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Museum Musings: An Interview with Madeleine Lee, Inaugural Poet-In-Residence At The National Gallery Singapore’s Words on Arts Series

madeleine lee headshot (image courtesy of madeleine lee 图片由李夙芯所提供)
Madeleine Lee, photo courtesy of Madeleine Lee

Some time back, National Gallery Singapore began their Words on Art programme, introducing the idea of poets-in-residence to pen collections based on their time spent within the gallery walls, admiring the works of art and putting pen to paper. The first of these local poets was Madeleine Lee, whose ekphrastic poetry written in response to the Gallery’s exhibitions was collected in regarding, published by National Gallery Singapore last November.

Dedicated to articulating the intersections between visual and literary art, Lee’s poems explore and enact the ways in which language may respond to art, each one a means of describing art and the experience of art in words, capturing yet not capturing the essence of the experience, and shedding light with this new way of looking at art – through words. Perhaps, in reading these poems, you too will find alternative ways of seeing, and somehow, uncover previously unknown depths and layers to each work.

We spoke to Madeleine Lee about how she came to be a part of this project and the inspiration she gleaned from her time spent at the gallery. Read the interview in full below:

Publication - regarding (Cover)

Bakchormeeboy: How and why did you get on board this poet-in-residence programme?

Madeleine: I first suggested the idea with Chong Siak Ching, CEO of National Gallery Singapore, back in 2016. This was just after my Residency with the Singapore Botanic Gardens and the resulting publication of a volume of 36 poems with a botanical theme, ‘flinging the triplets”. After some iterations, the Gallery restyled it as a series of writers’ response to their collections, for which I am the first, hence the title ‘inaugural WIR’.

Image result for pantone 125 poetry
pantone 125

Bakchormeeboy: Being such an established poet, how did this residency add to your existing body of work or perspective, or what did you hope to gain from this experience?

Madeleine: This is my 10th volume of poetry. I began with writing collections of unconnected works, but by my 4th volume, I found it more meaningful to write with a poetic arc, that is to say with an overall theme that runs through groups of poems. I have done so with y grec – based on a travel agenda, pantone 125 – on ecological and cultural loss, 1.618 – on migration in Serengeti, square root of time – on an investment mathematical theme, and now this.

What was helpful was that I could return to the art pieces again and again, but with a different ambience – sometimes with docents, sometimes eavesdropping on visitors and sometimes on my own. There is a different takeaway each time, even for the same piece.

Lim Yew Kuan, After Fire (1966)

Bakchormeeboy: In your time here at the Gallery, what do you feel was the work of art that stood out for you? Why?

Madeleine: I like “After Fire” best as a single painting. It brought out an anger at the colonial attitudes of the day. I also like the entire Yayoi Kusama show. It brought out the inner child in me. Finally, I liked the Chua Ek Kay gallery, which reminded me of my grandmother.

WhatsApp Image 2017-06-20 at 18.35.37

Bakchormeeboy: Is there a common theme you’ve found that informs or connects your new work in regarding, or are they essentially discrete poems that should be read independently of each other?

Madeleine: The book is divided into 4 main arcs: the Kusama arc, the Singapore Gallery arc and the SEAsian Gallery arc. Each arc has 6 to 8 poems, all of which could be read on their own, but much better if read as a long series, to see the arcs.

Photo courtesy of National Gallery Singapore’s Instagram

Bakchormeeboy: Beyond this residency, have you ever considered other ways in which poetry could be used or created in conjunction with the programmes of National Gallery Singapore?

Madeleine: I have conducted workshops at the National Gallery Singapore in which I mainly want to show the audience how I ‘see’ the artworks. It goes beyond what is directly in front of your nose. It is multi-sensorial – we hear the comments from other viewers, we feel the emotions of the subject, we imagine their lives, the background, the smells, the sounds. And we sit, quietly too, to take it all in. NEVER just take a photo of the painting and walk on. Take time to look. Something will happen, that’s the beauty of good art.

regarding is available for purchase online here, from the National Gallery Singapore’s website. The next poet-in-residence is set to be Edwin Thumboo, with more details of his collection to be revealed soon. 

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