Every year we speak to a diverse range of people in an effort to develop and promote our local creative discourse. For 2018, we sat down with 21 creatives of various disciplines to learn about their practice and asked each of them to fill up a blank page in a notebook. For 2019, we gathered perspectives on our zine and art book culture, along with the possibilities of self-publishing today.

Library Conversations for SGABF2020:  THEBOOKSHOW Robert Zhao  A Closer Look for SGABF2019:  wares infoshop library The Convergence of Digital and Print Publishing Basheer Graphic Books Currency Syaheedah Iskandar Supernormal Zulkhairi Zulkiflee Zines Then and Now Norah Lea Divaagar  21 Creatives for SGABF2018:  Hanson Ho Samantha Lo Liana Yang Charmaine Poh ASPIDISTRAFLY Teresa Lim Sobs Karen Tan Michael Ng Mary Bernadette Lee Deon Phua Janice Koh Ruben Pang Rebecca Toh Liao Jiekai Berny Tan Luca Lum Cyril Wong Atelier Hoko Lee Chang Ming Jacqueline Goh


CLAIRE (C): Hi Song Nian and Leanna, thanks for having us with you in your studio today. Let’s begin with talking about your first selection, Picture of My Life. This is a self-published book, which is handmade by artist Junpei Ueda through a workshop titled Photobook as Object. It contains photographs, illustrations, and folded pieces of written correspondence with his parents. Do you see a particular physicality that comes with books and bookmaking?

SONG NIAN (SN): Pictures of My Life was immediately interesting to me because it doesn't really fall into the typical categories. It doesn't fit with how people typically think about photobooks or coffee table books. Pictures feels like an encapsulation of several different materials which the artist has put together as a book. It mainly contains paintings and photographs – some of the photographs are taken by the artist himself, others are earlier photos of Ueda's childhood taken by his father. The artist also incorporates into his book these texts in Japanese, along with their English translation.

Pictures of My Life, Junpei Ueda. Image Credit: Junpei Ueda

SN: Beginning with the cover of the book, you are immediately confronted not with a photograph but a painting – a portrait of the artist's younger self. What is revealed to you through the book is the artist's memories of his childhood, followed by the passing of his mother and then the passing of his father. After his mother had committed suicide, his father, not being able to deal with his grief, followed suit. What you can see is the artist trying to make sense of the situation. Towards the end of the book, there is a photograph of Ueda, his wife, and their two daughters. I had spoken to the artist particularly about this, and he said that this was his way of putting forth a reassurance both into the world and to his parents who had passed.

SN: Pictures of my Life feels less like a book and more like an artefact that is put together with different materials which reveal different parts of his life. While going through the book from front to back, it doesn't feel static or linear; there are pauses in the book that allows the reader to take a step back or retreat with the artist into where his mind is, and to listen to what he wants to tell us via the text. That is why I think that the book has such a strong emotional power, which is why I wanted to share this work.

C: What do you see as unique to the book both as a medium for art, and as an art object?

LEANNA TEOH (LT): I think the most important thing about the book, both as an art medium and as an art object, is its portability and longevity. Having a book is like having an exhibition that lives beyond the space; you can view it at any time and any place, with a unique intimacy. Unlike an exhibition, you won't be interrupted by other people viewing the work at the same time. The book is a very intimate object.

I don't really know what, for me, is the difference between the book as a medium and as an object. What we are trying to advocate is that the book is a mode of expression, and that it is different from, for example painting and photography, because you can propose a narrative within the medium. 
SN: When we look out for photographic works, we look out for works that somehow—I don't want to say they only make sense as a book, but in particular when it is being produced as a book or publication—demonstrate that the concept or message of the work is able to extend beyond merely working as images; be that in a frame, a slideshow or a projection.

Back to the physicality of the book, the way a book is crafted matters. All these elements—from the design, the cover, the layout, and even the end pages, the binding and inserts—lend layers to the way we experience an artwork in the book medium.

C: What do you see as the importance of print to photography? Do you see photography as adjacent to or contained within art?

