Cindy Tan chats with Riga Ramadhan about the basic process of exhibition design, virtual museums, and her dream exhibition
My conversation with Cindy Tan, the Head of Facilities and Operational Planning as well as the Exhibition Designer at The Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art in Nusantara (better known as Museum MACAN), for this story was – as is the norm these days – done via Zoom. Even with the indirect setup, however, the easy-going energy that she manifests throughout the interview was contagious. “I think that I, and I believe together with millions of other creative practitioners around the world, have been busy adapting to adjust ourselves and our works to today’s ever-changing world,” she opens up the conversation. “On the other hand, the current season has been encouraging us, both in our professional practice and in our personal lives, to learn and re-learn about practically everything.”
Adjusting to the new demands of working under “new normal” conditions proved to be quite the new thing for Tan, as she has to deal with unique challenges such as measuring artworks virtually. “Usually, it was just a quick walk from my office to the exhibition room, and I can calculate about the size of paintings or simply measure the artworks, and go back to my office again. If I forget about something, I can just head back to the room again,” she says with a laugh. “But now, everything must be done virtually, so I simply can’t forget any little detail that I want to put on an exhibition.”
Speaking of which, Museum MACAN recently unveiled an exhibition of contemporary art from Southeast Asia titled “Stories Across Rising Lands,” which will be open across various virtual platforms from January 23 until May 23, 2021. The exhibition itself will include works by eight artists and an artistic collaboration, namely Cian Dayrit (Philippines), Ho Rui An (Singapore), Kawita Vatanajyankur (Thailand), Saleh Husein (Indonesia), Lim Kok Yoong (Malaysia), Souliya Phoumivong (Laos), Maharani Mancanagara (Indonesia), Nge Lay (Myanmar) and a collaboration between Tan Vatey and Sinta Wibowo (Cambodia/Belgium).
Born in and around the 1980s, these artists – who work in a range of media, including video, installation, photography, painting and video performance – are connected by their generational experience of media technology, the impact of shifting economic and political discussions within their home territories, and approaches to different aesthetic formats that reflect the subtle movement between local, regional and global contexts.
Co-curated by Museum MACAN’s Asep Topan and Jakarta-based Korean curator Jeong-ok Jeon, the exhibition will focus on everyday actions and the small daily narratives that help define social and cultural connections to places. More importantly, this exhibition will reflect the diversity and substantial geographic spread of the region by emphasizing personal and fragmented connections to history and politics observed through the perspectives of artists.
“I believe that design is a language, and exhibition design is a storytelling process. In particular, the exhibition design process begins when there is a narrative to tell, and it could come in different forms, depending on the genre or topic of exhibition they fall into,” Tan passionately explains. “For example, in the ‘Stories Across Rising Lands’ art exhibition, a narrative could consist of individual stories, conveyed by an artist, or in a group and collective exhibition conveyed by numbers of artists. Most of the time, these smaller stories are expressed through artworks that the artists create, and are sometimes supported by background stories and other elements such as props, costumes, archival materials, photos, videos, and many more.
“After that, all these individual elements are gathered and arranged into a comprehensive narrative by the curator,” she then continues. “So, for me, the exhibition process starts when I receive this narrative from the curator. From there, it continues with what needs to be transformed and translated into a three-dimensional museum experience that can be experienced by the audience through all senses in a spatial context.”
Tan also notes that the very first step for an exhibition designer is none other than to do an in-depth study to the narrative. “So, the usual process is for me to sit down with the curator, sometimes with the artist as well, to get an in-depth understanding of the narrative as well as the stories that are contained in the narrative. The relationships between all those stories or elements, and all the messages the exhibition is trying to convey to its audience,” she elaborates. “I know that the word ‘designer’ is so closely linked with the action of creating producing, sketching, drawing, or building. But actually, in my opinion, one of the most fundamental steps in design is to listen and understand.”
Another thing that Tan brings is the creative process of the design. “Basically, it develops from the concept stage, where we explore designs in the ‘big bubble,’ or the general idea and concept of the exhibition. The flow of the story in relation to the nature of the space, so to speak,” she explains further. “After that, it goes into the development stage, where we start to look and divide the design into smaller bubbles and look into each bubble in a very detailed manner. Furthermore, after we finalize the design, we move on to the next step to build our design on-site. The result of this phase is a blank new ‘canvas’ or ‘stage’ for the exhibition to take place.”
Continuous and in-depth conversations and discussion between an exhibition designer, the curators, the artists and other related teams are crucial throughout the entire exhibition design process
Interestingly, that is not the end of the exhibition design process. “The establishment of exhibition design marks the stage where we could invite the other narrative elements to enter the exhibition in the installation phase,” Tan goes on. “To that end, continuous and in-depth conversations and discussion between an exhibition designer, the curators, the artists and other related teams are crucial throughout the entire exhibition design process.”
Our chat then turned towards virtual exhibitions and the opportunity to travel through museums virtually. Throughout the past year, many of the world’s celebrated art institutions have been forced to temporarily close their doors to the public. It’s still fortunate, however, that despite the hopefully temporary closure, we haven’t really lost access to the countless valuable items, artworks, paintings and so on that are housed in all of these great museums.
There are a lot of ways to see the museums worldwide, like through the Google Arts & Culture project, which offers access to more than 2,000 cultural institutions from 80 countries around the world. “Now, we don’t have to travel to another country to see the museums or to explore art, history and the wonders of the world. We can see cultural institutions and the works of artists from around the world at home, through your computer,” Tan says with a smile. “But to be honest with you, despite the world’s art now being more accessible than ever, I still prefer to see them the old-fashioned way. I prefer to come directly to a museum, to see the artworks by myself, fulfilling all of my senses and merging with the surroundings.”
As for what the future holds, Tan shares about her dream exhibition and that she really wishes to be able to highlight and introduce Indonesia as a whole to the world. “I often imagine myself working on story-based exhibitions like Harry Potter, Star Wars, or the Marvel Cinematic Universe. I guess it goes back to how I love to see museums or exhibitions as a storytelling method and design as a form of language,” she reveals. “But then again, this question about my dream exhibition got me thinking about why I decided to pursue this path as an exhibition designer and went back home to Indonesia in the first place.
“It was born out of the desire to highlight what we have here in Indonesia and introduce it to the world,” she expresses. “We live in a country full of richness and beauty in almost every aspect of our lives. Whether it’s about art, design, culture, culinary, and the list goes on and on. We travel the world and encounter all the wonderful things that different countries have to offer, and I hope for the same thing to be experienced by people from around the world when they visit us here in Indonesia.”