Four Questions: Ian Woo in Conversation with Ahmad Mashadi
Ahmad Mashadi: I would like to start by discussing your recent exhibition ”Island Vernacular”. The exhibition was positioned to reflect on the affinity of practices between Milenko Prvacki’s and yours, and I am quoting from the exhibition text: “the relevance of Singapore as context for such enquiry”. There are two points here: the latter that locates Singapore, the local, as site of practice, seemingly remarkable for its distance to discursive centres that seem to lie elsewhere, and the former, a chance encounter with another practice, i.e. Milenko’s, perhaps simultaneous and parallel, its itinerancy and origin affirm a universal, or shared attitudes and purpose. Beyond their utility as a curatorial position, do these ideas point towards your reflections on contexts and the kind of contemporaneity that collapses geographies, cultures, and their histories?
Ian Woo: I first met Milenko in the nineties in Singapore just as I returned from Europe looking for a teaching tenure. We hit it off immediately, having similar interests in contemporary art history and of course, painting. He introduced me to Soutine, I in turn introduced him to Tuymans. The moment we were familiar with each other’s practice, I suspect we made attempts at finding ways to differentiate each other’s investments in our vocabulary of painting practices. Milenko had affirmed this by mentioning that his work was non-abstract while mine was closer to the abstract mode. However, I sense that because both of us were using a European Modernist mode of expression – one that is focussed on marks and debris rather than realism – it created within the art audience in Singapore an inevitable exoticism surrounding the painterly ‘otherness’. It was conveniently concluded that we did the same kind of art, though this was not completely inaccurate. Therefore, we had to find ways to distinguish our positions. Milenko was using painting as a platform for relearning his place in our part of the world, reconnecting his history as well as looking for new context within Singapore and the region. Mine was a multiplied residue of the ‘body’ within the pictorial. I tend to quote painting history in the form of painting gesture and use it in compositionally fraught ways: exploring arrangements between elements and combining painting styles that may not be related. It is an attempt to rediscover relationships between opposites and similarities, a search for curious systems within painting, hoping to find new imagery.
You use the words ‘universal’ and ‘collapse’. I see painting as an arrangement of memory and the act of looking as a function of memory. It’s a buildup of signs, driven by character and ambition to present a personal perspective. I see parallels with the way we communicate with language and the interpretation of language itself. The act of painting and looking tells me what I remember, rather than the other way round, so it is a conversation between materiality and self. What I see as a potential to develop in the painting process may be useless to another.
The idea of ‘collapse’ is perhaps a reflection of the state of the world from modernity to the post-war period. I have no experience of war except my contribution to National Service and my superficial reading of the depiction of war in the media. So my question is: Collapse from what? I think that any ideas of deconstruction should stem from resolved and constructed ideals being put in situations of anticipation or even distress, something akin to ideas found in Aaron Betsky’s architectural text “Violated Perfection” (1990). Singapore, just like any growing new city state, is complex. It’s constantly changing, chasing its own tail, constantly in the process of restructuring itself and its histories. I believe that to reflect on culture through only what we see around us would be simplistic or naïve. What about our personal engagement with the world through the Internet? I think in art-making there is a lot of borrowing from the vault of imageries, but how do we use it? The difference in how we read images is not clearly demarcated from country to country; it’s blurred. Perhaps that could be a form of ‘collapse’. I see beauty in the confusion or slippages of visual identities and use these elements in my painting, creating dream spaces. These spaces are psychic separations from the everyday structures and pretentions of the state, a kind of tension between the real world and the imaginary.
AM: An exhibition, I think, makes its own demands. The predicament being simultaneously addressed and skirted at tangent through the “Island Vernacular” exhibition is relatedness and agency. ‘Related’ in a sense that the residue you mentioned contains the familiar – quotes, gestures, and attitudes – traceable to the broader history of painting and in particular abstraction; ‘agency’, by way of an artist’s encounter, interactions, interpretation, and play with those systems as an affective and productive labour, the slippages that generate newer or individuated signs that you have rightly identified. Relatedness and agency is a twinning that prospects this question of context-making in an exhibition. What you have mentioned so far resonates in that it suggests an approach not incumbent on cultural or national constructs, but rather choices and urges, in that Singapore and its histories cannot be a determinate context, and the self is far more reflexive of its own experiences. How far invested are you as an artist in transacting the curatorial where it demands clarity in relation to contexts and their politics?
IW: I think there is a perceived tension between the artist and the curator. The maker is guarded, perhaps, for elusiveness is a way to protect information that would compromise readings of the work. The informed curator takes on positions that present the work in ways that shape narratives: that of the artist, the work of art, location [in reference to geography] and premonitions, history-making. You are referring to the written and verbal articulation and framing of art, something that I struggle with. In situations like this a curator as observer could act as affirmation of certain doubts and speculations about the artist. A curator also provides momentary framing of works made at different periods of the artist’s life, providing perimeters which one can anchor to. At times, a curator could also provide solution to an artist’s problem as reader of works. However, while the maker is in the mist of exploration, these considerations cannot yet be regarded. The curator’s observations partially assert my choices in art-making but they cannot be used as a platform for every work I make. They are two different circles waiting to overlap. Two circles which propose the evolvement of the present, the future and the past. The maker is in the present and future of every work while the observer receives traces of it, the past.