SN: Gaining acceptance for photography in the art world has always been an uphill task. Fortunately, in the last ten to fifteen years, we have seen an improvement in the way photography is being perceived in the art world. When photography first started to be mass produced, it was used for a very specific purpose in editorial work, journalism and newspapers – in terms of disseminating messages. That is what people saw to be the main role of photography. I think we see photography coming up slowly with this medium being explored within various art disciplines.

The relationship between photography and print is related to that of performance art and video, which also have always been very close and very strongly bound together. Performance work needs to firstly exist by itself, but for it to continue to exist, or for people to know that it has once existed, it then depends on the video work that was done during the live performance.

There is another whole conversation that can be had about the movement from painting to photography. There has always been a painting-versus-photography dialogue going on, of, for example, which one is better. Within the art world, photography gained traction at a slower pace, possibly because it was produced in editions. As the number of editions become smaller, we start to see it becoming more accepted by collectors. People also become more willing to buy photography work as fine art. Print will always be important to photography, even as we start to see photography work in other presentation formats. I'm quite hopeful about the acceptance of photography in the art world. It's changing, just slowly.

C: How do you see THEBOOKSHOW’s role then, as a mediator or bridge of sorts?

SN: I think we are coming up with ways to firstly enable people to produce content, in terms of the programmes, exhibitions, open calls and workshops. We are also finding ways to bridge the distance between those making the books, and everyday people, who also otherwise access photography on a daily basis.

This project is still very young - we started in 2014. Prior to THEBOOKSHOW working more actively, we did observe some efforts by other groups or initiatives pertaining to the photobook but there is no prolonged effort in looking at the photobook medium. In terms of providing opportunities for people who create, we have also started several initiatives such as open calls, which lead to exhibitions, which lead to prizes and awards. In terms of showcasing books, we also actively promote at international art book fairs and work on partnerships with collaborators from overseas to disseminate or to exhibit. A healthy exchange would be one where we show books from overseas, then have our books shown there too.

There are a lot of things we're doing at the same time, all with the hope of growing the appreciation of the photobook as a medium of art.

C: One such award was the Steidl Book Award, in which THEBOOKSHOW had helped to put together the finalist showcase. One of the winners was Robert Zhao’s A Guide to the Flora and Fauna of the World, which you have also chosen as part of your selection. Tell us more about that.

A Guide to the Flora and Fauna of the World, Robert Zhao. Photo Credit: Institute of Critical Zoologists

SN: A Guide to the Flora and Fauna of the World was initially self-published. Subsequently, Robert Zhao submitted it to the Steidl Book Award: Asia Open Call, which was when it was selected to be one of the eight books to be published by Gerhard Steidl. The edition that Steidl published is slightly different from his original self-published version. If you look towards the back of the book, there are many of these smaller booklets that are included in the box, which were not in the first edition. I selected this book because it has particularly received quite a lot of attention internationally; I think the main reason for that is because many people are already aware of Robert's work and his practice. I feel that this is the pride and joy of Singapore's self-publishing efforts.
What we see with A Guide is not a typical book with bindings; it makes a lot of sense for the book to be presented in a plate format. This is also in line with his practice, as he had also come up with the Institute of Critical Zoologists (ICZ). We see plates used in scientific journals. That's the kind of terminology and format that they use in the scientific process. Robert uses that kind of reference heavily such that his books have the aesthetics of research reports. I think that's why people find this book to be a breath of fresh air, compared to the usual art books and photobooks one usually encounters.

C: This is originally a self-published book. In many of your open calls, you specifically ask for self-published or unpublished work. What is the importance of and difficulties in self-publishing?

LT: I think the biggest hurdle is cost, especially in Singapore where printing is a lot more expensive than in other places. For example, the cost of maintaining the printing machines themselves is already high, because we must get technicians to come in from overseas, which drives up the base price. Other than the cost of printing, it really depends on your network to get the book out into the open. Most of the time self-publishing artists market their books either through competitions and open calls like ours, or they show their work in fairs. These are the venues through which readers find out about artbooks, other than at bookstores. To participate in a fair also generates additional cost. The cost of printing and marketing are the hardest things; it's everything to do with cost.

