The Agility of Biennales, the Importance of Writing, and Considering Our Carbon Footprint

David Teh
David Teh

On some projects I have been detail-oriented and on others I stepped back from the minutia. But it’s fair to say that since I moved to Singapore in 2009, the nature of the curatorial work I do has changed. At the time, I was making a pretty large moving-image programme for the International Short Film Festival in Oberhausen, Germany, yet I still had control over my schedule. But when I took the job at the National University of Singapore, I had to meter my curatorial projects so that I could still check all the boxes for my employer.

Bangkok. My peak freelancing period, or unemployed period, however you want to look at it, was when I moved to Bangkok in 2004. I had an offer to go to Singapore but I turned it down, feeling that I didn’t want to go straight into academic institutional life (five years later, I was lucky to get another offer from the same people). I loved what I was doing in Thailand, working on projects, pretty much with my own generation of artists. I was writing, teaching at a couple of universities, and curating when I could. I became involved in the artist-run scene, and was interested in non-traditional media: installation, video, and more dialogical kind of practices. My own generation had very interesting artists, successful internationally and conversant with global trends, and despite the fact that Thailand had lousy infrastructure for contemporary art, they were determined and happy to be based there. For instance, artists such as Arin Rungjang, Pratchaya Phinthong, Sutthirat Supaparinya, Angkrit Ajchariyasophon, and Wit Pimkanchanapong, who were all in a 2006 show I co-curated with Manuporn Luengaram, called “Platform“, at the Queen’s Gallery and Chulalongkorn University’s Art Center. This was important, this sense that there was enough there for us in the city—sites, stories, an audience. It was intellectually rewarding and stimulating. There were problems that artists felt they should be tackling and there were opportunities. It was a lucky time to be there. But one problem was that I had no time to write seriously, because of the language difference but also because it’s just not a literary society. People didn’t really pay writers. In the end, I never got a chance to render my curatorial experience, and for me that happens in writing. That’s one reason I left Bangkok.

Curating and writing. Firstly, there is the practice of writing, and then there is the role of writing in research. I used to think all curators should write, be critics or theorists, publish their ideas in writing. I’m not sure about that anymore. I have learned to parse other kind of writing. Maybe it’s because I lived and worked in Southeast Asia where only a small proportion of the population writes. I had to adjust by learning to find criticism and theory in other places—in conversations, exhibitions and artworks. The best critical work in this region happens in artworks, not in print. But writing is still essential for me: the literary component of curating is important, and the university job is one way to get that time and space. Curatorial research and academic research are the same thing. When I’m doing research it’s always both curatorial and academic. When I want to know about an artist, I might do it in an old-school scholarly way—go to a library, read books, write notes and responses—but then I might also talk to that person, or talk to somebody who knows about them, or somebody who knows the milieu in which they work or worked. I need to do both. Ten years ago, I wouldn’t have said that so clearly, but now I know I need both.

Academia vs curating. Some years ago I was giving a talk about a book I wrote called “Thai Art: Currencies of the Contemporary”, and a friend in the audience raised her hand. She asked if I could talk about the specifically curatorial dimension of my research. I’d been talking like an art historian but she was right, I’d gathered much of that knowledge as a curator. It was a wake-up call for me in a way. When I’m doing research, I’m not thinking of any academic output. Most people working in universities have to be aware of their output at all times; it’s a publish-or-perish environment. I have a bit of a luxury to be working in a truly transdisciplinary way. A lot of my curatorial research is, by academic standards, quite speculative. I’m talking to people, finding and seeing things, without a fixed idea of how useful it’s going to be. These days most academic research is done with ‘deliverables’ in mind. But there’s a difference going into a conversation with a sense of what you want, versus going in there without any idea of what you’re getting out of it. There needs to be more space for this in academia. Curating is a liberating space. Sitting in a library reading academic journals won’t produce the kind of research I find compelling. The conversations I’m interested in are happening in magazines, in live forums, in artworks or projects. I find the majority of academic journals in my field quite boring; I only read them when there’s something particular there I’m looking for.

David Teh introducing “‘Misfits’: Pages from a loose-leaf modernity” to visitors at the Haus der Kulturen der Welt (Photo credits: Laura Fiorio / HKW).
David Teh introducing “‘Misfits’: Pages from a loose-leaf modernity” to visitors at the Haus der Kulturen der Welt (Photo credits: Laura Fiorio / HKW).

I don’t always manage to reconcile my personal interests with that of the institution, which wants different things from me than what the art world wants from curators. That gap narrows in places where curatorial studies has an institutional foothold. Singapore is not one of those places, the profession is not recognised. There are a lot of people employed as curators—and Ute Meta Bauer runs a curatorial studies programme at Nanyang Technological University—but to be blunt, curatorial work is not recognised by the universities in Singapore. (It’s different in the exhibiting institutions, such as NGS). But I was hired in the literature programme, and for the purposes of my employer, curating is a hobby, like playing soccer in the park. In Australia or the UK, it would be different. If I had a major exhibition somewhere and it was reviewed in the papers—that would be ‘work’, recognised as performance. In Singapore it counts as zero. But my investment is equally serious in academia and in the art world. The two cross over and inform each other a lot.

