Rice For The Soul

Interview and photography by Charmaine Poh
Additional images courtesy of Singapore Art Museum

Set against the backdrop of the region’s cultural complexities and soaring economic development, this year’s Singapore Biennale is entitled If The World Changed, an artistic meditation on life in 21st century Southeast Asia. Since 2011, the biennale has been organized by the Singapore Art Museum. The museum’s director, Susie Lingham, who is also on the biennale’s advisory committee, has long been deeply involved with Singapore’s art scene. From the days when she co-founded the local 5th Passage art group, to her lifelong endeavours as a local artist, Susie has been a passionate figure in Singapore’s artistic landscape.

A former assistant professor with the visual and performing arts at the National Institute of Education, Susie holds a doctorate in literature, religion and philosophy from the University of Sussex in the United Kingdom. Last year, she held a solo exhibition at The Substation, entitled Turn, bringing the mediums of text, performance, and fine art together in an exploration of belief systems in an ever-changing world.

In light of the biennale’s opening, we sit down with Susie to hear her thoughts on art’s past, present, and future.

Jeremy Sharma, Terra Sensa-Lovell; 2013

Jeremy Sharma, Terra Sensa-Lovell; 2013

Coming from an art practitioner’s background, you’ve shared that you aren’t the traditional sort of art administrator. What makes you feel different from previous administrators, and what does this break from the norm illustrate?

For me personally, I’ve always put on quite a few hats. As a writer, an artist, an art critic, I’ve worked on different aspects of the field. I’m coming with a different range of skills. I think the skill set is important because working with art and artists—the sense is that I come from a deep place of understanding, and this understanding is relating to the process of art-making, and also art-thinking.

Sean Lee, The Garden; 2012–2013

Of course I can’t speak for every artist, but generally art-thinking. I also believe a thing called tacit knowledge; it goes beyond a 1-2-3-4 method. Me being in this position would be facilitating art-making processes better, rather than from bureaucracy—red-tape, in that sense.

How do you think Singapore’s art scene has evolved from the days when you first founded 5th Passage? What are some victories and some challenges?

Challenges, I think, remain. It’s just gotten a lot better in the sense that it’s not so alien now, I think the practice of art now is more mainstream. When I set up 5th Passage with Susan all those years ago, the National Arts Council (NAC) was barely there, and the only organization was The Substation, which was coming up at the same time.

susie lingham singapore art museum

Nge Lay, The Sick Classroom; 2013

Making things happen with the community was what we were doing. Students from LASALLE College of the Arts and Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts, a lot of them are able to be full-time artists now and that was unheard of. Art is not something that is an add-on or fluffy; it is essential to a sense of self. It’s beginning to dawn upon them.

Read more in The U Press N˚4 (Singapore edition).