|Mr. Low Kee Hong
General Manager of Singapore Arts Festival. Began activities as an actor, director and set designer while studying at the National University of Singapore. Became artistic director of the theatre company TheatreWorks in 2002 and won Best Director and Best Set Design in the Straits Times’ Life! Theatre Awards in 2003. In 2005 he became the first General Manager of the Singapore Biennale and assumed his present position in 2009.
Singapore Arts Festival
Since its establishment in 1977 as a domestic festival for the celebration of the arts, it has grown to become known as one of the world’s leading festival presenting boldly progressive works and highly innovative collaborations in the contemporary arts. Low Kee Hong has served as the Festival’s General Manger since 2009. With one of Singapore’s largest theater complexes, the Esplanade Theatres on the Bay, and the Drama Centre Theatre as its chief venues, the Festival runs for four weeks with a schedule including world renowned productions and over 150 activities involving artists from more than 20 countries.
This is a programme designed to encourage audience participation. Its year-long schedule includes discussions by artists and dramaturges during the Singapore Arts Festival, a short film festival of works relating to the Festival’s them and more. Other projects have been a Children’s Holiday Workshop for children ages 7 to 14 (Dec. 2010), a Youth Art Camp for children ages 14 and 15 (Oct. 2010), workshops for teachers (Jan. to June 2011) , a Picnic Under the Stars outdoor film festival at the site of National Theatre torn down in 1986 (Nov. 2010) and other events in line with the Festival’s themes.
|*2 Association of Asian Performing Arts Festivals (AAPAF)
AAPAF was established in June of 2006 to establish a network of performing arts festivals around Asia with the aim of promoting international cooperation, cost sharing and joint commissioning of works, etc. Founding members include the China Shanghai International Arts Festival, the Singapore Arts Festival, the Hong Kong Arts Festival and the Jakarta International Arts Festival: JakArt
See also “Arts Organization of the Month”
|With its “Renaissance City” project, Singapore is a country dedicated to promoting the arts and culture. Following the submission of a report by a government-appointed Advisory Committee on Culture and the Arts in 1987, full-fledged efforts to develop and promote the arts began in Singapore, with initiatives such as establishing the National Arts Council. October 2002 saw the opening of Esplanade Theatres on the Bay as one of the largest theater complexes in Southeast Asia. This was followed in 2006 by the launch of the Singapore Biennale and other programs that have received international attention. In this interview we speak with Mr. Low Kee Hong, who became General Manager of the Singapore Biennale in 2006 following a distinguished career as a thespian and then assumed the post of General Manager of the Singapore Arts Festival in 2009. We ask him about the festival’s new directions and vision.
(Interviewer: Ken Takiguchi)
You have a colorful and multidisciplinary career. I understand you started as a theatre director/ actor/ set designer and won Best Director and Best Set Design in the Straits Times’ Life! Theatre Awards in 2003. How did you get interested in theatre?
I have been interested in the arts for a long time. When I was in the university, my training and interest scope got far more intense because I found I needed formal training in performing. So, during the first year at the university, I started to learn classical ballet. It was in the second year that I started to become interested in theatre. My professional debut was with a local theatre company, The Necessary Stage. Then I started to work a lot with another Singaporean company, TheatreWorks, in 1994.
At the same time, you have been active as a scholar.
Yes, during those years I taught at the National University of Singapore while I was doing my Masters degree.
What was the motivation to maintain the academic side of your career?
My Masters thesis was on cultural policy and it was quite natural for me to maintain these two aspects. At that time, my interest in academia and being an artist went well hand in hand. What I was studying from the sociological perspective was collected through my own participation as an artist, which gave me a lot of intimate information on how cultural policy is applied and, on the receiving end, how the artists were dealing with it. However, in terms of the information from the government side, what I could use was the policies published and I had no access to insider information. That was one of the reasons why I joined the government.
In the course of your career in theatre, you had a wealth of experience collaborating with Japanese artists. You were one of the participants in the international collaboration Lear (1997) produced by the Japan Foundation Asia Centre. It was directed by Ong Keng Sen of TheatreWorks and written by the late Rio Kishida of Japan. After that you continued working with your Japanese counterparts.
Yes. I performed in the TheatreWorks projects following Lear
and worked with Ms. Kishida’s own company as well. When I was at TheatreWorks as a director, I started dialogues and discussions with Japanese artists including the members of Dumb Type, although I could not finish that project before I left the company.
