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The Art Gallerist Elevating Printmaking in Singapore and Southeast Asia

By Terence Poh

Emi Eu has seen the Singapore art industry evolve for over two decades — and been one of the women at the centre of it. She runs the Singapore Tyler Print Institute, a workshop and art gallery to watch in coming years as it leads the S.E.A. Focus project, dedicated to promoting Southeast Asian contemporary art.
 
Rosalynn Tay
Emi Eu has seen the Singapore art industry evolve for over two decades — and been one of the women at the centre of it. She runs the Singapore Tyler Print Institute, a workshop and art gallery to watch in coming years as it leads the S.E.A. Focus project, dedicated to promoting Southeast Asian contemporary art.

Emi Eu has worked through weekends for most of her career. As the executive director of Singapore Tyler Print Institute (STPI), Eu is used to responding to emails, answering phone calls and setting off on business trips any time of the week. When Covid-19 hit and she was stuck at home, she discovered that she could accommodate many more hours of focussed work into her day. Yet, “I’ve never felt time become so elastic. It was like you’re in two or three different time zones,” she says. “However, what I’ve been noticing is that on weekends, I am actually not looking at work emails. Now it’s just like I’ve given everything that I had to give this week, and I don’t want to look at anything anymore.”

Eu oversees programming for the gallery as well as the creative workshop at STPI, in which artists are given the opportunity to work with new mediums — such as paper and print — and challenged to make something different from what they normally do in their studios. “Then we bring them out to the public through our exhibitions in the gallery,” she says. “We also participate in international art fairs, though this year has been very, very challenging.”

“I make very often, 99 per cent of the time, this analogy: Our workshop is like the kitchen of a Michelin-starred restaurant,” Eu says. The workshop team, comprising paper makers and printmakers, are professional chefs of all types and levels; the artist arrives as the executive chef; and the chef de cuisine, the workshop director, works with the artist to create new dishes. The standard base ingredients — printing techniques, materials and a paper mill — are open to artists for use in any way. “It’s like running a new restaurant every time you have a guest chef come, and then they come up with good, hopefully really attractive dishes,” she says. “It’s not always that the chefs can come up with a dish that everybody likes, but the point is that they can cook up the dishes within a given time.”

Courtesy of Singapore Tyler Print Institute"Twofold" (2020), which showed at STPI from February 2020 to July 2020, is the artist Genevieve Chua's largest solo exhibition to date. In her attempt at exploring human perceptions and interpretations of painting, Chua utilises graphics such as the moiré pattern to create optically deceptive imagery. Her works combine several printmaking techniques, including screen printing on acrylic and relief printing on paper, made entirely within the facilities of STPI.
"Twofold" (2020), which showed at STPI from February 2020 to July 2020, is the artist Genevieve Chua's largest solo exhibition to date. In her attempt at exploring human perceptions and interpretations of painting, Chua utilises graphics such as the moiré pattern to create optically deceptive imagery. Her works combine several printmaking techniques, including screen printing on acrylic and relief printing on paper, made entirely within the facilities of STPI.

After growing up in New York City and living in Europe, Eu, who is of Korean descent, finally settled in Singapore in 2000. “I think it was about starting a family, and my husband just told me, when we were expecting our first child, that it would be really much nicer and more, I guess, amenable and friendly for me to have a child in Singapore,” she says, about the decision. “He really didn’t like the winter months in NYC because it was so cold, and said he could not fathom bringing the babies to the doctor’s office in the cold weather.”

“Both my husband and I were big travellers,” Eu says. “My husband used to be a travel writer and used to produce travel books.” She has lived in places such as Venice, Italy, where she picked up Italian while working for an art gallery for four years. “Because we didn’t really have a definite idea where we wanted to live, we intuitively thought that having a family in Singapore’s much better,” she says. “And then I said, I need to get a job. STPI was an opportunity that came to me and I interviewed for it, and here I am still — I’m really older than all this furniture here.”

