Artist Suzann Victor keeps pushing boundaries to connect with the public through art

Artist Suzann Victor keeps pushing boundaries to ensure that art connects with the public

Suzann Victor as a child, with fellow Lasalle student Daniel Wong standing in front of their paintings exhibited at the National Museum Art Gallery in 1989, and Victor (above, second from left) with friends (from far left) Susie Lingham, Han Ling and
Suzann Victor as a child, with fellow Lasalle student Daniel Wong standing in front of their paintings exhibited at the National Museum Art Gallery in 1989, and Victor (above, second from left) with friends (from far left) Susie Lingham, Han Ling and Wong, who helped start 5th Passage Artists. -- PHOTO: JOYCE FANG
Suzann Victor as a child, with fellow Lasalle student Daniel Wong (both above) standing in front of their paintings exhibited at the National Museum Art Gallery in 1989, and Victor with friends Susie Lingham, Han Ling and Wong, who helped start 5th Passage Artists. -- PHOTO: ST FILE
Suzann Victor as a child (above), with fellow Lasalle student Daniel Wong standing in front of their paintings exhibited at the National Museum Art Gallery in 1989, and Victor with friends Susie Lingham, Han Ling and Wong, who helped start 5th Passage Artists. -- PHOTO: SUZANN VICTOR

It was a move unheard of in its time. In 1988, Singaporean artist Suzann Victor (right) and her art school classmates took over a stretch of Orchard Road with their abstract prints and paintings.

They had no permission to occupy the public sidewalk outside Orchard Point shopping centre or licence to set up a makeshift exhibition on the busy thoroughfare. But the handful of students from Lasalle College of the Arts went ahead and displayed their works on the ground.

Their intention was pure. They believed fine art could be brought to the man in the street and they were eager to have their works connect with the public.

They were also brave. Their abstract, sometimes monochromatic paintings were hardly the flavour of the day - showing them was to court the open rejection of many.

But their experience at school of how art frees and expands one's mind compelled them to step out with their works. Describing what fired her up, Victor, now 54, says: "The whole concept of abstract art is about being non-prescriptive and therefore non- oppressive, and therefore non-authoritarian, and therefore not arrogant."

Delivered firmly in her sweet voice rimmed with huskiness, she would have persuaded any scoffer of abstract art in Orchard Road that day.

Certainly, you are won over by her argument as she sits across the table at a cafe in Robertson Quay on a recent afternoon with mussed long hair and honest hazel eyes underlined in electric blue.

The meeting with Singapore's only female artist to have shown at the prestigious Venice Biennale (2001) happens during her three-week-long residency at the Singapore Tyler Print Institute. The residency culminates in a solo show next year for the Australia-based artist at the print-making institute.

The pieces to be shown are still being made but they will no doubt present rich possibilities for interpretation and different ways for viewers to connect with them. Such qualities are characteristic of her work and they reflect her view of art as being necessarily social.

She has stuck by this belief over the years, as an artistic director running the cutting-edge arts company, 5th Passage Artists, in the early 1990s, and as an artist now regularly invited to take part in biennales and exhibitions around the world.

Most recently, she surprised audiences at the 2013 Singapore Biennale by inducing rainbows indoors in the National Museum of Singapore. The spectacle appealed to the senses as much as the mind, stoking visions of an apocalyptic world where rainbows are scarce and treated as museum artefacts.

She says: "I want to provide an experience of art that is not close-ended. I want to allow someone to be free when they are looking at my works."

Her art is deeply relational because of how she came to it. As a child, she had a talent for drawing but no ambition to pursue art as a career. After completing her O levels at Fairfield Methodist Girls' School, she did what girls her age in the 1970s did - look for a job.

She enrolled in a secretarial course but she did not get to apply her skills. She married early, at the age of 19, and became a housewife.

It is a part of her life that she is reluctant to talk about - she declines to discuss her ex-husband and the marriage. What she will say is that at the age of 26, while still married, she decided to enrol in art school. She says she saw it as "a space for the freedom of expression", a veiled reference to that bleak time in her life that she declines to elaborate on.

She now lives with her partner, an Australian sound artist, in Sydney. They have no children.

She says enrolling in art school may have been an unconscious decision to connect with her biological father, who painted movie banners. Her biological mother was a housewife.

Born the youngest of more than 10 children, she was adopted by the second, and younger, wife of her biological aunt's husband. Her adoptive mother was a housewife and her adoptive father, who had five other children, ran a transport business.

She says: "I didn't know much about my bio- logical father but I heard he painted movie banners and I think it is little nuggets of information like these that have so much power to drive one's direction in life. I think going to art school was my way of relating to him."

What later sealed her faith in making art that connects with the public was a stranger who walked by her roadside art operation in 1988.

Mr Joe Lim, who owned a picture-frame shop then in Orchard Point, was taken by the students' works and sponsored a proper show in the shopping centre. The exhibition attracted so much attention that its run was extended and all the works sold.

Victor, who is otherwise unperturbed during the interview, says, voice swelling: "Somebody outside the museum and art gallery system believed in us and invested in us. When you get somebody who believes in you, you really go all out to not fail this person."

That heady first taste of bringing art to the public led her to start 5th Passage Artists in 1992 with a few artist friends, including the current Singapore Art Museum director Susie Lingham.

