New World of Post-Pandemic Art with Joyce Toh
An interview with Joyce Toh, the head of exhibition of S.E.A. Focus 2023 on how the art world can develop after the pandemic, and what Southeast Asia has to offer with all of its potentials.
Words by Muhammad Hilmi
In partnership with S.E.A. Focus
Photos: S.E.A. Focus
During our visit to S.E.A. Focus 2023, we met with Joyce Toh – head of exhibition for this year’s showcase. With her, we talked about her approach to directing the exhibition, how the art world reacts to the post-pandemic momentum, and the future of the Southeast Asian art scene.
I’m quite interested in the theme for this year: “a world, anew.” Since, I think, it poses a question for all of us in defining how the world will be after the pandemic. So, personally, how do you see the world after the pandemic?
I would say the situation is a mixture of optimism and caution. I mean, there is, you know, a sense of “we’re done with this,” or “let’s get past it, and start anew,” but there is, still, a harsher reality that, actually… no, not quite [done]—we’re celebrating a little bit too early, you know?
The “starting fresh” is actually not from ground-zero but is actually drawing from, perhaps, knowledge and history, the connection and the support of people around us, and that’s what it means to be renewed.
So, there is, maybe, this conflict or mixture of emotions, I think? But, there is a sense of determination from people, especially from creative practitioners and artists. We do want to move on, we want to grapple and start something, and start again. And, I think that’s where all of the thinking came in—therefore the title and the theme of the exhibition which is “a world, anew”—which is that, in Southeast Asia, even as we move towards the future, a lot of time we spent we are drawing from history or drawing from our connections of other people, we’re drawing from our relations, and in some ways, also, drawing quite literally from the energy of the land, the water, because I think, many Southeast Asian practitioners are still living in places that are very bound to tradition, even in the present and contemporary arts of today.
I would say that if I had to kind of crystallize this feeling that “a world, anew” is actually really very much about renewal. The “starting fresh” is actually not from ground-zero but is actually drawing from, perhaps, knowledge and history, the connection and the support of people around us, and that’s what it means to be renewed. It’s not like, ground-zero, it’s actually looking at what we already have. And I think that’s what we actually also need in a time like this when we are trying to start again.
Okay. But, how, with all of those things that you mentioned, did it affect you as a curator?
So, when it comes to pulling this exhibition together, and it is perhaps a little unusual to have a curated art showcase, or curated selling exhibition, the process of it is that I will think through some of the things I am interested in, and also things that are current in creative practitioners. So, those are maybe ideas that are bouncing around in my head. I also had conversations with Emi, the Executive Director of STPI and Project Director of S.E.A. Focus, to say: “What’s on your mind?” “What do you feel is important that we address or try and look at in S.E.A. Focus?” So, from there, I will come up with a title and a theme, and I have an exhibition text from that, and with that then, we will send those to galleries that are participating, then galleries, so oftentimes, find ways to respond to that curatorial brief, so to speak.
So, whether or not it’s by particular artists, sometimes even particular works, and in a few instances, we’ve had galleries actually have artists create works that respond to the curatorial brief, so it’s quite specific.
With the fact that we’re having quite a new way of thinking, a new way of life, does it affect you as a curator itself? The way you think, the way you manage the artists and artworks itself, does it make any difference in the current times/situation?
Hm. I mean, suddenly, what happened during the pandemic is that we have to move a lot to working with and relying on digital mode. So, for better or for worse, that is here to stay. There are a lot more Zoom meetings, a lot more things done digitally, but, it’s also… sometimes we miss the face-to-face connection, but sometimes we need to move things by speed—it helps, like, if I need to confirm works, if I need to get a picture, if I need to send an image, I’m just going to do it by WhatsApp, you know? In and out I’ll send it to the gallery or to the artist. So, I think, like I said, the digital mode of working is very much here to stay and that has sped things up, and initially, when we did this three years ago—when people could not travel here—so again, we had to rely much more on a hybrid form of doing a lot of that, digitally [and] online: we had the exhibition online, trying to have people gather online, studio visits online.