In 1996, Eu visited the Singapore Art Museum (SAM), just as it opened to the public as the nation’s first art museum, and had her first encounter with artists from Singapore and the region. She remembers, to this day, vividly, the room dedicated to the Singaporean painter Georgette Chen’s works. “The first thing that really struck me was a painting of the harbour, with boats, and her style was so much like Cezanne,” says Eu, who then conjectured that the pioneering artist must’ve studied in Paris (and in fact, Chen did). She found the local artworks then to be “naïve” in style, similar to that of Korean artists from the ’50s and ’60s, and contemplated how art didn’t have borders even then. “Oil on canvas is not usually a typical traditional medium for Asian artists,” she says. “But they had actually started to learn about it, whereas oil on canvas has been the tradition of Western paintings for centuries.” She’s never really stopped considering how artists and art history intertwined beyond geographical boundaries in the art world since — something her job at STPI continually affords her to do.

I make very often, 99 per cent of the time, this analogy: Our workshop is like the kitchen of a Michelin-starred restaurant. It’s like running a new restaurant every time you have a guest chef come, and then they come up with good, hopefully really attractive dishes. It’s not always that the chefs can come up with a dish that everybody likes, but the point is that they can cook up the dishes within a given time.

Compared to what Eu first encountered more than 20 years ago, the Singapore arts scene today is vastly different. “I really started to feel the seismic shift in our industry, maybe 10 years ago,” she says. “A lot more artists were going out for many different reasons, whether to study or to do residency programmes. A lot of galleries were coming in, and of course, the government played a very huge part. And, of course, STPI has been very much part of that, so it has gone through a very, very big shift, I think for the better.” She had also been teaching about the art of the East and West at the Singapore Management University, and also noticed changes through her eight years there — students in 2009 were a lot more exposed to art than those in 2001. Eu says she’s been “very fortunate” to have witnessed the pace and progress that Singapore has achieved in the development of its arts sector.

During STPI’s early years, Eu’s biggest challenge was twofold: The charge of gaining acceptance for printmaking while cultivating public literacy in contemporary art, which, at the time, veered more conventionally to mediums like sculpture and ink painting. “We had the biggest exhibition space, which at the time a normal gallery could never even fathom because the real estate is so expensive and we’re so centrally located, and we’re not even a museum,” she says. “But we also had a lot of negative optics, because print is associated with reproduction, and therefore seen as inferior to any form of art. And it’s cheap, and not collectible because there’s no investment value.”

Courtesy of Singapore Tyler Print InstituteAt STPI, Eu also organises S.E.A. Focus, an annual art fair that assembles the finest Southeast Asian artists and galleries in a single space. The project seeds a platform for cultural exchanges across the region and provokes dialogue about Southeast Asian art.
At STPI, Eu also organises S.E.A. Focus, an annual art fair that assembles the finest Southeast Asian artists and galleries in a single space. The project seeds a platform for cultural exchanges across the region and provokes dialogue about Southeast Asian art.

What people did know: The printing STPI does is not reproduction. At its workshop, which was conceived by the master printer Kenneth Tyler, artists create original works on a plate (made of stone, copper, or any other wood), which is then replicated to economise art for people who want to collect and buy at a low price. “The whole point of print is really for people who love art but cannot afford to spend $10,000. But if that artist makes a print, a proper print the way we do it here, maybe people can buy it at $500. That’s the whole idea of a print,” says Eu. “And that was Andy Warhol’s idea for all of his screen prints — for the masses.”

Now, the difficulty in elevating print artwork remains; all around the world, print is still perceived as an inferior art form. Other challenges include working out schedules with American and European artists due to sheer distance — Western artists have to take time away from their studios to come — and the pandemic has completely put foreign artist schedules on an indefinite hold.

Eu observes a very common thread: that inevitably, artists will leave STPI with something that they’d otherwise have never thought about. “Sometimes it is very evident when it comes out into their works. But other times, even though they don’t, when we see it, we know that this has made a difference,” Eu says. “When I see that, it really gives me great satisfaction.”