Singapore Art Week

Pioneer performance artist Amanda Heng takes on new medium

Pioneer performance artist Amanda Heng tries a new medium at age 65, making prints for an exhibition at STPI

Artist and Cultural Medallion recipient Amanda Heng has gone rebel at 65.

Such a thought might cross one's mind when viewing her first solo show at leading print and paper institute STPI.

The exhibition, We Are The World - These Are Our Stories, is dominated by a single new work comprising 24 prints.

Of them, half are digitally rendered images that are a collage of writings, drawings and photographs. The images are each accompanied by a QR code that links to videos, audio recordings or photographs.

The show stands apart from what one is used to from Heng, a pioneer of performance art in Singapore who came to prominence in the 1990s with works such as Let's Walk. In the piece, she treads barefoot and backwards, gripping a mirror in her hand and a high-heeled shoe in her mouth as a statement on women's progress in contemporary society.

With my other performances, I was mainly the one performing and it was easy for me to decidewhether I wanted to go to the extreme. But this work involves other people. It required a lot of consideration and tender care.

ARTIST AMANDA HENG

The new set of prints presents her performative work in a different medium and it pushes the envelope on how art engages the public and how artists facilitate public exchange.

It also marks her first foray into an intensive, studio-based approach of making art for a specific show. Typically, her works emerge organically as part of her ongoing examination of issues such as gender, identity and memory.

She admits that the change in approach, borne of a residency at STPI last April, posed a challenge to her.

"Having practised performance art, I never had to make work for a specific exhibition or consider the marketing of art, which I have no interest in," she says.

So she hesitated when STPI offered her the residency, which culminates in an exhibition. Her new work is for sale and the price is available on request.

  • VIEW IT / WE ARE THE WORLD - THESE ARE OUR STORIES

  • WHERE: STPI, 41 Robertson Quay

    WHEN: Till Feb 25, 10am to 7pm (weekdays), 9am to 6pm (Saturdays), closed on Sundays

    ADMISSION: Free

    INFO: www.stpi.com.sg

She was won over, however, by the opportunity to team up with STPI's experienced print and paper artists and the chance to "push ideas of collaboration and participation", she says.

It was with this sense of openness that she embarked on her residency, not knowing what she would make or explore.

She was certain, however, about kick-starting it with her performance piece, Let's Chat.

The seminal work, first presented in 1996, has tables and chairs set up for people to join the artist in preparing bean sprouts for a meal. Once a time-consuming domestic activity over which banter is exchanged, it has gradually been lost to the fast pace of contemporary life.

The performance itself aims to open up a social space where people can come together to talk about their lives, experiences and memories.

She carried out the piece with the STPI team to get to know her collaborators personally, and the conversations that flowed sowed the seeds for her new work.

Through word of mouth, she invited 12 people to chat with her one-on-one about an object they each treasure, before going deeper in conversation to explore why the item carries special meaning, how it connects the participant to other people and how the life values ascribed to it are lived out and passed on from the participant to other people.

She says: "My concern is identity politics and every individual's story counts. How you make sense of life, the values you hold, all of these happen through lived experiences and memories, and an object is an agent that carries meaning and values."

Constructing stories in rich layers

A piece of cloth that florist Hamidah Abdul Karim received from her grandfather, for example, embodies the close bond they share and the deep respect she has for him.

Her conversations with Heng prompted her to research the origins of the cloth, which eventually led her to trace her family tree back to a Bugis princess from Sulawesi - a discovery she hopes to share with members of her extended family.

The participants' stories and memories are constructed as images incorporating elements such as digital scans of the treasured objects, personal writings and photographs.

Heng also inserts, in the images, text mentioning historical moments, such as a devastating tornado outbreak in the United States in 1974 and Queen Elizabeth II's coronation in 1953, which correspond to important years in the participants' recollections.

She says: "Their personal stories carry weight, but I wanted to open up the scope by introducing something similar or contradictory that was happening in another world."

That communal space extends into the virtual realm with the QR codes, which create a layered visual experience and offer viewers the option of entering into deeper conversation with Heng and her collaborators.

Indeed, she views even the talks and workshops held during the run of the exhibition as part of her work and as avenues for participating in it.

"I see the whole thing as an event. From the residency to the final exhibition and the public programmes, they are all various forms of engagement," she says.

At heart, the work hews close to her oeuvre of performance art through the storytelling of individual memories and the creation of a social space to engage the public. The medium and visual language, too, though seemingly new to her practice, are, in fact, familiar.

For one thing, she was trained in printmaking at Lasalle College of the Arts.

The practice of discerning and shaping meaning through readymade objects has also persisted in her art, from the sculptures she made early in her career in the 1990s to performance pieces such as Worthy Tour Co (S) Pte Ltd, first presented in 2006, which is inspired by Singapore artefacts that are housed overseas.

Similarly, the use of QR codes in her latest exhibition follows her work, Singirl (since 2000), which explores female identity and includes a website as part of the art project.

Yet, there is a significant shift in her latest work towards a more intense form of engagement with the public.

In particular, she sought to draw the participants into intimate conversation and reflection about their personal lives, which demands both parties to be vulnerable.

She says: "With my other performances, I was mainly the one performing and it was easy for me to decide, almost immediately, whether I wanted to go to the extreme. But this work involves other people and I had to look after their emotions. It required a lot of consideration and tender care."

She had to cede control as the artist to wholeheartedly involve and include others in her work. Equally, the participants had to let go of their inhibitions.

Ms K.C. Poh, 39, a senior printer at STPI and one of the 12 participants, says: "Everyone has something they treasure, but they may not want to touch those memories because they are sensitive."

Her reminiscences of the old coins her late foster grandmother gave her when she was a child, and the grief she experienced when her mother died, however, led her to recognise the profound value of sharing and its power to bind people together beyond the intimate bond of blood.

She admits the process of opening up in conversation and collaborating with Heng was "an arduous journey", demanding commitment of both time and self.

"But the time we spent sitting down, talking and listening to each other without distraction is rare, especially today, when people are busy with their own things," she says.

"And we put our heart and soul into the work because we realised it was about things that are so important to us."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 10, 2017, with the headline 'Performing in print'. Print Edition | Subscribe