Looking at Song-Ming Ang at the National Museum, Singapore
by CECILY CHEO
Joseph Tham, a practitioner and commentator on the experimental music scene in Singapore, wrote an essay on the restaging of the Song Ming Ang 2020 exhibition Music for Everyone: Variations on a Theme, held at the National Museum Singapore from 8 October to 8 November 2020. Ang’s work represented Singapore at Singapore Pavilion on the occasion of the prestigious 58th Venice Biennale in 2019. As a visual artist and educator, I found Tham’s take on this show enlarged my own understanding and to a certain degree, appreciation of this exhibition. Tham discussed Ang’s work from the perspective of their shared knowledge, background and practice in the field of experimental music. His article gave me the opportunity to see the exhibition through different eyes. In this review, I will offer my thoughts on Music for Everyone: Variations on a Theme as a visual art practitioner and educator.
Until this show, I had not had an opportunity to view Song-Ming Ang’s work in person. The two-volume catalogue which accompanied the show thus presented me with an array of images and texts that provided a broader context for viewing the work in this exhibition. The catalogue included 6 articles written by both local and international writers, and over 30 examples of Ang’s practice from 2003 to 2018, each accompanied by a short text contributed by various curators, artists and writers familiar with Ang’s practice. Without the catalogue I would have found it difficult to activate any sense of engagement with the work in this exhibition.
Joseph Tham’s article quotes at length a section from one of the several tall panels of wall text that were lined up along the entrance to the exhibition venue. He surmised that these may have been for “…the benefit of the curious but less clued-in populace or perhaps more likely, it was the Covid-induced domestic-minded visitors which made up the majority of the visitors. I wondered just how many of the “curious but less clued-in” members of the populace would have actually bothered craning their necks to read the quantity of text that covered these wall panels that towered above any prospective reader. Couldn’t there have been a more engaging and viewer- friendly presentation of this information?
As one of the curious but more clued-in visitors, I resented both the mode of presentation and the intrusion of these wall-texts, and considered them at best a hindrance, at worst an attempt to pre-empt the viewers’ own experience of looking at and responding to Ang’s work. Apparently, these wall panels were not part of the original staging of this exhibition in Venice. Why then were they necessary in Singapore where surely the Music for Everyone theme of the show would certainly have had more resonance for prospective local viewers than for the international viewing audience visiting the exhibition in Venice.
The Music For Everyone phrase in the title of the exhibition references a campaign that was initiated by the Singapore Ministry of Culture to inculcate a sense of musical appreciation in citizens during the 1970s and 80s. In Singapore, dealing with any material that relates to aspects of the country’s history can be a politically fraught affair. To present this proposal for the scrutiny of the local selection panel would require both the curator, Michelle Ho and Ang Song Ming to possess the requisite political smarts to successfully navigate sensitive issues. Their efforts to tread carefully could well have contributed to an exhibition that seemed to this viewer flat in presentation and opaque of purpose.
Joseph Tham observes “A contemporary artist like Ang is seen today as a conceptualist with an almost flâneur-like preoccupation of observing the world around them and refracting back to the public via their works.” This observation captures something of the quirky, intimate nature that characterized much of Ang’s broader practice as evidenced in the exhibition catalogue. Take for example Ang’s Parts and Labour (2012). Here the artist sets himself the task of learning how to disassemble and then reassemble an upright piano, to a point where the instrument would once again be in “playable condition”.
During the four months that this task required, Ang documented his learning process on video. As the final work, he exhibited the final reconstructed piano along with an edited 26 minutes of the HD video revealing what this task entailed. For some this undertaking might not pass the ‘so-what’ test. For me, the attraction, even charm of this work lay both in the eccentric outsider nature of the undertaking as well as the impressive discipline, rigor and workmanship required to bring the task to completion. At a pinch the work could even suggest a utopian challenge in which Ang pits his autodidactic impulse against a dystopian, contemporary world in the thrall of the computer-generated algorithm. Unfortunately, Ang’s idiosyncratic turn of mind seemed absent from the work in this exhibition. Could working with archival material from a government ministry have run counter to, constrained or even paralysed the artist’s sense of whimsical investigation? In other words, did this particular Ministry- related material cramp his style?
This impression was only reinforced when viewing Music for Everyone (2019), a series of fabric banners on which Ang had reproduced Ministry posters advertising a series of musical events. Originally these posters were probably printed on cheap lith paper, their purpose purely functional, and shelf life correspondingly short. Ang chose to reproduce them on a thin polyester mix fabric sporting a subtle sheen. The choice of colour and scale lent the banners an air of modish understatement. But what to make of them? Too low-key to be read as a celebratory visual statement. Perhaps a visual expression of a cool, calibrated display of appreciation for those early governmental efforts to instil mass musicality? Or simply, one might ask, was there nothing to read here? What you saw was simply what you got?
