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Epilogue by The Artists Village: Reflections of a Curatorial Intern

Venturing into the Village

It all began in October 2021, when I received a forwarded message from a friend:

“Hey sooks, I’m trying to look for an intern for the period of half of Sep, NOV, DEC and JAN and cause I’m out of touch with the younger cohort, I’m wondering if you have anyone who might be interested interning for me for SAW. It would be for The Artists village showcase. Duties will fall under research, compiling archival materials, basic design for online catalogue, documentation and liasing with artists.”

I’d heard The Artists Village (TAV) mentioned in art history classes, but, like many art kids of my generation, my knowledge of the collective was cursory at best. Nonetheless, the internship sounded like a great chance to rub shoulders with real artists, and I jumped at the opportunity to work with TAV on their final showcase, Epilogue

Even if you’re not an expert on TAV’s history, you’re probably familiar with many of Singapore’s pioneering contemporary artists (and Cultural Medallion winners) who’ve been associated with the Village at one point or the other: Vincent Leow, Amanda Heng, Chng Seok Tin, Lee Wen. 

Tang Da Wu performing Gooseman on the premises of a farm in Sembawang during The Artists Village’s Second Open Studio Show in 1989. Image courtesy of  Koh Nguang How.

As the collective’s origin story goes, the legendary Tang Da Wu founded Singapore’s first art colony on a farm owned by his family in 1988. TAV’s kampong days lasted only briefly, however, as its space in Ulu Sembawang was lost to urban development. Later, ephemeral, often site-specific practices came to define the collective’s mode of operation as it spearheaded performance and installation art in the 1990s and 2000s. 

Thanks to a major retrospective at the Singapore Art Museum in 2008, the first 20 years of TAV’s history are relatively well-documented. The Artists Village: 20 Years On cemented TAV’s vital role as a catalyst of contemporary art’s development in Singapore. 

Since then, the collective has continued working hard — sustaining its support for Future of Imagination an independent performance art festival founded by Kai Lam and the late Lee Wen; running the Pulau Ubin Artists-in-Residency (AIR) Programme, initiating regional exchange projects, and more. 

But as the shadow of its illustrious legacy looms large over its present, TAV might look to be past its prime. With most of their recent exhibitions hosted in designated “art” spaces, TAV’s long journey from the farm back to the white cube might look like a betrayal of the avant-garde ethos that its early members were committed to. 

Indeed, questions of continuity, succession and relevance have surfaced at TAV’s annual general meetings, where members of the registered society consolidate the past year’s activities and set out the agenda for the next. It came to a point where artist and curator Bridget Tay, one of the collective’s youngest members, decided: instead of talking about it, why not do what artists do best, and turn the problem into art? 

Enter Epilogue, the latest exhibition at Changi Point

As its title suggests, Epilogue centres around navigating closure, as the members of TAV contemplate shutting down the society thirty years after its official registration in 1992. Past and present collide, with new works by current members responding to TAV’s history and its potential “demise”. 

The view as you walk up to Fairy Point Chalet 7.

Returning to its early-2000s modus operandi of co-opting unconventional spaces for art, TAV’s latest exhibition takes place in the “homely” setting of a black-and-white bungalow in Changi. Located at the very tip of the island, facing Pulau Ubin, the villa harks back to the Village of yore, in a sort of post-Post-Ulu twist. (The second generation of TAV members christened themselves Post-Ulu, signalling a departure from the seclusion of the Sembawang farm as they made the city their canvas. Epilogue’s “ulu-ness” looks like a reversal of all this.)

It’s a bittersweet moment of reflection too, as the anniversary celebration doubles up, potentially, as a funeral. The first artwork you’ll encounter stepping into the building is Andy Yang’s My Deepest Condolences Going Out To All Who Tried, a pair of flashy LED-light funeral wreaths that cast the living room in blue while flanking the dining room as they might a funeral tent.

Andy Yang with My Deepest Condolences Going Out To All Who Tried. The artist is wearing Jason Lee’s artwork for the show — a black T-shirt with The Artists Village’s logo on it. Image courtesy of Andy Yang.

Like Andy’s installation, Jennifer Teo’s Lovesong plays on local funerary motifs, with red threads, and 3300 sweets arranged to form the Chinese word 同 (“togetherness”). 

Jennifer Teo’s Lovesong is installed in a room overlooking the sea. The work’s title is a reference to The Cure’s 1989 album, Disintegration, which was released in the same year as TAV’s First Open Studio Show.