Actually, even before TheatreWorks projects, I had an experience working with Japanese artists, which was a Butoh production. In this project directed by Kan Katsura in 1995, I went to Kyoto with two other Singaporean performers. Three Thais and Three Japanese joined. We were there for three months and at the end of our stay, we performed in Kyoto and Tokyo. That was my very first time in Japan.
I understand your relationship with Ms. Kishida is very special and close. You also worked with Kishida in her last original play, Sora Hanul Langit (2001). Can you share with us your experience of working her?
My first encounter with Rio Kishida was because of Lear
. She started to develop the script when she came down for the workshops at TheatreWorks. She took on Shakespeare’s King Lear
but tried to turn it into something else. The addition of new characters was one of her efforts for that purpose. My part – one of the three Shadows to Older Daughter was among them. Her script was specifically centered on the performers. My part, which represents the ambition of Old Daughter, was very specific to me and reflected a lot of my personality. Over the years working on Lear
, we had a lot of discussions and became very close to each other on the professional front. On the personal front, she was like a mother to me in some ways.
My relationship with Rio opened up a more intimate access to the Japanese psyche. Working in a completely Japanese company is totally different from working in an intercultural project. She had started the plan for Sora Hanul Langit
to be staged by her company when we worked together in another international collaboration project by TheatreWorks, Desdemona
(2000) and she invited me to join in it.
During my stay in Japan, I explored the work of Shuji Terayama because Kishida’s history with Terayama is very specific as well. I was also trying to understand why the world at the moment, regardless of whether it is Japan or anywhere else around the world, does not maintain the idea of the happenings of the 1960s.
When I was in Japan between the mid-1990s and the early 2000s, there was a big wave of Japanese works that were clean and technologically very advanced – like Dumb Type
. I liked them and was also influenced by these works. Their performance S/N
blew my mind. I had then just finished my honors work in Sociology, and I worked on Michel Foucault. Watching S/N
quote Foucault, I thought “Oh, my god!” Only five years later, I had a chance to be in a show with BuBu of Dumb Type. Since then, I have gotten to know the members of the new generation Dumb Type, meaning those who lead the company after Teiji Furuhashi passed away.
Then you became a General Manager of Singapore Biennale inaugurated in 2006, and worked with Japanese chief curator, Mr. Fumio Nanjo. When I heard that news, I wondered why you had moved to the contemporary arts field. What was your motivation?
I think there were a couple of things. Firstly, visual arts were not new to me. Many works I was involved in as an artist actually had a lot of visual arts elements.
I think how it came about was circumstantial. I was about to leave TheatreWorks at that time. And there were people at National Arts Council (NAC), whom I had been working with as a scholar, looking for somebody to start the Biennale. When I was asked whether I was interested in the position of General Manager, I said, “Yes, of course.” That started the very different trajectory of my career. I had been an artist, I had been an academic, and now being at NAC, I am looked at as an administrator. It was a skill that I felt I needed to develop.
Having more intimate time with the visual arts world was very interesting for me. By then, my count on visual arts was from an artistic point of view in terms of seeing exhibitions and having dialogue with artists. The whole machinery of the art world such as art fairs was totally unfamiliar to me. It was something I had to learn about and to be connected with very quickly.
Mr. Nanjo was a good colleague as well as a good mentor in a lot of ways. That was why having him as the first Director of Singapore Biennale was so important. We had a lot of challenges at that time – few Singaporeans knew what a biennale is. Few understood what it means to hold a big contemporary arts exhibition. Mr. Nanjo was able to quickly address them.
For four years I worked specifically for the Biennale, I really went deep into the visual arts. Even after I took the position at Singapore Arts Festival, I made sure I continued going to the exhibition openings and maintaining my network. My time at the Biennale was very important for me as a precursor to my work with the Festival.
Then finally you took the position of General Manager of Singapore Arts Festival in October 2009. The Festival was started in 1977 and organized by NAC, which means it is a festival initiated by the government. Meanwhile, you are, in a sense, a General Manager from the artists’ side. I noticed many artists had great expectations for what would happen.
Although your proximity to the artist community is a great advantage for you, it might cause difficulties at the same time. There could be a gap between their expectations and Festival’s vision and, of course, the budget. How do you see your position?
Yes, because of my career history, different communities – not just artists but also stakeholders – have different expectations in both positive and negative ways. Ever since I joined NAC, I have very clearly realized that my role is to serve as a bridge between the state and the art community. At the end of the day, they are all talking about the same thing. Both the state and the artists want the same thing. But how they want to get there is very different. Thus, my role at NAC is to bridge this gap. I still consider myself an artist. I think this is very important for me in order to balance the governmental considerations and the artists’ needs.