Our Songs (2019) comprises a series of four watercolours on paper, each measuring 74 X 104cm on which Ang again reproduced a set of similar Ministry of Culture posters, this time advertising a series of song-writing competitions which aimed to inspire citizen efforts in the writing and performing of songs. Here the artist’s mode of reproduction paradoxically involved the painstaking process of copying the layout and wording of the original posters and converting them from their original form into a set of four rather labour-intensive watercolours. These works reminded me of old-fashioned pedagogical exercises to instruct school students on how to render chromatic colour modulation. They would have looked at home as exemplars in a 1970s Teach Yourself Watercolour publication. Once again, I found myself discombobulated. How to respond to these works? As a display of Ang’s own artistic talent for verisimilitude? As a sly comment on the instructional pedagogies employed in the Singaporean school art classroom? Or the production of a suite of work seeking to attract a permanent home in a museum collection?
The exhibition catalogue describes Recorder Sculptures (2019) as consisting of 17 or so soprano, alto and bass recorders taken apart and rearranged into sculptures. In Venice, these works were displayed almost casually on tables, emphasising a certain playfulness and suggesting the possibility of viewer interaction. In the National Museum Singapore, they were presented as individual objects encased and embedded into the museum wall. I wondered what might have been the reason for this as it does change the way a viewer engages with and thinks about this work. Perhaps for purpose of security? Or as a way of catering to an audience more attuned to valuing what they see in up-market shop windows? I therefore enjoyed Joseph Tham’s wry observation that the presentation of Recorder Sculptures (2019) had “more than a touch of museum shop souvenir/ gift to them.”
I differed somewhat on Tham’s too generous attribution that the 41 drawings comprising Music Manuscripts (2018-19) could be viewed “as an extension of pioneers like John Cage and Marcel Duchamp to challenge the conceptual notions of the meaning of music and noise, artwork and readymade.” Similar references linking Ang’s oeuvre to Conceptualism were made by several writers in the exhibition catalogue – a claim that really should require more rigorous interrogation before it could be applied meaningfully to Ang’s oeuvre.
For example, the artist’s experiments with the music manuscript struck me as a rather conventional display of ‘experimental’ visual mark-making techniques in which the manuscript’s score plays an aesthetic, rather than a conceptual role in the work. In her catalogue essay Tan Shzr Ee drew my attention to the composer Cornelius Cardew’s experiments with the music manuscript. Now these did offer a conceptual challenge!
Recorder Rewrite presented a three-channel HD video installation in which according to the exhibition catalogue “Twenty children from diverse backgrounds created a recorder composition of their own through a music workshop before performing it at the Singapore Conference Hall, one of the original venues of the Ministry of Culture’s Music for Everyone concert series.” To my artist-educator eye the students’ performance didn’t feel like the product of their own creative agency. Instead, it bore a striking resemblance to the final result of a typical school vendor creative arts workshop where the final product is predetermined by the vendor-artist to be first vetted by the school’s administration. In this scenario the school students don’t get to actually create something of their own invention, but rather follow the artist-vendor instructions. This is not creativity!
Whether the performance was actually created by the students or whether the students performed at the artist’s direction was for me an important key to how one should engage with Recorder Rewrite. If this was the product of the students’ own creativity it sure would have been interesting, and more convincing, to see something of what the students’ own creative processes actually entailed. Or were these students simply performing according to either Ang’s direction, or the direction of the choreographer listed in the catalogue credits? Is the viewer being asked to engage with the work of school students or with the work of Ang Soon Ming? Either way, as an artist and an educator I found this video installation somewhat alienating to watch.
In a paper presented at the Music and the Nation: Perspectives on Programming and Propaganda, a webinar event moderated by curator Michelle Ho held in conjunction with Music for Everyone: Variations on a Theme exhibition, prominent Singapore music educator and researcher Dr Lum Chee Hoo offered the following insightful comments on the importance of nurturing school students’ creative agency:
If we really intend for students’ musical identities and voices to be heard through the music that they create, should we reconsider how we oftentimes overly frame, curate and even choreograph students’ creative work to how we feel they should be represented? The key is to keep an open mind and engage enthusiastically with the wonderful world of musics that surrounds us, allowing and foregrounding children’s creative voices to be heard, not curated and choreographed, to enter and interweave into the fold of our daily and professional musical encounters.
Dr Lum’s observations could well read as a critical response to Ang’s Recorder Rewrite.
While gathering my thoughts about this exhibition, a cricketing term came to mind: The dead bat. The Hindu, an Indian daily newspaper explains the term thus:
It’s a cricket bat held with such a light grip that the ball loses all venom and momentum on striking it and falls harmlessly to the ground. It’s a key element of defensive technique. Indeed, no innings of substance can be built without it.
“Dead bat” seemed appropriate because it encapsulated a sense of how strategically safe the curator and artist had chosen to play it. As a viewer, I entered the show with curiosity. I had no preconceptions. I certainly didn’t anticipate ‘venom’, but I did expect a lot more ‘momentum’.
Cecily Cheo is an artist, educator and writer.
Tham, Joseph. ‘Are You One Of Them? – Music for Everyone: Variations on a Theme’.
Song-Ming Ang, Music for Everyone: Variations on a Theme. Singapore: National Arts Council, (April 2019),Volume 1 & 2.
Tan Shzr Ee, ‘Music For Every Who? Song-Ming Ang’s Gentle Naïf Musical Interrogations’, volume 2 of exhibition catalogue, p. 27.
“In cricket, what does a ‘dead bat’ mean?” The Hindu, 11 August 2017. https://www.thehindu.com/sport/cricket/word-play/article19476710.ece