SN: That aside, we felt that the network and infrastructure for helping people with self-publishing was almost non-existent in Singapore. That's what we want to do - we see ourselves as a platform. We started out with that idea of wanting to provide more opportunities for people. As the years went by, we realised that apart from the cost, it's also about getting access to the right kind of designers and printers. Apart from budget, and access to the right kind of people and network, we found that storage and dissemination also play a key part. You can self-publish a hundred copies, three hundred copies, a thousand copies - but how are you going to move the books? I think this also proved to be quite a challenge when it comes to self-publishing.

Of course, there are things like kickstarter campaigns, but those are also slowly getting saturated and losing their novelty. There have been some successful cases, for example Dark Cities by Shyue Woon, which was also part of our project First Draft. He won a $5000 sponsorship by Allegro, a local printing company, through First Draft. In addition to that, he also launched a kickstarter campaign, which I felt was rather effective. Dark Cities is now onto a second edition, which is again aided by a kickstarter campaign.

If we look away from the perspectives of people creating the work, there are also challenges from a publisher’s point of view. That is something that THEBOOKSHOW is experimenting with. What we find to be a challenge is having access to a sufficient amount of works to select from and to publish. In alignment with the kind of publishing work that we are slowly planning to do, we have to also put in motion avenues, channels, or initiatives to encourage people to make more works. The fact is that if there's nobody making, there's no one for us to publish. Since we focus on Singaporean artists, we have a smaller pool to work with. It's then even more important for us to get the momentum going. Only if the selection pool gets bigger, then we are able to really sieve out the works that are of a higher quality.

One such work would be The Mountain Survey by Marvin Tang, which he published in a very small run in 2016 as part of a show of the same name. Marvin's practice relies heavily on research. For this project, he started with looking at the Xiao Guilin quarry landscape. He then realised that granite, as a resource, played a pivotal role in the narrative of nation-building. He found out that Xiao Guilin wasn't the only one, that there were other quarries and that Singapore sits on granite. That explains why it was also one of the more common resources that was being used in building.

What I was captivated by was the mix of research materials that he found, which he used to really inform different parts of the book. We see different types of images. Some were very formal representations of the landscapes in these decommissioned granite quarries. Others show people just staring at the landscape. I found that to very impressive – Marvin’s observation didn’t end with simply looking at whatever was in front of him. He saw what really makes up the landscape. He realised that people were spending such a considerable amount of time at these places, staring off into the distance at these fake mountains, with their backs to the world. There were all these different kinds of traces people left around the vicinity. It's not just a monotonous presentation of all the different granite quarries, but also showed the way people behave, respond and react to these landscapes, that are now being positioned as a place solely for recreational enjoyment, which is held in stark comparison to all the exempt historical purposes that these granite quarries used to serve.

Mountain Survey, Marvin Tang. Photo Credit: Marvin Tang

C: The production process that goes into a work seems to be very important to you. Your workshop project Dirty Laundry especially focuses on this process of bookmaking, and the notion of what makes something "suitable" or "good", or "ready" to be published.

LT: Dirty Laundry was made to involve people who were not "in the know" of the art world. The workshop starts with the topic of how to assemble a book and the more technical aspects of bookmaking. During the process, we also try to subtly instil ideas of what a book can be, and talk about how to view and understand a book. All our programmes are geared towards educating the public about the book and how it can be a form of art.

SN: Dirty Laundry was set up as a workshop which involves contribution by and from the participants. In this edition, we capped it at twenty participants. Each are asked to bring between thirty to forty images, printed in whatever kind of format they prefer, as long as it's smaller than an A4 size. Everyone will come in with images that they deem to be "bad", and we start the discussion from there. In this day and age, with the way we use photography in social media, we can't run away from the fact that people always want to present the best side of things; they always try to show how much they're enjoying their lives and how good they have it. I feel that there are a lot of images that have fallen through the cracks. I also think the concept of a "bad" photograph is quite problematic. What we are after in Dirty Laundry is the intention of the image, of what it is really meant to convey or say. That's why we decided to invite people to bring in what they think are "bad" photographs.

At the start of the workshop everyone will lay their images on the table, and they will talk about their images and why they think it is a "bad” photograph. Through that sharing, participants will start to realise that everyone's interpretation of "bad" is varies. Looking at each other's photos, sometimes they will find that the photos is only "bad" from that person's own perspective.

