21 Creatives for #SGABF2018 — Berny Tan
SGABF: A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments by Roland Barthes appears to be an important book to you. It not only inspired the title of I want you to know that I am hiding something from you (2011), but was the focus of After a Lover’s Discourse (2014), which incorporated the prose piece #3: The Text (2013). What is it about your relationship with the book that compels you to create?
Berny Tan (BT): A Lover's Discourse was recommended to me by my junior college art teacher. When I first read it about seven years ago, it managed to crystallise a lot of feelings that I could not fully articulate. In fact, Barthes — writing from a position detached from the "love being" or “object of desire” — described for me the difficulties of being unable to actualise my feelings.
I was also interested in the way that Barthes had structured the book. He openly referenced multiple sources, literary or otherwise, in essence tying many threads and ideas together. It was a complex web, but he could distil it into words that really resonated with me. Looking back, this is something that I seek out in my practice as well.
The second time that I read it, I realised that it did not feel as powerful as the first read and so I wrote a breakup letter to the book, which became the accompaniment to an intricate 3D diagram of all the references from the book, which captured the way that I was enamoured with it at first. I wonder now if that piece was loaded and too personal for a viewer to connect with, but I felt that it was something that I had to do.
Somehow I always return to the book. The same paragraph that inspired the title of I want you to know that I am hiding something from you (2011) has always stood out to me. In 2016, I even did an embroidery study based on that paragraph. I think it has come to represent not just certain events in my personal life, but also my approach to artmaking, in which I am trying to find this ambiguous space where I am both telling and not telling, creating something rich but also leaving room for a viewer to engage in their own ways.
SGABF: Several of your other works have also been inspired by a deeper and more critical understanding of literature like T.S. Eliot's poem, The Waste Land. Words seem to be a medium that you constantly turn to for inspiration, and is a pet medium for you. Even the descriptions that accompany your art speaks like poetry in itself. What do words mean to you as an artist?
BT: In my projects inspired by literature, I realised that my interest is not necessarily in the content of the book but about how we perceive and digest the information. A lot of my work is about how I read and interpret things, including the way I connect with certain things in specific ways and the reasons behind that.
I am constantly trying to understand myself and the world better. Language is one way of doing that, so in a sense, that is the importance of words to me. For instance, for Thought Lines (2017-2018), I did 20 embroideries with different rules and systems. It was a way for me to encode my thoughts into something that was rule-based to detach myself from how overwhelming they can become. I use words to process my feelings, and at the same time encode and distil them into concepts that I can understand and grasp to avoid being mired in confusion.
Even as a visual artist, I find that I am much more comfortable working out my ideas through words. They are such an essential part of my process. Words help me step out of myself when it gets too much.
SGABF: In your series of embroidery studies, you experiment with different methods of stitching and use the hoop as a medium to contain and capture your ideas. In your opinion, do you think the climate of the arts and culture here in Singapore encourages creative experimentations?
BT: I think being afraid of experimentation is not necessarily specific to Singapore. At least for me personally, I struggle with the anxiety of failure, and so that fear is just part of the process. On the other hand, the pressure to be successful is endemic in the systems within which we operate here. I am sure my anxieties are partly a result of growing up in those systems. There are definitely artists who are more career-driven, and once they have found something that they are good at and which sells, they will just keep working at that. If that satisfies them personally, or if it is something they have to do by necessity, then it is not in my place to judge. There are artists that do not fall into that definition, or they might fall into it by necessity. We all know it is not easy to be a full-time artist in Singapore. You have to earn money also what, you know? [laughs]
Part of what contributes to the climate in Singapore is definitely the cost of living, and by extension producing art. But having studied in New York, which is expensive as well, I think it does make a difference to have a richer and a more hospitable creative culture. There could be certain systemic factors that force a certain way of approaching your career here in Singapore, but it is also important to find ways of carving out the space to experiment. Recently there are more independent spaces and initiatives emerging here like soft/WALL/studs or Peninsular that allow for such experimentation. My practice benefited from the establishment of an independent art space – I might not have completed Thought Lines if I was not offered a solo exhibition at Supernormal without any of the expectations that might come with showing work at a regular commercial gallery.
I do consider it one of my responsibilities as an artist to still create these spaces to experiment for ourselves, regardless of scale or commercial success. Right now, I am trying to stay on the periphery to do my own thing, while grasping opportunities when they come by. I am just focusing on figuring out myself and my ideas and see how I can be that person who contributes to the arts and culture landscape here according to what works for me in the long-term.
SGABF: You studied in the United States, and did a three-week summer programme in Istanbul, Turkey. Did being exposed to different cultures and environments change your ideas about how making art should be like?
BT: I know that being able to pursue my studies abroad is a privilege, and so I do not think that it is fair for me to say that artists should travel and expose themselves to different cultures in order to create. But I believe that it is important to put myself in unfamiliar and sometimes uncomfortable positions that force you to question yourself and your worldview — even if afterwards, you find that you have just affirmed the path that you were on anyway.
Many of my works are introspective, based on my observations of how a book or place or situation operates and the logic behind them. So my creative process does not have to stem from that experience of travel, but on developing a sense of curiosity and scepticism. It is a natural process to learn and absorb different principles as you grow and see more. That may be a process that happens over a period of time, instead of being a clear point in your life in an exact location. Only in retrospect did I realise that some aspects of my practice are inspired by artists that I had seen a lot of in New York, though when I was there, I was not necessarily cognizant of that influence. I always try to analyse how I respond to situations — for example, why it is I like or dislike certain kinds of art, or writing, or exhibition-making — and understand myself a little more through that analysis.
SGABF: Can you give us a sneak peek into your inspirations behind your upcoming solo exhibition happening in May 2018?
BT: I am currently working on a new project for the experimental platform, I S L A N D S. I am hoping to create visual systems based on Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino, possibly based on concepts from Calvino's Six Memos for the Next Millenium. I have been thinking about doing something based on Calvino's works for a long time, and since I was given this chance to do a show, I thought I should get around to doing it.
My processes are very driven by words, and a lot of it involves writing and developing ideas in a notebook. I also spend a lot of time thinking about things. I know there is this perception that artists are just “doing” all the time, but for me, it has always been more reading and thinking. So I do not know how this project is going to look like yet because I am still very much in the research phase.
SGABF: How do you think Singapore Art Book Fair should strive to be for artists like yourself in Singapore?
As an artist whose practice is often intertwined with literature, the experience of reading is unsurprisingly important to me. A book fair, and especially an art book fair, is almost like a museum for me – you are being exposed to how people are representing their ideas, not just in words, but also in this visual form with which you can physically interact. I remember going to the New York Art Book Fair and being physically and mentally exhausted at the end of it because it was massive, but I would never fail to go every year I was in New York. We might take books for granted because it is a medium that appears in our lives every day, but I think about how magical it was for me to encounter something like the graphic novel Building Stories by Chris Ware. It comes as a series of printed objects in different forms packaged in a box set, and it really pushes the boundaries of what a book can be. For me, that is something I would want to see every time I visit an art book fair – something that really challenges and seduces you as a reader.
Berny Tan (b. 1990) is a Singaporean artist, curator, writer and occasional designer. Her art practice interweaves embroidery, drawing, installation, graphic design and writing – fundamentally exploring the tensions in her attempts to systematise intangible, emotional experiences.