Birth and death are heavy themes to tackle, but many of the works in the show grapple with this tension sensitively, striking a balance between melancholy and a spirit of revelry. The two performances which took place on 12 January were especially resonant in this respect.

Dressed in a black shirt patterned with red “ALCOHOL” bottles, Kai Lam rolled out beer cans, placed flowers in the fridge, tossed ribbons over the audience, wrapped a skull in aluminium foil, and cooked up an immersive soundscape in the kitchen, all while a roll-call of disbanded democratic parties from the 1930s to the present day played in the background. 

Kai Lam’s performance, A requiem for dreamers #01.

Later in the evening, the night sea breeze, black oracle-like robes, painfully tender gestures, and deep shadows against the symmetry of the building’s porch came together in Ezzam Rahman’s playful, poetic performance. It was an impromptu collaboration, with Andy Yang piping out a jaunty tune. Adopting the persona of a goose, Ezzam paid tribute both to Tang Da Wu’s iconic performance at Lorong Gambas, Gooseman (1989), and to the goose-on-durian logo that Kai designed for TAV’s Post-Ulu rebranding. 

Ezzam Rahman’s (right) performance, what do you want from me?, in collaboration with Andy Yang (left).

Given TAV’s long association with performance art, the three programmed for Epilogue are definitely highlights.

Natural light falling on Sophia Natasha Wei’s Close the Rift between Us, a series of portraits created in collaboration with photographer Nel Lim. Taking on the persona of her mentor, the late Juliana Yasin, Natasha reflects on their shared sense of belonging to TAV in “gratitude and intimacy”. Her performance is scheduled to take place on 22 January at 6pm.

Retrospection is also a strong theme behind several of the artists’ works, which respond to past TAV events. In The Roof Over Our Heads, Gilles Massot reflects on home, belonging and artistic community, as he presents his serendipitous discovery that the roofs in Chinatown were made of tiles from Marseilles, his childhood home, juxtaposing it against a photograph of the razed Hong Bee warehouse taken by Koh Nguang How

Gilles Massot’s The Roof Over Our Heads juxtaposes Koh Nguang How’s photograph of the razed Hong Bee Warehouse — TAV’s temporary “home” through the second half of 1992 (top)— against an image of a roof tile from Singapore which, serendipitously, was manufactured in Marseilles, Gilles’s own hometown (bottom).


The work displayed in Epilogue over at Changi Point.

With her reflective portrait of Buang and a camera obscura facing Pulau Ubin, Isabelle Desjeux looks back on her rejected proposal for the Pulau Ubin AIR Programme. 

Isabelle Desjeux’s portrait of Buang, a fictional character based on the Malay scientist described in naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace’s The Malay Archipelago.


Buang’s camera obscura faces Pulau Ubin.

As a thirty-year anniversary exhibition, Epilogue carries an art historical slant, though the curatorial team has definitely taken more liberties with presenting TAV’s “timeline” than a typical scholarly work. On the first floor of the space is a non-linear installation featuring posters, photographs, and narratives of past events, which Bridget, Kelly Khua (my classmate and fellow curatorial minion), and I worked on. 

Timeline Many Lines by the curatorial team (Bridget Tay, Kelly Khua and Sheryl Gwee). Most of the images featured in the timeline are from Koh Nguang How’s extensive archives.

Reflections of a curatorial intern

A big part of my role as curatorial intern was researching and writing about these events, and gathering personal narratives — a process which involved 15 interviews with artists and art historians. After two-and-a-half months and 136 pages of transcripts, the nature of the dilemmas faced by TAV today has become clearer to me. 

For one, a common theme in nearly every interview was how the arts scene here has changed tremendously since TAV’s birth in the late 1980s. In many ways, studying TAV’s history amounts to taking a crash course in the birth of contemporary art in Singapore. The two are inseparable — not only did TAV catalyse the emergence of new artistic forms, it profoundly shaped and was in turn shaped by developing cultural institutions and policies, and the burgeoning art market. 

One curator used the words “lynchpin” and a “beacon of change,” which I thought were particularly apt in describing TAV’s role in the critical decades of the 80s and 90s — a role we expect it to continue playing today. Tang Da Wu’s brand of socially and environmentally engaged art set the tone for the first decade or so of TAV’s existence, heralding a shift away from high modernism. Instead of the play of abstract forms in, for instance, a Goh Beng Kwan painting, TAV sought out the real world of everyday life, with performances and installations that brought ordinary, non-artistic objects, actions and spaces into the artistic realm. 