Let me ask about the theme and contents of the Festival. Singapore Arts Festival has been posited as a platform to develop Singapore as a “distinctive global city of the arts.” Naturally, I have an impression that the past Festival had more future-oriented rather than looking back the country’s origins. Therefore, when I saw the brochure of 2010 Festival, I was pleasantly surprised to find the programs that tried to connect past memories and traditions to the contemporary society. I think last year’s theme of the Festival – “I Want To Remember” is along this line. Can you explain the intention behind the theme?
If you look at Singapore, you will notice that we are very much a futurist nation. We are always obsessed about progress and development. Nevertheless, if there is no deeper connection with an anchor or base, I think, it is empty even if we go forward. Singapore has a very visual culture – everything is in terms of a form. If you start stripping away the form, you are not quite sure what the content is. When you become a more and more cosmopolitan city, and if you only talk about the stuff circulating globally – Starbucks, Mango, Gucci and Prada – you are no different from any other cosmopolitan city.
What is so unique about Singapore? With the 2010 Festival, I needed to look at a kind of ‘reboot’. For example, fashion designers always go back to the archives to check the history of the past 30-40 years and ‘rebuild’ something by referring to them. This is not about a romantic idea of the past. What I wished to do was something similar to this. It is really to see what the connection is between the past and the present, which creates a certain base for us to talk about contemporary milieu. This is why we looked into history, memory, myth and mythology to develop unique contents for the Festival.
Every time I meet my colleagues in Europe and elsewhere, I find they are not very interested in the European or American artists we invite to our festival. They want to look at Asian works. This is a place for Singapore Arts Festival to play a key role. I know there are people saying, “Asian productions don’t sell.” But I know that so much is happening in this part of the world. If we don’t start the research, investigation and connection, who is going to do it?
Our festivals from 2010 to 2012 have these functions. For me, it is not a return to the past. It is very much about a re-grouping of the things that will be a base to launch out to somewhere else.
In the 2010 festival, you commissioned two Singaporean classics to be restaged; Haresh Sharma’s Those Who Can’t, Teach and Stella Kon’s Emily of Emerald Hill.
Yes, what Singaporean artists have done in the last forty years is a lot. But younger generation audiences – for example, those who do theatre studies – study these works on DVDs. As a festival, I wanted to show these seminal works created by Singaporean artists. It can be either a faithful restaging of the original production or reinterpretation by the younger artists. Whatever the method is, I wish to make these works a part of our archive.
Last year, we worked on William Teo’s The Conference of the Birds
, commemorating the 10th year after Teo’s passing and the 20th anniversary of this particular production. This year, we are presenting Lear Dreaming
by Ong Keng Sen, which is to revisit the 1997 production Lear
, which we discussed earlier. I believe they will provide reference points for Singaporeans, especially younger generation artists.
In 2011, the theme of “Memory” was highlighted. The Festival had two curatorial threads that specifically touched this theme, namely Lost Languages and Memories and Personal Memories.
If you look at the memory – it is actually a very curious thing –, we will find we can never remember completely. In Singapore, we forget all the time. Thus, when we remember, we have to reconstruct or reinvent. And the memory is not just what is officially recorded. Social memory and oral archive are the things we are exploring. We wanted to give Singaporeans – the audience – the opportunity to start reflecting on what has gone.
Forgetting and memory in Singapore is quite specific. Old buildings disappear all the time. Here is another example. When I mentioned something I had grown up with in a discussion with my colleagues, I found they had no clue what I was talking about. This is not one generation. We are only about five years apart. For me, this is a very scary thing. As a nation moves forward, and gets old and matured, it will be very problematic if we don’t have any connection or reference points to the things that have been lost. That’s why the Festival in 2011 tackled with the theme of memory with depth.
Does focusing on history, tradition and memory mean that the Festival now has a different agenda than “making Singapore a distinctive global city of the arts”?
I think this is related to how you understand the “distinctive global city of the arts.” Now, our premier arts venue, Esplanade Theatres on the Bay
, holds 17 festivals a year. We have M1 Singapore Fringe Festival organized by The Necessary Stage and MAN Singapore Theatre Festival by Wild Rice. With so many festivals, the question is where is Singapore Arts Festival positioned. Where are the gaps that our festival should be looking at? When the new management took over in 2009, we were already aware of this. Is Singapore Arts Festival still relevant? Where should we head for in order to keep it relevant to the people? These were the questions we asked then.
I do not want people just to come and consume the shows. That does not change anything. For me, art is about illuminating perspectives – changing the way people think. We had to look into projects to make this possible. We seriously thought about the role the Festival should play.
