Goh Sze Ying (National Gallery Singapore) on Zai Tang's Escape Velocity III and Escape Velocity IV

Share:  ︎   ︎
Close Looking
Issue: On the Anthropocene

Filed under: animation, installations, sound
The Singapore Biennale opened in 2019 with a provocation and a proposition: Every Step In The Right Direction. Spanning eleven locations, the Biennale exhibited the works of more than seventy artists and collectives. The works in each location respond to the peculiarities of their site. At the Gillman Barracks arts belt, some of the works on display lean towards explorations or inquiries into nature, ecologies, and environments, reflecting its location as an arts district surrounded by secondary rainforests. We speak to one of the Biennale’s curators, Goh Sze Ying, about two works that were commissioned for the Biennale.
Goh Sze Ying is an Assistant Curator at National Gallery Singapore. At the Gallery, she has worked on exhibitions Minimalism: Space. Light. Object. (2018), Lim Cheng Hoe: Painting Singapore (2018), and Listening to Architecture: The Gallery’s Histories and Transformation (2017). Her research focuses on photography and art in Singapore in the mid-twentieth century, with an interest in how artistic practice relates to mobility and place. Formerly based in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, she has worked on exhibitions and public programmes with a focus on artistic interventions located within the urban public space. Her past projects include Between States (2017), ESCAPE from the SEA (2017), and more than one (fragile) thing at a time (2016).

¹ Escape Velocity III, Zai Tang

Credit: Singapore Art Museum


Goh Sze Ying (GSY): In all the tours that I’ve conducted, it has been important for me to begin with contextualizing the placement of Zai’s work firstly within the exhibition space and secondly, within the larger context of the Gillman Barracks. Broadly speaking, all the words within this exhibition space touch on the idea of or the relationship we share with the Other. These two works by Zai are build upon works he’s previously done, primarily Escape Velocity I and Escape Velocity II. At the same time, these two works present a unique way of approaching a topic that he wanted to investigate through the medium of sound.

Escape Velocity III and Escape Velocity IV are two works that come together because of the site in which Zai chose to record his sound. Zai recorded the sounds around the Mandai Rejuvenation Project, although he wasn’t recording the sounds of areas where the development was ongoing. Escape Velocity III is a two part composition. When visitors enter the space, they hear a sort of overlapping composition. In essence, the work foregrounds two sources of sound as an as analogous to the tension between nature and capital.

What remains constant throughout the Escape Velocity series of works is how Zai makes sound recordings of specific places, typically these are sites or places in Singapore that have been earmarked for further development. In the case of Mandai, we know that it is being developed into a destination for eco-tourism. Zai takes these field recordings and slows them down, giving these sounds a very crisp aura that is almost larger than life. He does so using a parabolic dish attached to a microphone, and this allows him to cut out all the background or peripheral noise to really focus on a particular sound he is recording. These sounds are then slowed down, which in turn augments its quality. This is the first source of sound a visitor hears in Escape Velocity III.

In the second part of the composition of Escape Velocity III comes from a listening programme that takes snippets from the first source as and when specific attributes are met. For instance if the sound from the first source reaches a particular timber, the program will automatically begins to record two seconds of sound from this source. The programme will take this new recording to form a new composition. It’s almost listening and talking back to the initial sound. Coming back to that analogy I drew earlier between nature and capital, both speakers recall the sound of Mandai for to the listener. However whilst the sound from one speaker reflects the sounds of Mandai accurately; the other listens, reconstitutes and reproduces the sound of nature.

In comparison, Escape Velocity IV is a little easier to explain. In the process of working with sound, Zai’s practice is also interested in ideas of translation. This is interesting to me because, well, how do you translate sound? On the level of physics or mathematics, of course you can. Songs can be visualised through sound waves, for example, and these movements are determined by a sound’s amplitude, frequency, timber or pitch. Zai, on the other hand, listens to these sounds and draws them by hand. It can be described as an analog translation of that sound. In doing so, the artist invites visitors to a deeper attunement — how do you listen to a sound? As visitors sit through this process, they are encouraged to contemplate their relationship to sound and the material that they’re listening to. At the same time, the animation becomes another part of this invitation to the visitor. Done in collaboration with Simon Ball, the animation adds yet another a layer to this artwork by visualising, for example, the sound of a bird’s song.

² Escape Velocity III (Detail), Zai Tang

Credit: Singapore Art Museum

³ Escape Velocity III (Artist Impression), Zai Tang

⁴ Escape Velocity III (Detail), Zai Tang

Credit: Singapore Art Museum


GSY: The artist made Escape Velocity I and Escape Velocity II during a residency he did at the NTU Centre for Contemporary Art. During the residency, he worked a text titled Sonorous Speculations: Towards a Metaphysics of Sound via OOO (Object-Oriented Ontology). The text articulates his influences and how he approaches sound — both as a medium and a material. Fundamentally, OOO is a shift from a human centric worldview to one that is not. It does not privilege how humans think or how we perceive the world. The theory acknowledge the idea that objects — which range from units, materials, and things to concepts and phenomenon such as climate or nature — can exist on their own, outside of their relationship to human beings. This theory might be immediately present to a visitor experiencing Escape Velocity III, but the work itself is installed and composed in such a way that allows for sound to exist and permeate as its own object and subject.