In the 2000s, the collective continued to engage with emerging discourses in global contemporary art. Amid the growth of large exhibitions like the Asia Pacific Triennial, TAV projects like The Bali Project were informed by an emerging regional consciousness and a certain postcolonial bent. Other projects like the conceptual 2002 exhibition B.E.A.U.T.Y.  responded to Singapore’s growing art ecosystem and art collecting trends.

Lina Adam (right) and her collector are pictured here in 2002, shaking hands in front of her work, Oh Shit (1999).

While the art world has certainly transformed, it’s hard to say whether these changes are for the better or worse. On one hand, we might lament the sense of anxiety that grew around performance art in public spaces after the ten-year withdrawal of funding for scriptless forms of performance art. On the other hand, Singapore’s vastly expanded arts infrastructure today and its intricate funding frameworks are important sources of support for artists.

In this atmosphere, the functions of a registered society — providing new artists with exposure alongside mature practitioners, especially at a time when institutional barriers were much higher — now seem much less relevant. With innumerable open calls, social media and NFTs, joining a collective is no longer the only way for young, inexperienced, and even self-taught artists to gain visibility. As Urich Lau, former president of TAV, explained:

“Being an artist now, if you graduate from art school and you’re twenty-something […], it’s actually quite a good deal. You can have a lot of support. And even going to (the National Arts Council) now to ask for funding, it’s not so scary. […] Having a solo show as a young artist is becoming an achievable goal.”

Another issue that came up repeatedly in the interviews was that of succession. Even in the most free-flow, experimental artistic groups where non-hierarchical collaboration is upheld as a core value, the question of responsibility remains: who’s going to do the “dirty work”?

Organising a group exhibition is hard work, paperwork is a hassle, and increasingly, with more mature members moving on to different stages in their careers and getting involved in other commitments, it seems that no one has the time for TAV. 

And I must add that this isn’t a condemnation of TAV.

Progress and change are, after all, organic, inevitable processes, and the avant-garde is by nature short-lived. 

“No potency lasts thirty years!” exclaimed T.K. Sabapathy, when we asked him if he still saw TAV as the potent force for alterity that it once was.

In a collective, artists come together with a common vision, and when this evolves or dissolves, they carry on in different ways, be it in going solo or in forming new partnerships.

Whatever direction TAV takes from here, Epilogue makes clear that the collective has reached a point of crisis — perhaps the last, but definitely not the first. Discussions around its closure in the late 1990s brought about a renewal of leadership, with a new generation of artists taking the reins.

The most important question, then, seems to be this: Is there a binding vision, manifesto or ideology, or at least a sense of convergence between the current members of TAV?

A town hall session, which is open to the public and scheduled for 22 January, will be a chance for TAV to hammer out all these issues — whether this means affirming a new, common direction, or acknowledging that the time has come to part ways. 

A New Beginning?

Personally, if I had to address the difficult issue of closure, I would probably lean towards Bridget’s stance, which is to, instead of letting the collective fizzle out over time, give it a dignified death. From what little I have seen, the artists’ practices are rather diverse and even divergent. And with the current president of TAV, Ezzam, taking on the heavy mantle of renewing The Substation as its artistic director, it does seem that there isn’t anyone to fill his shoes.

But, of course, it’s far too easy for me to judge as an outsider who’s barely scratched the surface of all that TAV represents, both for its members and the wider artistic community. With Covid-19 and the closure of beloved spaces like The Substation, the sense of loss that hangs over the arts community is acute. Even through Zoom interviews, I could see that contemplating TAV’s closure wasn’t easy for the artists.

Screenshot from a Zoom interview with Woon Tien Wei, TAV member and co-founder of Post-Museum.

But amid the anxiety that comes with navigating closure, I find some comfort in thinking about how no ending is quite final. Even if TAV were to dissolve its status as a registered society, it wouldn’t necessarily spell the end of close collaborative relationships between former members. Clichéd as it might sound, I do believe that when one door closes, another one opens.

The writing of this Epilogue might just spell the beginning of a new chapter.



Epilogue runs until 26 January.

Opening hours are from 12pm to 8pm on weekdays (except Monday) and from 10am to 8pm on weekends.

A performance by Sophia Natasha will take place on 22 January at 6pm.

Do follow TAV on Instagram @theartistsvillage_sg for updates and remember to pre-register to indicate your attendance.


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