Reading Art

Originally published in Business Times 

January 25, 2002

With the maturation of the local arts scene, it's only inevitable that arts publications designed to document its growth and encourage more artistic discussion have materialised in the past two years. TAN HWEE HWEE looks at three fledgling publications


Forum on Contemporary Art & Society (focas) is a biannual publication that engages issues of contemporary art, politics and social change.

'focas is dedicated to interdisciplinary, critical exchange among scholars and practitioners,' says Lucy Davis, editor of focas. Though the biannual journal is published by the Necessary Stage, it covers all areas of art, including visual art, theatre, film, music and literature. Meant to provoke debate between artists and critics, focas has featured interviews with theatre director/actor Ivan Heng and essays by academics like Venka Purushothaman, lecturer at LASALLE-SIA College of the Arts, as well as Straits Times music journalist Tan Shzr Ee.

Ms Davis says she wanted to edit focas because 'everybody had been lamenting for so long about how there were no spaces for serious analysis and criticism in Singapore'. Each issue of focas includes transcripts of public forums on such high-brow topics like 'Colonialism or Collaboration? - on Intercultural Arts Practice andInternational Arts Organisations' and 'Kitsch and the Singapore Modern and Bodies and Text' - subjects that aren't likely to be discussed at length in the arts pages of local newspapers. Though Davis notes that 'distribution of a new journal is always a nightmare', focas has achieved modest success by shifting 700 copies out of a 1000 copy print run.

'Theatre by its nature is ephemeral,' says Ong Sor Fern, an arts correspondent with the Straits Times. Once a play is put on, it's gone and there isn't much documentation about the work apart from reviews in the local media. Though the content is something you're likely to find in an academic journal, focas doesn't look like one because of its slick packaging. This makes it accessible to non-art insiders; one doesn't need to be in the theatre circle to appreciate it, though it helps. 'focas wanted to raise the standard of critical writing,' says Ong, 'and I think they've done it.'


PUBLISHED by the art space Plastique Kinetic Worms , Vehicle is a journal for the contemporary visual arts which showcases work from its artists, as well as that from other galleries in Asia.

'focas came out earlier so people sometimes see us as rivals, but we're not,' says Vincent Leow, director of Plastique Kinetic Worms , 'They're much more focused on art while we're much more about visual art practice.' Leow said he started Vehicle because there's 'very little information on contemporary art practice. There are quite a few art writers in Singapore with a degree in art history, but they don't have any place to write about it.' Leow uses Vehicle to publish reviews of shows held at Plastique Kinetique Worms and sends it to galleries around the world. 'It's like a catalogue for us.' But Vehicle also showcases work by non-PKW artists, including reviews of shows done by Singaporean students at the Central St Martins in London, artist Agus Suwage at the Cemeti Art House in Indonesia and Saraswati Gramich at the Alliance Francaise in Singapore. Leow has distributed about 1000 copies of the magazine so far and hopes the magazine will 'encourage and inspire more dialogue about art' both in Singapore and in Asia.

Lucy Davis praises Vehicle for being a 'labour of love'. She adds: 'Plastique Kinetic Worms is probably the most significant contemporary visual art space in Singapore - Vehicle's layout is attractive, with funky graphics which reflect the young energies of the Plastique Kinetic Worms. Its articles are accessible and it provides important information about arts events throughout Asia.'