Friendships and collaborations in practice
By Ian Tee
Samantha Yap shuffles between writing and project management across the fields of art and design. Focusing on the exploration and application of feminist theory, she is interested in perspectives across writing and visual culture. Samantha’s writing has been featured in the poetry anthology 'My Lot Is a Sky' (2018) as well as various art exhibition catalogues.
We speak to Samantha on the occasion of two recent curatorial projects, 'at second sight' at Coda Culture and 'Session #7' at Peninsular. In this interview, we discuss creative processes both exhibitions, and how friendships and collaboration play out in her practice.
We last met at Coda Culture for 'at second sight', an exhibition that featured new works by Singaporean artists Khairullah Rahim and Leonard Wee. As its title suggests, the show focused on the practice of relooking and the repetitive gesture of returning as it relates to the artists' creative process. Interestingly, Khairullah and Leonard are studio mates for the last two years! How did the premise for 'at second sight' come about? And what were the conversations you had with them?
It was great talking to you at Coda Culture! Thank you for taking the time to visit.
I would say the fact that they are studio mates is very much the exhibition’s originating impetus. The idea of the show started from the proximity they and their works share, with a consideration of formalising this connection into a kind of collaboration. I was brought in as a friend and curator to become a mutual point of contact and an interlocutor. Khairullah primarily works through assemblage and Leonard with painting. Even though the visual outputs differ, their processes shared a lot of affinity and there were many points in conversations where we all met.
The exhibition title, 'at second sight', references this idea of returning. It specifically revises the axiomatic liner of “love at first sight” which has often served as an idealised starting point in our visions of love, romance and feelings. The show looks instead at the second take, the following moment, the thread of continuity that comes after the moment of importance. The urge to revise and revisit this liner was inspired by a Japanese phrase, “Koi No Yokan” (恋の予感), which loosely translates to “a premonition of love”. I liked how it suggested the significance of someone or something can be intuited at first before acquiring greater meaning over time. The only concrete thing at that moment is feeling or intuition.
Eve Sedgwick also has a quote about knowledge as the gift of time: "It's hard to recognise that your whole being, your soul doesn't move at the speed of cognition. That it could take you a full year to really know something that you intellectually believe in a second.” Sharing these texts in our conversations helped us to recognise the premise of the show as dancing around intuition, feeling, time, process and recursive passages.
You also wrote some short passages and text fragments which were scattered around the show. For instance, a vinyl sticker along the corridor leading to the gallery reads: "Return to the small intimacies that escape". It seems like an appeal to the poetic in lieu of a traditional exhibition wall text or press release. What motivated this decision?
Yes, you’re right. Inescapably, it was an appeal to the poetic but I must also say that I feel the sense of the “poetic” is also evident in Khairullah and Leonard’s works.
I have discussed this with Khairullah before, about reading his works as a kind of three-dimensional poem, by way of composting various textures, materials, sensations, feelings as an approximation of the “real”. For me, poetry is interstitial; it moves between spaces. It bridges writer and world, words to surface, but bridges apart from joining also separate. Because of this, it becomes a way of assembling or disassembling one’s life, looking at the parts and how they are imagined as a temporary whole.
I’m very thankful that the artists were very encouraging towards me in accommodating my interests in poetry! What motivated the inclusion of the text fragments was also a keenness on my part to uncover the place and degrees of fiction in the show, especially when engaging with ideas of returning, remembrance, feelings and memory. In pointing to ambiguous scenes and actions, the text fragments helped articulate the necessary place of fiction in the show. We engage in an act of fiction when we remember, when we blend the actual and the ideal, consolidating them into a version, in words, in objects or in paint.
The last reason why the text fragments were present is related to the function of text and how it often acts as a kind of narration within the presentation of art. I was hoping for a narration that could detour into other spaces of feeling. That said, an initial attempt at the exhibition essay had me default into a kind of justification for the show and its emphasis on love, feeling and sentiment. This was a trap I was not eager to work through and later realised was completely unnecessary.
How did these ideas inform the presentation strategies you took?
