In Conversation with Jason Wee

by 作者: Iona Whittaker 爱安阿
translated by 译:Lu Wanwan 路弯弯

Jason Wee is a Singaporean artist and the founder of Grey Projects, a non-profit artists’ space in Singapore supporting curatorial, exchange and publication work. Grey Projects is located in Tiong Bahru, and comprises a gallery, residency, library, work space and studio. In addition to a regular program of exhibitions open to the public and an expanding international residency, Grey Projects will soon launch a new journal on contemporary South-East Asian practices and an ongoing print project called “8-8-80”.

Jason Wee

Iona Whittaker: Could you briefly introduce yourself?

Jason Wee: I work as an artist, having studied photography and philosophy in New York at Parsons School of Design. Afterwards, I did the Whitney Museum Independent Studio programme. But at some point I was invited back (to Singapore) to run a long-standing artist residency and artist space called PKW (Plastique Kinetic Worms). It was started by people who were very familiar with Singaporean art – people like Vincent Leow and Milenko Prvacki and Malenko’s daughter Ana Prvacki. Then it hit ten years and they were thinking “What shall we do next?”

IW: So PKW began as a collective?

JW: Yes, that’s right. They all paid some dues to run the space, and it became the place you went to to watch artists and have a conversation with artists. They moved to a couple of places around town. They were also the first visual arts group to receive a major grant from the National Arts Council.

IW: When was that?

JW:They received the grant in about 2001, and they ran from 1998-2008. Also, at that point, after speaking to me and having had a discussion among themselves, they decided to close the space. They decided to keep PKW as a legacy to the original members. I think they felt they had done what they could and wanted to do in terms of the space and with each other.  They could either hand over the space to younger members and a new team, or they could close it, and they chose the latter.

IW:It’s quite an interesting decision.

JW: I know. I miss the space. It was in Little India, which has all these different little areas; it has neighborhoods within neighborhoods. And there’s a trans-gender area and a queer area – it’s a long-standing street where you can find a community. At the time (when PKW closed), I felt there were no ore art spaces left. There was one other called Post-Museum, which was a valiant effort by Woon Tien Wei and his wife Jennifer, and that closed in 2011 because rent went up. I thought: there can’t be a scene in Singapore that’s only galleries and museums.

IW: Non-profit must be very difficult here.

JW: Yes…They too were in Little India, and they got the space because their friend was willing to lease it to them at below market rates. At the time, the street they were on was a little rough. So the landlord decided to just let them use it. But then the neighborhood changed, rents went up etc.

IW: It doesn’t seem as if Singapore has that much in the way of grass-roots, “arty” culture.

JW:Well, I’ve found a neighborhood, that’s where we’re operating at the moment. About 5 years ago I started Grey Projects – actually out of my apartment in River Valley, which is not far from the neighborhood I’m in now. But now we’re in Tiong Bahru, which I think has a chance to grow culture rather than have it, sort of, pumped in. There are always interesting areas – Jalan Besar is another – and artists are always interested in working outside institutions and government.

Yunrubin, “Situated Ground”, open studio exhibition view

IW: What was the catalyst for starting Grey Projects?

JW: It was the chance to begin a conversation in Singapore beyond the identity-talk, you know, the droning on about what makes Singapore or Southeast Asia contemporary. I mean, the institutions here have that mandate, and that’s their role, but I feel that for galleries and other kinds of spaces, there could be other discussions, on fiction, ruins, revolution, waves and a whole list of things. I think having an artist-run space connects artists here to conversations elsewhere. And that’s what we try to do. We do an exchange project; we partner with residencies elsewhere to exchange artists. Our first and long-standing one is with a space called Hangar in Barcelona.  This year we announced one for Bandung and one for Taipei; and one each with Shanghai and Colombia.

IW: Do you travel a lot yourself?

JW: Not so much for Grey Projects, but for my own work. I will be in Korea for an artist residency, for example. In the future we’re also looking at putting Grey Projects into networks of parallel spaces. There are networks of artists’ spaces based in Taipei and in Tokyo; there’s another of independent Asian art spaces in Seoul.

IW: But you are pretty alone in Singapore now?

JW: Yes, as far as opening a site for artists goes, where they have a library, galleries and studios. And the institutions that were more artist-oriented in the past have changed, partly because the cultural industry here has changed. The Singapore Art Museum has in recent years gotten closer to collectors instead.

IW: Do you have any interest in working with the fair and the Biennale?

JW: I’m interested in the Platform format (introduced at Art Stage Singapore last year). I took part in last year’s Singapore Platform. I think it’s an opportunity for curators and artists here to begin talking about what might interest arts practitioners outside the market – rather than necessarily making something that will sell. But that form of exhibition-making might not suit a fair.

IW: Would you also like to see more city-wide arts efforts happening?

JW:I would. There’s an initiative going on from the heritage perspective – I’m not sure how successful it will be. But the danger is the impression that art or heritage only happens at a certain time and in certain areas in Singapore. So you either go in January at the time of the art fair, or it only happens in Gillman Barracks. Outside of these cultural brackets, art disappears. But I’m hoping that by doing what I do, other young artists will, you know, open their studios, set up their own spaces – even if it’s just for a year or two.

Shubigi Rao, “Useful Fictions”, exhibition view at Grey Projects

IW: Do you find that Grey Projects is able to cater to a sufficient number of local artists? Are you oversubscribed?

JW: We actually do manage to plan further ahead than we originally imagined. We have a pretty full exhibition and residency calendar already. We’re launching new ideas like a Young Curators’ Program and a Print Portfolio to support and reach more people. We are launching the latter portfolio with the young photographer Jovian Lim. We also focus on under-recognized artists who might have been practicing for many years, but for some reason never managed to get critical attention – even if among the artists, we feel it would be well-deserved. One example is Jeremy Sharma. I have curated his work in about five shows in the last three years, and his profile has risen tremendously. I’m glad that he’s now in the Biennale and in the fair. We also look at a younger set of practitioners who are doing things that are difficult for museums or galleries to show. Last year we did a show of the work of queer artists from Singapore, called No Approval, a show that couldn’t happen in an institutional space.

IW: In what sense could it not be shown in an institution?

JW: How art institutions feel bound to maintain the state’s social boundaries, preserving the stigma that still persists with certain kinds of images, like political satire, nudity or queer bodies.

IW: How easy is it for you to put on what you want? Do people come and check?

JW: People do. There is definitely a system of checks, sometimes it’s in-person surveillance. But it’s also about understanding that this system that watches over us has triggers. But sometimes if I don’t set those off, I can get what I want done. So, for example, the “No Approval” show – it was never meant to be a ‘general public’ show anyway, so I wasn’t going to put an ad out in the paper. Instead, I did a lot of social media promotion, and spoke directly to the people that the show was created for, and that allows me to go around their worries that it will become a spark for public outcry.

IW: It’s more relaxed that way, too, in terms of the general atmosphere you are working in.

JW: That’s right, yes. Because the intent was not intended to ‘put on a show’ for the mainstream, but to open a space for the artists and their community. For me, the show was really to give visibility to the LGBT artists among their peers, and any provocation would be to spark exchanges within that circle.

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