The arts initiative, named after the fifth-floor passageway in Parkway Parade Shopping Centre which it occupied, was among the first of its kind here. It provided a platform in the community to showcase everything from art exhibitions and performance art to public readings and forums.

Describing how it came about, she says: "I was a resident in East Coast then and I would pass by Parkway Parade a lot. One day, I just walked into its management office to speak with a programme officer and asked if they had space to show art."

She was offered a two-year, rent-free lease on a passageway between the carpark and office tower and she said yes, despite having no concrete plans or experience running a non-profit arts venture.

Art writer and critic T.K. Sabapathy, 76, who was an adviser for the company, says: "I recall meeting Suzann and Susie at the Delifrance bakery in Parkway Parade to discuss the objectives of 5th Passage and I was full of admiration for them for wanting to set this up with no huge help from public bodies."

To fund programmes, 5th Passage started satellite projects including setting up stalls in shopping centres that sold craftwork by artists. The company took a cut from the sales but the earnings mostly went back to the artists.

As she drew no salary from the company, Victor taught children's art classes on weekends to pay her bills. Those long days and nights were exhausting, she says, leaving her no time to make her own art.

But she did not view it as sacrifice. "Was it self-sacrificial? Perhaps, but we were probably not conscious of it then because we did not set out to be stoic martyrs of art," she says. "As an artistic director, I was really interested in what I did and the whole radical idea that you don't have to depend on a gallery to say your work is art or not."

The group's innovative ways of championing art and young artists made many sit up and take notice, including the National Arts Council, which gave them a $9,000 grant in 1993.

But things quickly turned sour at the end of 1993 when 5th Passage co-organised the art event, Artists' General Assembly, at the shopping centre with local art collective The Artists Village. It was at this event that artist Josef Ng snipped his pubic hair in public. The gesture was part of his performance piece, which responded to the treatment of 12 men arrested during an anti-gay operation in 1993.

It, in turn, sparked a decade-long proscription of performance art. The 5th Passage was also evicted from its space in the mall.

The episode was a traumatic experience, Victor says, because of the way the media at that time misrepresented Ng's act "as something that is not art". She says: "It was not the way the artist intended it and not what we were accused of doing, which was to promote vulgarity, obscenity."

She did not, however, allow the devastating blow to debilitate her. Instead of walking away from art, she started making it again. Asked why, she pauses to think before speaking calmly: "That's how innocence proclaims itself. I'm not guilty of anything that was imposed on us."

In 1994, Pacific Plaza invited 5th Passage to curate shows in vacant shops in the mall and Victor showed three installations.

The most elaborate, His Mother Is A Theatre, had woks with clanging lids and loaves of bread lit from within placed on a table. The table was covered with a long black cloth whose ends were sewn into garments that hung on opposite walls. On the floor, human hair spelled parts of the female body, its expulsions and bodily responses, and words such as "uterus", "menstruation" and "orgasm" appeared in concentric rings.

The works spoke of her grim experience at the time and His Mother Is A Theatre was especially a response to the proscription of performance art.

She says: "If you have an absent body, how can you still show the body? His Mother Is A Theatre showed that we don't have to have a body to think about the body or experience the body or have something reek of the body."

She adds: "The hair, a product of the human body, authored itself. There was a script, an absent body performing and it is explicit. But the images that are conjured really are the responsibility of the reader of the text."

As soon as it showed, the thought-provoking piece was acquired by the Singapore Art Museum.

Her reaction? "I was thinking, cool! We've pushed another boundary because the installations made at that time were quite minimalist and (Joseph) Beuysian whereas I was very much into installations that traverse theatre and are of a scale that allows the viewer to enter into it."

But she adds: "It is what it says as a gesture, that it is not an illegitimate art because that's what the whole process was, it was about art that is illegitimate."

A curator who saw Victor's works invited her to exhibit at the Japan Foundation in Tokyo. Other invitations to international exhibitions followed, including the 2nd Asia Pacific Triennial in Australia (1996) and the 6th Havana Biennale (1997) in Cuba.

In 1996, she returned to school, earning a bachelor's, master's and PhD in visual arts at the University of Western Sydney. Her entire tertiary education was funded by full scholarships from the university.

She brings the thoughtfulness of an academic to the conversation, pausing often, sometimes for stretches, to weigh ideas and words on her mind and tongue before they leave her lips.

But she is effusive when talking about the six goldfish she keeps as pets ("They're my visual therapy"), how she binge-watches films with good scripts when she has time, rarely, and how she once contemplated a second career as a stand-up comic. She says: "I'm very bad at telling jokes, which is why I wanted to do it."

Her success as an artist, however, puts a second career out of the picture.

Museum director Lingham, 48, says: "Suzann has represented Singapore at many important international art exhibitions around the world and she is well-recognised. She is an inspiring artist and certainly does Singapore proud."

Victor, who returns to Singapore when she has projects here, is grateful for where her journey has taken her, from the roadside and scrappy vacant shops with their curious passers-by to museums and galleries with appreciative audiences. But she does not feel she has sold out.

She says: "We need to look at institutions and individual artists not as being in binary positions. Institutions provide a platform to stage or amplify artistic voices and it's about how both parties approach this symbiosis.

"Being able to be connected with a lot of people is to be celebrated in a world where we are increasingly divided and separated from one another. And if we can do it in an engaging way, it's a good thing. I don't think it's necessarily a sign of having sold out."

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