#Under30Unveiled: Interview with Siddharta Perez

17th Sep 2017

Category: Interview

#Under30Unveiled is a selection of emerging visual artists, curators, art writers and filmmakers from Singapore. This is a millennial generation in their mid to late-20s that are now being noticed for their fresh approach to their own practices and the media they work with.

Our fourth profile is Siddharta Perez, a curator and art writer who was born in Manila, spent her childhood in Singapore, then shuttled for a time between the two cities before settling down as a curator at the National University of Singapore (NUS) Museum. Prior to her appointment at NUS, she had been extremely active in the Manila scene. She was the co-founder of Planting Rice, a curatorial and resource platform focused on Philippine practices, ran an artist space called LOSTprojects, and had been curating with the Lopez Museum, Ateneo Art Gallery, Valentine Willie Fine Art and The Drawing Room. Despite all this activity across the sea, her work is relatively less seen in Singapore. For that reason, we have included her on our list of emerging Singaporean creatives.

Last summer at NUS Museum, Perez curated Double Vision (read ArtHop's review here), a survey of videos and films that look at the Philippines as a proxy for filmic reenactments of the Vietnam War. The show recently evolved into a further iteration. Unsettled Assignments, a collaboration with Cambodian artist and curator Vuth Lyno, was featured at 72-13 as part of Ho Rui An’s curatorial series For lack of a better word for this year's Singapore International Festival of Arts (SIFA). 

Perez has worked primarily with Filipino artists who live abroad as expatriates like herself, or are based in the Philippines. Her research has to do with textual cross-pollination, fringe narratives and her methodology is kind of like a spontaneous sampling. Late last year, I sat down for a drink with her to find out more.

Photo courtesy of Siddharta Perez. 

Sidd, it’s so good to meet and catch up with you. I’m curious about your journey. We used to chat at art fairs, where you’d be introducing your artists to collectors. Since then, you’ve crossed over from curating for the Drawing Room, into the grounds of the university—and it can’t get any more non-commercial than NUS Museum. How has the transition been for you?

Actually, it wasn’t a movement between two different structures of presenting art. It was a bigger transition from a community in Manila and that infrastructure, or lack thereof, to Singapore, into an institution that looked at the region. It felt like I had to reckon with what I think is a more expansive kind of system.

It was a bit of a difficult transition and it took me awhile. Right before joining the NUS Museum, I was wrapping up curatorial projects with Planting Rice while I was committed to programming a commercial gallery. The Drawing Room had its Singapore gallery while we still had to maintain our programming in Manila. On top of that, the gallery was joining a lot of international fairs. While I did not desire to work anymore in a commercial gallery, I also told myself that perhaps I wasn’t cut out for an institution. But NUS Museum was a particular kind of institution that I wanted to work with. I liked the way that the exhibition programming required curatorial reflexivity and how the institution supported and enabled this.

At that time I desired to locate myself within a broader professional level of work. I had done many things in different capacities in Manila—independent work, collaboration with institutions and other artists, building and maintaining independent art spaces, writing for different forms, engaging different levels of audiences. However, one could only go so far  in one community. By then, I wanted a challenge that could give me a sense of breadth in professional work. I thought that moving to NUS Museum and, consequently, Singapore would give me that.

I can imagine how the pace must have been a big adjustment!

For commercial galleries, it’s all about frequency and quantity—we would be doing three exhibitions in three different cities a month. The stress levels were caused by how hectic it becomes when one has to manage so many different types of curatorial work. Everything felt like an emergency. But with the museum, what is valued in curatorial work is the time taken for research and incubating ideas, and then translating them into an exhibition months later. In the beginning, it was difficult for me to reckon with the fact that I did not have a show in eight months!

But it allowed me to consider what my ideas were with regards to curatorial outcomes. Are they really exhibition-based, meaning, do they end in exhibitions? Do collaborations end with a project, once they are presented publicly? There was a lot of reconsideration and recalibration I had to do. It was like forming a different kind of desire in a space where I felt like I was swimming a bit further from the shore.

In Singapore, we have a dearth of artist-run spaces and independent curatorial practices. Perhaps in lieu of those gaps, NUS Museum has become a respected platform for the latter, allowing experimental, young curating to happen in efforts like Curating Lab and the incubator “prep-room”. How does working with the university museum compare to your previous independent practices with Planting Rice and LOSTprojects?

They’re still two very different communities. Superficially, they can be seen as polar opposites in terms of infrastructure. The definition of independent spaces and artist collectives are very different here and in Manila. In Manila, it’s because of those cracks or lack of infrastructure that compelled us to construct our own system of doing things. We were very much propelled towards self-education, self-organisation.

Planting Rice was interesting for me because it was all about mobility of access to information, artists, works and ideas. And then it became about making something out of our curatorial, discursive or critical problems. Lian Ladia and I built this platform so that we could work through those problems without necessarily proposing an alternative narrative or resolution. The last big show that Planting Rice did was with Lopez Museum titled Articles of Disagreements. It started when Lian and I were digging for forms of critical discourses in art writing from the Philippines. At first, we were working with a series of texts that seemed to foster, support or give the impression that they were an alternative history, but in the end it was dishonest to think that they could offer that. We also realised we had no capacity to construct a definitive narrative, so we just put everything in and digitised a lot of journals, scrapbooks from people from the ’50s, writings that were almost tangential to those discourses.

