“... but when I said that nothing had been done I erred in one important matter. We had definitely committed ourselves and were halfway out of our ruts. We had put down our passage money— booked a sailing to Bombay. This may sound too simple, but is great in consequence. Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back, always ineffectiveness. Concerning all acts of initiative (and creation), there is one elementary truth, the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one's favour all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance, which no man could have dreamt would have come his way. I learned a deep respect for one of Goethe's couplets: 

Whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it.
Boldness has genius, power and magic in it!”

- William Hutchison Murray,
“The Scottish Himalayan Expedition” (1951) 
“INSTINC is not a commercial gallery… It’s a project of an artist dreamer…”
– Alba Escayo

The Project of an Artist Dreamer
By Hsiung Lu-Fang

The story of INSTINC is in fact a story just as much of the Singaporean artist Yeo Shih Yun – its narrative marked simultaneously by passion and energy, inexplicable coincidences and friendship.

Officially founded in 2004 by Shih Yun, INSTINC started initially in a Chinatown shophouse, then as an artist collective sharing a studio on Emerald Hill, and later evolved over the years to become an artist-run residency and art space. One of INSTINC’s key missions is to encourage collaboration, cultural exchange and the sharing of ideas in contemporary art between local as well as international artists, and it also aims to establish an exciting platform where artists and the public can engage with contemporary art and critical discourses.

To date, INSTINC has hosted 38 artists from over 20 different countries through its international artist-in-residency program, organised 60 exhibitions with 148 different artists (and counting…), numerous art workshops, artists’ talks & collaborations, and even a contemporary painting competition in 2011.

With all its accomplishments so far, it’s not surprising that people who are unfamiliar with INSTINC may find it hard to believe that INSTINC has been for the most part driven by the enthusiastic energy and managed primarily by a single artist, with the help of various friends and supporters along the way.

Deriving its name from a painting created by Shih Yun titled “INSTINCT” in 2001, INSTINC actually started off as a website in 2002, before it physically commenced operation in Chinatown on 15 November 2004.

Shih Yun explains that her reasons for starting the physical space of INSTINC arose from a need for a studio space away from home, and a need for an exhibition space to spontaneously and freely experiment with, without going through the uncertainty and hassle of time-consuming grant applications. There was also a lack of affordable exhibition spaces at the time. Having just returned to Singapore from her art studies in San Francisco, Shih Yun was a young artist starting out, without a good CV yet (which meant a lack of gallery representation then), and had a lack of local artist friends (connections that usually formed from studying at NAFA or Lasalle, the 2 main art colleges in Singapore). Faced with these elements, Shih Yun decided to form her own space, to enable the progress of her own art practice.

The history of INSTINC is thus entwined inextricably with Shih Yun’s professional development in the early days, and INSTINC’s identity also evolved as a natural response to the situations that she faced along the way. In 2005, Shih Yun met with local abstract artists Valerie Ng & Wyn-Lyn Tan to discuss the possibility of sharing a studio, which resulted in the 3 artists working collectively at Emerald Hill the following year. Subsequently with the fate of the space hanging in uncertainty (it seemed the owner had intentions of selling the Emerald Hill unit), Shih Yun decided to move INSTINC away after the lease ended, and the 3 artists continued along their respective journeys. Shih Yun then shared a studio with artist Chan Mei Hsien at Mohamed Sultan, and the 2 of them continued with their art practice, as well as hosting art exhibitions and workshops.

In 2008, Shih Yun decided to participate in an artist residency program abroad in Brussels, which led serendipitously to another in Slovenia (she chanced upon, applied for, and was accepted to participate in the latter 10-day collaborative residency during the former, longer residency in Brussels), and this was to become a major turning point in INSTINC’s development. At the LindArt international young artists’ fine arts colony, held at the Lendava castle in Slovenia, she met Katja Pal, the organiser for that event, Hirofumi Matsuzaki (a participating artist from Japan who founded Studio Kura, an artist-in-residence space in Fukuoka), Alba Escayo, Magdalena Suranyi, and other artists. This was the start of some remarkable friendships and also the inspiration for INSTINC to transform itself into a space that also hosted international artist residencies.

