Interview with John Tung, art curator and cinephile

John Tung curated Cinerama: Art and the Moving Image in Southeast Asia, an exhibition that “examines notions of identity, history and politics through the moving image.” The exhibition was open to visitors at the Singapore Art Museum (SAM), between November 17, 2017 and 25 March 2018.

In this interview, John Tung (JT) talks to The World of Apu (TWoA) about Cinerama, the expanding definition of cinema, his love for getting down and dirty with electric drills. Also, is fishing really about fish?

On his journey so far, what inspired him to work in and with art:

JT: My parents raised me with a good dose of art in my upbringing, and from a young age inculcated within me a passion for it. I had quite literally grown up with a print of King Nebamun’s famous hunting scene, Fowling in the Marshes, hung right above my bed. My first and enduring love has been a passion for literature – both reading, and writing – and that was what inspired me to pursue a BA (Hons) in Arts Management after my A Levels. I was seeking a qualification that wouldn’t just be able to land me a job, but something that would’ve allowed me to live my passion on a day-to-day basis. I saw art, in its myriad forms, as an excellent mode of storytelling. However, my interest in becoming a curator really emerged over the course of my postgraduate studies at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, where I pursued an MA in Art Management, focusing on cultural policy. It was then that I saw the potential for curating to be more than just storytelling.

It could be a means of preserving cultural heritage, addressing current issues, and humanising communities and societies.

On the evolution of Cinerama:

JT: Doing an exhibition revolving around the moving image was an idea that all of the curators had been toying about with for some time. At SAM, we delight in curating thematic shows where we explore big ideas and concepts, whilst simultaneously seeking to track developments in Southeast Asian Art. In the years following SAM’s last exhibition on the moving image, Still Moving – a Triple Bill on the Image (2014), there have been numerous exciting developments in the realm of the film and moving images, and we really wanted to present these to a larger audience.

TWoA: Is Cinerama your first cinema-related exhibition as curator? How is Cinerama different from your earlier work?

JT: Yes. Yet, while Cinerama was the first time where I had worked on an exhibition which dealt predominantly with the moving image, the process was still in some ways similar to earlier exhibitions I had co-curated at SAM. For instance, Odyssey: Navigating Nameless Seas, which I co-curated in 2016, had brought together artworks from the permanent collection, site-specific adaptations, and new commissions as well. What made the process of conceptualising Cinerama distinct, however, was the inversion of the curatorial process that I had previously adopted – as opposed to developing the exhibition theme prior to making the artist selection.

Cinerama was very much about developing a cohesive overarching theme and narrative to present the selected artists and artworks under. This was a delightfully challenging experience.

John Tung [right] giving a curator tour of Cinerama
On what he hoped to convey through this exhibition:

JT: With Cinerama, I thought it would have been interesting to highlight the very modest beginnings of Cinema as we know it. Beyond that, Cinerama also highlights how both image and video-making is playing an increasingly impactful role in our everyday lives as a viable means of information sharing and communication. Take for instance: the possibility of running an internet search based off an image as opposed to a keyword. That’s much easier compared to typing in all of the descriptions of a painting in hopes of finding its title!

At the same time, an undercurrent which runs through the works presented in Cinerama is the idea of the “Expanded Cinema” – a concept first fleshed out by the media art theorist Gene Youngblood in 1970 – that deals with the increasingly porous boundaries between real life and simulation as a result of technological advancements in filmmaking. Despite the idea being close to fifty years old now, such a definition doesn’t come to mind when the word cinema is mentioned. With Cinerama, I very much hoped that people would see the relevance of this idea to the use of social media platforms like Instagram and Facebook in our everyday lives now.

TWoA: In Cinerama, you have featured works from various countries. Was it a conscious decision or a happy coincidence?

JT: SAM is a museum focused on art in and from Southeast Asia, sharing the voices of artists from this region. Each curator here at SAM also takes charge of a Southeast Asian country portfolio – for instance, my country portfolio is Thailand – and is expected to keep up to date with developments in these countries. This is therefore also reflected in the way we curate our exhibitions. We always look to present an exciting range of works from across Southeast Asia.

Cinerama featured two commissioned works. On choosing artists for commissioned works:

JT: Approaching Victor Balanon and oomleo for the making of two brand new works were thought of by Joyce Toh and Tan Siuli respectively, SAM’s Co-Heads of the curatorial department. Whilst Joyce oversees the Philippines portfolio, Siuli oversees the Indonesian portfolio, and they are both exceedingly knowledgeable of the art emerging from these two countries, and the two artists’ practices. Victor was selected due to his extensive practice in hand-drawn animation, while we felt that oomleo’s practice in 8-bit animation had nicely filled in a historical gap in the exhibition’s narrative.

A little more about the commissioning process and creative decisions involved:

JT: SAM’s commissioning process involves reaching out to artists to respond to a given theme or exhibition concept, and the curators work closely with artists in realising the proposals. The heart of commissioning is a conversation where curators discuss with artists the best way to achieve the final outcome while maintaining the artistic integrity, as well as core concepts of the work.

Most of the discussions end up pertaining to presentation and technical matters of installation as opposed to the artwork’s concept itself!

The Cinerama exhibition featured video installations and multi-screen projections. On whether he sees a viable future for such projects:

JT: To me, given the expanded definition of cinema that I have adopted, video installations and multi-screen projections are already commonplace outside of the realm of art galleries and museums. Already, numerous jumbotrons adorn the facades in prime shopping districts, while amusement parks have regularly employed immersive and multi-channel videos to enhance their attractions. The idea of the moving image spectacle is already no longer confined to cinema theatres alone. Its commercial value, beyond its use for entertainment, is well documented.