But on another level, Zai’s work invites that deep attunement from visitors. Within the world of art, the idea of “deep listening” came from Pauline Oliveros. She popularised the term “deep listening”, which refers to a type of listening that respects to the source of a sound. In listening deeply, visitors are invited to listen and surrender their senses to the source of a sound to arrive at moments where the visitor becomes the sound. Of course one’s material body does not and cannot dissolve in that process, but it is about tuning into our senses so that one feels, for however momentary, that they are part of that song. It’s a surrender. You no longer take in the sound, but you go into the sound.

For this Biennale, my curatorial framework starts off with an invitation. That invitation comes with a brief introduction into the title of the Biennale, which is both a prompt and a provocation — Every Step In The Right Direction. Following that, it is the artists that respond with a proposal or project that they’d like to embark on. When selecting the works for this Biennale, I did not intend for any of them to be seen as a solution as such. Instead, I wanted them to serve as a reflection of or maybe engage in a dialogue with the Biennale title. I hesitate to use the word “solution” because art doesn’t change the world in so much that it offers a direct alternative to reality. These developments will still happen. What art or artist do with their work is perhaps a way of recording what is going on. They suggest a different way of looking at the same thing. How do we develop new relationships through sound? Does that actually allow us to stop these development from happening? No. But does it create new modes of relational thinking and develop our ideas towards what’s happening? Perhaps. The challenge, I feel, is how can we talk about these issues without directly talking about them? It is important to have what I call oblique methods of dealing with these questions.

The dominant perception we have about experiencing art is that it's often about the visual. Whether it is an installation, an object or even a painting; ultimately, art is still something that you see. Vision accumulates, I feel. The longer you look at something, the more information you are able to retain. On the other hand, sound escapes. In the moment you hear a sound, you're already listening to something else. The original sound is gone. Exhibition spaces will never be able to contain these media. This is the case for sound works but also performances or time-based works. I think the the role of a curator, working in tandem with artists, is not to exert that control over the work or its medium. Instead, it is about acknowledging the characteristics or attributes of this work and they’d be best presented. These works presented here, in being both sound and performances, are an invitation to the visitor to have a different relationship with time. In particular, Zai’s work adds an additional layer of complexity to these questions because he uses mediums that possess what can be described as an inherent desire to escape. He uses these mediums to talk about ecological thinking, an issue that also escapes our everyday concern. So there’s a clear overlap between the artist’s interests, concern and medium with my own personal curatorial explorations. You can apply this thought process to questions such as, what are the things that escape art history? What are the things that are accumulated in art history? Searching for things that located in the periphery does not always mean resisting what is in the center, but acknowledging that they both exist. This is, I think, an important responsibility for curators.
⁵ Escape Velocity IV, Zai Tang

Credit: Singapore Art Museum

⁶ Escape Velocity IV (Artist Impression), Zai Tang

⁷ Boschbrand (Forest Fire), Raden Saleh
National Gallery Singapore, 1849


GSY: The works displayed in Gillman Barracks open up different entry points to questions of what it means to live with nature. Zai’s work encourages a new awareness around how we think of nature — not just the way we want to experience it, but how we can imagine nature as a living entity that has its own being. The work is an argument against the Anthropocene. Maybe not everything needs to be human centric, including the ways in which we work towards saving nature.

Thinking as a curator on a more general level, artworks are the extension of an artist’s cogitations about the world they occupy. As a result of this, ecology has always been a part of that imagination. Artists can’t escape their environments. One of the first few paintings visitors encounter at the Southeast Asia Gallery of the National Gallery Singapore is Raden Saleh’s Boschbrand (Forest Fire). This was a painting completed in the nineteenth century, and it is interesting to note that this kind of imagination has always existed.

Contemporary artists working today cannot escape these questions as well. Going back to the title of the Biennale again, the emphasis isn't in achieving or finding the right direction. The emphasis is, instead, in the challenge of making a step. At every turn, how do we make that first step and how do we make that step in a particular trajectory or a direction. The artworks shown here at the Biennale aren’t a survey of artworks provide visitors with the right direction. Instead, they tell of the struggle and the story of what it is to wake up and be an artist against the backdrop of a world that is so mired with political, ecological, social and economical turmoil.
The 2019 Singapore Biennale, Every Step In The Right Direction, is now open.
The Biennale will run at various venues until 22 March 2020.
More information about the exhibition can be found here.

︎    ︎    ︎    ︎    ︎
About     Issues     Contact     Support     FAQs