The prep-rooms of NUS Museum look like a mess. There are papers strewn everywhere, random objects placed on the floor and walls. The display is provisional and significantly more cluttered than the beautiful, considered and finished exhibitions in the museum’s other galleries. Just a little out of place in a museum, which we in Singapore know very simply as a place where objects are collected and shown.
Yet, as any researcher should know, museums do more than just display objects in their collection. They are also a resource for research work into these objects or the stories around it. While less visible in Singapore’s museums, our museums also support the exploration and development work that comes with the production of knowledge. The prep-rooms in NUS Museum bring this important but often shadowed work into visibility, allowing us to venture in to find out what some people are working on nowadays.
So with that in mind, the prep-rooms begin to reveal the order in their madness. In Kate Pocklington’s prep-room, which on first look seems like a random jumble of rocks, crocodile photos and text, she is sorting, sieving and constructing an image of the crocodile in Singapore’s history, be it newspaper reports, urban legends, loch ness-like photographs or rocks. Once in a while, you may see her in the space considering the far wall, where she has stretched rope in a grid-like system. Coordinates are scribbled in pencil and guide her in plotting out where crocodiles have been seen in Singapore. It is a work in progress. The confusing display is exactly the point, as the prep-room is where people like Kate are continuously working out, spatially or otherwise, how data can be put together meaningfully.
So to rephrase the first statement: The prep-rooms of NUS Museum look like the fluid spaces of a researcher’s mind. Some parts make more sense than others and everything does not (yet) come together as a coherent whole. For what the prep-rooms do is give us visitors a look into what goes behind the sleek, final exhibition display and the researchers a chance to think carefully about what works and what does not. To take the example of Kate’s work, which has elements of communal negotiation, there is more than one story, sighting, or truth about the crocodile in Singapore. It takes time, work, and communication to tease out the final answer.
But of course, not every research project requires a final answer. In the common understanding of work, we would expect a final artwork, essay, exhibition and so on. However, research does not always lead up to that; artists, for instance, may produce art along the way rather than as an end product. In Fyerool Darma’s prep-room, he has appropriated artifacts from the museum’s collection and placing them with contemporary objects. Around the objects are printouts of text documents from museum’s collection. The display invites conversation and debate, which further fuels Fyerool’s research. At the end of his stay, Fyerool may not be producing an exhibition or bringing home any complete works of art (we don’t know yet) but he will have made headway in his practice, which is a liberalising change from product-based projects.
Another recent prep-room resident is U5. While in the prep-room, this Zurich-based artist collective were negotiating a strand in their work with Future Cities Laboratory. They used the space for Crater Studios, a sub grouping of people from the Future Cities Laboratory that were looking to respond to their work with Indonesia’s volcanoes artistically. U5’s renamed prep-room was used to explore as well as to meet with other collaborators in the project, further drawing from the strengths of the museum’s team, who constantly flit in and out of the space, as well as the scholars and curious public visitors who came by. U5, or Crater Studios, produced artistic propositions, performative experiments and installations. Many have dematerialised by the end of their stay, its material upcycled or re-appropriated for other experiments and work. For the essentialist, U5 has basically done nothing in the prep-room.
However, those who knew them would clearly see that they have grown. NUS Museum curator Sidd Perez, who worked with U5 in the prep-room and curated 17 Volcanoes notes that, “somehow, Crater Studios…became a rehearsal of how they would think of presenting their final work in the 17 Volcanoes exhibition.” The film that Perez referred to, The Human Crater, is not a direct product of their time in the prep-room. However, the experience inflected upon their process and perspective, which were refined by the expectation-light space of the prep-rooms. It is these forms of long-term impact that NUS Museum’s prep-rooms seek to address.
How do you conduct research in art? What is research for art? In our fast-paced society, where new artwork pops up at every turn and it seems like every artist is at every show, artistic practice may start to seem like factory production, constantly spitting out more and more and more works of art. However, as places like the prep-room indicate, our artists do more, and need more, than just produce works of art. They want to, and should, spend time thinking about their work, how their work is produced and why they produce these kinds of work (or any work at all). For being an artist is more than just producing artwork but about artistic practice, a idea that each individual artist needs to define for his or her own. Places like the NUS Museum provide artists sorely needed space and time to do just that, and since art lovers are a kind of artist themselves, we should also spend some time in the prep-room ourselves, as resident-visitors.
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