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Curatorial Essay: Residency as method

Updated: Mar 9, 2020

Curatorial Essay by Kimberly Shen. Published in the exhibition catalogue of The Art Incubator 6: Residency as Method at the Institute of Contemporary Arts Singapore, 13 February - 28 March 2015

To question the initial impetus as to why an artist embarks on a residency, we should ask if it is simply about embracing change, overcoming fear, or (almost perversely) to induce some sort of self-inflicted trauma by being in a new environment? Perhaps the main attraction of this experimental retreat is one of privilege and uncertainty since the artist is free of routine and withdrawn from familiarity. By responding to different environments, artists are drawn out of their comfort zones unfettered by geographical familiarities and pushed to question their processes. Most residencies anticipate an output in the form of new work, artist-led discussions and curatorial texts, but these programmes are largely flexible in structure, allowing the artist to create freely. To read, research, and create work with access of archives, studio spaces, libraries and communities, is surely a luxury away from the confines of regularity.

This sixth cycle of The Art Incubator brings together artists anGie seah, Godwin Koay, and Sufian Samsiyar, who completed residencies at the Victorian College of the Arts (Melbourne, Australia), Bamboo Curtain Studio (Taipei, Taiwan) and 98B (Manila, Philippines) respectively. Understanding their concerns, ideas and processes, it felt unfair to impose a thematic thread on such divergent practices. Instead, it seemed far more compelling to acknowledge their practice individually, and focus on why they chose to undergo a residency. By exploring this exhibition under the notion of residencies as a method, space and approach towards art practice and research, it reaffirms the dynamic ways in which artists make art today.

Away from their usual obligations, residencies become a form of playtime for many artists – meeting new people and initiating collaborations, discovering new material and developing processes. Through establishing the site as an expansion of their practice, the artist may use this as a springboard or point of departure to revisit unrealised ideas and projects. Although anGie’s works are multidisciplinary in nature, she is usually associated with her performative sound work. Her motivation to visit Melbourne was fuelled by her desire to record the voice of the Australian indigenous people. It is interesting to note that her residency at VCA culminated in a sizeable series of clay work, her first foray to this sculptural form since her days at school. Often referring to female anatomy, the sculptures are feminine and rich in symbolism. These raw and oddly shaped pieces of clay have a tactile quality, as though she had pressed them into her palm and left them as they were.

anGie’s artwork is guided by the paradox of sacredness, which she believes speaks of the indescribable element of everyday life, as opposed to spirituality and religion. While working with the students of VCA, she conducted a water ensemble workshop, sharing her methodology of working with voice. This resulted in an intensely emotive performance entitled Scream Ensemble. The primal and ritualistic quality is evident as the artist and her participants screamed together and individually into their basins of water. As their voices ring sonorously through the space, it is a captivating yet haunting, and powerful yet vulnerable experience.

Residencies may also be viewed as practice-led research as they enable on-going dialogue around, between and within the artist, artwork, context and practice. Although research is termed a systematic inquiry and acquisition of knowledge, there is less a methodical schema and more of an experiential attitude towards how artists relate and create through the communal environment of an artist residency. To create tangents between an artist’s lived environment and the notion of displacement, artists are allowed to observe new infrastructures which facilitate the creation of new work.

During his time at Bamboo Curtain Studio, Godwin was primarily focused on the ideas of ‘proximity’, ‘remoteness’ and ‘urgency’. His first overseas residency provided the distance he needed to examine his practice and refine his concerns, while his experience as a Chinese-Singaporean situated in a predominantly Chinese-speaking city offered a different perspective on identity represented within this hegemonic and cultural sphere. The works created after his residency are direct responses to the Sunflower movement in Taiwan and the occupation of its legislative council. Framed through familiar new media tools such as Google maps and Instagram, the series content flagged for surveillance imagines a fictional Singapore situated within a vastly different political climate. These images become a device with which to explore possibilities in civil and political expression. While working remotely from Singapore and France, Godwin collaborated with artists and designers to produce assorted paraphernalia of printed matter for content slated for destruction. Via this ‘remote working group’ of individuals, content is produced and accumulated collectively, blurring the boundaries of authorship.

In spite of having to contextualise their practice in a new space, it is worth noting that the artists’ concerns remain consistent, coherent and unchanged. Sufian wanted to address his experiences living in a developing city such as Manila, and our assumptions about modernity and urban landscapes. While in residence at 98B, he created an installation in response to his experience of the flash floods in Manila, delineating away from his usual photography practice. Still he chose to return to a familiar medium with this final exhibition, with work that is clearly a continuation of his earlier photographic work. His series, Retrospectare Santa Cruz is a manipulation of images of the city – multi-layered and translucent, claustrophobic and otherworldly. As ghostly human figures blend in and out of the urbanscape, the series underlines the fears of modern metropolises, overwhelmed by rapid globalisation and terrified of unknown futures. Despite the similar cityscapes in most of his works, Sufian is looking at new ways of articulating his concerns through various methods of printing and experimenting with formats of presentation.

With a growing interest in residencies in Singapore, the featured archival reading corner of the exhibition aims to further discourse on residencies as a methodology. The material contributed by local residency programmes under Grey Projects, Instinc, Objectifs, The Artists Village and Tropical Lab details the exhibitions, artists-in-residence and their works. There has been criticism towards residencies – questions of its relevance to research and its usefulness. It is too idealistic to assume that residencies redefine practices: how much can possibly change within a short period of time through a superficial engagement of the environment? When so far removed from reality, it is only natural for artists to focus energies on adapting to new living conditions and exploring the new sights and sounds, let alone create new work.

While there is no denying the benefits of the networks and relationships formed thus enabling dialogue through communal environments, it might be more pertinent to ask what happens post-residency. What is the outcome and who does it serve eventually, the artist or the residency space? There may not be a definitive answer and it is more relevant to understand the artistic psyche and landscape of art today, and to acknowledge the pluralistic ways of making art. Ultimately, these residencies function as points of convergence, as one of the multiple conditions that allow artists to further articulate their practice and expand the tropes of their research.

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