So, now, in a way, we have a little bit less on that, but we find it again what actually works really well is that: everyone, to have a studio visit, to talk with artists in Jogja, they are really, in some ways, they know how to do it because they learned through the pandemic. So, now they have, like, the cameras, they got the mics, everything—they can do that now. So, I think, that has changed our ways of working.
The other might be a little more conceptual, but I would say that for myself, as a curator, is just recognizing that you always have to be ready to change and to move, it’s almost like… if you’re only comfortable with one way of working, you will have a hard time make it very far because things are changing, and pandemic throws up everything in the air. If you can’t adapt, this is not the place to be in. You have to keep moving or you die.
How do you think the artist itself responds to this new type of work when making an artwork? As they change their perspective, does it evolve their work?
I guess it’s not a big claim to say that every person is going to respond in their own ways, and suddenly many artists have become more introspective, and more reflective. They’ve used this time to, in a way, pull back and retreat into an almost-enforced-quiet time and to relook at their practices. I think that downtime has been enormously beneficial for many artists because, sometimes being a little too active in the art production of work is that, you know, as an artist you’re just churning, you know? It goes like, “you’ve gotta do this show,” “you’re gonna do that show,” “somebody wants this,” it might look great for your career on one level, but also terrible for-
It becomes a race.
I think that downtime has been enormously beneficial for many artists because, sometimes being a little too active in the art production of work is that, you know, as an artist you’re just churning, you know?
Yeah! It becomes a race. And you’re churning, and you’re churning. So this almost-enforced downtime, which has been a crisis sometimes, in a good way, but it’s a lot. A lot of artists just go back and, in a way, they kind of strip down to the bare minimum of what they would like to do. And then, I guess, for other artists when they want maybe more than just digital art, how do we practice in a different way? Do we connect through social media? And then also maybe try to be more proactive in doing things by themselves and not relying on the third-party to do things.
But for the public itself, how do you see the public respond to the shifting trends of the exhibition, the way it is produced, and the way it is presented?
I think suddenly the public is a lot more comfortable seeing art online now. It used to be something that, you know, if you’re collecting, it’ll be like: “I’m never gonna buy what I can’t see,” but no, you know! Everything is, like, we have auctions online! So that’s just become so ubiquitous and is accepted as a part of our life. So, I guess, for the public it’s that, for most of them, the first interaction of art? It’s going to be online—it’s not physical anymore. Because they are now so adept at doing it. The first point is like: “I’m going to check this out here rather than physically traveling an hour to go and see an exhibition,” “Because, a lot of that is on social media, and I’m gonna look at that here.”
But, the flip side of that, I’ve also seen, as much as we start to gravitate towards the digital side, it also increases a yearning for the physical and the immersive experience. Because, when people see the physical [exhibition], and being in that space, it’s so refreshing for not seeing it on screen, you know?
So, things often work in a kind of duality. It’s not one or the other—it’s usually in tandem. It’s going to be one step here, and then another step there. So it’s always like a movement—it’s a dance.
Yeah, the pandemic, as well as the war, we have a recession, the threat of global catastrophe. How do you think that will affect the art market?
I think we have to be a bit more sophisticated—we have to talk about this as art markets, plural. Because we have different segments. You’re gonna have your ultra-high net worth people and collectors, and they have a lot of “insulation” that most people don’t. So, because they have this “insulation”, I think, these things for them, they might be a little bit more cautious. But it isn’t going to be catastrophic for them, and might not really affect their buying or collecting behaviors.
When we talk about the environment, different things are happening at the same time, and people are also wanting to spend. Because they’ve been tied up and closed so much, it’s like, now the door has been opened, we’re just gonna enjoy.
For others, who might be new or starting out, these few months might look uncertain, perhaps it might be a little bit of “wait-and-see”. But on the other side, when we talk about the environment, different things are happening at the same time, and people are also wanting to spend. Because they’ve been tied up and closed so much, it’s like, now the door has been opened, we’re just gonna enjoy.
