"The museum is a place for free expression"

12 March 2024

Yu Jin Seng.jpg

Interview with Seng Yu Jin, CIMAM Board Member and Deputy Director (Curatorial and Exhibitions) and Senior Curator, National Gallery Singapore, Singapore, for the yearbook Collecting Contemporary Art 2024. (Anuario Coleccionar Arte Contemporáneo, Spain)

What were your first memorable experiences with Museums?

One of the first exhibitions presented in museums I encountered that left a deep impression, and in some ways shaped by curatorial practice was the exhibition, Cubism in Asia: Unbounded Dialogues. This travelling exhibition was co-organised by the National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo (MOMAT, exhibition period from August 9–October 2, 2005), to the National Museum of Contemporary Art, Korea, in Seoul (MMCA, exhibition period from November 11, 2005–January 30, 2006), and then to the Singapore Art Museum (SAM, exhibition period from February 18–April 9, 2006). This exhibition brought together art historians and curators to focus on an art movement – Cubism – that many artists in Asia experimented with in their artworks. The art historical term, “influence” was debated at the exhibition’s symposium as a Western centric concept that privileged the origin, which was usually Euroamerica, relegating the Global South to the perpetual trap of “belatedness”, being “derivative” of Western art. The very idea of how “influence” could go in multiple directions was one that took decades for the Western-centric art world to understand. The Cubism in Asia symposium at SAM for instance debated on the possibilities of how Asian artists could have creatively misunderstood what Cubism was as an art movement that emerged from social, political and cultural contexts in Europe, and produced forms of Cubism. Art historian, John Clark’s call for the study of these multi-directional cultural transfers rather than an obsession with the myth of the “origin” and the “original” was crucial to this exhibition and marked an important attempt to decolonize art history dominated by the West. Artistic influence was not one directional from the West to the rest and there was certainly a need to acknowledge the fact that most cultures borrow from each other and there must be equal borrowing rights, shattering the myth of the purity of culture itself. Cubism in Asia, for all its own shortcomings marked an important step in the right direction towards a more plural, interconnected and de-centered constellation of global art histories.

What kinds of trends and ideas have dominated your practice as a curator?

Rather than following trends that come and go, my practice as a curator takes an interdisciplinary approach that starts with questions that emerge from different fields such as history, art, architecture, politics and ecology. Like art that provokes us to ask questions that are often overlooked, allowing us to confront what is suppressed in society, the curatorial allows us to bring together a constellation of ideas, materials, artworks, people and institutions that could align, repel and even be in contestation with each other. In terms of ideas, I have often drawn from my research interest in forms of collectivism in art as a form of resistance against the grand narrative of the heroic, male and usually white artist. My interest in the histories of artist collectives stems from the possibilities of non-Western ways of working collaboratively, sharing resources, alternative knowledge systems, and coming together to produce art discourses such as art manifestos that make visible the transformative potential of art to advance social justice by empowering the under-represented and initiating positive change society.

What are the debates you would like to shed light on at National Gallery Singapore. For example, what are your strategies to decolonise art histories?

The urgency to decolonise art histories cannot proceed without decolonising the museum. Both art history and particularly the museum are products of colonization. The birth of the museum coincided and developed together with colonial expansion in the nineteenth century Europe, creating Westerncentric ways of representing, categorising and displaying art. The “white cube” space used to display artworks on white walls that is now a familiar, even ubiquitous mode and technology of display today decontextualises the artwork from its social, political and cultural conditions, and prevents the outside world from entering the exhibition space. The National Gallery Singapore (the Gallery) comprises of two national monuments, the City Hall and former Supreme Court building built by the British during Singapore’s colonial era. Housed in colonial monuments of power, the Gallery adopts a self-reflexive approach to prompt our visitors to question Western centric understandings of Southeast Asian art history by questioning the definition of art itself, most evident in our long term exhibition, titled, Between Declarations and Dreams: Art of Southeast Asia Since the Nineteenth Century. The curatorial intention to include of craft, textiles, maps, and other forms of visual culture expands our understanding of art that is relevant and meaningful to the cultural contexts of the region. In terms of exhibition design, our changing exhibitions like the ongoing Tropical: Stories from Southeast Asia and Latin America subverts the “white cube” by referencing Brazilian architect, Lina Bo Bardi’s groundbreaking “crystal easels” to display paintings at the São Paulo Museum of Art (MASP) in 1968.

As a CIMAM Board member and contributor to the working group responsible for organizing the Rapid Response Webinar year-long online sessions, which aim to tackle important issues related to museum practice in modern and contemporary art, can you provide a sneak peek of the topics that will be covered in 2024?