My painting process straddles between confidence and the condition of being lost. As soon as painting provides me with aspects of form, I start to find ways to unravel it. It’s a way of developing permutations that could surprise me. I spend the bulk of my time looking at the painting, being the observer, and asking myself questions about ways in which the work should be going. All of this is dependent on my alertness to how the substance of paint is changing from liquid to solid. It is a process of mapping the trace of painting, an instantaneous becoming of structure. In terms of my relation to the politics of art, I see my practice as having relationships to the history of abstraction and certain modes of biomorphic painting. However, that would be an oversimplification. Recently, I have been interested in the pastel colours used in animated cartoon, especially the difference between American and Japanese productions. I could also propose that the aesthetic of my painting can be read as a visual metaphor to the system of the politics of our time. Whether a curator would pick on that and expound on is not for me to expect nor demand. I could only suggest. But the observer may choose to read otherwise. If one were to consider the opinions of the curator and artist as structures to be superimposed one on top of the other, I believe there could be areas that are analogous but most of them would be irregular, surprising, always unstable and shifting – with a life of their own.
AM: What is interesting here is the relationships between artistic production, its reception, mediated through curatorial means, and the critical or art historical positions proposed, tentative or resolved. The utility of the curatorial device is often situational, utilised to seek or affirm connections concomitant to the exhibition’s aims, declared or otherwise. ‘World’ and ‘global’ become prefixes that sought to explain to various degrees practices that are independent yet connected, and interrelated yet ordered, where histories and agencies are accorded varying significance, complicated by post-coloniality, nationalism and the modernities they produce. This requires a sort of mapping of practices so as to build up a complex picture. You mentioned your earlier fascination with Luc Tuymans and there would be other affinities as well, and what is interesting is that your resistance towards a certain kind of authenticity usually claimed through nation and ethnicity. How do you respond?
IW: It’s more suspicion than resistance. In terms of relating to history and identity, I did some ink painting for a couple of months when I was a student at the NAFA [Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts] but I could not take its ritual and position seriously. I love the fissures in ink painting, but I also cannot stop looking at Mughal miniatures, especially the use of pastel colours and brush mark variations. I get distracted by these histories of painting. I want to combine the styles and unpack them.
Lately, I have been looking at Farquhar’s commissioned natural history paintings and I am stealing some bits of these for my work. But I like to combine them with a sense of the plastic, the electronic, throw history off its course… I am easily distracted when I paint, so before I can complete a painting of a flower, I start thinking about some edge of a toy part! I think this is why I am at a loss when someone asks me about identity and ethnicity in my art. It’s a blur suddenly.
I would like to believe that I am authentic about my practice, the decisions I make in relation to the senses. I am interested in the everyday occurrences between things, the marks and outlines that map the everyday. There is a story of how Mark Tobey brought John Cage for a walk around the block. What was usually a short walk was extended into a prolonged journey of observation of the everyday. They were looking at every detail and nuance of their surrounding. Similarly, what inspire me are the subtle details of the environment. These could also include the element of sound; I would like to believe they are like signals appearing in the space between shape and colour. My problem with subscribing to discourses about nation and ethnicity is that it starts with histories that at times have nothing to do with my day-to-day experience. I am not saying we are to deny it, but it is in a way not relevant to me as a working strategy – unless I am illustrating in a painting.
AM: The titles given to the works, such as “Dream Sushi and the Beginning of Independence”, suggest the anecdotal, and in some ways echo the layerings of forms and lines in your works, building up like utterings and fractured speech. The broad swathes of colours, short frenetic lines that cut sharply across planes, they encounter, interrupt, penetrate and displace one another. This makes possible for the notion of the provisional, of the idea of transformation and becoming, but one that is somewhat elusive and having a certain impossibility, constantly oscillating between stasis and counteraction. In reading these paintings as process, the title acts less of a caption and rather like a narration that accompanies a moving image. It is in effect also a running commentary that mediates actions taking place in an artist’s studio. The figure(s) or the recognisable suggested in the title forms simultaneously a reference as much as it prompts a re-signification – indeterminacy made productive through constrain?
IW: Like most of my titles, this one is personal and silly. It was based on the memory of seeing my son consuming a dish of sushi in the blink of an eye. He just turned 13 that day. Does the painting represent that? No. Should I be telling you this? I am not sure, but I just did.
I see titles like these fitting for my paintings as they suggest the superfluity of naming an artwork. I guess it is my response to the notion of clarity and representation. I get carried away at times and learn to live with titles like these. Indulgence.
On the other hand, you are right that these titles come from fleeting thoughts or small conversations, even inner conversations with myself. They are like a soundtrack to a film, an accompaniment to the images you see. They function as separate parts that are waiting to be locked together. Incidentally, I do pretend that I am making moving images when I paint.
Your point about ‘indeterminacy made productive through constrain’ seems to suggest that some level of recognisability caps the randomness of form. This is inevitable as I find it difficult at this point in contemporary art to accept absolutes and formal ideals. I would like to think that any form of abstraction always suggests a mode of the representational. I guess my hesitancy and momentary confidence are signs of me plodding along fearfully in search for some signs of life within the picture frame. Either that or it suggests that I am constantly unsure of my moves, suspicious maybe.
By the way, I talk to myself in the studio. I think everyone does. The lonely painter, the perfect cliché.
Ahmad Mashadi is Head of NUS Museum, National University of Singapore. Recent exhibitions curated include Camping and Tramping Through the Colonial Archive (2011) tracing the museological imaginary of colonial Malaya, and Heman Chong: Calendars 2020-2096 (2011) featuring Chong’s latest body of photographs based on Singapore. He also initiated Curating Lab (2012), a curatorial intensive and internship programme for Singapore students and recent graduates.