Tan Siuli sees differences in the various art hubs of Indonesia, which makes the local scene dynamic. (Photo courtesy of Singapore Art Museum)
An Eye on Indonesian Art From Singapore
JANUARY 05, 2015
A senior curator at the prestigious Singapore Art Museum for seven years, Tan Siuli oversees and takes care of the Indonesian collection. Holding a master’s degree in art history from University College London, as well as a BA in literature and art history from the University of Nottingham, Tan often travels to Indonesia to get the latest insights into the country’s art scene.
She currently has her hands full preparing for Singapore Art Week, which will take place from Jan. 17 to 25; a nine-day festival celebrating visual arts, including various exhibitions, discussions, gallery openings and lifestyle events.
During one of her recent visits to Indonesia, Tan spoke with the Jakarta Globe about her own beginnings in the art world and her views on current developments in Indonesia.
Q: Tell us a bit more about yourself and how you ended up in the world of art.
A: I first became interested in art from my early childhood. I grew up in Malaysia, so one of my first encounters with art was through pop culture, through comics, and I really loved the work of Lat, a very famous Malaysian comic artist. He has such fluid linework and such loveable caricatures of life in the kampong that I began to imitate his style. I used to draw on the walls in my house, and my parents would just let me doodle.
We moved to Singapore when I was 6 years old, and at the end of my primary school education, my parents heard about this program called the art elective program they were just setting up in Singapore then. It was for kids who were artistically inclined to pursue a special program which developed their talent. It was really transformative for me because we had teachers from the UK, who had a very fluid and flexible style of teaching. They didn’t teach you how to draw something, but they would let you experiment and find your own voice. We also had art history lessons which taught us at a young age that art not only has an aesthetic value but also a lot of cultural value.
I then pursued art history for my bachelor’s as well as my master’s degrees, and when I came back, I started teaching art history in schools; then there was a vacancy at the Singapore Art Museum, and here I am.
You chose a career as a curator in the end; but do you still draw or paint?
I did until a decade ago — from drawing I progressed to ceramics and eventually to installation [art]. As I grew older, I learned more about conceptual art, and that interested me more. But I would say that I have not been active in keeping up my art practice because I was more interested in art history and curating, so that took over. I still enjoy drawing, though; I find it incredibly therapeutic.
Tell us about the Indonesian collection at the Singapore Art Museum.
Our contemporary art collection numbers around 1,000 artworks, and Indonesian art makes for one of the largest among them. This in a way parallels the development of the art scene in Southeast Asia. The Indonesian art scene has been very dynamic in the past decade. There is no denying that a lot of work coming out of Indonesia is incredibly powerful, it has a visual impact that appeals to people wherever they come from, which is why it is doing so well internationally.
At SAM, we have many Indonesian artists from the ’90s as well as the 2000s; I think we have a good representation of practices of these two decades.
How did you end up handling the Indonesian collection?
Surprisingly, I didn’t choose the Indonesian portfolio on my own. At Singapore Art Museum, each curator specializes in a Southeast Asian country; the Indonesian portfolio belonged to a colleague who left the museum. When he and some other colleagues left, there were a couple of countries up for grabs. I wanted Thailand initially, because my grandmother is part Thai, but my other colleague was set on getting Thailand, so I took Indonesia and thought, alright, I’ll give this a shot. I was quite anxious about taking it on, because it is such a large country, but if you ask me today if I want swap my portfolio with anyone else, I’d say, no, over my dead body!
How often do you come to Indonesia?
I try to visit at least once every quarter and take in different cities each time, so I’d go to Yogya[karta] one quarter, and Bandung, Bali or Jakarta the next. It’s usually these four, but I am trying to branch out and go to more peripheral areas.
How would you describe the development of Indonesian art over the past 10 years or so?
It’s been, as I said, very dynamic, and I put this down to a couple of reasons. Firstly, it’s linked to the economy, which has been doing well and there has been a lot of support for artists. It also came at a time when there was a global shift of interest toward Southeast Asian art. Since Indonesian art is visually appealing, it was catapulted on the international stage. When you have international recognition, it of course is very encouraging to the artists, and galleries and patrons become more supportive.
I think the past decade has been quite incredible in terms of artistic output. It was really a new era for artists coming of age because that was the turn of the political landmark. It was very interesting to see how artists negotiated the new political landscape. Artists coming of age in that new landscape feel free of those shackles of the past.
How do you see the different art hubs in Indonesia, like Yogyakarta, Bandung and Jakarta?
There’s a palpable difference in the feel of each art scene. If I were to characterize them quite generally, I would say that Yogya is really an artist village. There is a real sense of community and gotong royong there. If you go to Yogya and meet an artist, you will meet a whole bunch of other artists as well because everyone is hanging out together at their studios. It feels like you are at the epicenter or the heart of art production in Indonesia there.
Bandung feels a bit different. The artists don’t seem to hang out as much; they kind of tend to keep to themselves. They also seem to be more conceptual in their approach to art, which is probably a legacy of the education at the ITB [Bandung Institute of Technology] that offers very different approaches. There are many curators in Bandung, which is not surprising because they are theoretically minded.
I think there’s a very exciting scene in Jakarta, the indie scene is doing its own thing, but a lot of people know Jakarta more for the galleries. I hope they will start to see the art scene as well, especially when it comes to urban art, because that is what Jakarta is great for.
How does Bali fit into the picture?
It’s difficult to establish a contemporary art scene in Bali because it is a place where people come and go; even the locals often don’t set roots there. That makes it difficult to sustain initiatives. A lot of the artists in Bali are also not as active in pushing their works as artists in Yogya, because they go to Bali for the peace and quiet, they like the serenity of having their studio there, of not having collectors hammering at their door every other day. Bali art also doesn’t quite conform to what people envision Indonesian art to be like; it is still very much rooted in tradition, and the fact that Balinese are predominantly Hindu has something do with it too, because they have a very different world view. But still, I found some really fascinating artists there.
Are there any up-and-coming artists from Indonesia you are keeping an eye on at the moment?
There are always so many up-and-coming artists, too many to name, but the question here is, can they sustain this? There are lots of artists who have interesting ideas for one exhibition, but after that, they are stuck on that and don’t develop, or they just fade off. There are many interesting artists right now making promising starts, but it remains to be seen how they sustain their practice.
Do you have any upcoming exhibitions involving Indonesian artists?
We have a permanent collection show on now, which is called “Medium at Large.” Basically, it looks at how contemporary artists are reinterpreting traditional artistic mediums, such as paintings, sculpture and drawings, but doing this in a very contemporary way by questioning these genres. We have the works of [Indonesian artists] Mella Jaarsma, Titarubi and Melati Suryodarmo in this exhibition.
Melati will also perform on January 21 at the museum — it’s a 12-hour durational performance of her grinding charcoal, which is tied to the "APB Foundation Signature Art Prize Finalists Exhibition." She is competing for the Grand Prize.