Breakup of Singapore team for Venice Biennale 2017

Breakup of Singapore team for Venice Biennale 2017
Better times: Curator June Yap (right) and artist Zai Kuning were supposed to represent SIngapore at Venice Biennale 2017, but the team has since requested for Yap and project manager Neo Kim Seng to withdraw from the project. Photo: National Arts Council, Singapore
Lead curator and project manager withdraw from representing Singapore at the 2017 Venice Biennale
Published: 11:40 PM, December 30, 2016
Updated: 12:30 AM, December 31, 2016

SINGAPORE — Just five months after the National Arts Council (NAC) announced that a contemporary artist and an arts historian-curator will be Singapore’s representatives at the 2017 Venice Biennale, the partnership has split, with NAC citing “differences in the operational approaches within the team” as a reason.

When contacted, the NAC confirmed that it received the request from the Venice Biennale 2017 project team — comprising artist Zai Kuning, curator June Yap, and project manager Neo Kim Seng — for Yap and Neo to withdraw from the project.

“NAC met with the project team and acknowledged the differences in the operational approaches within the team,” said Low Eng Teong, NAC’s director of Sector Development, Visual Arts.

The council assessed that the project is “underway and on track”, and the “overall artistic vision remains and in keeping with the artist’s proposal and practice”.

Low added: “As this is a mutually agreed decision amongst the members of the project team, NAC has accepted their request.”

NAC had announced on Aug 17 that Zai, along with Yap, will be the country’s artistic team at the 2017 Venice Biennale, a major international contemporary art platform which will run from May 13 to Nov 26 in Venice, Italy, next year. This is based on a selection by the Singapore Pavilion Commissioning Panel chaired by then-NAC’s chief executive officer Kathy Lai and Ahmad Mashadi, head of NUS Museum, from six submitted proposals.

The panel felt that Zai’s proposal — which is about the Malay identity based on his research of the Orang Laut (sea gypsies) — had the scale and depth because he has been working on it over a decade.

During the August announcement, Zai said he was the one who roped in Yap, who is most recognised for curating No Country: Contemporary Art for South and South-east Asia, as part of the Guggenheim UBS MAP Global Art Initiative (New York, Hong Kong and Singapore) from 2012 to 2014.

Yap had a longstanding relationship with the artist, having written essays and exhibition texts for him previously and followed his work through the years. This would have been the first time the curator worked together with Zai to produce a commissioned work, and she had previously said during the August announcement that she and Zai were “very much looking forward to the final presentation in Venice”.

Both Yap and Zai did not respond to TODAY's queries.

Members of the arts community expressed surprise and shock at the withdrawal of Yap and Neo from the artistic team, although most declined to comment.

Private art collector Ryan Su said he attended a talk that Zai had given back in October to show a documentary related to his Venice Biennale work at the NUS Museum. “June Yap was there in the audience. They both were there. This is quite surprising actually.”

Local art historian Jeffrey Say said although the move was a surprise, it “might not have a significant impact on the eventual execution of the exhibited work as the concept and process of the work would have been worked out by this stage”.

However, he added that it would also mean that the original curator who conceived of the work would not be there to provide a first-hand insight into the idea, theme and context of the work. People who viewed the work would not be able to “see the outcome of the collaboration between an established artist and a prominent curator”, which is always interesting, he noted.

Moving forward, NAC is working with Zai to continue the production of the artwork and preparation for the exhibition. Support will be provided to augment the project team, said Low. “NAC would like to express our appreciation to June Yap and Neo Kim Seng for their contributions to the project in the past months.”

Added Low: “Everything else including the planned opening of the Singapore Pavilion at the Venice Biennale is on schedule. In addition, the artist will also open his studio at Gillman Barracks to the public during the Singapore Art Week on the evening of 13 January 2017. We encourage Singaporeans and all arts lovers to drop by.”