Not quite about art, but you might only need to look at, say, the Chinese population. Now that restrictions have been eased and they can travel, you can imagine that a whole lot of them are gonna travel! So, even though, on one side the economy seems uncertain (manufacturing slowed down), human behavior is actually… you know, we’re gonna spend [a lot of time talking on this].
I think that’s why we might see some patrons in the art market – which is that economic uncertainty will cause some to hold back, but their sentiment or mood is “life is beginning again, so we want to have art, we want to have things that give us pleasure”, and so they want to do that here. And, sometimes, we might have to reprioritize too, which is what, a year or so, in the pandemic people spend a lot more time at home, so what you value at home are the things that bring you pleasure, and art could be one of those things.
Returning back to what you said about how the artists are more introspective, I see some of the artworks that are displayed on S.E.A. Focus are really introspective; the Jumaadi one, as well as the work from Aliansyah Caniago one, are really really introspective. How do you help the artists to become more comfortable with sharing that kind of intimacy that happens around them? And now after the whole year of pandemic, war, and stuff, people are more socially progressive. Some of the current trends are really political—we’ve seen a lot of movies making fun of capitalism—what do you think that kind of introspective ones will compare to socially progressive issues that are trending right now?
I think contemporary art is the art of the present day. So, you have artists who are going to be responding to the events and things like that, and different artists will, therefore, gravitate to respond to things that resonate with them personally. So, some artists are much more, maybe, politically active, socially active, and we’ve got a long history of that kind of practice in countries like Indonesia—we previously saw the work of Agung Kurniawan, I think that is a great example. Agung, who is such a senior practitioner and you see that the works are very sophisticated, they are also still harking back to the “reformasi” period, but the way that the thinking on events is a lot more leered. And he’s, again, an instance of an artist who has been a long-standing creative practitioner who is socially and politically active.
Say, someone like Ari Bayuaji who made a dream catcher that big, looking like a tapestry piece, so the work might seem, on one hand, perhaps, quite introspective because, you know, it’s a big tapestry weaving, but that technique or the story behind it involves him actually going back to the beaches of Bali, where he realizes a lot of the mangrove trees are being either strangled or they had their roots tied and wrapped up with rope or fishing nets to being left behind because fishermen just cut it and then strangle the trees. So, he started to try and untangle that, he cleaned out, washed the rope, and he unraveled the rope and then started to work them almost as filament thread that could then be made into a weaving piece, and then he worked with a weaver in Bali.
I think that’s quite a nice room that then opens up the many ways to evoke both meditative and reflective in its character. But at the same time, there’s a great social and environmental awareness around it too, and he’s also working with a number of people in the community because Bali is a tourism economy which went flat overnight [after the pandemic] and then a lot of people just had no more jobs, no more income. But what Ari did, he was able to pay some people and gave them jobs. There’s a wonderful documentary on that, you can watch on YouTube, and it also shows the people who are involved in there are [looking] quite proud because they’re actually helping to make something from it.
I just used this as an example that works, don’t have to be either or. Some works can be many things.
Are you saying that sometimes interpersonal work can also be socially progressive?
Yes. The socially progressive [arts] don’t always have to be loud, righteous, and flag-waving. There is one mode of art practice, or maybe social practice that does that, but there are others that are quieter and act effective as well.
Another topic: What is your stance on NFT or AI-generated arts? Because recently there is a debate on the ethical side of how AI are just a collage of-
Other people’s works. And, like, where might the copyright on that might reside?
For me, overall and broadly, NFTs are a whole, brand new medium, so let’s break it—the whole thing about market trading, speculation, and prices outside of this conversation. I know they pertain to it, but then if I want to look at it curatorially, then I’m looking at it as an artistic medium. I’m not looking at it as a trader, I’m looking at it as a curator. So, therefore, as a curator, I’d say it is very exciting and very interesting as a medium because it opens up a lot of possibilities. But like any other art medium, because it’s new, it’s also untested. You’re going to have some artists who are going to make some interesting works of it, and you’re going to have quite a few artists that don’t make great works of it because they’re experimenting with the medium, and I think that’s all we have to recognize.
