Tan Kai Syng
crossroads: history, post modernity, reality
region: Asia, Southeast, Asia, Eastern
country/territory: Singapore, Japan
created on: September 26, 2005
last changed on: December 21, 2007
information provided by: House of World Cultures
supported by: Verein der Freunde - Haus der Kulturen der Welt

Tan Kai Syng

The Manic Collector
Author: Susanne Messmer
ARTIST STATEMENT/ POSTCARD PROJECT OF THE HOUSE OF WORLD CULTURES 2007 'Today’s world of simulacra, Second Life, virtual universes, cloning, blogs, piracy, reality TV, everyone an artist, everyone a laptop artist, everyone an idol for at least 15 minutes, space tourism, the revival of religious fundamentalism et al means that the notion of "reality" gets increasingly layered, expanded and complex. Artifice is reality here in Singapore as she desperately undergoes surgery after surgery in the last 40 years to make herself bigger, faster, better, sexier, wealthier, shinier (more than Las Vegas+Dubai+Anna Nicole Smith+Elvis combined!). My new works feature myself playing the role of an exhibit in a sparkling city-state - theme park. The audience can be a spectator/participant/contents-controller in this vulgar, bloated, bruised and smelly world of my morally-ambiguous avatar in various platforms such as the video game, movie, vlog and so on. You are most welcome to join in this permanent battle (USA-style).' The artist Tan Kai Syng, who was born in Singapore in 1975, makes video-recordings of folk recalling events, though versions of these may differ from person to person. She prefers to leave the question of historical truth open at the cost of a narrative thread and questions hegemonic narrative structures as well as the Oral History school, which tries to reconstruct history by collecting subjective memories. Viewers of her videos are free to compare versions and to draw their own conclusions.
The room Tan Kai Syng devised for the exhibition ‘Politics of Fun’ in the House of World Cultures is overwhelming. Interviews and documentation are shown on many monitors, among them hundreds of books, tickets, brochures, maps, notes and sketches. Some of these seem to be relevant, others less so, but all are souvenirs of her three-year stay in Japan. Her video ‘Island Hopping, 2002-2005 Japan’ confirms the impression of a magpie-approach. In this potpourri of unstructured, disparate, but dense scenes and recollections, all details are interesting, and jump-cuts can be bridged by viewers’ associations. Blank spaces make for challenges. The viewer has to add his own narrative thread to the disparate stories.

Even an email from her is brimming with information. She rejoices in communication, and her guises are protean. Within a brief conversation she is the humorous cynic, the attentive listener and so on and so forth. Whether she is gathering, making or showing things, she is wholly engrossed.

Tan Kai Syng studied visual art from 1994 to 1998 at the Slade School in London and for twelve years has been using mainly videos to question historical truth and other “great stories”. After studying painting and sculpture, she resorted to more ‘labyrinthine’ approaches to art, even before in Singapore the fashion was to cast “sculptures of the very dead in bronze - the deader the better and bigger” and to have “watercolours of chicken running around in the age before bird flu, or rather when such issues as bird flu were ignored”, as she says. She resolved to gather brief accounts of the past, which do not dovetail into a single truth and which would otherwise soon land on “the ash-heap of history”. This is why she calls herself ‘gurung guni’, Malayan for ‘rubbish collector’.

One of her main works is the video-installation ‘Spring. Beauty. Love – Her Story of Trying to Tell the 3 Sisters’ Stories’ (2001), and it typifies her approach. She interviewed her mother and two sisters about their past. There were “very interesting tales” involving their father, who had moved from China to Singapore in 1922 and founded a school. During the Japanese occupation he had joined the resistance movement, then had one of his daughters adopted. Tan Kai Syng shows how accounts may vary due to slips and sleights of memory, nostalgia and sentimentality. The three sisters appear on three screens and talk at the same time. Since only their mouths are shown, the viewer experiences a distancing effect. The artist’s contribution lies in posing questions, adding comments and subtitles and in doing unusual cutting. Towards the end of the video she hands the camera over to her mother, then appears on screen herself. In effect she questions the notion of shared experience, hegemonic narrative structures and the Oral History school by recording different versions of the same past.

Why has she spent years in traveling between Japan and Singapore? Tan Kai Syng replies ironically: “I’m a cool postcolonial mobile citizen of our global village and love looking out for virgin territories to explore and excavate.” Like many Non-Japanese she has often felt drawn to the Far East, she says. Loath to seem exotic to Western viewers, she portrays Japan as exotic to herself. During her wanderings there, she has gathered her own and others’ impressions - “the entire messy repertoire of poetry, heresy, anecdote, subjective/selective, of fractured and fragmented bits and pieces” as she says. She has tried not to be selective beyond focusing on the Japanese ambivalence towards warfare.