Istanbul Biennial. There was an invitation to Ute to put forward an idea for the 17th edition, she asked Amar Kanwar and me to co-curate it with her, and we both agreed. It was a set of discussions that happened in early 2020, in the context of a spiralling crisis. It’s a short preparation time for a biennale, and also perhaps a stupid time to be making large exhibitions. Our conversation was a response to that interruption, and central to our proposal was the idea that it could not be business as usual. The Istanbul Biennial reaches a very large audience, and every aspect of the organizing is drastically affected by the pandemic. Process and dialogue has been our focus. We talked to people we thought were making important contributions in solving some of the world’s crises, activists, researchers and artists who are not only making visual art, but also sonic and literary art. We feel that Covid is the tip of the iceberg, that what we’re seeing is the result of systemic and global failures in the ways that humans relate to the world, to each other, and to other species—a much more general social and political dysfunction. What we are doing is more dialogical, there will be an exhibition, but it will be part of a larger set of programmes, online, in print, on screens and in live events. There are many conversations we can have without travelling, but we also believe that some important exchanges cannot be done remotely. Yet like in any other industry, we are forced to discover ways to do it. This will be positive for an industry that needs to think about its carbon footprint, a hugely mobile industry. We know the impact that is having on the planet. We pretend to care about these things, now we need to start walking the walk.

Nimble biennales. The three of us feel we should find ways to address these systemic problems despite the limitations, and a biennale is in a good position to do that. Biennales are supposed to be adaptable and nimble, compared to say, museums. Of course, now that we have hundreds of them, the big ones tend to be formulaic and not nimble at all. We don’t want to understate the challenges these organisations are already facing at this time of interruption; the pandemic poses huge challenges to the way these platforms are organised and funded. But this moment has to be seen as an opportunity. We need to rethink the form itself, what biennales do, and how they operate.

Toddler, mindless games, news junkie. With the question about having fun and finding balance, I am all over the place. I’m the father of a three-year old: that solves the fun problem. Any moment I can escape from work responsibilities is filled with toddler. That’s my fun. At the moment, I’m playing a mindless online game where you are a little civilisation on an island, and you are trading. It’s literally to switch my brain off at the end of the day. It’s like meditation, arithmetic—a diversion. The other thing is news, I’m a news junkie. I am not fond of many news channels these days but I still consume a large spectrum, including Australian news, even though I haven’t lived there for a long time. I grew up there and my mother still lives there.

Curators’ Intensive Taipei 19 | David Teh, Taipei Fine Arts Museum, 2019
David Teh, at the international conference, “Curators’ Intensive Taipei 19”, co-organised by The National Culture and Arts Foundation and the Taipei Fine Arts Museum. Taipei Fine Arts Museum. November 2019

Currently I’m reading a book about the hajj called “The Longest Journey: Southeast Asians and the Pilgrimage to Mecca” by American author Eric Tagliacozzo. It’s fascinating. I’ve never studied Islam or had background knowledge about it, despite the facts that I live in a part of the world with a lot of Muslims, and work with Indonesian artists quite often. Coming to the Istanbul project I’m reading two books: one is a history of Sufism; the other is about the hajj from a Southeast Asian point of view. It’s great to have a pretext to read about these things.

But the book that most haunts me is very different, it’s called “Engendering the Buddhist State: Territory, Sovereignty and Sexual Difference in the Inventions of Angkor” by Ashley Thompson, who works at SOAS in London. She’s a philosopher and works on archeological subject matter. It’s hard to say what this book is about. As you see from the title, it’s about many things; it’s about Angkor, and the ways in which the art of Angkor, which has been so important in constituting the idea of Southeast Asia, has been understood quite narrowly in the history of ideas. She goes into that history in detail, and I don’t use this word lightly, she deconstructs it. And this tells us a lot about contemporary Southeast Asia. These things are a thousand years old, and we know them so incompletely, yet they are alive with urgent contemporary issues. I keep picking this book up and stopping, because it makes me write. I would add another text, one that Thompson re-reads in an exciting way in her book, by the French historian, archaeologist and commando Paul Mus. He wrote a fascinating short essay in 1933 called “India Seen from the East: Indian and Indigenous Cults in Champa.” It’s an illuminating study of the region. He challenges the idea, a very influential one in Southeast Asian studies, that the region is culturally an extension of India; his research turns some of the assumptions in that field upside down. Sorry my readings sound so nerdy. I’m not reading a good novel at the moment.

If I wasn’t curating… It’s hard for me to answer because I don’t think of myself as a full-time curator. But I would probably be sleeping and exercising more. Curating for me is a way of learning things I can’t learn any other way. Making shows is a way to figure out problems I have in other parts of my life. I haven’t found anything else that does that.

* Further interview material includes Teh’s experience as a gallerist, from 2012 to 2016, at the Gillman Barracks, in Singapore, and will better developed in a later Curtain entry with a particular focus on how gallery work nourished Teh’s curating experience.

David Teh

Associate Professor at the National University of Singapore



David Teh is a writer, curator and Associate Professor at the National University of Singapore. His research spans art history, criticism and theory, with an emphasis on Southeast Asian modern and contemporary art. His curatorial projects have included Unreal Asia (55. Internationale Kurzfilmtage Oberhausen, 2009), Video Vortex #7 (Yogyakarta, 2011), TRANSMISSION (Jim Thompson Art Center, Bangkok, 2014), Misfits: Pages from a Loose-leaf Modernity (Haus der Kulturen der Welt, Berlin, 2017) and Returns, a project for the 12th Gwangju Biennale in 2018. He is currently co-curating the 17th Istanbul Biennial (with Ute Meta Bauer and Amar Kanwar). David’s writings have appeared in Third Text, Afterall, ARTMargins, Theory Culture & Society and Artforum. His book Thai Art: Currencies of the Contemporary was published in 2017 by MIT Press, and he was co-editor (with David Morris) of Artist-to-Artist: Independent Art Festivals in Chiang Mai 1992-98 (2018), for Afterall’s Exhibition Histories series.

Art critic and writer.

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