TWoA: What is your expectation of those who come to view the exhibition?

An open heart and a discerning mind.

TWoA: Where do you draw the line when you have to explain an exhibit in the brochures and during your curator tours?

JT: From my point of view, wall texts (artwork captions and write-ups) and texts in the exhibition guides are really intended to provide visitors with some contextual information, as well as to serve as a starting point for contemplation of a work.

I feel that it is important for such text to avoid being prescriptive of how a work should be read, but rather provide avenues for the viewer to develop their own thoughts on the work, and how the various artworks connect to one another in the show. An artwork or exhibition can be read in many ways, and there needn’t be, and there often isn’t in fact, a single narrative that binds the artworks together cohesively.

During my curator tours, I often share additional information, and emphasise more on the areas that I think the audience would be able to relate to better, while aiming to provide an additional overarching exhibition narrative that audiences can consider.

John Tung [right] with Ming Wong [left] at the Making Chinatown exhibit
TWoA: Ming Wong’s Making Chinatown exhibit was featured in Cinerama. What about Ming’s work particularly excited you? (Read our interview with Ming Wong here.)

JT: I had amused myself incredibly in thinking of Ming’s Making Chinatown as having our very own mini Universal Studios in the exhibition. Perhaps many people would be much more excited about a field trip to the actual Universal Studios as opposed to the museum on any given day. While Making Chinatown presents a humorous visage upon initial encounter, especially as we watch Ming romance himself in drag, a viewer would note the darker undertones he seeks to address when they pay attention to the speeches in his selected excerpts. I think beyond being solely a place for serious contemplation, a museum can also be fun and entertaining.

TWoA: What do you usually tell someone interested in your field of work?

JT: Surprisingly, this is a rather rare occurrence!

The core of curatorial work is care, and an exhibition is no different from a baby that requires keeping an eye on, but diaper changes as well. Oftentimes, the visage of glamourous openings obscure the dirt, sweat, and blood that go into its installation. Working at the Singapore Art Museum has been an extremely fulfilling experience. While it may be a bit dated, I still subscribe to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, and I do feel that there are few occupations in contemporary times that meet all the preceding needs in addition to the desire for self-actualisation as well.

I enjoy writing and reading as much as I enjoy getting down and dirty during exhibition installation, wielding my own electric drill and spirit level as I go about ensuring everything is being put together right. I couldn’t think of anything else more appropriate for my personal interests. Audience response adds another layer of job satisfaction. And beyond the exhibition’s opening, curator tours give me opportunities to interact with museum-goers and find out more about changing societal tastes and preferences. I especially love it when visitors tell me which works aren’t their cup of tea, while recognising their importance!

I think it’s important for a maturing society to embrace difference and develop tolerance.

TWoA: With regard to film or moving image exhibitions, do you think there are avenues yet to be explored?

JT: Without a doubt. Ultimately, artists and presenting institutions remain bound by the laws of economics. As technology advances, and old technology becomes more accessible – more affordable rather! – to both artist and institution, more possibilities start to open up. In the past ten years, video capturing has advanced so rapidly that shooting a video in 4K definition is within easy reach for just about everyone. At present, 3D capturing and presentation technology is also becoming increasingly accessible as well. I shall not be surprised if we move forward in the coming decade to find artworks based on holographic technology as well.

However, what I find interesting lies not merely in technologies of the future alone. Millennials have the dubious honour of seeing more invention and obsolescence than any generation that has preceded them. As these technologies become gradually extinct to the consumer world, I am interested in how artists may continue to keep them alive through their work – and how institutions will preserve them for future generations.

TWoA: You mentioned in your diary that you participated in a programme for prisoners to learn art. What was your takeaway from this project? Did you find that this experiment challenged your previously held notions of who an artist should be?

JT: I wouldn’t regard it as an experiment. I’m a firm believer that innate in every human being is a desire to create; and when an individual pursues this desire with great fervour, the outcome embodies aspects of artistry. Being a part of the Yellow Ribbon Community Art Exhibition reaffirmed my beliefs, and I was very happy to see many genuine works of art come to fruition.

On his other hobbies:

JT: Fishing! I’m an avid angler and I always try to find some time on the water and amid nature to refine my skills. These moments also give me more time to contemplate more deeply on life. It’s very much like what Thoreau says, “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” Many people think fishing is, well, about fish. I think not.

On how he keeps himself updated and his reading habits:

JT: I’m a big advocate of reading around a subject, as opposed to reading on the subject itself. A couple of months back, I was at a bar with a few artists and came to the premature conclusion that: in practising art, everything you talk about is work; except when you talk about art, then it’s gossip. While that statement was probably not thoroughly considered, art and culture are very much participatory in nature. It’s more about the interactions than about singular events, and I take great delight in learning more through meaningful conversations. Nonetheless, I’ve somehow ended up on just about every mailing list – so that helps me stay abreast on events too! Although I haven’t had much time for leisure reading lately, I’ve been enjoying Nikolai Gogol’s Taras Bulba on the off chance that I am.

TWoA: One last question. Can you tell us about your upcoming projects?

I’m not spoiling the surprise. (:

References

  • Official press release of Cinerama – Available here

It was exciting for us to understand John Tung’s work and his motivations, especially since we do not know know any art curators ourselves. We would like to thank Priscilla Li, who made this interview possible. She is the Senior Manager for Marketing Communications at the Singapore Art Museum.

All images have been provided by John Tung. They may not be reproduced without permission.