A section of ‘Island Hopping 2002-2005 Japan’ is called ‘A Plethora of Histories, 15th February 1942 – 15th August 1945’. It shows ‘tightly’ cut talks with one of the artist’s older relatives, who stoically and aloofly recall the Japanese occupation of Singapore. It also shows demonstrations of left-wing groups at the controversial Yasukuni shrine in Japan, and the yearly marches of nationalist veterans. To this section, the artist has added scraps of a nationalist propaganda film as well as shots of the peace ceremony in Hiroshima. Folk at the ceremony are greatly moved by images of the bombing. By presenting a wide gamut of experiences, Tan Kai Syng creates a colourful panorama which can never be reduced to a cliché. This very fact “may contribute towards healing”, says the artist.

From an interview with the artist in September 2005.
Tan Kai Syng is a die-hard Made-In-Singapore Artist ‘trained’ in both the ‘wild West’ and the exotic Far East (BA Fine Art 1st Class Hons top student Slade School of Fine Arts UCL; MFA distinction top student Department of Imaging Arts & Sciences Musashino Art University). For the past 12 years she has been (ab)using the video medium as a means to imagine/interpret/critically question the/our reality/’realities’ via the image (she was trained as a painter and sculptor)-music (she tinkled the ivories for 11 years) -text (for all her pretentious philosophical and semiotic inquiries) in time and space, about, and for our here & now . She thought she was fairly compulsively-obsessive until she met her fans in Tokyo through her live video performances, exhibitions, talks and constant appearance in the media/sound art/contemporary art scene in Tokyo. Her efforts have been exhibited/installed/performed ‘live’ in more than 30 cities worldwide. Kai Syng picked up some awards (Certificate of Merit New Visions (video) 42nd San Francisco International Film Festival's Golden Gate Awards; Shell-National Arts Council Scholarship, JCCI scholarship) along the way. Back ’home’ since June 2005, Kai now earns her living as ‘pathway leader’ of Video Art at an art college. Apart from organising art events she continues to pose as an artist and is scheduled to be several art shows including one or 2 Biennales. Now 30, Kai Syng is now awfully mild & mellow and has been producing works that are nice and mild and mellow and grown out of that rich self-fufilling art-speak and has been working very hard on perfecting that Very Very Nice & BigBig Smiley Look and hopes to win a National Day Special Mention from her country for it.

(Biography from the artist)
Selected Exhibitions/ Activities
(Exhibition / Installation)
City Art Museum Ljubljana - Mestna Galerija 2, Ljubljana, Slovenia
“Asia - Europe Mediations“,
IF Museum Inner Spaces, Poznan, Poland

“2006 Move on Asia - Clash and Network“,
Shanghai Duolun Museum of Modern Art, Shanghai, China
“Biennale of Sydney 2006“, Sydney, Australia
“2006 Move on Asia : Clash and Network“
“Arario Beijing“, Beijing, China

“Digital Paradise” exhibition, Daejeon Museum of Art, Daejeon, Korea
”Spaces and Shadows - Contemporary Art from South East Asia”, House of World Cultures, Berlin, Germany
”Asian Experimental Film” (presentation of CHLORINE ADDICTION), Aichi Cultural Centre, Tokyo, Japan
"Fantastic Asia", SungKok Art Museum, organised by Feminist Artists' Network,
(presentation of APOLOGY), Seoul, Korea
Solo exhibition and live video performance, TAKI KENTARO, Tokyo, Japan
video discourse, Morishita Studio, Tokyo, Japan
Solo exhibition and lecture performance, ISLANDHOPPING, Institute of Contemporary Arts (part of Singapore Season), London, United Kingdom
MFA degree exhibition at Musashino Art University, Japan (January 2005), ISLANDHOPPING (2002-2005), Tokyo, Japan

Japanese Experimental Programme, exhibition tour including New York Film Anthology, MOMA, and Irvine College, USA
SENI Biannual, exhibition of The Big Big 21st century Sci-Fi Disaster Horror Movie, Singapore
Screening of SemiillogicalSpores at public space on a 15mX20m screen at Cineboards 2004, organised by Stitching Picos, Rotterdam, Netherlands
Solo show ISLANDHOPPING (fall variation), The illustrious Gallery, Tokyo, Japan
"Documentary Dream Show",Yamagata In Tokyo 2004, Tokyo, Japan
"FEELING SO WHAT (CONTRADICTORY IN TERMS)", one-year exhibition, Singapore Art Museum at show Interrupt, Singapore
"PRE-TEXTS: Preformulated Structures exhibited in public space", a joint project between students of Beaux-Arts Ecole de Paris and Musashino Art University, Paris, France
Solo Exhibition ISLANDHOPPING, ASK gallery in Ginza. Tokyo, Japan
”Twilight Tomorrow”, Singapore Art Museum, Singapore
”Twilight Tomorrow” opening event (curator of), introduction of the live-video/music performance to Singapore, Singapore
Exhibition, Uplink Gallery (Dying For installation), Tokyo, Japan
Live videoart performance (Paroxysms & Non Continuous Whiles accompanied by Christophe Charles), Ebisu, Contemporary Photography Museum, Tokyo, Japan
Digital ‘live’ debut at Phaidros Videoart Café at Shibuya’s VJ & Videoart Performance Night. Premiere of Sampling Spores /Performing Pulaus and a new collaboration with Masayukiu Kawai and Yasu Kobayashi, Tokyo, Japan
Nippon International Performance Art Festival (NIPAF’04), Die Pratze, Tokyo, Japan
"Artists’ Night Vol. 3", Tokyo Wonder Site Gallery, Tokyo, Japan

