ms. Toh said that any fears about Philippine contemporary art could be assuaged by looking at local events. “All you have to do is go to Art Fair Philippines or the Manila Biennale, she said. “In fact, Art Fair Philippines is a great indicator of where you are. Every year I go, it seems to be getting bigger and bigger. Not just more artists, but more people either going to collect or to present.”

Viva Excon, she added, should get more love as it says a lot about the “tenacity and foundational strength” of Philippine art. The artist-run biennale, founded in 1990 by the Bacolod-based group Black Artists in Asia, will open in Capiz this November. The 2018 edition is under the artistic direction of Norberto “Peewee” Roldan of Green Papaya Art Projects. “It’s very important to go to Viva Excon as it provides a very interesting counterpoint to what you might see in Art Fair Philippines, which is geared toward collectors,” said Ms. Toh.