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Here’s what SGABF Director Renée Ting wants you to know about Art Books

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Something I’ve always associated with visiting the Singapore Art Book Fair (SGABF) was a sense of wonder. While I might not have understood the publications I was looking at when I visited the fair as a young student, I remember how visually striking they were.

Running my fingers over textured paper pages, I’d admire the visuals of different publications — each cover boasting unique fonts and designs that reminded me of how one might meticulously apply paint to a canvas and make every stroke count.

As SGABF opens its doors at Singapore Art Museum and ramps up for a busy weekend, we speak to its Director Renée Ting. She was previously Manager and Creative Director of local independent bookshop BooksActually.

Renée tells us about SGABF’s spontaneous beginnings, appreciating the medium of the art book, and launching online art book store Thing Books

Can you tell us more about when, how and why SGABF was set up?

It was first set up in 2013. Back then, I was working at a bookstore in Singapore and was friendly with a local design firm. The organisers of the Tokyo Art Book Fair approached the design firm and suggested that Singapore should have one too. The firm approached us and the bookstore and asked if we wanted to do one together.

The event wasn’t something we focused on, so it was me and a person from the design firm going, “oh, SGABF is meant to be next month, can we get together and discuss it?”

So we called up around 50 friends and asked if they wanted to be a part of SGABF. They agreed and said they would make some things for it. Back then, there were very few events like this and not a lot of understanding of art books. So we were also feeling things around in the dark and figuring things out as we went along. We had a lot of magazines and plush toys — things that weren’t art books. But that’s how we started.

Can you tell us more about Singapore’s appetite for art books?

It has definitely grown over the years, judging solely on audience size, exhibitor numbers and exhibitor content. When SGABF first started out, we had over 30 exhibitors and a thousand people over three days. People were still getting used to the idea of what an art book fair is, and what an art book actually is.

It ran for four years until 2017, when I left the bookstore and decided to run the fair independently. That was a turning point for us because it had become a craft-based fair instead. Exhibitors came up to me and said, “we’re not coming back next year because we’re not proud to be part of this event. We don’t feel that this is an art book fair.”

So in 2018, I rebranded the fair and decided to curate the exhibitors, which we didn’t do before. Previously, it was a closed call, where we asked friends. The response from the open call let us know that the number of people making art books and the people visiting the fair was growing exponentially.

2018 saw over 50 exhibitors and 4000 people over the weekend. In 2019, we had slightly under 80 exhibitors and 7000 people that weekend. Judging by that trajectory, it’s definitely growing. With the fair, we want to deepen the understanding of the art book as a medium for artistic practice.

Backtracking a little bit, what would you personally consider to be an art book?

It’s funny, when I took over the fair, I also initially questioned what it was. In Singapore, we are so unfamiliar with the format of the art book. We know literary publications, poetry, and short stories, but when it comes to art books, we go, “what is it?” 

The ‘art book’ is an umbrella that encompasses sub-genres, including zines, periodicals, artist exhibition catalogues, publications made alongside exhibitions, and research publications on art.

Then there’s the artist’s book, where an artist treats the format of the book as an artwork, in and of itself. They consider the medium as the best way to present the work. Sometimes, there are also artists who have made a one-piece run of their publication and that’s the work!

These genres are what we represent at SGABF.

Learning from artists and the exhibitors, and seeing how others treat the format also educates me as an organiser.

This year sees SGABF launch the SG Art Book Library pop-up at local art space starch. Can you tell us more about how this collaboration came about? 

Yeah! I’ve been collecting books for the last eight years. I have books from when I travelled and visited other art book fairs, so I have a collection of publications that sit on my shelf.

I thought it would be nice to share it with the public, as some publications aren’t widely available. It felt like a necessary part of the art book community to introduce a free library for everyone to browse.

Right now, it’s once a year but I do plan to have it more often eventually!

Due to the pandemic, SGABF featured an ‘Adopt-a-Exhibitor’ format last year. Will this take place again this year and can we expect international and regional booths this year?

We’re having the same ‘Adopt-a-Exhibitor’ format this year. This time, we have about 60 to 70 local exhibitors and the rest are international.

