Autonomy, organic growth and 100% Singapore art
By Ian Tee
Seelan Palay is a Singaporean artist whose practice focuses on the complex conditions found in contemporary society. His work often has activist overtones, engaging with difficult issues like the country's buried political history and the freedom of expression. In 2018, Seelan opened an independent art space and gallery named Coda Culture. It aims to promote a spirit of experimentation and to provide a space where Singapore artists can practice with autonomy.
Coda Culture was first situated in a shop front along King George Avenue, before moving to Golden Mile Complex at the start of 2019. In many ways, their new location within this iconic Brutalist landmark is fitting. Built in 1972, Golden Mile Complex stands as a monument to the country's first decade of independence, its fate is precarious amidst plans for redevelopment. The young gallery addresses a gap in the city for a place where creative voices can be nurtured and heard. Both deal with the question of making space in the face of relentless economic forces.
In this interview, we catch up with Seelan as Coda Culture grows into its second year of operation. He shares his thoughts about failure, business and the ethos behind this art space.
In an earlier interview with Akanksha Raja, you said: "it’s about how much Coda Culture can achieve before it closes" when speaking about the one-year lease for your space at King George Avenue. Was the experience running this space what you imagined it to be?
Last year when I started Coda Culture, I thought it was going to be an experimental platform for artists to show projects that might not work in a commercial space. Perhaps 30 to 40 of their friends would have come for our events. There is no economic pressure for the work to sell; I tell artists to put up the best show they can and to be sincere. It's still something I maintain today.
What I did not expect was the turnout, especially from the Chinese New Year (CNY) Party show where I believe 120 people came. I also did not imagine that we would be selling works, and sales were picking up progressively. We take a 30% commission so that more goes back to the artists. Previously, I would sell my own works to collectors and inject the money back into the space, but Coda Culture has been paying for itself since the start of 2019.
The space is now self-sustaining though no one gets a salary. Actually, I was prepared to close after a year. That was the reason why we did two shows a month, which some people think is insane. However, it’s worse to let the space go to waste so I will do 24 shows this year if I need to. What matters are the opportunities and kinds of expressions this platform allowed.
The space has gained significant traction considering how new it is! How did you approach building an audience?
All of this is organic growth. With every show, we get new visitors who become regulars and bring their friends. I never intended to build a community around the space, because it often ends up becoming very cliquey. Sometimes you walk into spaces where everybody knows each other, and get cold looks entering the door. I hate that.
Recently, someone told me that he brought a colleague here. That person said it was the first time he was in an art space and he felt like he could be himself because there was no judgement. Everyone gets the same welcoming treatment and that’s important to me. How do you engage the public effectively? Just be natural!
What are the things you'd like start venturing into or improve on?
This new space is also under a one-year lease and even if we have to close, we should never see it as a failure. We should see it as a learning experience, and take stock of how much was done, how much was achieved with the project before it closes. This is not a retail shop or restaurant where there’s a lot of investment at stake. I am an artist, not a gallerist, and we don't treat our artists and their artworks like commodities. It’s a different mode of thinking, and right now, I am optimistic that we will make it to a third year.
We are starting an annual print magazine called CODAMAG and various other publications. At Singapore Art Book Fair, you will see a number of books of drawings by Singapore artists in the ‘MARKMAKERS’ series. You’d also find ‘Pura Pura Parade’, a photo journal by ila and the ‘IMHO Sketchbook’ by Marla Bendini. After the fair, we hope to produce other kinds of merchandise such as postcards, tote bags and tee-shirts featuring the works of artists we’ve shown. People might not be able to afford an original artwork, but they may be able to spend 10 to 20 dollars on an artist’s merchandise. And of course, anything we earn goes back into the operating costs of the space and putting up better exhibitions, which is at the core of what we do.
Actually, I wouldn't have started Coda Culture if I had not embarked on another business about 8 years ago. It was a retail shop at Far East Plaza selling clothes made by independent designers from around the region. This was a time before many boutiques sprung up along Haji Lane and when this sort of business became really hip. We also designed a few pieces and invited artists to collaborate. Business was okay for six months, but we had to close after that because the rent was too high.
Looking back, I've learnt so much from that experience, without which I would not have gained the confidence to run a gallery.
It almost sounds like you have come full circle. You also mentioned that there is a programme in place for the interns assisting you, can you tell us more?
Another thing I did not expect is to have a team. Initially, it was a one-person show because I was unwilling to put the burden of running the space on anyone else, especially when they weren’t getting paid. I didn't ask for help, but people started staying back to clean up after our openings and offered to volunteer their time. This year, we have a team of four to six volunteers and interns.
I think that a lot of this boils down to being street-smart. Throughout the years, I have never applied for a grant from the National Arts Council. This is partially due to the nature of my practice but it is also due to what I believe in: that once you take the money, they may have control over your work or you may self-censor. Of course the funds would help in some ways, but I come from a low-income family, so getting by without having much money is nothing new to me.
Over the years, I've learnt to organise my own shows and manage artwork sales. These are skills I wish to impart to the volunteers and interns at Coda Culture. There are so many little things that go into an exhibition from handling the logistics to building relationships with visitors. Everyone who interns here doesn’t only get a chance to clean the floors, but they will also get to curate a show! For those shows, I’ll do my best to guide them but ultimately, it'll be mostly conceptualised and curated by them. I believe that if you don't create space and allow people to make mistakes, they won't be able to learn and grow. So let’s learn and grow together.
