Words: Elizabeth Gan
Photos: Mark Teo
“I am an artist and art-researcher. Whether I’m an archivist, you can decide for yourself,” says Koh Nguang How with an enigmatic glint in his eyes. An antithesis to the customary white cube space that has become synonymous with contemporary art, his studio is housed in bustling Gillman Barracks as part of The Centre for Contemporary Art (CCA) Singapore Residencies programme. Upon entry, one is immediately arrested by a spectacle of posters, books, catalogues, film negatives, photographs, and even old-school cassettes—audio documentations of performances by local contemporary art pioneers—upon entering his studio. All of them painstakingly collected by Koh as part of his self-initiated Singapore Art Archive Project (SAAP).
Touring the space, a cassette player softly plays a performance recording in the background as Koh enters a discussion with a fellow artist over catalogues and newspaper clippings archived in folder boxes neatly categorised by year.
A former performance artist, Koh was a member of notable art collective The Artist Village which made significant contributions to the popularity of performance art in the late 80s and early 90s. Wandering around the part-studio, part-presentation space, one senses that Koh’s SAAP is an archive-as-art-in-progress. After all, central to the CCA Residencies Programme is an emphasis on research and avenues of knowledge complementary to contemporary artistic practices as opposed to a straightforward production of work for exhibition. More than just a practicing artist since 1988, Koh has also previously worked in the National Museum Art Gallery as a Museum Assistant and as researcher in the pilot Fukuoka Asian Art Museum Researcher/Curator in Residence Programme in 1999.
Gallery & Studio sits down with Koh to elucidate on how his on-going SAAP project – established since 2005 – is shaping into at Gillman Barracks.
What got you started on documenting and collecting materials related to contemporary art in Singapore from the 1980s?
As an independent researcher attempting to make sense of Singapore art history, I found resources few and far between as we have yet to establish a formal archive on Singapore art. Documenting and collecting materials was my means to cope with my independent research demands.
In your own words, what is the SAAP project about?
I began amassing archival materials since 1999 but the “Singapore Art Archive Project” was only initiated in 2005. It is based on my own personal collection of materials related to Singapore art, artists and art events that have taken place locally. Each SAAP project is a site-specific installation as I have to be very selective about the items I am retrieving from my personal collection in giving due consideration on how to best present a certain theme or topic within a certain space. What you see here is only a fraction of what I have. In a formal archive, it is expected that materials are typically not accessible to the public unless requested for. While I work with similar materials, here, the public is allowed to sieve through the materials at their own time based on what I have chosen to make available. Hence it is an archive project.
How does your archive project differ from other archives?
In a formal archive, it is expected that materials are typically not accessible to the public unless requested for. While I work with similar materials, here, the public is allowed to sieve through the information at their own time based on what I have chosen to make available. Hence I am quite emphatic that this is a (curated) “archive project” and not a proper archive! After all these years we still lack a formal local art archive.
How different situating SAAP at CCA as compared to staging it at the 3rd Singapore Biennale in 2011?
For “Artists in the News”, I was making a certain statement about Singapore art solely through my newspaper cuttings collection. If you noticed, I added a subtext “Artists Not in the News?” to highlight the danger of exclusively relying on news articles as a primary source of information about the artistic landscape in Singapore.
For this project at CCA, you will notice more than newspaper clippings for a start. I have carved out this space for different documentations mediums. For example, along one side of the wall presents a whole range of posters reflecting the gamut of international exhibitions that used to be presented at the former National Museum Art Gallery in the 1980s.
How do you hope to interact with your audiences?
For example, along one side of the wall presents a series of 1980s art exhibition posters from the former National Museum Art Gallery. This reflects the gamut of international exhibitions supported by the cultural consulate of foreign embassies, which Singaporeans were exposed to. Such exhibitions declined upon the inception of the Singapore Art Museum (SAM). How has the nature of art exhibitions that a layperson is exposed to locally and how it shapes our perception of what contemporary art is about is something I am interested for my audience to sit on. I am interested in bringing to light narratives that have not yet been formally documented, or recognised in our local art history.
What kind of reception have you received about your work?
There has been quite a bit of interest regarding access to information on the gamut of works by The Artist Village and Tang Da Wu. Situated in a research-based residency, I have also come into more contact with international curators and artists. Some of the more common questions over my materials would be regarding Singapore Woodcuts from the 30s to the 70s and Performance art.
Would you like to tell us about your plans and development for SAAP after CCA?
I am in talks to sell my archival collection to a public institution. This would be ideal as should I pass on, the archive would still be available to the public in some ways. I am also interested in having a more comprehensive presentation of the Shui Tit Sing Collection in future. In this CCA exhibition, I have limited space hence his archival materials are relegated only to a small area. However, I believe that if funds permit, I would like to devote myself to researching and informing on local Chinese artists such as Ms Chng Seok Tin, whose contributions were integral in the development of modern art practices in Singapore but have been left to oblivion.
Koh Nguang How’s Singapore Art Archive Project (SAAP) is housed at the Centre for Contemporary Arts, Gillman Barracks. For more information, visit Gillmanbarracks.com/cca
This story was first published in Vol 3 of Gallery & Studio.