"Cities." AVICON 2003 (Asia Video Art Conference) organised by Video Center Tokyo, Japan
"Windy Small Heart Attacks", collaboration with pianist Keiko Sato and others, Sony Building, Tokyo, Japan
"Dying For…", collaboration with Christophe Charles & performance of a new 40-minute work at an Art & Environment Symposium in Iwaki, Japan
"PRE-TEXTS", performance with live audio mix video (by Christophe Charles), Tokyo Designers Week, Tokyo, Japan
"Open 2003", 6th International Exhibition of Sculpture and Installations with FEELING SO WHAT (CONTRADICTORY IN TERMS), Venice, Italy
"Young Talents Exhibition", Singapore Art Museum (SAM), Singapore

"Sonic Process", Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, France
Chlorine Addiction tours; “Yamagata in Kansai” Festivals in Osaka & Kyoto, Japan
"Parthenon Tama Asian Documentary Festival", Tama Center Cultural Complex, Tokyo, Japan
Singapore Arts Festival, Earl Lu Gallery, LASALLE-SIA College of the Arts, Singapore
"60s Now!", Singapore Art Museum (SAM), Singapore

"I Am Fit For Life", a 4-projection video installation as part of the Nokia Singapore Arts 2001, Singapore Art Museum (SAM), Singapore
"Shot InThe Face", Earl Lu Gallery, LASALLE-SIA College of the Arts, Singapore
Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival’s New Asian Currents, Japan
"Open Singapore Arts Festival 2001", Jubilee Hall, Singapore
Transmediale.01, Berlin, Germany

"D E N S E", video exhibition, The Alliance Française de Singapour, Singapore. Premiered "Chlorine Addiction"

"PARDON MY FRENCH", solo exhibition, The Alliance Française de Singapour, Singapore

Brookfield Zoo (film), British Short Film Festival, Empire Leceister Square, UK
42nd San Francisco International Film Festival Golden Gate Awards: New Visions category: Certificate of Merit (3rd prize) for ALL CHANGE!!!, USA, 1999

Winner in the 8th Panasonic Video Awards with stop-motion animation, The Creation, Singapore, 1994

The Most Promising Young Artist Award, United Overseas Bank (UOB) 12th Painting of the Year Art Competition with mixed-media painting Sams, Singapore, 1993

Certificate of Distinction with water-colour painting Nirvana II, Phillipe Charriol;Contemporary Art Competition 1992/1993, Singapore, 1993

Postcard Project
After a year of renovation, the House of World Cultures, Berlin, has started to prepare new themes and objectives for the future. In the context of the ‘Postcard project’, we invited artists to participate in this process.
They were asked to write down on a postcard what questions were important to them at the time, and what themes were currently important for their work, their research and their everyday lives.
Spaces and Shadows
Contemporary Art from South East Asia
The autumn programme SPACES and Shadows focuses on the dynamic developments in the fine arts, film, music and literature in the countries of Southeast Asia and on artists’ working conditions there. It presents politically explosive perspectives and views on a complex – and often traumatic – history. The region, which includes cities such as Bangkok, Jakarta, Kuala Lumpur, Manila and Singapore, is on the move; which is also evident at the spatial, intellectual and spiritual levels. Its dynamic character stems from its rich variety of intersecting cultures. The clash between ever greater mobility and rigid social and political structures, on the one hand and the powerful desire to create free space on the other, have driven artists to develop their own subversive positions within their art. The programme shows not only these tendencies but also the darker side: SHADOWS stand for the terror that runs through the region’s history, and the marginalisation to which its “minorities” have often been exposed. It also contains references to the great tradition of shadow theatre. Using novel technologies, performances and inter-genre work, artists are now exploiting the traditional function of shadow theatre as a response to current events. They can be seen in SPACES AND SHADOWS.

Within the framework of the Asia-Pacific Weeks, which are supported by the Stiftung Deutsche Klassenlotterie Berlin (DKLB).


With the support of the Culture 2000 programme of the European Union.