A reading list: Art writing for thinkers, feelers, and the curious

A reading list: Art writing for thinkers, feelers, and the curious

Unfortunately, COVID cases are climbing and we’re advised to stay home again. While we wait for things to pick back up, this seems like a prime time to catch up on some local art writing.

By Ellen Lee

What is ‘arts writing’?

Generally, it can be any writing that’s centred on the arts, such as the writing published on this site. Different people will have their own ideas about their ideal readership, the purpose of arts writing, and how serious it should be. Some believe all forms of writing are valuable, as long as it spreads awareness of the arts, while others believe it should be more critical and scholastic.

But when we put arts writing into the broader, more diffused context of the Internet, do any of these benchmarks still apply? This list presents seven reading resources of diverse styles which can all be accessed now, for free, online, with a particular affection for independent and artist-driven arts writing. The mix of local and Singaporean content shows that the act of remembering can be both an institutional and independent affair. Nor does it have to be particularly academic: it can be as easy as setting up a blog with your friends.

  1. Towards a Mystical Reality by Sulaiman Esa and Redza Piyadasa

Of Towards a Mystical Reality, published on the event of Sulaiman and Piyadasa’s joint exhibition of the same name in 1974 (yes, that exhibition), the late critic and theatre pioneer Krishen Jit wrote, ‘No artist in Malaysia, no creative person, can neglect it or avoid a confrontation with it.’

With equal measure of normal sentence case and exclamatory uppercase, the manifesto ploughs through all the issues with the state of Malaysian art — too many to list — and bullies artists into revolutionising their processes and understanding their position within history. Only artists themselves could have pulled off art criticism in such an explosive manner, but the manifesto remains a foundational starting point for any budding student of art and art history in Malaysia (though Sulaiman and Piyadasa would disagree with any idea of ‘foundations’ or ‘starting points’).

With over 20 years of experience in the local and regional art scene, RogueArt consultancy is mostly known for its four-volume Narratives in Malaysian Art (Naratif Seni Rupa Malaysia). The set is a great investment if you’re looking to go deeper, but the A-Z Guide is one that you can get through in a day and feel immediately enlightened for it.

Whether you’re an outsider, or an insider who feels like an outsider, or if you suddenly find yourself going down a 21st-century attention-deficit-type internet rabbit hole and your particular rabbit hole happens to be Malaysian art: the A-Z Guide is the resource for you. The Guide breezes through the ABC’s of Malaysian art, including some international art terms for additional context, while also giving a visual crash course in notable works by Malaysian artists.

  1. Kakiseni archives at MY Art Memory Project by Five Arts Centre

From 2002 to 2010, the Kakiseni digital arts hub regularly published reviews, interviews, and other press content related to the Malaysian art scene. The archives, preserved by the MY Art Memory Project, an initiative of Five Arts Centre, feature a diverse cast of figures; some of whom continue to write while others have gone on to pursue other interests and platforms.

With the decline of community-driven publications, there is also a decline in spaces for more experimental, personal, and long-form arts writing. In the Kakiseni archives, there is a sense that the artists, writers, and bohemians within its folds are writing to and for each other rather than for a general audience. The taboo of the single-person ‘I’ in criticism is regularly transgressed. 

Trawling through, you imagine yourself amidst the warm chatter of a large, sophisticated party where you’re surrounded by people you don’t know personally but admire, nevertheless. The lucidity and intelligence of the conversations happening there keep you on your toes, running around trying to eavesdrop on everyone.

  1. Arteri archives at the Lost Files Project by the Southeast Asian Art Resource Channel (SEARCH)

The distinctions between professions and ranks in the art scene is fussed over more than it should be, and we often misleadingly speak of artists, curators, critics, and the wider art audience as separate entities. Arteri had a more expansive view of the scene, one wherein all its players take art and its posterity seriously, and therefore one in which everyone contributes to the creation, consumption, and criticism of art.

Founded by artist Sharon Chin, curator and academic Simon Soon, and curator Eva McGovern-Basa, it ran from 2009 to 2011 as a labour of love. Within its archives, you’ll find reviews, interviews, opinions, and editorials by three of the sharpest minds writing about Malaysian visual arts in the English language, alongside guest posts by friends from around the region. Arteri was one of the few spaces producing critical writing that fulfilled American cultural theorist Camille Paglia’s dictum that ‘Criticism at its best is regenerative, not spirit-killing.’

Arteri and Kakiseni’s review section only ran up to the end of the first decade of our technological millennium, shuttering right before the big boom in social media. The contrast in styles is noticeable when compared to Plural Art Mag, a Singapore-based webzine for the digital now: snappier content with a greater focus on personalities. Beyond the usual course of exhibition reviews, they recognise that people in the scene love knowing what other people are up to!

Their exhibition reviews often come from more subjective, first-person perspectives, which give refreshing insight into how different people experience exhibitions. Besides that, they also regularly profile different artists from the region, capturing an artist’s complex inner life for their audiences. Perhaps because the two founders, Pauline and Usha, both got their start outside of the arts, there is also a greater sense of consideration for the art outsider, with their Ask a Critic (by guest columnist, Malaysian Lee Weng Choy) and ABC’s of Asian Art sections.

6. Perspectives by the National Gallery of Singapore

The existence of Perspectives, the in-house webzine for the National Gallery of Singapore, is proof that any major art institution that takes its documentation and archival mission seriously should have a blog. Perspectives features behind-the-scenes insights into the management of a world-class art institution alongside research and curatorial notes on the gallery’s exhibitions.

For anyone who’s ever wanted to know about the ins and outs of museum work, or for anyone who ever questions what the big deal is with not touching artworks, this is a great resource that reveals the backroom intensity that belies the National Gallery’s cool exterior.

Historically, ‘object lessons’ is a style of teaching that uses ordinary objects as starting points for instruction. From studying a single object, students attempt to extract lessons and information that they can apply to broader problems or situations. In the same spirit, the creators of Object Lessons Space, a Singaporean art historical archive and platform, interview artists, curators, and writers about the artworks they love and the object lessons that can be gleaned from them.

For fans of long-form writing, the site takes a slow and meandering approach in order to weed out their interviewees’ precise meanings and cover all aspects of their personality. In this way, their content differs from most other interviews that tend to assume readers already know and care about the interviewee. Regardless of whether you know the people featured in Object Lessons Space or not, all the posts illuminate new ways of seeing.

All images are screenshots taken from each website hosting the reading material.

Ellen Lee is a writer and art worker based in Kuala Lumpur. She is interested in all forms of culture, from fine art and poetry to trap music and anime.