︎Thiagarajan Kanaga (T.K.) Sabapathy (b. 1938, Singapore) is Singapore’s foremost art historian, educator, curator and critic. Over more than four decades, he has written countless articles, books, catalogues and artist monographs and is well respected for his scholarship and for his tireless advocacy of art and artists of Singapore and Malaysia. Sabapathy returned from his studies and early academic career in the United States and United Kingdom, in 1972, on an appointment by the Universiti Sains Malaysia, Penang where he was amongst the faculty team who created the first course on Malaysia modern art history. Since moving back to Singapore in 1980, he has been a lecturer of art history at the National University of Singapore, Nanyang Technological University and National Institute of Education. He set up and headed Singapore’s pioneer art research facility, the Contemporary Asian Art Centre (2001–04) and subsequently, Asia Contemporary (since 2015). Sabapathy’s art historical methods, critical documentation and extensive studies of Southeast Asian art and artists contributed significantly to defining Singapore and Malaysian art and have helped set the course of art discourse in the region.

Transcripts of interviews between T.K. Sabapathy and Lindy Poh

  1. Views on teaching, museums and art history
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  2. Postgraduate studies, teaching in Penang, and return to Singapore
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  3. Producing the monograph
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  4. On art history, biennales and public art in Singapore
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Interviewer: Lindy Poh • Transcriber: Selene Yap • Editors: Lindy Poh and Selene Yap • Sound editor: Toh Hun Ping

Lindy Poh (LP): The scope and body of your writing is really formidable. You’ve written educational materials for your elective modules, you’ve written as a columnist, you’ve written for exhibitions in and outside the museum. And one of the legacies is the monograph. So, can we speak about the monograph as a feature in your own body of works and why you think it’s so crucial for the study of Art History?

T.K. Sabapathy (TKS): The monograph is a standard format and form in art historical scholarship and art historical writing. It’s been, until very recently, almost the main-stay of producing art history. It has, of course, come under severe scrutiny, and there are schools of thought which wish to do away with the monograph as being unhealthy because it is a kind of exercise in self-aggrandisement.

In the first instance, a self-aggrandisement of the writer, the sole voice, and there’s a phobia now of having just a single voice. One wants multiplicity of voices. And an aggrandisement of the subject because of its near exclusive focus of the subject. And, it is true that largely monographs are what I would call, vertical studies. They go into excruciating detail, getting increasingly narrower as the details multiply.

At the time of writing, when a few of us began writing, especially on the modern, either within national boundaries or seeking to embrace the region, we recognised the debates and discussions on the monograph.

Even so, those of us who have written such things went along with the conviction that it was a useful way of getting up-close to your subject, whatever the subject is. And of course, the monograph of a single artist is the classic formulation. In the past and even now, the artist is still seen as, if not, special, unique, set apart, then of sufficient curiosity to want to look at in a scrutinising manner.

LP: And you were aware of these criticisms even when you produced your first monograph on Piyadasa, because you prefaced it with references to some of these critiques.

TKS: Yes. We were, because the 70s was a time of deep and divisive self-appraisal within disciplines, including the discipline of Art History.

What is it? Where should it go? Where should it be pushed and so on and so forth. And various components that make up the field in terms of their methodologies including the monographic publication was examined. But we also recognised that the monograph was a mainstay of the large museum expositions.
Each museum, each exhibition programme in an established museum always produced a weighty tome on the exhibition, which, I think qualifies as a monograph in the sense that it is a focused study on the topic which is on display. Whether that topic is an artist, a theme, a conception, a trend, as long as it entails and sort of requires an extensive deep detailed study, then that becomes a monograph. And all the major museums in Europe were churning out these monographs. Because even at the height of the critique of these monographs, was the oncoming of the blockbuster exhibitions in Europe and in America, yet again, another Impressionist: Monet, or Renoir, or Degas, Cezanne and so on and so forth. And so, there was the critique, and there was the unabated production of these things. We were aware, but looking at where we were, we didn’t detect a proliferation of all of these types of texts.

For me, the monograph presented two appealing challenges, one was to look at whatever the topic or subject be it the artist or a idea or a concept in unbroken detail over a period of time. Time meaning the time taken to write it and put it together continuously, uninterruptedly. And second, it was a way for me to try and explore the possibility of writing with art historical interests in an area which is not regarded as historically possible, which was “the modern” in Southeast Asia. It was never ever looked at in that way. I’m not saying I am the one who inaugurated it, but a number of us were concerned about it. And, that’s what prompted me to begin with the monograph and stay with the monograph for quite a long time, even until now. Because it still is to me the only platform, the only site, conventional as it may be, which enables a close reading of the subject, and close writing of the subject with historical interest.︎

Transcript excerpt from 2. Postgraduate studies, teaching in Penang, and return to Singapore ︎

About the interviewer:
Lindy Poh is a writer, curator, consultant and lawyer. She has been the principal writer for artists and exhibitions in and outside Singapore and has conducted interviews for books, publications and oral recordings platforms. She is a law graduate (NUS, Singapore) and has a Master of Arts in the areas of visual culture and art theory (Middlesex Uni, London). A former curator of Singapore Art Museum (SAM) (1995–2000) and Senior Adjunct Curator, National Gallery Singapore (NGS) (2009–2011), she was also Guest Artistic Director (Visual Arts), Esplanade (2003) and has undertaken curatorial projects including for the Singapore Pavilion, Venice Biennale (2007). She is presently a partner of Silver Rue Art Consulting that specialises in shaping content and directions for corporate cultural collections in Singapore and overseas.

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