Socialising through Art
INTERVIEWED BY JUSTIN ZHUANG • PHOTOGRAPHY BY Hendry Poh
Stepping out of the strict boundaries of photojournalism led Kong Yen Lin to conceptual photography and a career in arts programming. We speak to the graduate in journalism and sociology about crossing disciplinary boundaries and how that has shaped her approach to art.
NTU Wee Kim Wee School
of Communication and Information
Field of study
Place of Work
The Arts House
Tell us what you do at The Arts House?
I am a programme manager overseeing three portfolios: photography, film and the Chinese literary arts. My day to day duties include reviewing proposals, formulating the necessary paperwork, and also liaising with artists and the marketing team on our programmes. I’m also involved in setting up for events, including figuring out the logistics to managing what happens on the day itself. This is the mundane part of the job. The exciting part is curating programmes and meeting artists, and I am in contact with a whole range of people from different disciplines because I manage different portfolios. I speak with visual artists, photographers, filmmakers, writers, and through these interactions I encounter many ideas that really cross the boundaries of art forms.
How does a multidisciplinary portfolio impact on the programmes you produce?
For instance, I would not think of a photography exhibition as purely photography, but also how it can take a different life form. Can I infuse a filmic element? Are there literary connections that are relevant and bring out the content even better? It’s very exciting meeting people from different disciplines and seeing how there can be possibilities that emerge from these multidisciplinary interactions.
For our annual open house, The House Party, I programmed Pet Me, Pet Me, Look at Me, Love Me, an exhibition involving photographers Lavender Chang and Liana Yang that explores the literary element of photography in Singapore. As part of the exhibition, I also paired the photographers with writers of their choice to explore similar threads in their works. Lavender was paired with You Jin, while Liana worked with O Thiam Chin. They had a lot of confluences in their practices which previously were not explored by putting a writer in conversation with a photographer. For instance, there were commonalities in concerns for family relationships and issues of immigration as You Jin was born in Ipoh while Lavender was from Taiwan. How does a photographer see textually, how does a writer see visually? The interaction of disciplines and the mediums is very interesting to me.
What do you think of the traditional way of dividing the arts into disciplines?
For me, art is all encompassing. Fundamentally, the different disciplines share the same aim of expression and communication. To some extent, I find the divisions inorganic and unnatural. There are parallels in the way artists think, and putting them together helps the practices of both. It’s more of breaking the boundaries between art forms and looking at how they interact. Sometimes the interaction may be harmonious, sometimes there can be tension. That tension is meaningful too.
In the context of The Arts House, we are trying to build our reputation as a literary arts centre in Singapore, yet we also understand we have the spaces and capabilities to support other kind of art forms. The focus is very much on the literary arts and trying to pull together the rest of the programmes to fall within in. This multidisciplinary approach is challenging and very exciting to me.
Is engaging the other arts also a way to overcome the challenges of exhibiting literary art?
It is very challenging and we are just starting to look at visual arts exhibitions as a possibility. But how do you have a literary arts exhibition with visual components, yet ensure the literary aspect comes out as a key point? The other issue to balance is more management than discipline-related. Artists have their own agenda, but I also work for an organisation and represent their interest. The greatest challenge of the job is balancing what an artist wants with what my organisation is looking for and what my curatorial vision is. How do these triangulate? How do I find a balance? I joined The Arts House last June and I’m still figuring it out.
Let’s talk about your career path. After graduation, you worked as a sub-editor for the Global Pictures Desk at news agency Reuters before moving into the arts, first as an educator at DECK and now a programme manager at The Arts House. What prompted the switch?
To be honest, there was no switch. Since I was young, I knew I wanted to work in the arts. I would say that I want to be an artist, but as one grows and matures, you realise that word is so broad. Being an artist to me means having a certain craft that you nurture and master. In a sense, I’m still on the path of being an artist, I am an arts manager, an arts writer, and I was an arts educator at DECK. My photojournalism education and career was to gain an additional experience in line with my goal of practising art. Photojournalism involves two forms, journalism and photography. It endowed me with photography skills and also gave me communication skills, including how to look for news angles and frame a person. This framing affects the whole perspective of how a subject is portrayed. This aspect of photojournalism gave me the skill of building narratives and finding human interest angles. It has helped me look harder at art and from a different perspective.
How does your background in communications and sociology affect your practice?
I noticed this only recently when I was working on my Masters of Asian Art Histories in Lasalle College of the Arts. While I may not be as well-versed in the production of art works as the art school graduates, I was able to better conceptualise an exhibition and communicate it to the public. Also, I think of art as not in the art world but how to situate it in the social. Some artists focus heavily on creation but less on communicating their artworks to audiences and this lapse in connection is an obstacle to letting their artwork reach its full potential. For me, I always want a social aspect to things, be it social in subject matter — meaning the art must have a social purpose—and also social in communication. That is I want it to be rooted and grounded in everyday experience. It can be challenging because not all art is created with these conditions, but I’ll like to see what I can do.
