Asia Art Archive's Enoch Cheng speaks to Singaporean Artist Donna Ong about her works and artistic practice, her country, and her diverse background
AAA: Let’s start with your work—Dr. Auctor. It seems to have set the tone for some of your subsequent works, such as the flying creatures in Place of Dream and Hype or the laboratory in Sing O Barren Woman. Could you tell me about that?
Donna Ong: Dr. Auctor is a series of 24 film stills of the interior space of a female scientist called Dr. Auctor. It was significant in that it encapsulated in one work most of the themes and personal narratives I wanted to explore—barrenness, flight, faith, etc. The idea of the set/scene—where space and objects combine to reveal an absent narrative, an absent presence—was to create a stage upon which diverse narratives and concepts could be woven together in a coherent, yet subtle fashion. One discovered traces and clues which hinted at hidden stories, threads that would never be fully revealed or resolved, gaps that allowed the audience an entry point into the work, gaps that allowed themselves to be filled with the audience's projected narratives and explanations.
Dr Auctor, as a work, claims many firsts. It was the first time I used a persona, which released me from the constraints and responsibility of having my work represent my values and my personal point of view, since the character in the work was obviously fictional and not the artist. It also was the first time I used certain imagery and visual aesthetics—the wings, the laboratory, the old room, insects, the barren woman . . .
There is an imaginary or otherworldly space within your works and you seem to be very interested in the idea of fantasy. It is almost as if you are writing a fictional story through your art. Does that have to do with your fictional writing background? Do you still write?
I've always been a comfort reader—stories were a huge part of my childhood. They were my means of escaping the realities of life; the way through which I explored issues that haunted me; how I learnt about life and people; a way to live life vicariously. My urge to write stems from a desire to inhabit certain dreams—I write stories I want to be in. The imaginary space in my work comes from that same desire to create places that function in the same way books do for me—an escape from reality; an alternative ending; a different life experience; a ’what if‘ played out.
One cannot help but be intrigued by your training background in architecture, fine art, and fictional writing. Why such a combination? How do they inform each other in your works as well as your personal life? And how did your training in the West inspire your practice as an artist in Singapore?
My interest in fiction writing taught me how to empathise with a character, to be so attuned to another that you are able to anticipate their every word and action, to get under the skin of my created fictional characters and know for certain which objects they would prefer and which spaces they would choose.
Architecture taught me how to make these visions a reality—how to be unafraid of ambition and scale, the courage to dream big. It taught me how to see and consider both the macro and micro at the same time, to work on the detail without forgetting the bigger picture.
Perhaps, if I hadn't studied architecture, I would have been a writer. My training in architecture caused me to be more inclined towards expressing myself visually and materially. It is how I think and express myself now—dusty attics, sun-lit kitchens, locked chests, lavender scented closets . . .
I trained in the UK. I lived there for nine years during my teens and young adulthood. Those were the formative years of my life, the years in which tastes were explored, formed, and established. Because of this experience, my visual aesthetics tend towards the English vernacular—old creaky furniture, insects in bell jars, cloth bound editions of famous stories, natural gardens with foxgloves and buttercups. Bringing back this "language" to Singapore is both an advantage (internationally acceptable) as well as a disadvantage (lack of local flavour).
At a glance, found objects are prominent in many of you works. How do you start approaching an object before you apply it to your work? Some objects remind us of the distant past, for example black and white or sepia photographs, graphics or videos, objects that remind people of their childhood, or of the school laboratory appliances and diagrams, the analogue machines etc.
There are two ways in which I approach found objects. The first is when I start a project with an idea in mind. I then go to the shops with an agenda—for example, to select objects the fictional character in my work would choose. The second is when the project is already in progress. Then I go into shops to find objects without an agenda. My aim here is to let the objects speak to me and for them to inform me of what they could turn into and become. I then fulfil that potential and realise the work.
You work with various mediums, and you collaborate with other artists to work on projects for example sound art, performance and film. What role does this mode of practice play for you?
I see the role of collaboration as a way in which I can develop and push my own boundaries. Collaborations force me to be flexible and to explore themes and aesthetics that are not my more preferred options—I don’t enjoy it yet it is extremely useful for furthering ones own practice.
From your Project: Waterfall, you seemed to take another direction in your work, as opposed to other works that convey a sense of narrative. Could you talk about the work and this other dimension of your artistic exploration?
I guess at a certain point of time, I started making works which actively explored certain issues or problems. For example, how would a work that is a metaphor look like? How do you make a sculpture to embody a moment, a thought?
You have participated in various art events in different countries, such as in the UK (where you studied), Indonesia, Singapore, and Hong Kong. Do the different audiences react in different ways? How do you feel, apart from being grateful for the opportunity, when showing or even working in these different places?
I view each place I show in as a way to explore and further refine each work. The work's components may remain the same, yet due to the different configuration of space or logistics, the original work has to adapt and morph. That is something I relish and look forward to.
The audience's reactions in the different places differ from one another. It is always fun seeing how far they interact with the pieces. In some countries, they are hesitant to approach the installation and interact with it, due to their respect for the work. In other places, the audience has an almost cavalier approach to the work, freely picking up objects in the installation and sometimes even adding to it! People write on pieces of paper in the work, or leave objects they feel are appropriate to the work. In one crystal cave installation made out of glass vessels, the viewers decided to add their vodka shot glasses to the work during the opening reception!
Lots of people have the impression that Singapore is a tightly controlled country. But with more alternative art spaces, organisations, and artist initiatives being established, the art scene seems to have opened up more in the past decade. Do you think that you have the freedom you need?
I have friends who, due to the difficult subject matter dealt with in their work, have faced resistance to their work being shown. Personally, I haven't encountered much opposition. However, this also could be due to the fact that my works are not particularly controversial, either politically or aesthetically. The things I want to say remain in the realm of fiction, psychology and the imagination, which are often veiled in metaphor or symbolism that have to be unravelled and interpreted.
You are still a relatively young, both in terms of your age and your artistic career. How would you "fantasise" yourself in the next five to ten years’ time?
I hope to see myself exploring and communicating increasingly difficult themes with deeper and more mature understanding and language. There is a verse in the bible that goes something like this: "Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute. Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy." My desire is to be an artist who fulfils this verse both in my work as well as in my personal life.
- Fri, 1 May 2009