After they take the time to look at and hear about the images, participants are then given time to put together a zine or a book with the images that belong to everybody. It's a free-for-all kind of approach, where you are allowed to use not just your own photos but also other people's photographs.

The name Dirty Laundry comes about because everyone brings in their bad photos to the table and share about it openly. Though we definitely hope for some profits from this project, we started it not specifically to earn money, but instead as a project of content-production or creation. It is a way for us to collect images of the vernacular, which comes from participants of different groups, ages and backgrounds. The images that they provide are all taken by themselves. We found that to be a good way of building up an archive of images of the everyday, not taken by artists or photographers, but coming in from different walks of life. Dirty Laundry has slowly evolved to be something that's very central to what THEBOOKSHOW does and what we believe in.

THEBOOKSHOW is an avenue for artists to showcase self-published art books in exhibitions and art festivals. It connects the arts community through showcases and activities centering the art book and its presentation, moving away from the conventional form and bringing upon renewed perspectives of the medium.


Photo Credit: SGABF

SGABF: Hi Robert, thanks for having us over at your studio. What are you working on today?

ROBERT ZHAO (RZ):  I had a meeting with Gideon and Jamie from Temporary Press. They are working on the second edition of Singapore, Very Old Tree. It’s a project I did in 2015 in which I interviewed 30 people with personal stories of old trees. The content is very specific so I did not expect many people to like it, mainly because I thought trees made colder subjects than animals. I had the impression that birds and insects would seem more charismatic and trees were more difficult to relate to. Most of my books don’t sell, but this was one of those that sold. As it turns out, even after selling out, people were still asking about it. That is why I decided to republish it.

Singapore, Very Old Tree, Robert Zhao. Photo Credit: Tongue Journal

SGABF: How do you go about looking for a designer who resonates with your practice?

RZ: I try to look for books that I like locally and see how the designers work with the content. Of course the designer must also be interested in my practice. I leave the technicalities to them because I’m already working on printing and framing my own photographs. Most of my meetings with the designers at the beginning are about the concept; what the work is really about and what the book should be doing. After that I trust them to do whatever they want. You must have that chemistry; it’s important to find a designer that really understands your work so they can help translate it into a book.

As an artist, you’re always just talking to yourself. You’re thinking and doing everything yourself until you set up the exhibition, or you speak to someone who has no idea what you’ve been thinking for the last three months, then they ask a lot of What’s this? and What’s that? And you realise, Actually, I also don’t know. You’re forced to make connections that you perhaps haven’t thought about previously or that you’re trying to avoid. Once the book comes out, I guess you can be abstract in some parts but you have to be logical also. The narrative has to flow and the designers are usually quite observant about how the information flows. So that dialogue is very good for me.

SGABF: You have been making books for almost 10 years now, starting with The whiteness of a whale. How did you start?

RZ: The whiteness of a whale was created in 2010. Yes, it has been almost 10 years!

In 2010 I was doing a residency at the Fukuoka Asian Art Museum, and I went to all the different sites that used to do whaling. I wanted to find out why the Japanese were still eating and killing whales. I had a lot of research, facts, and narratives so I thought these texts should be presented in a book. I could’ve included it in the exhibition but it places a big burden on the audience when they’re negotiating the exhibition. I didn’t know why but I just thought I needed to make a book, so I started to compile it myself. It just felt like a reasonable and meaningful medium for this body of work.

My second book was for my MA, and that was easy because I was a/the designer. I went to look at existing science journals and kind of replicated the design, the paper. I just tweaked everything into my own project. So actually a lot of my work is trying to mimic different forms — even the title for my book Christmas Island, Naturally is taken from an existing book.

Christmas Island, Naturally, Robert Zhao. Photo Credit: H55
SGABF: How was the progression from making zines to art books?

RZ: I started with zines when I was a student because that was all I could afford. The zine is much more economical because they go longer and further than exhibitions. More people get to see the work — which is also why I went on to make books. I started working with other designers as I became more aware of the need to be sensitive to the paper, the layout and the printing. As an artist, I’m already exploring ways of working within a space, how my artworks should behave, the framing and printing of the photographs, things like that. There are a lot of technical things I’m already trying to master. When it comes to the book, however, it’s a whole different ball game from an exhibition and there are designers who are dedicated to these experiences. It’s something I cannot achieve alone.