With NUS Museum, it’s the same curatorial thrust in the sense that the institution allows a lot of play. By “play”, I mean the challenge of navigating certain conditions, working to accommodate everything, and consequently learning to filter out, or to make things more nuanced. It’s a more complicated exercise than those instances of being confronted with your own ideas about things, history, art practices, your biases towards communities or certain discourses. So coming to NUS Museum, it seemed like that was the kind of practice I was already interested in and had dabbled with for a while. I continue that practice by fine-tuning and defining the methodology.

What is different for me in Singapore is that I have access to a lot of information and scholarly work. It almost feels like a discovery of a treasure trove, and I wonder where do I begin? In the Philippines, the archives are not very accessible…

But thinking about that rabbit hole in Alice in Wonderland, I remember that image of her picking things off from the shelves and just putting them back elsewhere. I like that gesture of picking things up and putting them back somewhere else. This gesture of rearranging could be another reading of the “rabbit hole” [of the archive]. So it’s not a black hole to a specific obsession, but rather a rearrangement of such—through taking what you can and synthesising.

Exhibition view of Articles of Disagreements at Lopez Museum, September 2014. Photo: Lopez Museum and Library.

Exhibition view of Articles of Disagreements at Lopez Museum, September 2014. Photo: Lopez Museum and Library.

Exhibition view of Articles of Disagreements at Lopez Museum, September 2014. Photo: Lopez Museum and Library.

Besides the curatorial approach, another evident difference is the material content of your research. You’re researching the history of the university, the museum and its collection within the larger narrative of British colonialism—particular to Singapore and when it was known as Malaya. Is this a new field of research for you?

It’s definitely new material.

There are however some things that I had researched in the Philippines which only made sense when I came here. Even reading José Rizal, the Filipino nationalist from the late 1800s, on the forming of a nation by being outside it made me see that there are certain post-colonial affinities that these histories share. While the details are specific to the regions, they still are fundamentally driven by impulses that mirror each other. 

When the Museum suggested that I start looking at Vietnam in terms of its borrowed collection of Vietnam War drawings and prints, I became interested in how Vietnam’s neighbours in Southeast Asia were complicit in the war. This marked my current research trajectory on the Cold War and how the region is located within this “narrative”.

Exhibition view of Vietnam 1954 – 1975: War Drawings and Posters from the Ambassador Dato’ N. Parameswaran Collection, June 2015. Photo: NUS Museum. Read our interview with curator Chang Yueh Siang here

And that is the research that has become Double Vision. What were you trying to develop with this exhibition?

It started with the question on how to relate these texts, public and marginal histories, and voices on the Vietnam War. How does one align or alter the objects and works that are part of a collection so that it could be expanded towards a discourse about the region? At first, it was difficult for me because I did not have the capacity or the resources to look at the collection [from the perspective of] Singapore, Malaya or Indonesia, or within the larger story of Cambodia and Vietnam. Those were Pandora’s boxes that I couldn’t possibly map or encounter in the limited time that I had.

So I began with the Philippines, because that’s what I know. I worked with artist videos and film works I had seen before. I started from a very cursory speculation that Vietnam War-themed Hollywood films were shot in the Philippines and the flip side that if the American military did not occupy the Philippines at the turn of the century, they would not have known how to fight in the Vietnam jungle. So that was my guiding framework.

In turn, I chose one particular work by Angel Shaw which is a very dense, experimental home video. It is a mishmash of many things that unstitched the multi-layered cultural consciousness of the Filipino. And from there, I took certain themes: the English language, manifestations of globalisation in different decades, filmic history… I hope to continue this work and expand it with research on Malaya, Cambodia, Indonesia…

Angel Velasco Shaw, Nailed, 1992. Video 8, 00:49:39. Collection of the artist. Image (c) Angel Velasco Shaw.

Exhibition view of Double Vision at NUS Museum, June 2016. Photo: NUS Museum. 

Exhibition view of Double Vision at NUS Museum, June 2016. Photo: NUS Museum. 

How does your exhibition speak back to the museum’s ongoing research on Malaya and its other exhibitions, such as Radio Malaya?

Radio Malaya was prompted by conversations that were going on in the late ’50s to the ’60s on Malayan art, culture and multiculturalism, and how that consciousness was never really resolved. Rather, it continues to be regurgitated in different forms through succeeding periods in our history.

But how do you begin to have this reread alongside a collection that is obviously not “complete”? Even with collecting histories, the practice is almost arbitrary. It goes through so many changes, and it reflects the political situation at the time. The original collection of the museum was split between the University of Malaya and NUS. How do you even begin to consolidate those things without relying on the framing to fill these supposed gaps?

