I am writing in response to your article on the Singapore Biennale by John L. Tran (“Biennale takes good hard look in mirror” in the Jan. 29 edition), in which an intervention by myself at the Biennale symposium is cited. This fine piece sets out the challenges facing the Singapore Biennale as it moves forward in terms of 1) the contradiction of a culture of control and the freedom of expression and inquiry needed to meaningfully host such an event in the long term, 2) the tiredness, jadedness even, of the Biennale as a forum for art and 3) the apparent irrelevance of the event to the largely working people of Singapore.

I will come back to these points in my conclusion, but first I would like to address Tran’s reference to my “intervention.” I feel that his words “planned” and “aggressively” miss the tone and nuance of my action. I was able to articulate my thoughts with exceptional clarity as I had been struggling with the ideas I was expressing for a long time. The intervention itself was not planned. It was a spontaneous response to a question from the floor that went straight to the heart of my ruminations. With regard to aggression, I believe that I spoke gracefully, and the only part of my speech that can accurately be termed aggressive is when I said I would fight anyone who tried to take the microphone from me before I had finished.

It is a minor matter of honor that these points are clarified as they belie my intentions with regard to my action and the decorum with which I believe I approach my art and my discourse. Beyond this, however, these points also index a slippage of nuance and idiom in the global forums, markets and discourses on art. My intervention was not, as the article states, directed against “imperialism” as it was not even about it. It was, indeed, about “commercialism,” but again, it was not against it. My action was, in fact, a critique made with the aim of developing a better product for the now ubiquitous global art commerce. I spoke from the floor about how important but difficult it was for the artists of Southeast Asia to preserve the local and idiomatic qualities of their work as art itself transitions from a post-factum investment commodity into an a priori financial instrument, especially as the region gains a powerful global art hub in Singapore.

So what did I actually say? In summary, I revealed a problem I had been having with the administrators of the Singapore Biennale in requesting that my work be titled only in the Malay language. I located this anecdote within a general theory of the “loss of idiom” in the global exchange of Biennales. I also presented the gist of a broader theory of value in art.

In conclusion, while noting that this was not brought up in my action at the symposium, I would like to comment on Tran’s article. His summation of the challenges facing the Singapore Biennale is astute and I concur with his list. I feel, however, that the second challenge is not one that bears consideration here as its parameters are beyond local control. The planners of Singapore’s engagement with art seem to have understood the third challenge as a problem of the medium-term and their full-on schools and education programs are presently in evidence at every art institution. It is with regard to the first problem that the fathers of this far-sighted island nation may need a little convincing — that for Singapore’s continued ascendancy in the global art arena, the timing of the ongoing relaxation of their administrative idiom is critical and that, perhaps, a little recalibration may be in order.


The opinions expressed in this letter to the editor are the writer’s own and do not necessarily reflect the policies of The Japan Times.

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