Can you speak about the exhibition programme at Coda Culture?
There are five types of shows that happen here: ones curated by me, projects that interns or friends want to do, solo exhibitions by artists who approach us. We also offer up the space for rent at an affordable rate. And the last kinds of shows are ones that started out as jokes, like the 'CNY Party' and 'Backstage'.
Your Mother Gallery and Coda Culture were supposed to have a booth at Art Stage 2019 which didn’t happen. After the announcement, we were drinking at Jeremy Hiah's place and wanted to show works meant for the fair at our respective spaces. The title 'Backstage' came about as a play on the name, but it was not meant to mock the fair in any way. This idea of 'Backstage' suggests two things: one, that the actors (artists) are ready for the show but that the curtains are closed; and two, that you get to go behind the scenes and experience something that may not have been possible in a big commercial setting like an art fair. A few days later, a friend told us that a space at Stamford Art Centre was available, so we could bring all the works together in one venue instead of splitting them up between both our galleries. We jumped in.
There are only two types of works I won't show: works that are, in my opinion, openly sexist, racist, classist, homophobic. I am not censoring them, but I won't allow my walls to be a platform for those types of expressions. Secondly, I won't show any boring art. Now I know that is a loaded term, because it is very subjective.
What prompted your decision to join the fair?
There were supporters of both our spaces who offered to sponsor us a booth at Art Stage. At first, we were hesitant because we didn't know if it would be worthwhile and we also wanted to make good of their money. We came together eventually and the original plan was to have a 5 by 5m booth divided into two, showing artists associated with each gallery in each half.
The goal was the same for that space: to show Singapore art. And by that I do not mean only works made by Singaporeans. I believe that if you live here and absorb the culture, you are part of the cultural landscape. At Art Stage, most of the art would have been from overseas and the motivation for us was to be a booth showing 100% Singapore art.
What I like about the group exhibitions at Coda Culture is the diversity of artists, in terms of age groups, experience and backgrounds. Some of them might not even have formal training.
It is very intentional to not have that hierarchy. I am connected to very senior artists such as Tang Mun Kit, the late Lee Wen, Zai Kuning and Jimmy Ong, but I am friends with artists from other generations like Jeremy Hiah, Justin Lee and Ben Puah as well. I also work with artists who are in their 20s, like Chand Chandramohan, Divaagar, Odelia Tang and Masuri. There are social lines connecting these people, even to "outsider" artists who come to our shows.
In the interview with Objects Lessons Space, I mentioned a 27-year-old who works full-time at a 7-11 convenience store. His name is Haq, and I came to know about his work after seeing him at many of our openings. In the 'Raw Forms' exhibition, I placed his drawing next to works by Mun Kit and Jeremy Hiah.
I also recently met an 80-year-old retired school teacher, Mr. Johnny Wong, who’s usually involved with the Really Really Free Market organised by Post-Museum. He makes these exciting, energetic paintings on found advertisement boards and was giving them away. He represents to me a pure love of art. There are many young artists who give up their practice soon after graduating, but this man never let go of his dream, even though he could only pursue it in his twilight years. So I think we can learn a thing or two from his passion, and be inspired. Mr. Wong’s solo exhibition just opened on 21 June 2019.
Something else I hope to achieve is a gender balance in our group shows, at least a 50/50 ratio. That didn't happen in the 'Raw Forms' exhibition, but I will be working as hard as I can towards it.
How do you view Coda Culture in relation to your own practice?
Everything I do is connected to my own life and practice. Coda Culture reflects the values of independence and openness. I believe artists are responsible people, not hate-mongers or narrow-minded individuals. Some might be, but I would not work with them. I have been censored and even jailed for my work, but that's okay, because my freedom has never been truly taken away. My body may be in a cell, but my mind is free. I want to give that freedom and autonomy to the artists who show here.
I take a long time to produce my own works anyway, so it’s good to give the rest of the time I have to other artists whose works excite me. Recently, a close friend of mine told me that I sound like I don't want to talk as much about my work, or do so in a manner that's very as-a-matter-of-fact. Yet, my eyes light up when I speak about works by others. I told them that it’s true, because I do feel very fulfilled when I can help the expressions of others’ come to life. The content of most of the art I make comes from a place of trauma and pain. Running this space gives me a happiness that I may not otherwise find in my own work or personal life.
I am planning to have a solo show in the third quarter of the year at Your Mother Gallery. It is particularly meaningful for me, because I did my first solo there 10 years ago after being expelled from LASALLE. The show is titled, 'The Adventures of a Twenty-Second Century Neo-Taoist', and it features reworks of performance relics and new works with abstractions of or fragments from the past 10 years of my practice. The centrepiece is going to be a large triptych painting of me in my cell in Changi Prison.
I have one final question: why did you name the space 'Coda Culture'?
I came up with the name maybe six years ago, and I like that it is quite vague and open. "Coda" can refer to an ending sequence or a component after the end. When the two words are put together, it suggests the end of old cultures and the creation of new ones.
It is both a destructive and creative force. Rather than being dictated by market forces, curators or the state, what I hope for the space to reflect is an openness to the objects and activities that contribute to local culture.
I like that the name still confuses people, and I think it's a fun exercise.
SGABF2019 is happening at NTU CCA Exhibition Hall, on 28 to 30 June 2019.
'B-Side' is on view from 27 June to 4 July 2019, at Coda Culture.