Three millennial rules that young creatives are using to shape their futures
Tricks of the trade
ANARCHY: Put it up without permission
Your first public artwork was the golden staircase at your HDB block while you were a student at LASALLE College of the Arts. What was the thought process behind that? Did you consider all the possible repercussions and outcomes beforehand, or was it more spontaneous?
My thought processes included the repercussions and outcomes prior as part of my research on doing a public work — the threshold between the home space, the staircase and the final transformation. The act of doing the site-specific work was a spontaneous one, where the primary focus was the completion of it.
Earlier this year, you hung 24 golden flags on your block; yet again, without permission from the town council. Does seeking permission somehow reduce the impact of the artwork?
Seeking permission does not necessarily diminish the impact of an artwork; it is usually the context and concept of what the artist is trying to convey through the medium of the work. I choose to keep the artworks I do raw and unmediated by external factors.
In the wake of the golden flags, there was quite a bit of negative criticism online about your artwork. Did it motivate you to create or does it point to the fact that art appreciation and literacy still has a long way to go in Singapore? What do you say to your haters?
The impending desire to create is there. The appreciation towards contemporary art scene is something that needs to be cultivated and grown within the society — relaying the unusual, unconventional or eccentric.
What tips do you have for other artists who are interested in exhibiting art in the public sphere without approval?
Just go for it and never doubt your potential outside of a studio space.
How is your practice evolving?
My practice is aiming towards the body in space, specifically the female body in public spaces — not necessarily site-specific works, but documenting how the body behaves within certain public territories.
GUERILLA: Organise shows at unexpected locations
You have curated shows at an air raid shelter in Tiong Bahru and a store lot in Lucky Plaza in 2018. What is your rationale for exhibiting art in off-kilter locations?
The choice of exhibition site is telling of the overall attitude and approach of the exhibition, which is equally important. There is a level of autonomy with such off-kilter sites that also influences the way
How do these locations influence the exhibiting artists as well as the kinds of artworks on display?
More often than not, being an artist myself, the desire to be experimental is heightened. I can't speak for my collaborators, but it is quite apparent that the works tend to be bolder and even larger in scale. For instance, in 'RAID', we were challenged by the lack of lighting in the air raid shelter, and so, it influenced most of us to make light-based artworks. There is something generative with limitations and challenges, and all of us found this quite compelling. As there are no commercial demands per se, the locations function as a testing ground to see how a work reacts in a space.
Your shows are often accompanied by intellectually rigorous texts. What answers, revelations or outcomes are you hoping for yourself, your participating artists and visiting audiences?
I can't comment much on the rigorous texts, but I'm indebted to my collaborators for expounding on the influences, the making of, discussions and curatorial premise. What I intended to do from the start was to informally represent a group — regardless of how often this changes — and put forth a proposition that is discursive and resistant to closure. This may even go beyond the exhibitions itself, spilling over to other efforts elsewhere, and sometimes, involving other exhibitions. For instance, 'RUANG' (2017) launched its publication together with another exhibition, 'Nyanyi Sunyi (Songs of Solitude)' (2018) recently. Artists today are people of hybrid positions, and as more projects involve overlapping set skills, it will be due time before this becomes a culture of its own, influencing the way visiting audiences experience exhibitions.
How do you measure the success of these shows?
Positive relationships established at the end of the show, satisfaction of my collaborators and the opportunity to make personal breakthroughs.
What suggestions do you have for emerging curators and artists who would like to follow in your footsteps?
Seek for affinities through difference, diagnose what's missing in the scene based on your own personal views and remember that the only real stakeholders when making a show are your collaborators — and yourself.
TRAVEL: Seek opportunities abroad
You moved abroad to pursue your undergraduate studies at London College of Fashion (LCF). What were your goals, motivation and state of mind then?
