By Celene Chia
A nondescript black door with a small plate outside denoting the contents of the room: it wasn’t enough to prepare me for the size of this collection. The moment I pushed past the door, and into the room, I was overwhelmed. Articles decorate the otherwise plain walls of the room, neatly lined up and placed beside each other. How many newspaper clippings could there be in this room? It would be a huge pain to count them all, and an even more trying experience to absorb all the information in them. I just stood there, eyes darting around, not sure of where to start off this visit.
The room is small, slightly split into two, one of which having less articles on its walls. This smaller alcove is also the one that greets the visitors first when they enter the room. Perhaps it is the meaning of the artist to not intimidate casual visitors the moment they enter this unconventional archive. It was from there I stepped up closer and began to read through the articles.
When had I last taken such care to read through news articles? Global news, current affairs, and last but not least, the comics section. There is no need for me to know about Art in Singapore, it is not important to me, it will not affect my life. But now, with all of these stories placed right before me, there is no choice but to slowly read through them, and understand. Understand what is their purpose here, what stories they seek to tell to ignorant Art-illiterates like me, and what Koh, the artist, is trying to tell through them.
Bilingual pieces, some in English, and some in Chinese. Most of them dated back to the 1980s, the age where I had not existed yet. What was it like back then? Eyes darting from one article to another, I tried to piece together a past that I had never lived through.
In 1980s, budding local artists would have no choice but to learn Chinese ink calligraphy. That was the style that was popular then, and perhaps the style that sold well. Buyers, prompted by the extensive coverage on the papers, rushed to buy such pieces too. There were even guides present to teach them ‘How to Dress up a Chinese Painting’, so the market must have been ripe for it. But what about the western styles of painting? Were they as popular? ‘History Revealed in Art’, France’s history to be exact, believes that such styles could be popular here, as informative pieces. Local artists that picked up such a style would fall into obscurity, having little coverage on the traditional printed media.
Weaving the silent tale, I found an article slightly obscured by another. Shifting it, its pins loosened, causing the article to fall upon stacks of what that had seemed like cardboard from the first glance. Lifting one up, it revealed itself to be a folder of clippings, cut out from the newspapers. These pieces are lonely, amputated from their bodies, and caged up in these cardboard boxes so resembling the table coverings. Would others have noticed them and stop to take look? Would I have stopped to take a look?
In the end, I was distracted. After all, there are too many of such folders lying on the tables. To look through every single one of them, I am sure I would not be able to absorb everything in them. And for someone who seldom reads-
There is a tiny dictionary. A really small and thick one. Hidden under a castle-like structure made of cardboard, with several articles lying on top of it. A Baby’s Dictionary, it claims to be. Perhaps the publisher had high hopes for his children. But what could it be there for? Flipping through it, there seemed not to be anything interesting to it, except for its size and its intended audience, and I placed it back carefully into its place. A dictionary, a treasure amidst newsprint? I can only wonder.
The other, larger section of the room is more crowded. Chairs to sit on, tables to rest on, papers to draw on, and a video installation of arts, although it is made up of pictures and captions. The archive here is also larger, with newspapers pinned on from feet level to way above hair level. If the previous section is still not daunting enough, we have articles staring up at us from our feet, and articles staring down at us from high above. And together with all the articles between them, it is a huge challenge to the reader.
Should I just breeze through the titles of the articles? Do I have the time, and will, to read through every single word in the articles, and understand what they are trying to say? If only reading could be as easy as leaning against the wall and letting the knowledge diffuse into my body. But only with effort would one be rewarded with knowledge. And so I got onto my knees, proposing for the articles at ground level to impart what stories they have, to an utter stranger like me.
At first, there was censorship. And it will always be an issue to all artists, so beware, and tread carefully. Then there was the decision to nurture the Arts scenes, perhaps that is why the Life section of the Straits Times is growing. Well, that very same year, an art gallery closed down due to lack of buyers, but plenty of browsers. The next year, 1993, Tan Pin Pin’s works were judged by one to be ‘not art’. Would these have happened in this day and age; a decade (and more) capable of changing mindsets?
Perhaps I should start paying more attention to arts coverage to know. Next-
The very easily excitable volunteer at the museum told me, the artist of this piece, Koh, is back from his lunch break. A kindly old man, no, perhaps he is just middle aged, he is the one who started this archive. There is a faint resemblance of him to those karang guni men who often wanders by my house, ringing their bells and proclaiming their occupation to others. Pushing those trolleys, they collect bundles after bundles of newspapers and other sellable ‘trash’ from others’ homes for a few pennies. But Koh is different from them. He only collects articles of artists in the news, not merely heaps of newspapers. He puts them in protective transparent folders, and pins them up neatly on the walls, although, he says, it pains him to put holes on his collection. A friendly man, dressed casually in a T-shirt and pants, we began talking about his work.
Koh, the hard working student, had an assignment in Junior College to do a news article write-up about a particular artist in the news. Grumbling, he flipped through the newspapers during breakfast, and chose an article at random.
“Yes, I shall be writing on this artist!” And so he did, clipping up the article neatly, and pasting it beside his writings. Impatiently waiting for the glue to dry, he flipped through the mutilated article again. Another artist caught his eye, and he bent down to read more.
“Hey, Koh, want to join us for football?” And as the energetic youth rushed out to play, the article gets thrown to the back of his mind, and the papers sadly thrown into the bin, forgotten.
Then, came the day when the teacher returned them their assignments. A huge 10/10, together with a ‘Great Work’ stamp greeted Koh as he nonchalantly flipped his book open. In shock and awe he stared at those foreign marks of his. Never had he gotten so high a grade for this kind of assignment, and this historic event marked his loving archive of artists in the news, in hopes of excelling in such a topic again.
Perhaps it was a tale similar to this, perhaps not. But as we parted, my brain aching from the amount of information that I’ve gathered on this day, I know that I will be back again. There are still other stories untold, both the newspapers’ and Koh’s. Before this biennale ends, I hope to learn of them, and perhaps even of that curious little baby dictionary hidden in the room. That curious little book is bugging me. Hmmm…