From various letters, 1 Sept 2012, St Life! Mailbag
(Hua Tye Swee): While I understand the need of pulling out of the next Venice Biennale in 2013 so as to assess Singapore’s overall visual arts development, my hope is that we will return for the 2015 edition. Two of our artists, Ho Tzu Nyen and Ming Wong, have proven that taking part in the Biennale is money well-spent compared to the sports budget for the Olympics.
If this is a budget issue, perhaps a private-public funding partnership is the right way to go. We should help our artists scale their own Olympics.
(Peh Chin Sin): I would like to see the Government spread its funding for the arts to promote arts appreciation and learning for the masses, especially for the underprivileged. To have a renaissance in arts for Singapore, we need to cast the net wider, to nurture the larger population and not just a select few.
Public funding must go towards public good and not just benefit the egos of a few privileged people. Can the masses here identify with Singapore’s participation in the Venice Biennale?
I am not sure they can.
I’m not going to be an arts patron anytime soon, and I’m not sure what Peh Chin Sin meant by ‘egos of a few privileged people’. But honestly this is the first time I’ve ever heard of a ‘Venice’ Biennale, and the last time we had our own Singapore version we raised a fuss over ventilation at Old Kallang Airport, some homoerotic exhibit called Hotel Munber, and people turning our Merlion into a one-night love nest. I wonder how many people who’re fiercely passionate about this event can claim to pronounce ‘Biennale’ correctly.
So how ‘accessible’ is a typical Venice Biennale entry anyway? In 2011, Ho Tzu Nyen presented a video installation presciently called ‘The Cloud of Unknowing’, a wispy, sensory ‘journey’ which pretty much describes the future of the arts in Singapore.
Ming Wong did ‘Life of Imitation’ , another video installation for the 2009 event which requires split-brain syndrome to fully understand it. I wonder if they gave out free packs of Panadol at the Biennale like they dish out 3-D specs at a blockbuster movie. But you don’t need a ‘prestigious’ champagne-swirling event to bring out the best in our local artists. Sometimes you just need a pen company as a sponsor, like Faber Castell pitching Singaporean Chan Hwee Chong’s amazing spiral portraits drawn with ONE SINGLE CONTINUOUS LINE. Now this is GENIUS. Chan is a one man Biennale all by himself, and it’s a shame that he’s less well known at home than among the non-Singaporean internet community.
How convenient to choose the Olympics as an analogy for recognition in the arts, though I believe there are distinct differences between the two, even as purveyors argue over which should get greater attention and funding. In sports, for instance, people of different ages and backgrounds can rally together to support a national player or team, and games are relatively EASY to understand (cricket is an exception) though not necessarily everyone’s cup of tea. Art, in the award-winning, biennale-standard form, is anything but SIMPLE and often strives to be a personal journey of the ‘higher senses’. For every fermenting shark in a tank there is someone snipping off his pubes in public, and always someone lauding such baffling works as ‘masterpieces’. Most lay people find contemporary art frustrating, distant, highbrow and feel oestracised by the arts scene which has developed an exclusive appeal and magnetism of its own, while the ‘arty-farties’ thrive on being coolly ambiguous, nodding in appreciation while the rest of us scratch our heads. Let’s not forget that sport has the crowdpleasing, goosebump-inducing legacy of Malaysia Cup nostalgia behind it. Nothing wins votes like a minister turning up to support a national team in an away match. That’s why we pump in money for trophies and bronze medals, not top prizes in fancy art contests.
You would need an arts enthusiast to have a lively conversation and debate over art, while you can have a water cooler conversation with your boss or the security guard at the front desk over something as humdrum as sports. When people say they seek ‘intelligent conversation’ you know they’re not going to discuss football club trades but rather look to be impressed by your knowledge of the Renaissance. If you’re caught in an awkward speed date you’re likely to be saved by mentioning Feng Tianwei than UOB painting of the Year winner Bai Tianyuan. When people think contemporary art they don’t think Biennale, they think of that Chinese guy who paints himself into his surroundings like a chameleon. In the age of Instagram where anyone can show off artistic touches, actual artists need to differentiate themselves from cookie-cutter installations, and with a little help from the Internet and a brilliant idea coupled with a show-stopping talent, you could be the talk of the town, and you know you have succeeded if people discuss your work in place of ‘How’s the weather’, Biennale or No Biennale. Provided you don’t break the law of course, though that appears to be a surefire way to get noticed.
If there’s one thing in common between arts and sport it’s how hard it is to make a living out of either. But even as rivaling siblings with vastly different characters, we need both to keep society fresh, vibrant and distinctly HUMAN. Watering down arts to suit the pop-culture-fed masses may not be such a good idea if that means creating a rift between public perception and the upper crust of the arts community. In my opinion we have little to worry about. We won’t descend into a band of uncultured hoodlums just because we got pipped out of a world-class exhibition that only the arts folks seem protective about, while those of us who haven’t a clue about Biennales refrain from asking ‘What’s the big deal?’ in fear of being labelled a soulless troglodyte. But neither should we chase elusive golds and forget that there’s more to life than beating China in pingpong all the time.