The Venice Questionnaire: Song-Ming Ang

The artist on subverting an episode of Singapore’s history for the national pavilion – and memories of his first time in Venice

Song-Ming Ang, Our Songs (detail), 2019, watercolour on paper, 70 x 100 cm (each). Courtesy the artist Song-Ming Ang, Music Manuscripts (detail), 2019, mixed techniques on paper, variable dimensions. Courtesy the artist

ArtReview sent a questionnaire to artists and curators exhibiting in and curating the various national pavilions of the 2019 Venice Biennale, the responses to which will be published daily in the lead-up to the Venice Biennale opening on 11 May.

Song-Ming Ang is representing Singapore. The pavilion is in the Arsenale.

What can you tell us about your exhibition plans for Venice?

The show’s called Music for Everyone: Variations on a Theme, and takes its title from a series of over 300 concerts organised by the Ministry of Culture in Singapore in the 70s and 80s. The idea is to present a series of artworks informed by improvisation, play and amateurism – something that feels ‘ground up’ rather than ‘top down’ – as a counterpoint to the original concert series, which focused on promoting Western classical music as well as fostering national identity and diplomatic relations.

What does it mean to ‘represent’ your country? Do you find it an honour or is it problematic?

It’s an honour to represent my country. I’ve benefitted a lot from being Singaporean and am proud to be one, even though I feel that nation-states are a problematic construct.

Is your work transnational or rooted in the local?

I think it’s both transnational and local, but it’s really a question I don’t think about when I make my works. In fact, I think that being too aware of this question would hold back my works from realising their full potential.

How does a having a pavilion in Venice make a difference to the art scene in your home country?

Singapore is a small and young country, neither an old colonial power nor an emerging superpower like China, therefore few people would naturally pay attention to Singaporean art. A national pavilion in Venice serves as a chance for Singaporean artists to present their work to an international audience on a scale we would never reach back home.

If you’ve been the biennale before, what’s your earliest or best memory from Venice?

My first visit to Venice was in 2009 and that was the year Ming Wong presented Life of Imitation at the Singapore Pavilion, which was both clever and moving. It was awarded a Special Mention by the jury and I thought he thoroughly deserved it.

You’ll no doubt be very busy, but what else are you looking forward to seeing?

I’m excited to see the main exhibition. I was at the press conference in Berlin listening to Ralph Rugoff speak about the exhibition and saw a lot of overlap between our own pavilion and the show he’s presenting. We have essentially two sets of artworks in dialogue with each other – two propositions, so to speak, much like what he’s doing across the Giardini and Arsenale with two works from the same set of artists.

The Venice Biennale runs 11 May – 24 November