Through the support of family and other ripe conditions, Shih Yun was able to set up INSTINC at SOHO, Clarke Quay in 2009, and a second studio space at an industrial building WCEGA in 2011 enabled her to increase the capacity of the residency program to accommodate 2 artists at one time.

Meanwhile, Shih Yun’s participation in the Res Artis conference in Seoul, South Korea in October 2009, together with Shanen Chan, inadvertently led to subsequent events such as “Coney Island Abstract: Continuity / Discontinuity” in July 2010, a collaborative project with artist Paul Campbell from New York. “Despite their difference in culture, language, age, gender, and experience, conversation revealed that they had similar ways of creating art. Both full-time artists combine traditional art materials with unconventional ways of mark making: Campbell uses remote control cars to create oil paintings on canvas and Yeo skates on surfaces with rollerblades covered in Chinese inks.” 1 Large scale canvases were laid out on the Coney Island boardwalk in front of the historic Childs Building at West 21st street, and members of the public participated in the painting process using roller blades, remote control cars, hands, feet, and skipping rope… with some even using their hair and wheelchairs to create marks on the canvases.

In 2011, INSTINC organised a contemporary painting competition inviting participants to submit paintings in the format of 50 cm squares, which led to “Squares Invasion – The 50cm x 50cm Painting Show”. The exhibition comprised 65 entries by 46 painters from 16 countries, filling the entire space of INSTINC with paintings in a variety of styles and subject matter, and brought an unprecedented number of guests to the opening of the show. INSTINC @ SOHO overflowed with guests that evening – it was so packed that visitors crowded along the corridor to wait for their chance to view the works.

Soon afterwards that same year, Shih Yun went for a residency at Youkobo Art Space in Tokyo, Japan. During her time there the idea for Project 6581 was born, a collaboration with Youkobo Art Space that would eventually span 2 years of preparation and events, involving a total of 8 artists, 4 residencies, and 4 exhibitions in 2 cities – Singapore and Tokyo; all of which would lead up to a final curated group show at the Japan Creative Centre (JCC) in Singapore in February 2014.

For an artist who was not only working on her own art practice, adapting to and balancing the needs of a new family, but also coordinating with countless other people, managing and running the art space – it proved to be a massive undertaking.

Kelley Cheng, a friend and benefactor, took on the role of curatorship for the group exhibition “Parallel Perception & Counter Connection”, and brought along with her a host of design and publishing skills; once again lending her support and expertise.

Meanwhile, numerous other artists came and went, including amongst others, Amy Lin (Washington), Natalia Ludmila (Mexico), Heidi Celeghin (Brazil), Kari Cholnoky (New York), Maiko Sugano (Japan), Lisa Chandler (New Zealand), and Hannah Quinlivan (Australia)… They each resided at INSTINC for a time, immersing themselves in a new place and culture, making artworks, holding exhibitions and artist talks. These events were often small in scale, with varied outcomes and different extents of reach, but remained consistent in purpose – fostering opportunities to explore new ideas, experiment with different methods, engage new audiences, and meet other artists.

At the close of Project 6581, plans and discussions regarding the finale project for INSTINC’s 10th anniversary had been ongoing, but not quite fully confirmed. Shih Yun spoke of her concerns, prompting a casual question asking if she were certain she wanted to carry out the finale project.

Without hesitation, her answer was a resolute yes.

In hindsight, it is this writer’s belief that her indomitable spirit in the face of obstacles, set into motion all the events that have since followed.

Regardless of where this journey leads, one thing is certain – all of the events that occurred could only have happened because so many years ago, a young woman first made a commitment and took bold steps towards her aspiration, remaining steadfast in her resolution and beliefs through the years.

Each apparent obstacle encountered, was a condition that enabled the renewal of commitment; setting into motion various series of events, beyond the limits of planning and preparation.

From an article written by Jessica Dailey, originally published on the website of “Brooklyn The Borough” in 2010]