The socially progressive [arts] don’t always have to be loud, righteous, and flag-waving. There is one mode of art practice, or maybe social practice that does that, but there are others that are quieter and act effective as well.
With newness, it’s the uncertainty. But, a big part of what makes an artist sharp in perspective, is that you have to keep moving. And to not engage at all, I think it’s going to be a disadvantage to one’s own growth as a person. Even if you don’t like it, you should try and engage with it. The ethics of it are certainly not clear-cut. I mean, I think with AI there’s going to be a really interesting new frontier, and I’m actually very excited to see what’s going to happen. It is quite frightening for many people because it seems that AI can generate such—or technically—high-quality arts, that might make artists obsolete.
We see much more, maybe, texts right now, which is the…
ChatGPT. But suddenly, even visual imagery, they can do that too. So, I think, that is the brave new world because it’s almost hard to imagine what that’s going to be like. The ethics one will not be a question that can really be answered, and I think that’s what it is. We might know what’s right or wrong from an ethical standpoint, but this, in a way, is a little bit like Pandora’s Box—it’s already happening, and you can’t stop it. As an artist, you can try and put protections around your work, and I think that’s the best you can do. If you want to be really conservative, don’t put anything out on the internet, but the flip side is that there’s less visibility of your work.
So you make these risks, these trade-offs, and all of that. I think, like I said, the ethics of AI cannot be answered by AI alone. You can really only answer it from a personal standpoint, which is, therefore, if you are a creative practitioner, what are your ethics here if you use a technology like that? If you are a collector, [there applies] other ethics that you can, or should, practice if you’re going to be collecting works like that. Like I said, to your own best practice. You can’t answer that question for humanity, you can only answer within your own actions and try, and do as best, the correct thing to do.
So, for example, if I were a creative practitioner, if I knew the source, I might try to contact the sources, but in the end, I might only know five of the sources, when actually the technology I used pulled in hundreds of sources.
Yeah. Thousands of sources.
Thousands of sources! And I could only recognize five. But, maybe, within my best capacity, I try to contact those five, and say: “Hey, my software did this with your [art].” So, within your best capacity, do the best that you can ethically do.
Okay. Back to the S.E.A. Focus, as a curator, do you have any personal highlights on the artworks that are displayed?
Personal highlights. Gosh, it’s like saying which are your favorite children. Hahaha.
Hahaha. No, no. I mean like, which touched you, or which are emotionally attached to you?
I suppose, I often think of artworks as having their own personalities or characters, so that’s why I like different works for their own different personalities or characters. So, when I scan across, and I will say upfront, I confess: I always have a soft spot for Filipino works, because I used to do a lot of work with Filipino artists, I used to go to the Philippines a lot, so I feel a lot of affection and relationship to works from there. So, say… like, Christina Lopez has got that lovely globe, Manuel Ocampo has got the wall of crazy cats, which is really quite eye-popping! And people just look and go like, “these look like really bad paintings,” “Yeah, they are! But they’re great bad paintings!” Then, also I think the work of Ari Bayuaji, the dream catcher unfolds a beautiful story. The Klein Bottles, Susie Lingham, are very conceptual, but also playful because they have riddles there, and also visually and aesthetically very captivating to look at.
And then there are always some surprises like JC Jacinto, the painter from the Philippines, there’s an instance when I saw the work that was sent to us online. And they’re quite small thumbnails, and I was like “Okay… I think they look interesting,” and then when we opened it it was like the “boom” moment, right, you know? You just see it in person and it just makes it impactful. So, it reminds me why, as a curator, I always enjoy the physical, and I do enjoy the tactile. Also with Hazel Lim, I have a soft spot for something very tactile, very hand-based, that’s the work that you need to spend a lot of time with.
Do you find any similarities in how they approach the theme, the way they present their art, or anything?
I would say a lot of the work coming from this region is very much material culture. So, even though they have strong ideas, it will lead back to materiality. And again it’s because, maybe, natural materials being in the environment affect the practices of a lot of artists. I used to joke that when in Singapore, as Singapore is a bit different ‘cause we’re so urban that we tend to be very high-techy, but I always enjoy the works that are beyond the tech.