As I took on bigger exhibitions, I at least got paid so I started putting most of my earnings from art-making back into my work. I used the money to buy archives, old photographs and printed my books with them. Book-making is not a profitable thing, it’s not going to give me a 200% profit immediately; it’s a slow burn. But I’m very happy to see parts of my practice exist as books. My images are about ironic stories of human and nature that fall out of the mainstream narrative, not typical ones that are celebratory. It’s why I self-publish books; they are an expression of my art. No publisher would take on my books because it just wouldn’t sell.

Photo Credit: SGABF

SGABF: The Book and the Exhibition are both very different methods of presenting a body of work, both of which you are familiar with. How are the considerations similar or different from when you set up a show and when you make a book?

RZ: I think of my work in the form of a book, first and foremost. The exhibition is the last thing I think about because it’s abstract. The narrative is very important to me so the book provides a full sequence of everything I need to express in the project. Hopefully after I publish the book I have two to three months to reflect on the work because when you’re fresh out of a project, you cannot think very clearly.

From the book, I can see which parts I can extract and form footnotes that are crucial for the exhibition. There was a period when I tried to not have any text at all in the exhibition, but I realised it’s extremely tough because people are always looking for meanings. In the book I can be very precise and to the point but you don’t realise it’s actually fictional, so I’m just helping you understand as much as I want you to.

In an exhibition, I’m often more abstract with the text and work. The text doesn’t need to function literally as a caption. I try to give an abstract point of what the work could be about. People can make generalisations about your work with hints of facts from elsewhere. The text doesn’t need to actually be talking about the work you’re looking at.

My works are photographs that come with captions that are very important for the work. It’s not just a singular work, it’s work that comes in a series. I look for narratives and I use images to illustrate or capture these narratives. I use text to add another dimension to the images so when I sequence the images out, there’s a beginning, a middle and an end. All this can be controlled very effectively with a book. What I like about a book is that it’s always a one-on-one experience. You hold it in your hands, you open up, you look at the front, you browse — there’s a sequence in place, so my narrative is tightly in control with my audience. And I like that. I like to have that sequence with my audience. It’s also a lot more tactile. The papers, the printing, and the layout can kind of guide the viewer through the work differently. 

With the exhibition — and with the audience plonked into a space — you are at the mercy of how the audience wants to negotiate with your work. It’s very hard to control a sequence, for example. To a certain extent, you can, but not as well as a book can.
SGABF: Do you feel that one has aided or hindered the other? Do you consider them separately?

RZ: The book has helped me to consolidate all the information that I have into a format that is logical. Most times my ideas come off very abstract until I speak to the designer, who has to understand the work. The design process is very important because through it, I get a better sense of what my work is or can be about.

A Guide to the Flora and Fauna of the World, Robert Zhao. Photo Credit: Courtesy of Artist

These days, my works take longer to produce because they are more research-intensive. I begin working on the book first before thinking about how the actual artwork will look. Book- and exhibition-making very much go hand in hand for me. It helps me as an artist to do the work at this point in time.

SGABF: You mentioned your work deals with a lot of fiction but the formats and mediums in which you work are very documentative and final. Nobody really questions the legitimacy of photography, for example. Does it affect how you work?

RZ: It’s very funny because what kind of art isn’t fictional? If I were a painter or a sculptor, people wouldn't always describe my work as a work of fiction. But because I’m a photographer and I make books, suddenly it tests the barriers of truth. Like a novel is fictional but at the same time so real, so you’re suspended in the state of wondering what’s real and what’s not; you’re negotiating between this boundary of world-making, fiction and truth.

A lot of facts that I uncover which are exciting for me are actually very boring for others. What I’m trying to do is narrate stories and make it exciting for the audience rather than purely present information, which would end up becoming a documentation.

I like photography because it’s so powerful that we don’t realise it at all. We become very naïve when we’re presented with a photograph. For example, pictures in advertisements and newspapers actually have very little to do with the product or story that they’re trying to sell. But we have become so comfortable with it. These images don’t have to have connections, they don’t even have to be genuine! I mean, some of us are more critical now, but in a general sense we are still quite flippant when it comes to reading images.