Along with the month-long Festival, you started a unique year-long programme, com.mune (*1) since 2010 Festival. This was an attempt to let the ordinary people get engaged in arts activities on the long-term basis. This program also seems to be along that line.
Yes, correct. This is for continuous engagement with different communities in Singapore. We have developed projects designed for that purpose through this program. There are a lot of discussions on community projects all over the world. Our festival is responding to these debates and aligning them strategically with cultural policies.
How do you feel about the achievements so far?
I think there is a lot to work cut out for us. It cannot be easily achieved – a lot of work and resources need to be dedicated to the task when you realize that there are still a big group of Singaporeans for whom the arts do not figure in their everyday reality. This means that we have to go back to the fundamentals of what we are doing. We have to start from zero and develop things.
Recently I read in the paper that the budget for this year’s Festival will shrink.
Yes, it reflects the shorter run of this year’s festival. Of course, it is also true that we have to be especially sensitive in how public money is spent when the economy is not good.
I would like to highlight that we are committing to the longer-term engagement and development of projects with the communities. A lot of Singaporean artists and companies are involved in these projects because we are looking for their capacity to build in community-based works as well. Community-based theatre does not mean ‘low-level’ works at all. On the contrary, they are highly artistic. Last year’s projects, for example, were all conceptual works.
These kinds of projects require a lot of personal engagement. Partnering with local artists is a way for us to develop a skill in this sphere. While the budget cut may affect the large-scale projects, I believe my longer-term vision will not be significantly affected even in these tough times.
Singapore Arts Festival took the initiative in forming the Association of Asian Performing Arts Festivals (AAPAF) (*2) and still maintains an important position in the organization. Does this kind of networking bring any significant advantages? Has the experience at AAPAF affected your vision?
I do not think it affected my vision per se. It is a kind of complement – or an advantage to be able to see how others are running festivals in Asia. In the past, collaborating with colleagues at overseas festivals was a distant possibility. Since the establishment of AAPAF, it has become an important platform to facilitate peer dialogues about artists, projects and sharing of resources. Now, everybody is realizing that things are getting more and more expensive, especially commissioning works. AAPAF can be a help to share the burden among participating festivals.
When AAPAF was founded – it was before my time, of course – it started out as a group of “friends” who felt that they needed to have some formalization of the relationships among the festivals. They then continued to discuss the curation of their festivals. Each festival is specific to its city, but they wished to support good projects and artists beyond their boundaries.
This kind of dialogue must continue – not only among those who run festivals but also among presenting institutions and art centers. In Europe, budget is available from the European Union and each city has been developing its own unique cultural landscape, but this does not happen often in Asia. We try to come up with our own model and methodology. The network should extend to the producers. Various arts markets around Asia – such as Tokyo Performing Arts Market (TPAM), Performing Arts Market in Seoul (PAMS) and the Australian Performing Arts Market (APAM) – are discussing how producers and presenters can come together and develop works.
Lastly, let me ask you about the domestic situation in Singapore. There were some controversies in recent years – for example, there was a case where NAC cut their support to one theatre company because of the contents and themes of their performances. How do you think the artists should respond to such a trend? Tell us how you see the recent developments in the local arts scene.
I think a lot of things are happening in Singapore. It is always nice to have variety. It is very important that a whole range of stuff is going on – from very commercial and entertaining projects like musicals to things that are completely experimental. It will enable different artists to begin to talk from different perspectives. Thus, I do not ever want to say that the cultural landscape of Singapore should develop only in a certain way.
I feel what is crucial for Singaporean artists now is to go back to the fundamentals and to think about themselves as artists developing a body of work. For a long time, artists have had to concentrate on producing new works and have had no time to think deeper about their work and craft. A kind of sabbatical is needed.
It has to be realized structurally. In terms of support, Singapore Arts Festival tries to do this. That is why our commissioning process is two years. I have to admit that it does not always work out properly. There is always a risk or an element of gamble. It is, however, also aimed to see how artists can start to rethink how they work.
Of course, some considerations are needed. When I was practicing as an artist, my artist friends always complained that they had no time to think. But when they were awarded some luxury, they tended to simply get used to that kind of speed and process rather than working hard to reflect on what they had done. We have to question what really works for artists.
Even the best artist in the world cannot produce fantastic works in every project. It is OK if Singaporean artists cannot do well for some years. But at the same time, they have to take as much as possible from the experience to build their works. The only thing I always ask of the artists is, “Please continue to be curious.” Even if you do not agree with the performance, for example, just go and see it. If you stop being curious as an artist, it will cause a real problem, I believe.