Art Radar caught up with the curator and artist representing Singapore at the 2019 Venice Biennale.
Curator Michelle Ho and artist Song-Ming Ang discuss their project for the next Venice Biennale.
2019 will mark Singapore’s ninth participation in the Venice Biennale since 2001. For the occasion, the Singapore Pavilion will present an exhibition titled “Music for Everyone: Variations on a Theme”, by multidisciplinary artist Song-Ming Ang and curated by Michelle Ho.
Born in 1980, Song-Ming Ang is known for his interest in how individuals or societies interact with music. The work at the Biennale will extend the artist’s practice of using music as “a platform to explore ideas of public involvement and the various ways people relate to music, both individually and as a society”.
Ang’s presentation will embrace a variety of media, drawing from experimental music practices as well as amateurism to focus on the vision of “Music for Everyone”. The title derives from a series of concerts organised by Singapore’s Ministry of Culture in the 1970s and 1980s.
A major component of his presentation will be Recorder Rewrite, a new work based on the recorder, a music instrument that has been part of Singapore’s music education in schools since the 1970s. Other works on show will include developments of earlier ones such as You and I, in which Ang compiled and mailed out personalised CD-R mix-tapes as a response to anyone who wrote him a letter.
In August 2018, Art Radar reached out to curator Michelle Ho and the artist to find out more about the upcoming Singapore Pavilion exhibition in Venice.
Congratulations on representing Singapore at the 58th Venice Biennale next year in 2019. What has changed for you since the announcement?
Song-Ming Ang (SMA): The Venice Biennale is an important platform for artists, so there’s definitely some self-imposed pressure and stress that comes along with it. I’m just trying to stay focused and also hopefully enjoy the process of putting the show together.
The 58th Venice Biennale is the ninth edition of the biennale that Singapore will be participating in, but you are the first artist-curator duo to present an entire exhibition that is almost exclusively sound-based. Could you tell us more about your relationship with the sonic, and the role that it plays in your practice?
Michelle Ho (MH): Sound-based artist Zulkifle Mahmod had also participated in the Singapore Pavilion, Venice Biennale 2007, in a group presentation alongside Tang Da Wu, Vincent Leow and Jason Lim. Many artists working with new media have long recognised sound as a critical element, and its role in opening up new dimensions of understanding and empathy. Unlike visual art, sound is invisible. Curating the practices of artists working with this medium involves translating it into a tangible experience, with the context of the artwork in question. Song-Ming’s practice engages with video, objects and other material that relate to his interest in music.
SM: I have always enjoyed music, and working as an artist allows me to expand on the many ways society relates to music. In a way, I see myself as a translator between art and music. I think a lot about how music is produced, disseminated and experienced, kind of an equivalent to what we know as visual culture, but performed in relation of the aural. And from there on, my process of art-making is actually quite intuitive.
You will present “Music for Everyone: Variations on a Theme” in Venice next year. The title of the show is a namesake of a series of concerts also titled “Music for Everyone” that took place in Singapore in the 1970s and 1980s, organised by Singapore’s then Ministry of Culture, to promote public appreciation of the arts. What drew you to the original “Music for Everyone”, and that particular moment in Singapore’s cultural and artistic history?
MH: Consider the music scene today, where there are a lot more options of music, and different kinds of music concerts to enjoy. The Esplanade (a performing arts venue in Singapore) also organises various programmes catered to different genres – from classical to electronic to indie. Free concerts continue to be part of their mandate to keep music accessible and free for all. The music scene has certainly evolved, and the preoccupation to bring people together continues to be a priority for the state. It opens up questions of what the galvanising of “publics” mean, and the role of arts and music.
SM: I discovered the “Music for Everyone” concerts through their posters via the National Archives of Singapore as I was researching on music-related matter. There’s about a hundred music concert posters of events organised by the then-Ministry of Culture and the now-defunct National Theatre Trust. Many of the posters have this beautiful, modernist ’70s aesthetic, but what really struck me was the dedication on the part of the government to introduce music to the people. Yet, once you get deeper into the concert programmes, you’ll realise that they mainly centre on classical music appreciation, nation-building, and forging diplomatic relations. So there are definitely state agendas at work, and I think this makes for a good starting point for me to examine as an artist, in terms of what ‘music for everyone’ could mean.