Artwork: Robert Zhao

SGABF: I was recently talking to Song Nian [from THEBOOKSHOW] and it seems like in Singapore it’s more common for photographers and designers to make books, rather than visual artists. Why do you think that is so?

RZ: I don’t think it’s limited to Singapore. It is generally very hard to find artists making books that are not catalogues. It’s not second nature for visual artists to make books because it is already so demanding to think of an exhibition. Perhaps a book to them has a utilitarian function, like a catalogue or a leaflet for the show.

As for designers, they already have the skill sets to work with the book format well. This language may not apply to artists. I guess you need a good publisher to translate artworks into a book too, like what Roma Publications does. They strive to create artists’ books that do not function merely as a catalogue.

The book as a medium needs to be handled well. It is easy to find a designer who can make a nice book but difficult to find one who can make a book based on a deep understanding of your work. A pretty book is easy to make, but a book that can translate your practice and work — that’s very hard.

The tones, printing and framing add to the character of the work, especially for photographs.  For that reason, the process can be difficult if one doesn’t dedicate a great amount of time to study the form of the book.

We generally don’t publish art books here because there are many hindrances: storage, start up costs, the ability to handle the medium, lack of distribution channels, lack of circulation points. I don’t even know where my books can go besides SGABF because it’s just so difficult to distribute.

SGABF: Aside from A Guide to the Flora and Fauna of the World which was only picked up by Steidl after you published your own edition, all your books are self-published. Wherein lies the value of self-publishing to you?

RZ: My books are published under The Institute of Critical Zoologists (a fictional scientific organisation), which is bodiless and formless. I like it when someone encounters my book, buys it from the website and ends up enjoying it. For someone to stumble on my fictional, real-looking website and then decide they want to partake in this institution by buying a book, or having a slice of this imaginary role in the form of a book, that for me is the best way for the work.

When it’s published by another publisher, it helps financially because I don’t have to pay for the publishing. But I’m not sure what happens to The Institute of Critical Zoologists because there is now another company involved in my work. I don’t know if it becomes more real. I like the strangeness that comes with the confusion and curiosity towards the fictional organisation, and the mysteriousness that’s still controlled by me. It’s important to have that relationship in my books. Also, without any publisher involved, I have no pressure of sales; I can slowly sell it over 100 years.

A Guide to the Flora and Fauna of the World, Robert Zhao. Photo Credit: H55

SGABF: Lastly, how do you sustain an art book-making practice, if at all?

RZ: It’s tricky because some of my books have to be of a certain size for the work to make sense. So in the long run, it is barely sustainable as the production of my books are getting more and more expensive. For titles that are more niche, I try to print lesser editions and price them a little higher. And because I sell my books myself and through SGABF, I can keep my profit margins higher because there’s no distributor. So the one or two titles that sell better, like Singapore, Very Old Tree, sustain the rest that don’t sell as well.

Robert Zhao Renhui (b. 1982, Singapore) is a multi-disciplinary artist and the founder of the Institute of Critical Zoologists. His artistic practice addresses the human relationship with nature challenging accepted parameters of objectivity and scientific modes of classifications. Over the years, Zhao has appropriated codes and convention of documentary photography and museum display to compose compelling narratives. Amongst his more recent solo exhibitions in Singapore are The Nature Museum, commissioned by Singapore International Festival of Art (SIFA) and The Bizarre Honour, realized for OH! Open House, both in 2017. Zhao has undertaken residencies at the Musée du Quai Branly, Paris, France, the Kadist Art Foundation, San Francisco, United States, and the Fukuoka Art Museum, Japan. He was awarded Young Artist Award by National Arts Council in 2010 and is a finalist of the 2017 Hugo Boss Asia Art Award.

© Singapore Art Book Fair 2020. All rights reserved.
For further enquiries, please contact us at info@singaporeartbookfair.org.

Support the fair ︎
© Singapore Art Book Fair 2020. All rights reserved.
For further enquiries, please contact us at info@singaporeartbookfair.org.

Support the fair ︎