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The Banter: An Interview with Tay Tong on Singapore Art Week 2021

As a new year begins, so does another edition of the annual Singapore Art Week (SAW). While COVID may have ravaged 2020, SAW looks to kick off the 2021 arts calendar in good faith with a brand new hybrid edition, as art takes over not just the city, but the internet as well.

“What SAW acts as is a platform where we can really put forward what our Singapore-based artists and creatives can do, displaying a certain level of diversity which would then speak to different audiences,” says Tay Tong

Now in its ninth year, we spoke to Tay Tong, the National Arts Council’s Director of Sector Development (Visual Arts), to find out more about this year’s programme, and how it’ll continue to enthral audiences and let art into their lives. “My work is really about looking at the entire visual arts sector as an ecosystem, and how to grow it,” says Tay Tong. “Part of that is about the creation and production side by artists making the work, where NAC comes in with support in the form of grants, and then the idea of validating that work by having it presented by galleries, art fairs and cultural institutions, along with growing the audience that sees it. All these elements grow, interact and develop alongside each other, and you see that same approach happen with SAW.”

RESET

“Moving ahead though, the most important consideration we had in planning this year’s SAW was how would it be affected by COVID-19, and predicted that we might have entered Phase 3 by the time it happened, allowing for a physical and digital programme,” Tay Tong continues. “We had the sense that people would also enjoy being able to get out there and physically see works, which is why we have 14 public art commissions in national parks, and it’s still primarily a physical programme we have. Part of the reason was also the importance of encountering art and for art to really take over the city, such as Bus.Stop.Art, and allowing the public to find art literally anywhere, be it a gallery or outside buildings.”

Bus.Stop.Art.

Bus.Stop.Art.

So what exactly is the point of SAW, and having art take over the city? “What SAW acts as is a platform where we can really put forward what our Singapore-based artists and creatives can do, displaying a certain level of diversity which would then speak to different audiences,” says Tay Tong. “We want to ensure a certain level of quality and artistic integrity in the work we do, but also offer a suite of both young artists and curators to the more established cultural institutions. It’s always been maintaining a careful balancing act, and to showcase SAW as a city festival that presents the arts ecosystem and lets the imagination fly. And especially with visual arts, there’s been this energy from the scene where they want to try new things, rethink how we make work, or the kind of work we do, all while creating work that remains resonant. SAW then is about capturing all this, and the art scene’s sense of adventure of what’s to come.”

Art Week at Bras Basah District: Joint Exhibition by Ten Galleries

Art Week at Bras Basah District

In spite of the COVID-19 pandemic, it seems that lock down has actually done some artists good, in terms of generating new ideas, or quite simply making them more willing to pitch ideas to have their work presented. “The total number of proposals submitted for SAW this year was actually tripled, and we increased our total number of commissions to over 40, from the usual 10 or so,” says Tay Tong. “Having the digital platform now, we have the ability to work across borders and engage in so many more international collaborations. With travel restrictions, the way we do things has also changed, like how the IMPART Collectors’ Show has changed its focus to have selected collectors speaking instead, via interviews with them on why some of them collect. While the theme of collecting remains the same, it really just takes on a different format.”

IMPART Collectors' Show 2021: Leap of Faith

Even in going partly digital, Tay Tong believes that there is zero compromise in quality for the works we’ll be seeing at SAW, believing fully in each of the projects commissioned.  “In putting SAW together, we definitely didn’t lower the bar because of the pandemic, and in fact, the sheer number of applications and proposals showcased a lot of talent and allowed us to deliver a good show,” says Tay Tong. “We stand by all our choices, and we believe the works can all stand up to public scrutiny, especially with younger curators and artists presenting their practice. When we accept their proposal, we’re putting faith in them to execute these interesting ideas, and that’s the role of a commissioner.”

Maybe we read too much into things

Maybe we read too much into things

“We’re still looking forward of course, but I don’t think we can ever move to something totally physical ever again,” he adds. “Even for 2022, we would likely be looking for hybridity, and hopefully have reached a point where the digital space really opens up to all kinds of possibilities, to grow our audiences better and increase our reach as we continue evolving the way we work. The digital platform is ultimately an alternative tool, but not a replacement for physical work. Each artist has to decide the best medium for their work, and assess the costs and benefits of whether digital works for them, and what new possibilities arise from it. Take for example how I finally got to experience Art City Austin because it had gone online, and I’d never found the time to fly over before. Now it’s whet my appetite, and I may very well visit it in real life in the future.”

Pivot Point

Pivot Point

Visual arts has so many possibilities, whether it’s adapting to the new digital sphere or carrying on, and it really is up to us to support the scene in attaining those possibilities, and ensuring a quality arts scene for Singapore.”

Ultimately, SAW really is a means to start the year on a high, to truly imbue the city with art over the nine-day festival and allow anyone and everyone in Singapore to have art in their lives, resonating with them to put a spark in their January. “Beyond my tenure, what the NAC aims to do is to bring on as many people as possible to the arts scene, to promote visual literacy and promote greater appreciation of art,” Tay Tong muses. “I think it’s happening, with more talks, seminars, panels, and even the SAW Art Symposium looking at how art can transform the city. We hope that through these beginnings, or conversations and talks, people can grow their knowledge and become more open towards what they see.”

“While we do prioritise Singapore-based artists, we look at the work first, and aim to present work that would have some kind of resonance on the viewer when they look at it, and showcase the best of the local and international to the Singapore audience,” Tay Tong concludes. “We need to think beyond Singapore, be it as a means to inspire our artists through international work, or to represent our local artists internationally, and put them out there. Visual arts has so many possibilities, whether it’s adapting to the new digital sphere or carrying on with physical presentations, and it really is up to us to support the scene in attaining those possibilities, and ensuring a quality arts scene for Singapore.”

SAW 2021 runs from 22nd to 30th January 2021 across various locations. More information available on their website here. Check out the digital offerings already available here

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