Culture / Art Republik

Art exhibition in Singapore: ‘We Are the World – These Are Our Stories’ by Amanda Heng at STPI

Art Republik speaks to the artist to find out more about her work and what inspires her

Jan 26, 2017 | By Vimi Haridasan

“Everyone has this habit of keeping something, such as a birthday present, souvenirs and so on,” asserts Singaporean artist Amanda Heng, “How do we perceive the value of this kind of collection? I think these things are very meaningful not only because they come from a friend or someone important but they also have a wider meaning relating to our identity, our values, and our beliefs.” This is the premise of Heng’s new exhibition, ‘We Are the World – These Are Our Stories’ at the Singapore Tyler Print Institute (STPI), from 7 January to 25 February 2017, where she explores personal lived experiences, and their potential to connect all of us.

The exhibition, which kicks off STPI’s 15th-anniversary celebrations, began with Heng’s residency at STPI in April 2016, when she first asked the STPI team, and eventually other participants through word of mouth, to bring a single treasured object. Among the objects that were brought were coins, a lunchbox and a laundry fork.

The artist’s practice, spanning over two decades, has been based on collaborative and multidisciplinary modes of artmaking. Best known for her performance art pieces, one of her early works was ‘Let’s Chat’ (1996), in which she chatted with members of the audience while drinking tea and removing tips of beansprouts, to reminisce simple joys of life from a bygone era in the face of material progress in Singapore. Incidentally, this took place during Heng’s first residency at STPI.

Another work that involved audience participation was ‘Let’s Walk’ (1999), where the artist and members of the audience walked in reverse with high-heeled shoes in their mouths, keeping on their path with the assistance of handheld mirrors. This was a commentary on Singapore women’s motivation to beautify themselves to keep their jobs in the wake of the 1997 Asian financial crisis.

Following that, Heng was photographed dressed up in the Singapore Airlines flight attendant’s kebaya uniform at heritage sites in ‘Singirl’ (2000) to simultaneously question female stereotypes and the tearing down of these places for economic development. It was extended in 2011 when Heng invited other women to join her in forming a ‘Singirl’ contingent online, through submitting photographs of their bare bottoms, which were then uploaded to a public gallery anonymously. This was in a query about multiple issues close to Heng’s heart, including gender politics and identity.

Heng’s current project continues in this synergistic tradition. Heng worked closely with 12 participants to unearth the stories behind the objects they treasured. It was a joint effort, with rigorous research conducted by both the artist and the participants. “Each participant brought an object and shared its story and through that, we realised we needed to know more, and so they would go back to their family or someone who could tell them more about the object,” says Heng. “The research depended on the participants because the objects belonged to them. My role was to highlight things that I needed to know more about.”

The process was meant to be revelatory not only for the artist but also for the participants, and Heng made sure this happened by taking things slowly. Heng says, “The importance or the value of these objects become clearer to their owners after they conducted the research, and through the sharing of stories between me and the participants. In other words, before and after making this project, the way they look at this object will be different.”

As the research unfolded more information, Heng decided to create collage works to capture what she unpacked with the participants from the objects. The collage works take on different forms within frames of the same size using printing and papermaking, from paper cut-outs of bougainvillaea in one to Polaroid pictures in another. “I started this whole thing without any visualised outcome,” says Heng. “I just wanted to allow the whole process to go on and on so that eventually it becomes enriched with lots of material. It then became obvious to me that it had to be a collage.”

To preserve and present the vast amounts of information that was produced from the endeavour, the exhibition makes use of Quick Response (QR) codes to provide additional data to the collages to tell each object’s story. “The QR code came about because the sharing came about through many modes, such as texts and audio. Of course, we accumulated a lot of photographs and video,” says Heng. “Instead of selecting and discarding materials, the QR code became an interesting way to engage the wider public to come into it.” Visitors scan the code with a mobile tagging app on a smartphone, which will link to a short videos, interviews and slideshows.

The QR codes are given prominent placement in the exhibition. Rather than appearing in its usual modestly-sized black-and-white format, it is rendered in the same size as the collage work and in the same colour scheme as the collage work, it complements, emphasising the importance of the research outcomes. They extend the audience’s participation in the artwork, and gives ownership to the audience of their experience of the artwork, whether they choose to find out more about a certain artwork or not of others.

Scanning the QR code accompanying a patchwork of brown paper on which are inscribed texts such as “Japan”, “Australia”, “Singapore” and “Anchor In Me = Home”, and drawings of people such as a man wearing a hat, we are brought to a four-minute video titled ‘Haruka/ Leaf with a Name’, where we see the back of a woman, presumably of the participant Haruka, who is assuming the role of a conductor for a Japanese song about life lived as exemplified by a leaf. While each collage work is not directly attributable to each participant as all the works are one, they are acknowledged in the catalogue.

In another work that transpired from the commemoration of someone who passed away, the QR code leads to a radio program about the process of healing, allowing for the personal work to be opened up in a more general way. “They are actually bigger content or more stories from other people, from the general public. The dimension was very different and not just about myself and the other individual. It deals with the bigger picture and still relates to this object,” says Heng.

While the project deals with memories, Heng notes that it is not about nostalgia. For instance, one of the objects is a laundry fork made from the branch of a guava tree, brought by the granddaughter. For this, Heng wanted to emphasise the participant’s grandmother’s creativity, and how people generally make do with what they have at their disposal. Here, the grandmother was able to see that the guava tree was the best choice for the laundry fork based on her knowledge of her environment through her rich lived experience.

To highlight human being’s universal inclination and ability to be resourceful, Heng links the creation of this particular laundry fork to the invention of the television, which occurred at about the same time, by Philo Taylor Farnsworth, the preliminary idea for which he had developed while still in high school. It is a celebration of human creativity that has the potential to improve one’s life and those around us, and sometimes of the whole world.

Heng demonstrates, through the exhibition, that the individually lived experience, no matter how personal it may initially appear, is relatable and universal, and that stories have the power to make us understand ourselves and each other better.

This article was first published in Art Republik.