My two-hour lesson on the history of performance art in Singapore
One of the most rewarding experiences this art week thus far was my accidental encounter with archivist Koh Nguang How (at the State of Motion show). My 2 questions started a 2-hour conversation, standing and going through archives he had accumulated over the last 40 years. I have heard about Koh, met him and seen his work but this conversation on the history performance art in Singapore was a game changer.
He has been collecting articles on art in Singapore since 1980 (in English and Chinese press), an activity that started when he was 17 years of age. Later he became a member and secretariat of the Artist Village.
In the course of the conversation, he meticulously and patiently answered all of my questions and corrected misconceptions about my understanding of developments leading to the set up of the Artist Village and the 5th Passage, using documented archives of newspaper clippings, posters and programme booklets as supports. I learnt so much.
For the record, he maintains this archive himself - it is a full-time personal endeavour. He sustains himself through revenues from license fees from images he took, because “i don’t need much to survive”. The archives are stored in his HDB flat (public housing) and at some additional storage at his personal expense.
This is a man who has taken on the task of an institution - in terms of the depth, longevity and scale of his research. I am at a loss for words. How he has managed to do it for this long I cannot fathom.
Koh was such an inspiration to talk to - a walking encyclopedia on the development of the Singapore art scene.
Before we parted, he said, “We forget : artists are also human beings, they fall sick and they die. I want to share the knowledge I have to as many people as possible while I am physically able. I’m already in my 50’s, I know there would come a time when I can’t do this anymore.”