They’re from all over — we have some from Estonia and the Netherlands. We also have the organisers of Art Book in China (the Beijing Art Book Fair) and New York Art Book Fair. This year, we have a huge range of international exhibitors, which creates an exchange.

Ties between communities also deepen when you have a local exhibitor taking care of an international exhibitor. They communicate by themselves, manage expectations, and find out more about each other’s books. I feel that this exchange is important for us.

What experiences do you hope visitors will have this SGABF?

Honestly, I just want people to have fun! I place a lot of importance on having fun in what you do.

But also, I hope people more greatly appreciate the format of the art book. It’s different from a literary publication. You can turn a poetry book into an e-book and the content isn’t lost. But everything about the art book is physical.

I hope people consider that the artist has considered the tactility of the format, from pages to sequence to size and paper — everything has been thought about. Art books can basically only exist in the physical form.

So by visiting the fair and experiencing all these publications, I hope people can understand this.

Do you have advice for people who don’t know much about art books but want to approach them?

Approach them however you wish! The beauty of the art book is that it’s both accessible and intimate at the same time. As an artist’s work in the format of a book, you can pick it up and spend time with it — in a bookshop, at a fair, at home, anywhere. It’s you and the book.

It’s so different from seeing an artist’s work at a white cube gallery.

Yet, the book can also be disseminated around the world so it goes beyond borders. So how you choose to encounter the book is really up to you.

Are there any highlights you wanted to share for this upcoming SGABF?

This year, we have THEBOOKSHOW’s book exhibition featuring five new artist’s books. They worked together with a designer to create these publications. We also have a Zine exhibitor corner called CUT COPY PASTE. It’s put together by the organiser of SGABF, Thing Books. It’s also an online art book shop that I recently started.

If anything, just come down and soak in the experience of the fair. Support the artists and support the fair!

You mentioned that you opened Thing Books online. When did you open this and what spurred you to do this?

We opened between February and March in 2022, but I was working on it since last year. As for what spurred me to start: I felt that there are little to no dedicated art book stores for zines and artists’ publications and the books that the SGABF represents. So I felt that thing books would fill a gap in the market.

I thought it would be nice to have the free browsing library, the SGABF event, and the permanent online platform to support artist publications. If people are looking for something, they can turn to the online store rather than wait a year for the fair. Or if an artist has made a publication, they could sell it here too.

Can you tell me about the name? It’s quite surreal, but at the same time, the art book is an object.

That’s so funny, so many people ask me about the name! It derives from the art book being an object and how artists treat the book medium as an object. An object being a thing, it’s also simultaneously specific and generic.

And then there’s the added obvious pun with my (surname) ! But that wasn’t the reason.

It was more of thinking about what differentiates an art book from other literary and text publications. It was through this train of thought, that I decided on the name.

Having the experience of working in a physical bookstore before and running Thing Books online, what are your takeaways from being involved with these two businesses?

Running a physical store definitely has its drawbacks, but there are also things that make it easier. You constantly have a space where people and passers-by can walk in.

But it’s a lot more competitive with an online business because you’re fighting with the whole world. Having an online platform means that a lot more effort goes into things like marketing and social media. Both things I’m terrible at, but that’s how it has to be.

It’s good and bad. For example, online businesses reach international audiences while a physical space is very location-specific.

I feel it’s important for platforms that represent books and publications to exist — whether they are physical or online,

With all these peer sharing platforms and reading apps, is there still a market for art books?

Building on what I mentioned before, art books are very different from novels. You can read a pdf or ebook and you won’t lose its content. The only thing you’ll lose is the feel of flipping a page. But with an art book, you lose every single experience. It’s a different kind of appreciation, market, and audience. With SGABF, we see a lot of design students, artists, and people interested in the arts. So that’s the differentiation, as art books aren’t as ‘readable’ as a novel.

Art books aren’t something you read; they’re something you experience.

Has the SGABF and setting up of Thing Books helped you to strike out on your own, following last year’s BooksActually scandal?

I see that as a separate life. Personally, I feel that I’m more than what happened last year. Whether or not the saga occured, the SGABF would have still happened.

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SGABF runs until 1 May at Singapore Art Museum.

The SG Art Book Library pop-up at space starch runs until 4 May 2022. Check out starch’s Instagram page for more details. 

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