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The Past and Coming Melt by Koh Nguang How [2019]

[12.01.19 — 23.02.19]

Koh Nguang How has developed significant influence for his itinerant archive, a project of print accumulation that amassed news clippings, print ephemera, catalogues and artist documentation over nearly four decades. This is matched by a remarkable correspondence with his recollection of errata, corrections, and amendments to the art historical records as manifest in museum publications and academic journals.

What is less known are Koh's performative installations and photographs that situate him as a pioneer of environmentally engaged art, an eco-sensitive practice that draws attention to ozone depletion, global warming, and climate change. The Past and Coming Melt is a new presentation by Grey Projects that draws crucial attention to this little-written aspect of Koh's practice, arguing for Koh’s crucial, early artistic position on some of the most pressing environmental crises and traumas of our day.

Prior to his training as a museum curator, and in the formative early months of The Artists Village, Koh created three sculptural trees — the first of which, Rain Tree was presented at the opening of Residence Hall 5 at the then-Nanyang Technological Institute in July 1989, and re-presented as a photograph at The Drawing Show with The Artists Village at Lorong Gambas in early December 1989. For The Artists Village's The Time Show that ran for two days from 31 December to 1 January 1990, Koh's performance reworked a long white table into a vertical analogue for atmosphere and air, upon which Koh marked with black ink and melting green ice. The resulting image of a stark hole through which a black line reaches the earth, and the dissolution of crystalline solidity into green melt, corresponds to his concerns with environmental traumas such as the crisis of ozone depletion, rising global temperatures, and acidic precipitation.

Koh's three totemic trees, Sun Tree, Rain Tree (both 1989) and The Hole In the Sky (1990) became the catalyst for later events. The pair of which that are most significant to the history of environmentally engaged practices are a performance-presentation at the Singapore Festival of the Arts Fringe with Tang Da Wu in early June 1990, and Koh's second performance of There’s a Hole In the Sky in his solo exhibition Monument for Trees at The Substation Garden later in October 1990. This moment in Koh's practice also highlights the un- and understated compost-ition, through the recycling of material, of an artwork by one artist into the next artwork by another. The creation of Rain Tree involved wool from Cheo Chai-Hiang’s Gentleman in Suit and Tie (1988) which Koh had retained as performance detritus. The white table in Koh's performance was previously part of a New Year’s Eve performance by Tang for The Time Show exhibition at the end of 1989 Koh's three trees were subsequently adopted by Tang as the axes for his Concerned Artists For the Environment performance at the Singapore Festival of the Arts Fringe in Scotts Shopping Centre in early June 1990. Koh's Monument for Trees in October 1990 became the occasion and the backdrop for Joe Ng and his band Corporate Toil's Certain Earth Screams gig.

While Tang's Earth Work (1979), seven drawings on cloth set into dug earth, may be the first work by a Singaporean artist set outside of a gallery into the land, Tang used the unconstructed field as a site for creative 'play', for a spontaneous response to the earth's colour, scale, pigment and granularity. Koh's The Rain Tree (1989) and the consequent There’s a Hole in the Sky performance are arguably among the first works to address the earth and its elements not only as sculptural material but also as the mode and subject of ecological address. Rain Tree suggests the minimalist form of the samanea saman or rain tree, yet when installed in its original location in a round mound in the university yard, the rain and the tree invite viewing as separate phenomena, each framing and co-constituting the other as elementals and art elements, the tree as the rain's net or capture, the rain as the tree's crown or diegetic motion.

The exhibition consists of archival photographs and new recreations of previously destroyed or unavailable work and material. In the grey gallery are archival photographs of early sculptures and installations, a new print of a rare photo work There’s a Hole in the Sky, and recreations of two totemic trees. The white gallery includes two sets of new works as well as a recreation of a third tree Sun Tree. The presentation is topped off by a rooftop recreation of Rain Tree that is to scale with the 1989 original. The Past And Coming Melt is supported by an upcoming new publication with essays and an interview with Koh, as well as a public panel discussing spatial and performative practices in relation to ecological concerns in Singapore.

Koh Nguang How (b. Singapore, 1963) started his career as a curatorial assistant at Singapore's National Museum Art Gallery, where he worked from 1985 until 1992. His artistic practice began in 1988 and has encompassed photography, collage, installation, performance, documentation, archiving and curating. He was a member of seminal art collective The Artists Village from its inception in 1988, where he also documented most of the group's activities. Since then he has amassed the single most significant archive of Singapore contemporary art in existence, comprising photographs, catalogues, art works, ephemera, copious news clippings, and more.

With the advent of cheap digital cameras in the early 2000s, Koh stopped documenting and began to focus on exhibiting his archives, under the banner of the Singapore Art Archive Project (SAAP). This has yielded a residency with the NTU Centre for Contemporary Art, Singapore (2014-2015), a solo exhibition at Jendela Visual Arts Space, Esplanade (2015), and installations in the 3rd Singapore Biennale (2011) and SUNSHOWER: Contemporary Art from Southeast Asia 1980s to Now (National Art Center, Tokyo and Fukuoka Asian Art Museum, 2017).

In Koh's words, SAAP 'acts' as an archive of Singaporean art and its international connections, implying a caretaker role in the absence of state commitment to art's histories. With that neglect now being overcome-as public institutions finally invest in research and resource-gathering Koh's archive takes on an anxious status: where the national art history is concerned, it is fundamental used constantly by researchers, curators and other artists; yet it is still held privately, and exhibited individually. Koh's practice challenges the norms of artistic production by conflating exhibition and documentation. His new installation for the Returns project traces the formation of crucial artist networks in the Asia-Pacific, culminating in the third Gwangju Biennale in 2000. Detailed yet utterly contingent, Koh's installation iterates a personal and collective exhibition history, from the artists' point of view rather than the remote one assumed by art historians.

Renée Tingpast exhibitions