The topics for this year’s Rapid Response Webinars (RRW) in 2024 aim to address urgent and current issues facing museums of modern and contemporary art. Topics related to how museums must be climate sensitive and willing to slay sacred cows that govern “international standards” of conservation and museum practices established many decades ago to reimagine more sustainable and ecological ways of thinking of the museum not as an institution where time is delayed and the non-human is excluded but one that embraces and co-exists with nature. Other topics include how do we harness the power of technology and AI in museums and its potential pitfalls, and the importance of learning from indigenous knowledge systems that are different from Western ones. One exciting aspect of our RRW is featuring the progressive, experimental and impactful museum practices around the world, which CIMAM supports through our Outstanding Museum Practice Award (OMPA).

In an increasingly fragile and polarised world wrecked by conflict and economic uncertainties, how do you see the role of museums and their impact on society?

The role of museums is magnified and becomes more important in a polarized and turbulent world wrecked by conflicts. Museums of modern and contemporary art are able to use the transformative potential of art to create discursive spaces for difficult conversations to take place, which would otherwise be challenging in other public spaces. The voice of artists is also critical as artists are often sensitive to social issues that need to be urgently addressed. Art museums offer an important platform for the voices of artists to be heard and discussed as the ideas and perspectives of artists matter and even more so in a polarized world. This is also why CIMAM has held steadfast in our support for the freedom of speech and expression in a statement published by CIMAM’s Museum Watch in January 2024 titled, “Cancellation and Censorship in Times of War” that highlighted cases of recent cancellation and censorship of artists and curators and reiterating our support to preserve the museum as a space for free artistic and curatorial expression.

What are your views about how museums should embrace the new technologies such as the digital, the metaverse and the Web 3.0.?

My own view is that museums should think about how artists are self-reflexively thinking about digital and other forms of new technologies as a medium for art. Museums can also explore collaborations with tech startups to explore harnessing new web applications and technologies to engage with our audiences and creating digital experiences that are meaningful, educational, and affective. The potential for new technologies to reach new audiences is there but it is also critical to work in collaboration with artists, curators and museum professionals to translate and make these technologies relevant and meaningful through art. The ethical issues that may arise from adopting new technologies must also be carefully considered, debated and rationalized by the museum.

How museums can help raise awareness in the audience on issues such as sustainability and the climate crisis?

Museums must start by taking the lead in effecting real changes in addressing the urgent climate crisis. This entails collecting data on its carbon emissions, sustainable practices, and creating a work culture that embraces sustainability in its DNA. Museums can start sharing data and best practices that enable museums to be more ecological friendly, which is important as museums operate in different climates and environments that calls for different approaches and policies. Besides raising awareness through public programmes and exhibitions on the climate crisis, museums should start changing the mindset and habits of our audiences even in small ways like embracing electronic publishing, using recycled and responsibly sourced materials in our products including museum merchandise and starting with the young to impart the message of sustainability and being environmentally responsible.

Do museums need policies that promote a more equitable representation in gender and ethnicity?

Museums are spaces for diversity and inclusion. It is therefore important for museums to promote social justice, as well as addressing underrepresentation and marginalization of communities. We need to go beyond promoting a more equitable representation in gender and ethnicity to avoid superficial or even tokenistic inclusion of women artists or artists of colour for instance. What museums need to do is to develop and implement policies that address fundamental, systemic and structural forms of marginalisation and discrimination. This comes from having regular diversity and inclusion health checks by consulting firms to help museums identify areas of success and growth. Policies alone is also not sufficient as having a truly equitable museum requires a work culture and ethos that is mindful of diversity and inclusion and acts on it.

What do you predict will be the most significant developments in art in the next few years, and why?

The question of how we study regions will be critical as part of how museums critically engage with global art histories. One method is to adopt a comparative approach to research and the curatorial rather than a top down imposition of global perspectives that may result in the homogenization of global art history that remains Western-centric. A more diverse and pluralistic approach to explore social, historical and cultural contexts that intersect between and within regions will enable museums over the world to collaborate curatorially, share resources and knowledge to co-construct a more decentered and multilayered global art histories. Museums all over the world are also focused on breaking the false binary between the histories of modern and contemporary art. A more rigorous questioning of categories of art will enable an expanded understanding of art itself that draws from different cultural contexts and indigenous knowledge systems coming to the fore. Lastly, museums are likely to be increasing self-reflexive by using postcolonial, gender, ecological perspectives and other critical tools to reevaluate how their collections have been built, providing the curatorial space to compare and find connections between collections.