Naima Morelli

THE SINGAPORE SERIES — CHAPTER 14

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Vincent Leow

It is June 2018 as I’m writing these lines, and a few days ago, browsing through the internet, some news hit my eye. One drawing of Vincent Leow was removed from an exhibition the Esplanade, a popular alley for the arts in Singapore, with the accusation of “bestiality”. The censored sketch depicted a naked individual sitting astride a giant chicken. According to the conservative Facebook group “Singaporeans Defending Marriage and Family” the naked man was having sex with the animal. The general concern revolves around the fact that this was public area, with kids walking past the exhibition to go to the play centre. At first, the Esplanade took a neutral stance and said that everyone could “draw their own interpretations of a drawing that is not a realistic rendering.” Following a discussion with the artist, the art centre decided that it would be best to remove the piece from the exhibition and said that “This is solely Esplanade’s error of judgment”. This caused a big buzz in the artistic community in Singapore, and was seen as an episode of censorship and a sign of an increasingly conservative society.
The author of the sketch, Vincent Leow, would probably be discouraged to see that, since he first started with his provocative works and the society hasn’t opened up since. Quite the contrary. Vincent hailed, like Lee Wen and Amanda Heng, from The Artists Village, the arts collective spearheaded by Tang Da Wu and inspired by Western movements such as conceptual art and Fluxus, which emerged in New York in the ‘60s. The group detached from the idealist watercolours and academic realist style that preceded the late ‘80s, as being really contemporary and bringing international tendencies to the art world, while speaking of the conflicts and tensions of the society at the time.

At that time Vincent Leow – who in 1991 expanded his knowledge studying in the US at the Maryland Institute College of Art – was drawn attention to especially with his performances. In Coffee Talk from 1992, he drank his own urine, to make a point about how artists are the producers and consumers of art. Performances are only a part of his practice. Indeed, in 2007 Venice Biennale. A few years ago, at the end of 2015, sitting at a table of a hawker centre, I was discussing with Vincent Leow the development of the art scene in the last few years, and he acknowledged that there was a big change in the local art scene. He found that the big shift happened with institutionalisation of the arts such as arts council, art museums, arts schools and colleges.

Was art part of your childhood growing up?

No, art wasn’t part of my childhood., I was born in 1961 and grew up in the kampong without electricity and TV. In the ‘70s, my education coincided with our nation building in urban development and technology and art wasn’t really part of our nation’s masterplan. I find this unusual in South East Asia as a country, where all the South East Asian university have a fine arts faculty and Singapore don’t, maybe our government don’t see art as an important area in the nation’s development. My interest in art actually only started when I first joined art school after my national service in the army.

How was the atmosphere at the art school?

I joined St. Patrick Arts Centre and now known as LaSalle College of the Arts when I joined St. Patrick Arts Centre in 1985, the school was new and I was the first batch of students they have recruited. In my first year in art school, I was exposed to various artists and artforms that was I made my first sculpture that made me wanting to be a sculptor. After my first year in art foundation, I realised there were so many things I could to do in art and the possibilities were just endless. That was then when I wanted to be an artist from the conversation with the art teachers, artists and peers.

What was the spirit of art making back then?

Back in the days art making was about art. We were experimenting a lot with different kinds of art movements and the sales of art or surviving as an artist wasn’t a priority. We were interested in knowing what art should be and we tried to challenge ourselves to push the boundaries of art making. We were interested in the different art movements and tried to create a new mode of expression. During that time, we did a lot of performance art and installation art… which was not new, but at that time it was for Singapore. We didn’t have any access to the internet to know what was done before, it was all based on knowledge from senior artists that have studied abroad before and our own intuitions. We learned performance art from art books as our reference and the rest was based on our curiosity and confidence.

With the lack of information about art coming to Singapore, you expanded your knowledge in an experiential way over the course of different trips. How important was travelling for you in order to learn?

Travelling was very important for me at that time. I went to various places in Indonesia such as Yogyakarta, Bali, Lombok with a friend on a backpacking trip and throughout the trip we tried to meet and learned about Indonesian artists. We encountered art from the traditional and to the very contemporary practices of art and artists there. From that trip onwards, we continued our adventures to Thailand and India. Our journey with planes, bus, trains, and tuk-tuks made my memories of the journeys were meaningful for me in gaining knowledge about the arts in the region and discovering art from an entirely different perspective.

How did you become part of the Artist Village?

In 1985, I represented Singapore as a young artist at Jogjakarta in the ASEAN Youth painting workshop. In 1987 it was in Singapore turn to host the event, that is when I met Tang Da Wu as one of the five mentors for the workshop and at the time he just come back from London after a long absence. During this time, he rented an abandoned farm as an artist studio and he invited me and other young artists to work at his place. This how I became to know him and became part of the artists village in the early days.

You graduated in sculpture. When did you transition to performance?

As a young artist, I really want to find the suitable medium for my work, and this was a very important part of my thought processes. It was also a period of exploring different modes of expression and performance was one of them. In the very beginning, the idea for an art piece is very important, while the medium is secondary. I find in performance art the body becomes the artwork, my awareness becomes heightened and the time aspect that comes with it. In a museum or gallery and when one look at the artwork, sometimes it’s not even 10 seconds. But in a performance art piece I have an opportunity to sustain the viewing time of an artwork.

One of your famous early performances is Coffee Talk, which was done in 1992 and was quite controversial. Can you tell me about how you conceived of the work?

I wanted to make that performance about how as a young artist at that time, it appears that we are consuming our own work most of the time. I made this performance where I drank my own urine as a symbolic gesture of consuming my own production of work. The performance created a lot of controversy and the public were very grossed out by the idea of someone drinking their own urine. There were different sort articles about medical benefits, and all kinds of strange discussion. The following year I decided to bottle up my urine and sell it based on the concept mass consumption and from the publicity of the performance, and I made a performance as a salesman and tried to sell the bottled urine.

In ‘61, there was an Italian artist who was doing a similar piece, Manzoni, who made “Artist’s shit”, canning his own faeces. Did you reference him, or was his work unknown in Singapore?

I wasn’t thinking about Manzoni’s piece, but I was told of it after I made the urine work.

You started off without any funding for the artists. Do you think that funding influences the way of working of artists today?

Yes. Making art today is very different from the early days when I was making art. I think the motivations are different and also the cost of living today also influenced our art making. We have much more expectations today especially when we have more museums, galleries, schools, art fairs and this does affect and influences the ways how artists make their works. I remembered talking to Indonesian artists in the past, they will tell me that they envy Singapore artists because we have an art council to ask for support, and they don’t. However, in Indonesia they can sell one painting and live off their earnings quite well to pay their rent, pay for art materials – and they have a larger pool of art patrons. Whereas in Singapore when we sell one painting and it don’t get us very far plus we have a very small pool of art collectors. So I do find funding influences the ways of working for artists today.