So, looking at specific works and discourses can be a crippling trap. I’m working with certain conceptual frameworks that aspire to provoke the consciousness—that upset our idea of history as a construct, something inherited, finite, closed. It’s more of that framework that I’m interested in looking at via certain relationships that are almost tangential and consequently complicated.

Was Double Vision proposing a playful tension for you?

The works are about very serious topics. However, the forms they take are funny, child-like and experimental. For instance, the animation of ROXLEE (Roque Federizon Lee) is absolutely anti-military, but the form allowed it more nuance and play.

I hope all of these conversations between the works and the texts can be read simultaneously. The texts are not really prescriptions of how to read the work, but rather they are a parallel body of work alongside the objects. I guess that’s why it can be difficult for people to enter into the exhibitions because these exhibitions don’t have that kind of singular, prescriptive track or indicator.

The NUS Museum approach is one of repetition, underscoring and over-stretching material, re-presenting the same artists and pieces in different formats over the years. It’s a reflexivity about its own exhibitions, and an extended continuity that can be fascinating. What are you hoping to bring to this exhibition history, whether it is a difference or even a total departure, with your particular set of research interests?

The exhibition There are too many episodes of people coming here... (read ArtHop's review here) is a second edition. It is a collection of projects that we’ve done from 2008 to 2014. While there are obviously samplings of this particular exhibition history, we also hope it is seen as a way to map out certain curatorial gestures.

I’m interested in the curatorial space Episodes employs and how it welcomes extensions of conversations prompted by the displays. I’m speaking to curators and researchers working with specific interest groups in NUS departments, to look at different things like the Pattani art community, the history of koleks (small wooden boats), or even Indonesia. These people could add or be inspired by the things they see. I always wonder what do they know that could contribute to the inquiries asked by the exhibition? And how can we stretch this trajectory or triangulation of interests on maritime history, communities within and outside Singapore, and so on? I want to offer them this possibility to treat the exhibition as a slow intervention or conversation. I want to ask them, are there things in the space that you could use, keep, or rearrange for your original concept? That’s what I want to pursue, while honouring the inherent continuity within Episodes. Charles Lim’s videos, Dennis Tan’s boat, and Zai Kuning’s video—they are old works by the artists, but they are also additions to the space, and kind of push out of it.

Another thing that I see happening is the “prep-room” has become more than it was before. I’m doing some work with the Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum conservator Kate Pocklington. She’s been using the third floor as her office space, rearranging materials, even doing some artworks there. And U5, an artist collective from Zurich, will be using a space in the museum as their studio too, opening it up for public encounters. It’s interesting to have artists working in the space, students coming in, having classes there. It’s very important to have the museum open up to artists, because we deal so much with history and artefacts. That’s going to be something to look forward to. Most museums don’t have so much activity ongoing inside the museum—there are so many restrictions, and rightfully so. But what happens when the artist is a part of it?

Will you be curating any independent projects beyond NUS?

Yes, I am. There are other things in the pipeline, in terms of building discussions in the region. There’s a “curator’s camp” in Cambodia by Erin Gleeson. It’s kind of nice to have a series of programmes for curators so that we could all think through stuff together. This opportunity is quite rare!

I’m still working with most of the artists that I worked with before, even though it’s not an official kind of curatorial collaboration. I still continue that relationship with them. There are still some projects in the Philippines, but I’m not sure if I’m ready to go back there. I feel like I can’t do work there if I’m not there. It’s one of my biggest hang-ups. It stopped me for a while because how could I continue my work if I’m not present in a community?

I noticed that all the artists you selected for Double Vision are expatriate Filipino or children of immigrants living abroad. Do you identify yourself with that as well, kind of curating back to or away from the Philippines?

There is this kind of inquiry about transplantation, naturalisation, and how Singapore treats the immigrant or the expatriate. I do ask myself, what does it mean to be here again? I was here from pre-school to Primary 6, and now I’m back and it feels absolutely different.

I’m working towards a Filipino diasporic consciousness, but one which is very different from everywhere else. The forming of the nation begins outside it, and things only make sense when you have that distance. That’s when you start making sense of home, whatever that is. So it’s a continuous grappling of what kind of form my work can take, to honour both where I came from and where I am now, and also to honour everything beyond all that is present.

Exhibition view of Unsettled Assignments at 72-13, July 2017. Photo: Zaihan Kariyani.

And yet you are welcome here in Singapore! We want to acknowledge you as part of an emerging community of young creatives through this column, #Under30Unveiled. As a running thread throughout it, I’ve asked Fyerool Darma, our last interviewee, pose to you a final thought. He asks, “What are your ways or methods of navigating between and within spaces of the familiar and unfamiliar?”

There is this idea of creative work that I remember when manifestations of labour remain intangible or when I feel a crisis in my imagination. It's something my writer friend Larry Ypil articulated best for me—that one needs to go through the rigour of ritual so that magic is allowed to happen on the periphery. There is a kind of research mode that is alike to artistic work where fortitude of labour is necessary because it creates the space where magic can enter.

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