One word that may summarize my experience while enjoying the exhibition was elemental.
*sighs in approval*
It’s so elemental. Maybe that’s the underlining theme that I can see in almost all of the artworks themselves. But, I think it’s really interesting as well because every person has different elements, but it’s really different from one another, but at the same time they’re really the same—because they came from the same element.
Yes. That’s a beautiful concept, right there. The element is reduced to its bare minimum, and that’s a kind of purity of its source, from that base element, from which everything can go forth. It’s always really nice to actually hear how people respond and react to the show, because they’re seeing the work fresh, and then what they take away, what they like and what they don’t like, and again, you’re making your own connections.
Now that the global sees more into us, the Asian market, how do you see the potential of the arts in Singapore as well as in Southeast Asia?
One can say that potential is always good, but it’s what you do with potential, otherwise, it will remain elemental!
That’d be good potential, but it never went anywhere! So, I think a big part of this is artists finding opportunities to place themselves outside of their countries of origin. It’s a little bit like migration, like the seed, right, you got to move.
One can say that potential is always good, but it’s what you do with potential, otherwise, it will remain elemental!
Singapore, I think, is a great base for many artists. It’s the home of many artists but I think if you just ever stay there and you don’t circulate out, your worldview is going to be a little bit more narrow. So a part of that whole potential, I guess like the seed that you actually need to plant this or put this somewhere and you need to push it, is for… if artists can have the opportunity to be showing, practicing in a different place, doing residencies, that’s always going to be great for personal growth.
And then, I guess, for S.E.A. Focus we try to provide that platform where artists from different countries can present their work here.
But, how do you personally see the potential of the art scene in Southeast Asia? Every country has different approaches and characteristics – they all have different potentials. Do you think greater outcomes will be created if we move together as a region, or is it better for us to do things our own ways?
I mean, each country is so distinctive in its character, but we, Singapore, partly because we’re so small, we’ve always seen the value of us being connected in a region, and I think that’s maybe what is quite special, or perhaps unique, about Singapore. We can be that kind of neutral meeting ground for either Southeast Asian countries to come together and then have that communion, gathering as well, which, I see this as something that is quite unique: you’re going to have artists over here coming from Thailand, hanging out from Baguio, Philippines, from Sabah, Malaysia, and like everyone just comes to Singapore because there’s an easy, convenient place to come together and meet, and I think that is just, again, the strength of the region. Whereas I have to say, sometimes maybe if you go to places like Manila, because Manila is so strong as a character, or Jakarta is so strong as a character, and there’s less of the natural “pulling” from other countries because they’ve got so much character of itself, where Singapore is quite open and porous.
It’s interesting how events like this combine all the potentials and create some kind of relevant outcomes that the public can see. I think it’s really the summary of my experience with S.E.A. Focus today.
What is the future for you, and what do you think will be the future of the S.E.A. Focus?
Jakarta is so strong as a character, and there’s less of the natural “pulling” from other countries because they’ve got so much character of itself, where Singapore is quite open and porous.
Oh, the future! I see curating as a creative practice, so it doesn’t even really has to reside in, say, putting together a visual art exhibition because creating and curating as a kind of flow when I’m working with artists or creative practitioners, it almost does not matter because, when you’re just working with creative content as a curator, then I’m just finding ways to make sense. I’m pulling in ideas, I’m working with people, so like I said, for me, the future is both very open—and that’s where it’s interesting—it’s also very uncertain—but I also enjoy that.
And then, for S.E.A. Focus, perhaps to grow and perhaps to also be outside of Southeast Asia if it can. I think that will be tremendously exciting if that could happen, but suddenly I think we have to establish a very consistent brand and identity as what it is here in Singapore, as a gathering place for artists, galleries, and people from the artists’ community for Southeast Asia, here.
S.E.A. Focus 2023
Tanjong Pagar Distripark,
6-15 January 2023