Arts & Culture

Song-Ming Ang: Singaporean Representative for 58th Venice Biennale

His body of work, and what music means to him

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The National Arts Council has announced that contemporary artist Song-Ming Ang will be the country’s representative at the 58th Venice Biennale, held from 11 May to 24 November 2019. Curator Michelle Ho has been appointed to be part of the artistic team. This comes as no surprise as they have worked together on three other occasions.

To mark the country’s ninth participation in the Biennale since 2001, Song-Ming and Michelle will present an exhibition titled Music For Everyone: Variations on a Theme. The work derives its title from a series of concerts organised by the then-Ministry of Culture in the 1970s and 1980s to encourage public appreciation of the arts. The work is an extension of Song-Ming’s practice of using music as a medium to explore ideas of public involvement and societal trends.

Multifaceted and spanning various mediums, the exhibition will reflect Song-Ming’s new work called Recorder Rewrite, while also showcasing developments of his earlier works such as You and I. His interests and explorations of negative space, texture and optical illusions span his entire body of work.

“There is also a counterpart called auditory illusions. So… this becomes a very methodical way that is based on processes, that we are trying to generate artworks.

At the moment, I am also looking to, for example, origami. Studying, cutting, folding paper, collaging and trying to build more layers out of it. Also looking at the whole, I am sure everyone remembers transparencies from primary school. I chanced upon a couple of physics textbooks at a bookstore and I bought them. I started scanning a couple of images related to things like waves. Which relates to basically everything that is physical. Sound is a physical phenomenon.

This is kind of ongoing as a research at my studio and is something that might eventually find its way into the Venice presentation. Another aspect of my practice apart from working with more standard formats like pen and paper, which is two dimensional, will be videos.”

Song-Ming Ang, Parts and Labour, 2012
Video still

Videos allow Song-Ming to engage the audience with both sound and visuals, perhaps crafting a more wholesome sensory experience for works to have a greater impact. But why do most, if not all, of his works revolve around music?

“Music has got the power that, maybe compared to visual art, it’s got the power to emote. It’s got the power to manipulate. Actually, if you know anything about what an artist does is, in many ways, manipulation. It is trying to establish a certain kind of atmosphere, to set the mood and music is really great for doing that.”

With music and sound as the basis of his practice, it naturally segues into participatory works.

“Another aspect of my artistic practice is what you would call live events, live art, events, participatory works. Again for me, it is interesting because when you think about music, it is very pervasive. It can take on so many forms. It can be something very open, like manuscripts and scores are two dimensional and static. And in radio, it is a time-based media — things are moving. When you get to live events, things really start to open up because you cannot control what happens.

I also appreciate and am interested in contemporary art or art history from the 1960s, 1970s, where there was conceptual art, minimalism, Fluxus. All these things get people thinking very hard about what art is and challenging the formats in which art can be presented to the people.”

Photography credit: Heidrum Löhr, 2014

One such participatory work will be Guilty Pleasures (2007-present). Described as a listening party, the audience participate by talking about a song that they consider their guilty pleasure, why and then proceed to share that song with everyone. A work that evolves with the generations — from having to bring CDs to now just having a playlist on YouTube — this work is something that is ongoing whenever the opportunity arises. Song-Ming says this keeps him on his toes, since he can constantly evolve his work and make new (and good) things.

So with his portfolio of works he has done and continues to do, how did this proposal of Music For Everyone: Variations on a Theme come about?

“I guess this is where the 58th Venice Biennale’s Music For Everyone starts, really, the starting point, for the Pavillion. This has got to do with some research that I have been doing for the past two years. There are music posters from a series of concerts that the Ministry of Culture was organising, for the people, mostly. And under this series, I have found about a hundred over posters. All of them are beautiful and in the ’70s modernist aesthetic.”

Besides getting a strong sense of what the cultural policy was at that time, the posters help us observe and follow the growth of a nation from a very different perspective — one that we may not always consider as significant or possible. Catching on to such nuances from an object as simple as a poster, Song-Ming shows promise in his proposal for the work — drawing from experimental music practices and the spirit of amateurism as a juxtaposition to a more state-driven vision of what Music for Everyone should be.

His work will be an invitation to the global audience to weigh in on a Singaporean conversation about music, and to learn a side of this country we have yet to unveil.

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