I am a live artist, I am important (November 2019)

"Earlier today, I performed an action at the National Gallery of Singapore. Upon entering the building, I proceeded to the 2nd floor into Gallery 3 where Tang Da Wu's Don't Give Money to the Arts (1995) was on display. The work on display is a jacket with the words DON’T GIVE MONEY TO THE ARTS embroidered onto the back in gold lettering. Tang wore the jacket whilst meeting the President of Singapore Ong Teng Cheong and handed him a note that read “I am an artist. I am important”.

 

My plan was to take the jacket from the display and wear it. However, in my attempt to remove the jacket, I realised that it was sewn on and I was unable to remove it from the hanger. The gallery sitter also stepped in, asking me to not touch the work. I proceeded with the action by stepping into the box that demarcated the artwork with the words “Please stay behind the line”. Inside the box with the jacket, I uttered the words “I am an artist. I am important” out loud to the gallery with the added phrase “I am a live artist. I am important”. After the action was completed, I exited the building.

 

The day before, I visited the National Gallery and found it to be a dead space, a mausoleum where works seemed to go to die. For a gallery that boasts “one of the world’s largest and most invaluable public collections of Singapore and Southeast Asian modern art from the 19th century to the present day”, the galleries were practically empty and no one seemed to engage with the works on display.

 

My intention was to challenge the role of the National Gallery as an arts institution. If this building claimed to be an art centre, then surely this would be the place where my art would be welcome. If this building featured “a comprehensive representation of Singaporean art” then this would be the site where I could insert myself in relation to artists who had come before me.

 

I wanted to challenge the jacket as an art object and relic by wearing it. There is a history of performance artists who have intervened with artworks on display in cultural institutions. For example, artist duo Mad For Real famously jumped on Tracey Emin’s bed at Tate Gallery in their performance Two Artists Jump on Tracey Emin's Bed (1999). They also pissed on Duchamp’s urinal at Tate Modern in Two Artists Piss on Duchamp's Urinal (2000). By wearing the jacket, my intent was to return the jacket to its original function as a piece of clothing. More importantly, I wanted to release it from its state of limbo by reactivating it in performance. As a document from a work of performance, it was strange to me how the jacket just hung lifelessly without a body. Rather than just observing the jacket visually from a distance behind a line, I wanted to activate the relic through the haptic by touching, feeling and putting it on, layering the presence of my body onto the ever-accumulating history of the object.

 

Finally, I wanted to update Tang Da Wu's initial provocation – "I am an artist. I am important" with my added words – "I am a live artist. I am important”. By reinvoking his provocation, I wanted to summon his words into the present, bringing to question whether his statement was still relevant in 2018. By adding my words, I asserted myself through a performative utterance as a live artist in Singapore in the National Gallery, the “latest jewel in Singapore's art crown”. My words serve as a reminder to both myself and the institution that my actions are valid, legitimate and urgent. Not only am I an artist, I am a live artist.

 

I was really nervous about doing this action. In some ways, the fact that I was unable to wear the jacket because it was sewn on meant that I probably got into less trouble than I could have. But at the same time, I was scared of what would happen if I pushed the boundaries. If this was another country, I wouldn’t have thought twice about performing the action. However, Singapore has instilled such a deep sense of fear in me such that before I even performed the action, my mind kept running to worst case scenarios from being kicked out of the gallery to getting arrested and charged with vandalism. Whether the risk were real or imagined, the sense of fear was equally potent. Such trepidation is not unfounded, there is precedent in very recent history, just look at Jolovan Wham or Seelan Palay.

 

But now a tiny boundary has been crossed; "Please stay behind the line”, the words surrounding the artwork demand. No thank you, I will not.

 

– From a post on my Facebook page dated 15 November 2019

Documentation by Nicholas Tee.