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Article: Michael Daglish reflects on his attendance of Singapore International Photography Festival, October 2016

Posted on: 22 April 2017

In October I was given the opportunity to visit Singapore International Photography Festival (SIPF). This opportunity came in the form a travel bursary via NEPN, supported by Arts Council England.

I applied for this opportunity as I wished to further explore a longstanding interest in methodologies of approach to conceptual photography, with regards to an international stage.  The perceived audience of photographic work – their cultural backgrounds and presumed knowledge base is, more often than not, fixed within the artist’s own personal understanding. This can at times struggle to translate within their own local and national contexts, so how does this play out on a world stage, crossing multiple cultural divides?  There was also the other massive potential for personal development expanding my network far beyond its current reach.

I arrived a couple of days before the official opening of the festival as I had booked onto a workshop with Boris Eldagsen. I wished to see how Eldagsen used his slightly bizarre method of approach using in camera trickery to deliver his story. I was also drawn to the fact the he refers to his images as poems.

Through the time spent on the workshop, I was able to learn the technicality of process around Eldagsen’s images. He showed us how to adapt his process, building a layered narrative into each image, whilst making the viewer question what it is they are actually seeing. He describes his method as, photographing a black cat in a black room with the lights turned off. His work shows us a post-truth; an experience that steps beyond the realm of reality, into that of the unconscious mind.

I saw Eldagsen present his work on three separate occasions to three different audiences. What I really found interesting, aside form the work, was the manner in which he addressed each audience. He was showing the same work, but became very adaptive in his description of the work, processes and methodologies used. This may seem like an obvious thing to do, but it really showed me how a piece of work can sit on many different levels, making it accessible to a much larger audience. When considering my own practice this certainly gave me an insight into approaches to presentation and appropriate language/conceptual use with regards to audience.

SIPF itself had work situated it both galleries as well as public spaces. The vast majority of open call work could be seen either along one of the MRT lines (similar to the tube) or on and in shipping containers at the Open Plaza of the National Library Building.

The opening night of the open call show proved to be an excellent opportunity to build networks with the artists exhibiting, as well as visitors and and curators alike. One of the great things about the way the festival was geographically programmed was that as you moved between shows during the week you inevitably bumped into people you have previously met at openings. This made for a small community feeling and helped to strengthen connections that had been made.

Aside from visiting SIPF whilst in Singapore I was able to see a number of other established and still establishing parts of the art scene. What really blew me away was the sheer size and scale of the scene held within such a small area. I visited two of the universities, one as guest shown around the whole site and the other as a member of the public visiting their gallery spaces. What was immediately apparent was the high level of equipment and facilities, as well as the freedom offered to the students to truly explore their own practice. Students are also given spaces to exhibit and grants and bursaries are made available for research and production.

The exhibition I saw at the Praxis Gallery of ICA Singapore LASALLE College of the Arts was an excellent example of high quality exhibition space being used to show student work made possible through a large multi-student practice-based travel grant.

Nanyang Technological University offered a very similar format to that which I’m used to seeing in the delivery of its photography programme. As I found out later in my trip, this format of teaching and acceptance of photography as conceptual art is not common practice in this part of the world.

I did meet two ex students of Nanyang, Lavender Chang and Noor Iskandar. Both had been chosen to exhibit as part of The Singapore Art Show. This show is programmed by Helutrans, an art transportation company, in their permanent gallery space to the side of the warehousing facility. This ‘virtuous circle’ is a perfect example of giving back which seems common practice in Singapore, a company making it profits from the transportation of art works in turn investing in emerging artists.

Lavender Chang, one of the artists exhibiting at The Singapore Art Show, also offered to show me Gillman Barracks. Gillman is an area given over by the government to be used an arts village, housing both artists studios, galleries and offering a meeting place in the form of cafés and restaurants. The scale of it is truly outstanding as is the quality of the work produced and exhibited. It really does offer a very freeing space in which an artist is able to think, create and explore. This space does also help to give an understanding of what we could have here in Sunderland with the development of the creative quarter, all be it on a smaller scale.

 I didn’t only visit the multiple galleries and art spaces around Singapore as a viewer, but I also carried around with me a portfolio of my own work, showing it to whoever was willing to take a look. This process was at times brutal, hearing things I really didn’t want to hear, having work repositioned far outside of the context I had originally intended. This re-contextualisation of the work by those viewing it did however help me to understand the differences in showing work to an Eastern audience as opposed to a European one. I was able to further understand the subtleties in image reading and how the influences of Chinese painting with its large blank spaces for breathing translate across to the production and reading of photographic images.

This said I did also take a lot of positives from showing my work, and will use the advice I was given to further develop projects, as well as re editing projects for presenting in portfolio format.

After spending time with artists and curators from around the world discussing the art and photographic scene within an Eastern context, referencing it back to compare and contrast against European contexts, I found there to be a number of differences when considering audience and their engagement with the work. Most obviously the idea of photography as conceptual art is still in its infancy in Singapore. Galleries like DECK and Mizuma are doing a lot to help position work in this way, as is the teaching now taking place at Nanyang and LASALLE. Teaching within Singapore has tended to work very much along the lines of the American formula, with photography being a technical tool rather than an artistic practice. This has its benefits in raising the production values and technical level of work produced. A number of lecturing staff are now coming from a European academic background and bringing this to the young emerging artists such as Lavender Chang and Noor Iskandar.

Magazines like Voices of Photography attempts to cross this divide being produced in Taiwan by Lee Wei-I. Although a small independent publication it has an international level of respect for the work it publishes and the manner in which it disseminates. Then there is Daniel Boetker-Smith with the Asian Pacific Book Archive. Daniel takes work from around the Asian Pacific area worldwide. Allowing artists to show work in places it would not otherwise be seen. It also gives international viewers an insight into the work produced in this area of the world, setting context whilst showing themes of exploration.

The experience as a whole left me with a greater understanding of the international photographic art scene as well as a much wider and diverse network of contacts. This will without doubt assist me as I push both my own practice in the future as well as the students I work with.

I’d like to thank NEPN and Arts Council England for making this possible. I’d also like to thank Gwen Lee from DECK for welcoming me, Ang Song Nian, Lavender Chang and Alex Supartono for their invaluable local knowledge which assisted me on my whistle stop tour.

Michael Daglish was one of two selected photographers of the DEVELOP International Travel Bursaries 2016.

This initiative is designed to encourage photographers based in North East England to engage with the international photographic community and to take a pro-active approach to developing their practice and their networks.  The Bursaries are supported by public funding by the National Lottery through Arts Council England.

Michael is a visual artist based in Sunderland. He is interested in the experiential aspects of being. The work he produces looks at the phenomenology of human experience, questioning our interactions with those around us as well as the environment we inhabit, be it momentary or long lasting.  Aesthetically his work sits within an area of construction. Although not always fully produced, it acts as a temporary intervention within a space.