I would like to think that the line you picked out, “Return to the small intimacies that escape” as spelling out the “logic” of the show and we endeavoured towards… which is that of a romantic retraction. Every return to the moment sparking the work or the creative process brought us both nearer and further, a kind of “faraway nearby”, to borrow from Rebecca Solnit’s book of the same title.
Within Coda Culture’s space, I wanted to allude to this play of distance with Khairullah’s 'Silly Enamour' and Leonard’s 'Scotts' facing each other along the same axis. 'Silly Enamour' speaks to the very pieced-together quality of feelings, sights and recollections of the artist's time at Salzburg. While 'Scotts' is a painting that recomposes the quotidian tissue box, a banal but tender feature of our everyday environment. Taking in both works, we have an impression of Salzburg, a place which is so far from us but can be felt so keenly and intimately, playing off the everyday tissue box, an item so close to us that it escapes our attention.
We were also quite conscious of the show’s lighting and preferred something darker and softened to bring out the intimate quality of Coda Culture’s space. For me, the decision to minimise and soften the spotlights also helped make for a space that was comfortable for dwelling.
During our chat, one of the words that you tried to avoid using to describe the show is "organic". While it is admittedly cliché, I think it's essential to bring out the fact that you are long-time friends with Khairullah and also contributed to the catalogue of his second solo exhibition 'next Sunday' (2016). In a way, 'at second sight' also reflects the ongoing engagements and mutual influences in your respective practices.
I appreciate you thinking of 'at second sight' in practice, as a way of returning and engaging with one another and being a part of each other’s lives. After taking a creative writing introductory course in school around two years ago, I was keen on how creative writing can figure in my existing engagement with art and artists. For that, ekphrastic poetry was a very fruitful starting point. The ease I have with Khairullah because of our friendship also allowed me to explore this more readily.
The avoidance of using “organic” is for me an effort to emphasise care, intention and commitment. The show, and I guess, any show for that matter, is the coalescing of different forms of labour, effort and care. It is the coming together of various moving parts that do not always or simply fall into place by chance.
This point of view might be slightly influenced by my training in arts management as part of my diploma course at Ngee Ann Polytechnic, as well as the project management work I've done since. I continue to work across arts and design fields. This background informs my terms of engagement as one that always operates around consensus and action, a conversation and a commitment.
Staying on the topic of collaboration and dialogue, you've just opened a new presentation 'Session #7' with Singaporean artist Jodi Tan at Peninsular, an artist-run space. The series takes the format whereby each 'Session' pairs artists, writers and/or curators with no preceding title or text. What can viewers expect from this presentation?
I think Peninsular’s format with the Sessions seeks to foreground dialogue and is also premised on a kind of reciprocity or an exchange.
In a way, 'Session #7' picks up from a conversation I had with Jodi years ago when I interviewed her, Melissa Tan and Wong Kel-Win on the 'Conditions of Production' project website. Borne from the Curating Lab immersion programme, 'Conditions of Production' was a collaboration among Bernice Ong, Kenneth Loe, Melvin Tan and myself. We sought to pursue a field of enquiry situating objects and processes within the complexities of artistic production and reception.
The Peninsular presentation takes cues from Jodi’s process and the conditions that inform her art-making. The showcase pairs and draw patterns between various pieces from her 'Still Life' series, an on-going body of work since 2015. The series spans across drawing and painting in a continued exploration of constructing images and strategies of abstraction. Descriptors such as “twins” and “quilt” have surfaced a lot in our conversations to describe how we wanted to approach the presentation. It’s interesting considering how these two keywords reference a kind of affinity or bond. At the same time, they also refer to entities composed of individuated parts. We hope for the presentation to open ways in which her practice and interests can also be “read” by how she approaches images.
'Session #7: Jodi Tan + Samantha Yap' runs till 1 September 2019 at Peninsular, 80 Playfair Road, Kapo Factory, #02-10A. There will be an artist talk on 31 August 2019, 2pm.
Peninsular is open on weekends from 12 to 6pm, and by appointment only on weekdays.