Portrait of SONG-MING ANG. Photo by Mizuki Kin. Courtesy National Arts Council Singapore.
Portrait of SONG-MING ANG. Photo by Mizuki Kin. Courtesy National Arts Council Singapore.

Prelude to Venice

Also available in:  Chinese

One late, rainy afternoon in March, I traveled to the far end of Berlin’s Tempelhof district to visit the artist Song-Ming Ang in his studio. Located on the third floor of an inconspicuous building that houses everything from a car repair shop to a printing company, Ang’s studio resembles a small, immaculate office. Upon arrival, I found a neatly arranged computer desk, tables stacked with boxes and books, and canvases and framed prints decorating the white walls. His keys were conveniently hung left of the entrance, right next to a triangular ruler on the wall, hinting at the diligent, methodological practice of the artist. Only a pile of cut-up music sheets on the floor suggested the ongoing preparations for Ang’s most important exhibition yet: the Singapore Pavilion at the 58th Venice Biennale.

Well before Ang’s foray into conceptual art, he had immersed himself in the experimental music scene. As an undergraduate at the National University of Singapore, the artist started mixing sound on his computer and with a band. After completing his English degree, Ang grew tired of the genre, wanting to break out of the cycle of remixing music that already existed. “I started doing things that crossed over into visual contemporary art, like listening parties or interactive installations—weird formats which generally had a live element to them,” he said. From 2008 to 2009, he was enrolled in the Aural and Visual Cultures Master’s program at Goldsmiths College, London, roaming the city’s many art spaces in his downtime. “As somebody who didn’t know so much about contemporary art, the range of shows was mind-blowing. Fundamentally, going to museums and galleries was my education.” After sojourns in Melbourne and Moriya, he moved to Berlin for a residency at Künstlerhaus Bethanien in 2012 and has been based in the capital ever since. His major shows, however, often take him back to Singapore, the United Kingdom or Australia. “In Berlin, I mostly just work in the studio, or I’ll take it easy and spend time with my family.” 

Ang’s practice derives from everyday encounters with art and music—he insists on calling himself an “amateur” and a “fan” of both. Sampling from classical music as well as pop culture, Ang’s works are meticulous multimedia experiments, ranging from music-sharing events to videos showing the artist painstakingly disassembling musical paraphernalia. In his interactive performances, he often takes the role of the conductor, directing his performers to recall intimate aural memories. For instance, in Guilty Pleasures (2007– ), a series of public talks and listening parties at international museums, the artist invites audience members to contribute their favorite songs. In the endearing work Be True to Your School (2010), Ang instructed his middle-aged participants to sing the verses of their primary school song on camera—a jovial, but also awkward portrayal of revisiting one’s childhood soundtrack. 

Beyond these participatory performances, Ang’s minute process of deconstructing ostensibly rigid musical systems is most compelling in works where he becomes an amateur himself, such as the absurd Backwards Bach (2013), where the artist plays the German composer’s Prelude in C Major backward on a harpsichord; or in his arduous art-making endeavor Parts and Labor (2012), for which the artist learned to re-assemble a piano over the course of four months. Ang’s highly methodical practice revolves around finding simple, accessible means of examining commonplace objects and familiar sounds to make musical entanglements in our collective memory visible. “Most of the time, it is simply about finding the entry point [in a work of art or music],” he explained.

At the studio, Ang was eager to delve into the topic of Venice. His presentation is titled “Music for Everyone: Variations on a Theme,” referring to the eponymous series of concerts in the 1970s and ’80s in Singapore, organized by the Ministry of Culture to promote world music in an effort to cultivate a more diverse Singaporean identity in the public eye. Ang’s funky remakes of the original concert posters, produced in various mediums including textile banners and watercolor paintings, were still in progress at the time of my visit. They will be unveiled at the Arsenale alongside the Singapore Pavilion’s central work, the video Recorder Rewrite. Its protagonist is the titular instrument—a remnant of British colonial rule in Singapore that is still a part of the school musical curriculum today. “Many of us learned it and it’s probably fair for me to say that many of us didn’t enjoy it,” Ang remarked, after giving me a live demonstration of the many unusual sounds one can generate with a recorder, from high-pitched whistling to percussive clicking by using the instrument parts as claves. 

In the video, 20 schoolchildren perform “extended techniques,” a musical term denoting experimental, improvisational play, on different recorders at the Singapore Conference Hall—a cacophonic recital that encourages both the participants and audience to look beyond the instrument as a disliked, nostalgic, even political object. Ang pointed out, “My art is not about reinventing something; it is about re-looking at certain things.” The same recorders used in the video, taken apart and re-arranged as a sculpture, are also part of the Venice show, as well as Ang’s “Music Manuscripts” series (2013– ) of highly structured visual compositions made by cutting up and drawing on staff paper. Whereas his research into “Music for Everyone” could be seen as a critical stance on Singapore’s state-driven approach to culture, as evinced by the concerts, Ang humbly confided that he did not want to give the Pavilion an explicit political connotation: “The work is not meant to be critical, or celebratory. More accurately, it is just what I can make as somebody who knows a little bit about art, a little bit about music, and a little bit about Singapore.”

From his first listening parties to the Venice exhibition, Ang’s projects have continuously evolved with his varied tastes. “A lot of my research tends to be organic, spontaneous and just based on my interest, which is really everything that revolves around the creation and dissemination of music,” he explained. At times, our conversation became as eclectic and diverse as Ang’s influences, and I was hard-pressed to follow his stream of thought, jumping from mid-period Beach Boys albums to dealing with 20 children in Singapore’s summer heat. “A very close friend of mine said once that I’ve been making up my own curriculum all along,” Ang smirked. On the subject of where his art practice will take him post-Venice, the artist remained levelheaded. “In essence, nothing much has changed in terms of my art practice,” he reflected. “What I’m going to show in Venice is something I’ve been constantly looking at over the past years.” 

At the end of my visit, Ang walked to the table stacked with recorder parts, visibly still occupied with arrangements for Venice. “My biggest concern is how these parts are going to stay like this,” he said, stacking a white recorder mouthpiece on top of its upright bottom part (it rolled right off)—“I don’t like doing easy things.” With the intricacies of his installation at the Arsenale in mind, and the clangor of extended techniques still ringing in my ear, this was not hard to believe.

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