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Visual Arts

Koh Nguang How

The art of the archive

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Published: 16 Oct 2019


Lorong Gambas (the first home of The Artists Village) was familiar in feel for some artists. The culture was of making do and cooperation, not so distant from the feel of the kampong. We borrowed used materials discarded by the museum, and other sorts of found objects. So The Artists Village was much more than a place. Other venues that shared a similar ethos included The Substation and Hong Bee Warehouse (the first now an institution, the second a short-lived artist run collective art production and display space), both coming later.

Title of artwork: Art Places
Date: 1 May – 12 Jul 2015
Location: Jendela (Visual Arts Space)

In recent decades, space, time, and the viewer have found their place in artworks, installation and performance. These tangible and intangible elements have been incorporated as building blocks of innovative practices that we know today as regional contemporary art.

In Singapore, shared space, especially, has been co-opted into production and display, with artists weaving together public space and the collective in art from the 1980s onwards. The formation of The Artists Village in the late 1980s is among the most visible beginnings of the use of non-private urban and non-art specific zones for the siting of art. Once outside the institutional frame of the museum, gallery or art school, visual art works, fluid, site-specific, and sometimes performative, tended to become collective-oriented, relying on networks of people in one place, or sometimes in several different places, for their execution and reception.

Art’s location in public areas tells of its evolving vocation as a voice expanding civil society. Simultaneously, the widening of artistic expression’s production arena influences its content, art pieces, object or performance-based, encroaching on shared terrain, engaging broad publics on topics of collective relevance. Such art may adopt an active attitude because accessible to the wider community, it invites response, rather than mere contemplation.

Here in Singapore, where artists have developed a distinctive performance practice, place and collective have become inexorably intertwined. This reveals how spaces of art are as much about people and exchange, as they are about physical structures or institutional walls.

Singapore artist and archivist Koh Nguang How (b. 1963) was a founding member of The Artists Village. From his experience working at the National Museum Art Gallery in the 1980s, Koh garnered an interest in documenting and archiving new local and regional art and art-related events and from there, became a pioneering researcher and recorder of Singapore 20th century art, with a focus on The Artists Village, Tang Da Wu, and performance. Integral to Koh’s research has been his multiple functions as the creator of the ‘Singapore Art Archive Project’ which assembles photographs, newspaper clippings, catalogues, and books attesting to the vibrancy and layering of the local scene.

Due to his combined roles as document-collector/maker, and active artistic participant, Koh offers insights into evolutions in art in Singapore in the 1980s-1990s, the latter impacted by the dramatic shifts in artists’ use and understanding of space and people-networks in the construction of art.

For Esplanade’s Jendela, and to mark Singapore’s 50 years of nationhood, Koh Nguang How has grouped a series of photographs in an exhibition called Art Places that is all about particular sites in the city-state where art was made, shown, or performed in the formative years of Singapore contemporary art up to recently. Culled from Koh Nguang How’s extensive archive that covers several decades of Singapore contemporary art history, Art Places brings together some 160 images in black and white or colour.

The stills are both documents, recording artistic events in time and place, as well as works of photographic art in their own right. The photographs on display are of different types. Some are informal shots of Singapore and sometimes foreign artists and friends at work or in repose in a variety of settings, indoor and outdoor. Other frames show works of art being installed, or fully set-up. Yet others are artful landscapes shot by Koh Nguang How when he re-visited past performance or art installation sites.

Organised in thematically titled sets of photographs, through this sectioning the exhibition organically exposes ways of characterising art in the collective in Singapore: ‘Art at Home’, ‘Off the Walls, into the street’, ‘Art in Found Spaces’, ‘Art in Nature’, ‘Taking over Public Squares’, ‘Art on the Go’, ‘Art in the Classroom’, and ‘Remnants’. Documents of significant events such as Zai Kuning’s and Azman Mohamed’s 1991 Air Hunter performance are paired with images of more recent performances to establish connections between artistic methodologies and usages of space.

Frames of artists working as early as the 1980s in community areas—The Art Commandos at the Toa Payoh Central—and shopping malls reveal the Singapore avant garde’s interest in innovation that incorporates social engagement and formal-methodological change. Images of Tour de Art Lah! of 1996 that document The Artists Village works performed and touring Singapore on a bus offer yet another view on fresh approaches to art-making, display, and audience interpellation that are traits of early contemporary art in the city-state.

Art Places is not merely a photography exhibition boasting visually and semantically compelling images. Rather, in addition, it represents a substantial swathe of Singapore art history narrated from the rare and valuable perspective of the Singapore artist-documentalist Koh Nguang How.

I was especially interested in performance documentation because of the genre’s ephemeral nature and as a live form, its unpredictability. I had no money for a decent video camera, and shooting still images did not involve copyright issues, so I shot stills to record the performances. I started photographing performance in 1987 when the National Museum Art Gallery presented “Four Days at National Museum Art Gallery” by Tang Da Wu.


Read Koh Nguang How's 2015 interview with Iola Lenzi

Visual Arts at Esplanade

Commissioned, curated and thematically developed by our Visual Arts team, Esplanade's quarterly exhibitions feature established and emerging artists whose contemporary Asian artistic expressions not only chronicle the issues and sentiments of the region, but also offer vital insight into the complexities of our changing cultural landscapes and identities. These shorts essays and interviews act as complementary material to the exhibitions, allowing for a richer and fuller perspective on the artists and their practice.

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