Corrigendum: We regret that an earlier version of this story contained certain quotes from curator Berny Tan that were inaccurate. The relevant sections of the article have been duly amended.
In the 1990s, a group of artists who came to be known as the Young British Artists (YBAs) burst onto the London art scene and turned it on its head. This group of creative individuals took the art world by storm, with a fresh, bold and brash attitude towards making and showing art that shocked audiences at the time. Artists like Damien Hirst, Sarah Lucas, Tracey Emin and Marc Quinn challenged existing notions of art with their complete openness to the materials and processes of art-making and the often shocking imagery in their works. They were defiant. They deviated from the conventional and the mainstream. And they became wildly successful.
Fast-forward some 20 years into the future, and I kept thinking about the word ‘deviation’ as I walked down Shoreditch in London on a rainy Monday evening. I was on my way to meet a young curator from Singapore who, along with 10 emerging artists, also from Singapore, were putting together a show that they had named Deviations. The press release that I had received ahead of our meeting read, in part:
“To deviate is to depart from an established course – to reject and/or resist a norm. In Deviations, ten artists re-surface histories that defy accepted narratives, re-write the boundaries of artistic mediums, re-look the disregarded moments in our everyday.”
Standing outside the exhibition space at 59 Hackney Road one day before the show’s opening, I peered through the glass window and saw a group of individuals busily installing the artworks. Charts and plans were spread out across the space, a heap of backpacks and overcoats were flung carelessly to one side and empty cans of paint stood in the corners. I could almost feel the surge of excitement crackling in the air. Sipping on a cup of lemon ginger tea in a nearby café, I spoke to curator Berny Tan about everything that had led up to this moment.
My first question for Berny was why Deviations, and how the ten artists were brought together. She explained,
“Deviations was originally a smaller exhibition conceived by three of the artists, Genevieve Leong, Marvin Tang, and George Wong. I was actually invited to participate as an artist, but suggested that I curate instead. The theme was already set before I came on board, but I did feel it was open enough for artists to respond to it in very different ways, yet still sufficiently evocative. It was quite an organic process from the start – there were a few artists besides the initial three that were already part of the project, and I brought in some others that I thought would create new and interesting resonances between otherwise disparate practices. This was all based on this loose network of people with a shared life experience of having left Singapore to study art here in the United Kingdom. Each one of them had already crossed paths with at least one other artist in the exhibition, so it was really built on this network of connections, with no one person being a complete stranger to the group.”
I then asked if she felt that she had been deviant in her curatorial approach. She had this to say in response:
“The personal relationship between each of the artists and myself is really important to me, and is a key part of my curatorial process. I tried to be as available as possible to all the artists, even for those who had moved away from London, and with whom I could only communicate via email or WhatsApp. Deviations brings together ten artists that have such different practices. As a curator, I felt it was important to keep the process fluid and intuitive, driven by these personal relationships, and by the integrity of each artist’s unique practice. I don’t know if I would call that being ‘deviant’, but for this show at least, I avoided imposing any structure or theory, and instead worked outwards from each artist and artwork.”
Berny also touched on a key operational principle that underpinned the project:
“The Deviations management team, comprising myself, Genevieve, and Marvin, decided from early on that we wanted to compensate the artists as fairly as possible for the time and effort they were putting into the exhibition. We were very lucky to have received some private funding that allowed us to do so. These artists are performing a labour and this needs to be respected. It is something I will always try my best to push for in any project.”
As we shared a slice of red velvet cake, we went on to talk about what her journey in the arts has been like so far and what shapes her approach to curation. Having had the privilege of living and working in three major cities – Singapore, New York and London – Tan has been learning and absorbing as much as she can from each of them through the years. She completed her BFA in New York and had the opportunity to do several internships in the art world there, at galleries, museums, and non-profits. Between leaving New York and coming to London, she worked as a curator and artist back in Singapore. As Assistant Curator for OH! Open House, she managed exhibitions and programmes that put art in domestic and public spaces, and learned how to work site-specifically. This has helped her adapt the ten works in Deviations to the unconventional shop space that serves as the exhibition venue. Now, having spent the last few months in London while completing her MA, she notes that it feels a bit easier here to step away from the forces of the art market that dominate New York. At least at this point in her life, London gives her the room to evaluate and grow her art and curatorial practices, while still being exposed to different ways of making, presenting, and thinking about art. Deviations has been as much a part of this growth, and she emphasised that she has learned a lot from the ten artists as well.
As I walked into the exhibition the next day, the first work that greeted me at the door, even before I could pick up a catalogue, was Ashley Hi’s A Video of Pigeons.
I live in London. I see pigeons all the time, everywhere. I’m not particularly fond of them.
But this kinetic sculpture put a smile on my face – positioned near the glass window at the entrance, I enjoyed the illusion that the birds were, in fact, on the road and perched on the little ledge within the gallery, clustered together or flapping about as real pigeons do. The work is literally a deconstructed video of pigeons, a kinetic sculpture that mechanically animates lenticular prints of pigeons taking flight. As we’re told, “the sculpture pretends to be both a video and a flock of pigeons, even as we are fully aware that it fools no one.”
Pixie Tan’s two-part installation, Fabrications, comprises bodice toiles and an installation depicting an atelier space, expanded further through a performance on opening night which sought to question the perception of the body and the act of making for the body. The work certainly resonated with me as I think women, in particular, are subject to greater social pressure to conform to a certain ideal body type in order to be considered acceptable and desirable by peers, the opposite sex and society in general. The site-specific installation, located in the dark basement and accessed through a creaky wooden staircase, called to mind the cramped working conditions of sweatshop workers (often underage children) in many Third World countries, including those in Southeast Asia – a sly dig at the many big-brand apparel companies that outsource production to cheap overseas labour without any concern for their working conditions.
Another personal favourite was George Wong’s Win-Stay, Lose-Switch, a multi-channel video of disembodied hands playing the well-known children’s game, ‘Scissors, Paper, Stone’ in an endless loop. In a farcical twist, one player (Wong) plays the same move every time, the beauty being that, for him, victory isn’t the goal. While playing the same combination of moves repeatedly (like an algorithm), one system is replaced or “hijacked”, as the artist calls it, by another. While Wong’s strategy allows him to randomly win at times, it also “hijacks” the notion of what it means to actually win the game. If you play according to a totally different set of rules, have you really “won” anything at all?
This young group from Singapore has managed to harness various aspects of the everyday – nature, the human body, language and history – to create works that launch an enquiry into what it means to depart from an established course. The opening night was nothing short of a grand success. The turnout was spectacular. Berny Tan and the ten artists in Deviations augur well for the future of the Singapore art scene. Whether or not they choose to return home, the course they are charting, individually and together, promises exciting things ahead. Watch closely!
[Editors note: It is not possible, given the constraints of space, to give due attention all the artists whose works were shown in Deviations. However, since this exhibition is one that most of our readers would not have been able to see in person, we thought it appropriate to mention these other artists here. They are Aki Hassan, Alvin Ong, Elizabeth Gabrielle Lee, Genevieve Leong, Herman Rahman, Jonathan Liu and Marvin Tang. Congratulations to all!]