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Artists without borders
Visual artist Heman Chong
SOME people believe that visual artist Heman Chong is more famous outside of Singapore than in it. Right now, he has a major solo exhibition at Shanghai's Rockbund Art Museum that covers six floors of the building and its facade. And it comes a year after his well-received solo show at Seoul's experimental art museum Art Sonje Centre.
Last October, his artwork The Forer Effect graced the cover of major British art mag ArtReview's annual Power issue. In it, National Art Gallery director Eugene Tan had earned the 99th spot out of 100 - the only the Singaporean to make the influential list. But it's possible that among global curators, collectors and artists, Chong's name rings a bell more quickly than Tan's.
Over the past 20 years, the 38-year-old has lived and studied in London, Berlin and New York, and is represented by Fost Gallery (Singapore), Wilkinson Gallery (London), Rossi & Rossi (London, Hong Kong) and others. He's been written about extensively, just as his practice continues to grow in size and complexity as it traverses video, photography, paintings, installations, installations, situations and texts.
But Chong insists he doesn't have a roadmap: "I don't really have a plan. I just improvise. I show a lot of my works overseas and I think it's important to build your reputation that way. So I say yes to all kinds of exhibitions - even small ones. I'm totally shameless about the placement of my works and I don't see it as crass."
"A lot of networking comes naturally to me - I always know that a curator needs something for his show, and it's a question of whether I want to say that I have a work that fits into it. I work hard to make it work."
Of course, the 38-year-old doesn't just make art - he also writes and curates, and is something of a social media maven. Between 2012 and 2014, he produced Moderation(s), a collaborative programme between Witte de With Contemporary Art in Rotterdam and Spring Workshop in Hong Kong that involved more than 50 artists. It yielded three exhibitions, a conference, a book of stories and other results. It wasn't the first such collaboration for him.
He's shown at the biggest exhibitions in the world such as the 2012 Asia Pacific Triennial as well as the 2003 Venice Biennale alongside Tan Swie Hian and Francis Ng. Strangely though, Singapore museums did not acquire his works for years - leading observers to think that he is better appreciated abroad than in Singapore.
But Chong is less concerned about national borders than he is about pushing the borders of his art. He says: "Galleries and museums are getting global and sourcing for artists and art across territories. So I don't believe you have to base yourself in, say New York or London, in order to get noticed. Art history has less and less of a hold on the scene, and critics don't matter anymore ... People are being influenced by things at a much faster pace, and what you put out can be seen on Instagram immediately anywhere in the world."
Heman Chong's solo exhibition at Shanghai's Rockbund Art Museum is now on till May 3
Writer Jeremy Tiang
THESE past few years have been remarkable for author-playwright-translator Jeremy Tiang. Shuttling between New York, London and Singapore, he published his first collection of short stories It Never Rains On National Day with Singapore's Epigram Books last year to favourable reviews.
In 2014 his play The Last Days Of Limehouse about East London's historic Chinese community premiered in London and was well-received by the British press. And last month, his condensed English translation of the 18th-century Chinese epic A Dream of Red Pavilions debuted in New York's Clurman Theatre. The New York Times commended him for "thinking big" but concluded that "the production never becomes more than a pretty curiosity".
A heated discussion broke out on Facebook after American writer Bruce Chadwick bizarrely suggested that Tiang should have mentioned American trade activities with China in A Dream Of Red Pavilions - an incident that Tiang shrugs off by saying: "Certain Americans can find it hard not to impose the lens of their own culture over every work of art."
Despite this instance of cultural myopia, he is glad to have gotten a toehold in the arts scene of London and New York: "People come from all over to try to crack these two scenes, and so there is much more competition. I see this as a positive - it's a spur to be better. But it's also challenging."
His hat-trick of putting out a book and two plays in three cities is the result of several years of consistently writing and cultivating opportunities. His previous output in Singapore includes well-received translations of Yeng Pway Ngon's Unrest , You Jin's Death By Perfume and Zhang Yueran's Ten Loves.
In New York, Tiang joins a lively community of Singapore-born artists who meet once a month for an open mic reading series organised by poet Koh Jee Leong. He is also part of a writing collective, a translation workshop and a playwrights group.
"The main issue to me is how the edges of my identity become blurred in New York, so I become generically 'Asian' or 'Chinese' rather than Singaporean. Or I sometimes find myself being labelled 'Asian-American'."
The benefit of being in London and New York is the rich, open and invigorating discussions on politics and culture - something he finds lacking in Singapore. That said, he returns to it again and again as a subject in his stories: "I still mostly write about Singapore, and I find I do better at a remove. I need to visit Singapore regularly so I don't get out of touch, but I also need to maintain a certain distance in order to process this."
Tiang's story collection It Never Rains On National Day as well as his translated works are available at good Singapore bookstores. A Dream of Red Pavilions is now on till Feb 14 in Clurman Theater at Theater Row, 410 West 42nd Street, Manhattan
Dancer Chua Yun Chun
CHUA Yun Chun pursued Chemistry at the National University of Singapore. But an exchange programme with the University of Connecticut in 2008 gave her the opportunity to travel to New York from Connecticut every weekend to take dance classes and workshops.
She was open to learning various dance forms, such as hip-hop and jazz. And she became so good at them she was hired for a number of commercial gigs. But for various reasons, she could not stay in New York and returned to Singapore to become a full-time dance teacher in 2009.
After five years of working in dance studios here, she decided that New York offered her better growth opportunities and returned to the Big Apple in 2014: "The Singapore market is smaller and there is less artistic work that pays."
"On the other hand, being a dancer in New York allows for more artistic growth, development and learning. I have a larger market to experiment with `and more opportunities to perform. It's a global platform with more people of all backgrounds passing here and living here."
Since returning to New York, she's had to move five times - and will move again this Valentine's weekend. She explains: "People here move all the time because rentals can vary depending on the demand and supply of the season. But there are new room listings daily and even hourly, and it just takes a bit of work to look out for rooms and apartments."
Most of her apartments have been in Brooklyn where much of the artistic community can be found. And while rent, food and general living expenses in New York are comparable to Singapore - "Both cities are expensive!" - studio rentals are much cheaper at between US$10 and US$20 per hour because there are so many studio spaces in the city.
One challenge she faces, however, is being an Asian dancer in the American market. She says: "There are many green card-only or American-only jobs. Artistes, especially dancers, complain that the industry looks biased, and being Asian or another minority is bad."
"But I'd like to look at it as a standout point too. I'm different but that's also my selling point. I've had auditions when the director feels the role is not for an Asian female but they were willing to try and create a role to keep me in the production."
"I got a role in an off-Broadway production recently because they needed an Asian female dancer. And the next casting job in Florida is looking for women of all ethnicities and colour. So I believe there's always something for someone."
She attributes part of her optimism to the can-do spirit of the city: "New Yorkers always find another way when one path closes. It's very much like the metro - when one train line is down, we take another route. It may take a slightly longer time, but it will get us to the same desired destination."