Looking back going to LCF was a means of survival, a way to hang onto my creative conviction. Growing up, I attended Raffles Institution and subsequently Raffles Junior College. It was incredibly stimulating but equally competitive, as you can imagine. You had to think about your core skills and know what makes you tick to differentiate yourself. I approached my personal development like running a business. This is a busy marketplace, so how do I stand out? It turns out you do that by capitalising on your comparative advantage. Maximise a resource — in this case, innate talent — that will take you the farthest. LCF had a program that specialised in training future leaders in the fashion business, so it became the natural choice. It wasn't easy to navigate what steps to take, especially back then, as there was no clear blueprint on how to pursue a career in the arts. You almost had to make it up as you go along and seize opportunities as they came. I've lost count of the number of side projects I've taken on by way of self-education. Getting to LCF was certainly not an end goal; it's a platform for bigger, greater things.
You have clocked up several overseas placements in the Netherlands, Spain and France. How do you value those experiences? What kind of skills or perspectives did these experiences offer you, in comparison to opportunities in Singapore?
I value work experience very highly as it shaped that "self-education" I was talking about. I'm a pragmatic person, and that's a part of being Singaporean that I'll always carry with me. It doesn't matter what opportunity gets presented before you, you seize it and capitalise on it for other doors to open. Equally, it's not a game of chess; not everything needs to be calculated. One thing may not lead to another and that's okay. At the end of the day, you're dealing with persons, where real connection both creatively and professionally matter. One thing I will share though is that living abroad makes you think more critically of the structures that you've grown accustomed to, and makes you wonder at the very least how to better exercise your agency. To survive in a super connected world, being able to adapt to different systems seamlessly is one of the tools I've used to move forward.
With mainly publishing experience under your belt, you landed a creative role at Urban Outfitters straight out of university. How did that happen and what were some of the strategies you used to build a career in London?
Before university, I had 9 months to kill. I had just returned from working abroad at L'Officiel Magazine in Paris, feeling inspired. It's an incredible place to be in your early twenties. It was daunting at times, but I didn't have much to lose. I had all these ideas and I wanted to present them in something material. I met my collaborator and later co-founder, photographer Clifford Loh, to start Vulture Magazine. We had no formal training in publishing outside of our work experiences. We had to trust what we wanted to say and use that as the compass on every decision in fleshing out the magazine. We just kept doing, creating, and it started gaining traction at the highest levels within the world of art, fashion and publishing and I suppose the rest is history. It became my portfolio for my job at Urban Outfitters. I was head-hunted in the second year of university to work part-time as an art director. By the time I graduated, I was promoted to creative director. I have to say meteoric as the rise may be, it did not come without setbacks. Rising up quickly means you need to be prepared to make spectacular mistakes and fail frequently to speed up your learning. At the same time, working towards keeping your job!
You were appointed as director of digital fashion at Selfridges a few months back. What exactly does the job entail?
This is a new chapter that I am incredibly thrilled about. As you know the future for retail is digital transformation. It is about connecting brick-and-mortar institutions to a wider audience to be truly global brands that have an omnipresence regardless of where the customer is in the world. My learnings from growing the digital experience at Urban Outfitters, a brand which caters to a generation of digitally savvy customers, helped position me for this role. As fashion director for Selfridges' online business, I'm responsible for its visual output — be it fashion editorials, campaigns, forging the right art and styling direction for our stable of brands, and looking out for new brands to bring into the mix when I go to fashion week. A lot of it is managing a relatively large creative team and making sure they have the tools to be successful. I'm hardly a one-man show; I help curate the creative outputs in my team and prioritise what the business needs to hear at any given time. A decent part of the role is implementing new systems and ways of working that can help my team deliver their best. What's exciting is that much of the work is for the future rather than the present as the business moves along this massive digital transformation.
If you could rewind the clock back 10 years, what would you say to your younger self?
If I could advise my younger self, I'd say continue to be curious. Sometimes you don't know what you don't know. It's a cliché but knowing what questions to ask will often point you in the right direction. I'm constantly finding myself at the beginning.