How does it resonate with your artistic and curatorial practices now, and the larger context of contemporary art and exhibition-making in Singapore – particularly with the current 21st-century wave of ‘identitarian’ art-making in view?
MH: A lot of artists have been looking into facets of social, cultural and political histories as fertile subject matter in contemporary art-making. In recent years, we have also begun to see historical documents and archive material being used by artists to deliberate on positions, or question policies of the past. Artists and curators engaging with such material have to ask themselves how they are using them in ethical and productive ways. It is also primarily a responsibility. Subject matters in art can be expanded into different trajectories and narratives, so it is important to discern what is of priority in the context of a given platform, or project. In this instance, one of the curator’s role is to rethink, and work with the artist to present his work to an audience who may not be familiar with his practice, and yet convey the meaning of what may be culturally-specific nuances of the work in question, and maintain a spirit of authenticity.
SM: In all honesty, I’m not particularly concerned about making work as a ‘Singaporean artist’, or for that matter, as a ‘sound artist’ or ‘conceptual artist’, etc. One of the things I’m trying to do, whether successfully or not, is to evade such labels and conventions in my work. I find it troubling that art has generally been reduced to being read in terms of where it comes from, what subject-matter it deals with, and what movement it belongs too. It makes it too easy for artists to ride certain trends and simply ‘check the boxes’ for their works to circulate. My main preoccupation is how to make good art while transcending these conventions that can limit my art practice.
Part of what you are trying to do with your presentation of “Music for Everyone” in Venice is to turn the idea of ‘public’ on its head, alluding to participation in the arts from the ground-up. One aspect of this involves inviting the public to write letters to the artist – and in return, Song-Ming makes individual mixtapes for everyone who writes to him. There seems to be a participatory vein in both of your practices: Michelle, in your career as a curator who has held many different appointments, collaboration with different agents across the art world is key, and Song-Ming, the idea of inviting people to write to you spawned from an older body of work, You and I, which you produced from 2009-2012. Could you tell us more about your views on the role of collaboration in artistic production?
SM: I’ve received three letters so far this time despite not openly publicising the project. They’ve been sitting in my studio in-tray for the last two months and I feel terribly sorry that I haven’t been able to respond to them. But I will try to get to them after finishing this interview. Actually some of my works are very insular and introverted, but yes, some of them are collaborative and participatory. For me, working with the public or the audience enables unexpected outcomes to be generated in my work. It probably stems from my interest in avant garde music, in which chance operations and improvisation can feature heavily. Also, I think that working together with the audience can be challenging and rewarding for both parties. I like the fact that participants can customise their experiences for themselves in some of my works.
MH: Every project or space has its own set of characteristics, governing frameworks and agendas, as well as quirks. I’m glad to have had the opportunity to work with so many different artists and situations. I think it is important to approach each project with a fresh perspective – draw from the lessons of past experiences, but also continue to have a sense of adventure and try new approaches, and be able to surprise ourselves, as well as our audiences in meaningful ways.
What is in the works for you as we build up towards the opening of the Venice Biennale next May?
SM: I recently had a two-person show with Lai Yu Tong, a younger Singaporean artist who makes really good works, at I_s_l_a_n_d_s, a pop-up gallery initiated by independent curator Tan Pey Chuan. This took place across seven display windows at Peninsula Shopping Centre in Singapore. I will also be participating in another biennale but I’ve just signed the non-disclosure agreement, so I can’t tell you more about it!
Soh Kay Min
“Music for Everyone: Variations on a Theme” by Song-Ming Ang will be on view from 11 May to 24 November 2019 at the Singapore Pavilion at the 58th Venice Biennale, Arsenale – Sale d’Armi, Campo della Tana 2169/F, Venice, Italy.