Weng-Choy Lee is president of the Singapore section of the International Association of Art Critics. Malaysian-born, Lee spent his youth in Manila, followed by a decade in the US. In 1992, he moved to Singapore, where, among other things, he co-ran The Substation, an arts center and mainstay of the local art scene. Lee and I first crossed paths while I was co-organizing an event in Phnom Penh’s art gallery and resource center, SA SA BASSAC, for which he presented remotely. After I published an article on Singapore’s Art Stage early this year, we began to discuss art writing more seriously.
Singapore, so foreign to me, was Lee’s home for decades, and he is currently working on a book of essays on artists who mostly hail from his adopted country. Our previous conversations about the meaning of “home,” art criticism in the region, and learning to listen to a place have been extremely generative to me, so I was delighted by the opportunity to more formally discuss these and other issues with him.
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Weng-Choy Lee: Let’s start with me asking you a question. In your Hyperallergic article, “Everything Points Inward: Capitalism and Its Discontents at an Art Fair in Singapore,” you wrote about working for SA SA BASSAC at this year’s Art Stage. What was the feedback like?
Ben Valentine: While I received a few positive reactions, investigating further on social media, I noticed a lot of negative responses, especially from Singaporeans. These seemed to be more in reaction to the predictability of me — a liberal white American — helicoptering into the island city-state to decry human rights violations and unfettered capitalism. I was aware of this trope and had tried to counterbalance it by grounding my writing in personal experiences, such as my discomfort with the fancy shoes I had to wear as part of my “costume” for working at Art Stage, and my wife’s brief detainment at immigration. Upon reflection, though, it seems fair to say I did not succeed.
WCL: I empathize. My first essay on Singapore was the same: I too decried capitalism and the lack of human rights. One reason I appreciated your piece is because you didn’t just write from your American perspective, you drew upon your experiences in Cambodia. Also, while you at first recoiled from the pungent capitalist spectacle of it all, I thought your point was about moving past that and listening to your surroundings and to artists like Kent Chan, who was part of a curated platform at the fair.
When I arrived in the ’90s, I sought out some local professors. One senior academic told me, with a straight face, that Foucault was completely irrelevant here. I don’t ever want to forget the shock of that encounter. But after a couple of decades, one can get complacent. It bears repeating that one must remain critical and not allow problems to become normalized.
BV: So let’s talk censorship and self-censorship. What are the limitations of Singapore’s art-criticism scene?
WCL: The situation in Singapore is more complex than most people might assume. In 1993, the government’s Censorship Review Committee came out with a report that basically endorsed the status quo with a few minor tweaks. Its recommendations were generally welcomed without much objection by the arts community. Ten years later, though, the next Censorship Review was met with strong criticism by an organized group from the arts. We distinguished between censorship and regulation (e.g., ratings for mature content)—recommending the latter and completely rejecting the former.
In 2002, The Straits Times newspaper invited me to write a piece on censorship. The editor consulted me about some minor changes, to which I agreed. When printed, however, they changed the crux of my argument without telling me. I argued that censorship is always arbitrary; they changed it to “censorship is sometimes arbitrary” — thus proving my point. Today, censorship is not always about controlling content. Yes, certain topics remain taboo: Don’t cast aspersions on the judiciary or incite racial antagonism, film remains under tight control, and so on. But censorship here is also about singling out and pressuring certain individuals, thereby intimidating the arts community as a whole.
Over the years, independent art publications have tested boundaries, been met with government pushback, and continued to operate. In many cases, lack of funding was the reason for closing shop. The government will withhold funding on content they dislike, but again, this isn’t applied absolutely rigorously but arbitrarily. If you can fund it yourself, then you can say it, to a large degree. With regards to criticism, the challenge isn’t only direct censorship but also the poverty of public intellectual debate, which is a consequence of living in a censorship regime.
BV: You seem to suggest that the bigger issue is a failure to find ways to move beyond the obvious problems, while not ignoring them.
WCL: Historically, we’ve had a weak appreciation of what the public is or can be. And I believe a healthy public discourse is necessary if we are to become better listeners as an arts community.
Singapore’s first biennale, in 2006, was created to be the anchor cultural event for the World Bank and IMF meetings hosted that year. The Substation wanted to organize a “street party” well after the meetings. We explicitly said to the authorities there would be no speeches; we just wanted to bring together local arts and civil society groups in public to celebrate as a community. The authorities denied us permission.
The following year — no biennale, no IMF meetings — we tried for a “tunnel party” (next to The Substation is a tunnel). We wanted to organize a commercial flea market and booths for arts and civil society groups. Again, no speeches, just live music. We did get permission for the flea market and music, but they said no to arts and civil society. Equally disappointing was that on the day itself, the arts and civil society groups — who all dutifully came to the planning meetings — were mostly absent. Since they were no longer formally a part of the event, maybe they didn’t feel the need to show up. Although some things have changed: Today’s annual Pink Dot gatherings are an example of a strong commitment to public space that we were perhaps missing back in 2007.
But let me ask you: What are some of your experiences in finding a way to speak from your present location in Cambodia? As noted, Singapore is my adopted home. Becoming local and being located isn’t about some essentialist precondition — often it’s very much about learning to listen.
BV: This is an issue very much on my mind, and one I believe I’ll always be navigating. I’m beginning to wonder if a master’s degree in art history about the region or about Cambodia is necessary for me. I’ve been diving into books and texts on the history here, but the context remains incredibly foreign.
The article I wrote about my early time in Cambodia would be so different today. The fundamentals wouldn’t change — ask a lot of questions, don’t come to artworks or artists with my own agenda, and be willing to put aside my Western art history education in favor of local context — but I still have a long way to go.
Although I’m far from fluent, learning the language has been invaluable for developing trust, respect, and a deeper insight. No doubt, subtle cultural differences have resulted in miscommunication and confusion. But I suppose the big adjustment is that here I trust my first reads of art much less, and I rely more heavily on interviews and conversations with the artists than I would in contexts with which I’m more familiar. Really taking time is the key — for empathy, not to mention accurate, thoughtful art writing.