There has been a lot of debate recently on photojournalism appropriating techniques of art, and many photojournalists have also ventured into the realm of conceptual art. Where are your thoughts on this?
The appropriation of art in photojournalism has always been present. It manifests in the form of the approach or the technique. I recall the 2007 World Press Photo of the Year by Tim Hetherington that, if you evaluate by photojournalism’s strict guidelines, doesn’t tell much of its content because the photo is blurred. But it does convey, in terms of emotions, the confusion and fear of the moment. Art for photojournalism means the expression of content is no longer through direct and tangible representation, but through ways that are perhaps more evocative. Photojournalism is broadening its visual language and with increasing possibilities of expression comes increasing anxiety over ethics.
This ethical focus seems to have grown stricter in recent times. Photojournalism bears an ethical obligation to facts. This is a huge responsibility and in my opinion, rather utopian. For something to be factual it implies there has to be objectivity and truth. What is truth though? Is there ‘one’ truth and whose idea of truth is it really? People have been questioning about truth, representation and ethics even more so in the current climate of global politics, that’s probably why photojournalism’s evolving nature has become a concern.
Does this point of view also explain your own career progression?
My four years of work at Reuters as a photo sub-editor made me realise the limitations of photojournalism. Reuters is very strict on ethical standards and its bandwidth for creative photography is rather low. I realised there is only so much news photography can achieve in expressing ideas about the world. Conceptual photography is able to do so much that photojournalism can’t, and that’s when I decided to explore another genre of photography.
I started volunteering in the Singapore International Photography Festival in 2012 and kickstarted the education programme to help students learn about conceptual photography in Singapore and the world. Visual literacy is still comparatively lower amongst Singaporeans than our European counterparts, so I wanted to raise the level. As I was planning these programs, it was where I learnt more about conceptual photography, and worked with artists and the public too.
What would you say is lacking in understanding of visual arts here?
The public is one whole ambiguous mass of different types of people and that is the most challenging part of any programming. We may have a target audience, but who really comes is a different matter. In this fuzzy ambiguous audience, what is happening in these few years is they are getting more attuned to various art forms. They are seeing and looking at much, much more compared to 5 to 10 years ago, but the level of critical understanding of the arts must be heightened. One example will be looking at photographs not just for its visual content but understanding its medium. What are the thought processes behind it? What is the materiality of the photograph? What were some creative decisions made by the artist and why? Criticality is of course a very difficult thing to achieve, but we have to start somewhere.
How have you tried to do this at The Arts House?
For the Pet Me, Pet Me, Look at Me, Love Me, exhibition, the format was very un-photography like. There were no photographic prints, just installation and objects. I was trying explore what a photograph is. Is it a scanned image? A print that you keep in your wallet? Is it text? Is it a painting on the wall? Or is it a memory? Some people had difficulty reconciling with the exhibition because they expected to see actual photographic prints but there were none. Instead photography was presented as installations or projections. The accompanying publication designed by Jonathan Yuen of Roots was also very interesting. He wanted the design to show the relationship between text and imagery and so the booklet does not have a single image, but are represented by text descriptions instead. Some people found it a bit too hard to stomach as it wasn’t a conventional catalogue in that sense.
Can you speak about what it takes to produce an exhibition? I understand you work with many types of professionals in the course of your work.
Besides artists, I work closely with my technical and marcomms team, installers, printers and designers. Exhibition making is beyond simply selecting an artist, artworks, writing exhibition texts and assembling the various elements within a space. It’s also about ensuring various other aspects like the visual design, the lighting, the installation, the artwork production and marketing come together in a cohesive narrative. I consider the people who bring these elements together as artists not as vendors. For instance, lighting design can be really intricate — it is the finishing touch that creates the mood and atmosphere under which audiences perceive artworks. Our lighting designer and projectionist, Joseph Pang, brings to the table skills and experience that makes artworks go from 100 per cent to 120 per cent. There are really lots of learn on the job from different people.
I’ve also worked with HASS alumni. Lavender is from ADM (Photography, 2011), and my programme partners for Chinese literary arts are from the Chinese department. My marcomms colleague, Willy Beh, is from WKWSCI (Advertising and PR, 2013) too.
What are you working on now?
In August, I will be presenting Cultural Medallion photographer Chua Soo Bin’s exhibition of Chinese painter Wu Guanzhong. It is Chua’s first solo exhibition in the last 11 years, and also the debut show for this series of images that portray the creative and personal life of Wu. I’m also managing an exhibition by the Hong Kong Economic and Trade Office, Lee Fook Chee: Son of Singapore, Photographer of Hong Kong. He is a forgotten person in Singapore’s photography history. Lee was born in Singapore, but spent a huge amount of his adult life in Hong Kong working and it was where he picked up photography in the 1950s. His personal photography archive captured the city in a state of change, and they obliquely speak of his search for identity because he had family in Singapore.
This interview has been condensed and edited.