Issue DA84 Feb/March 2015
A Common Sentiment
In ‘A Thing of Beauty’, artist Dawn Ng elevates the familiar, the local and the prosaic into surreal works of art.
A white canvas shoe, a transparent kopitiam glass mug half-filled with milk, a ball of cream-coloured raffia, a slim box of white tic-tac candy, a white shuttlecock – these are objects associated more with the ubiquity of everyday life in the Singapore heartlands, emblems of rituals that most Singaporeans at different stages of their lives would encounter, rather than the polished confines of an art gallery. And yet, there they were on the walls of Chan Hampe Galleries from 16 to 25 January 2015 before travelling to the Art Paris Art Fair in March, put together in a in a two-dimensional mise-en-scene as part of local artist Dawn Ng’s latest art collection.
Titled ‘A Thing of Beauty’, the collection features 11 colour-themed photographed installations of paraphernalia, with the trappings of symbolism and surrealism, arranged in a considered manner on stone surfaces. These objects were collected by Ng from 138 mom-and-pop shops throughout Singapore’s residential heartlands, including bakeries and convenience stores, to render each piece of artwork “an anthropological documentary of things we collectively own in this day and age,” the artist explains.
The familiar, the everyday, and the nondescript – these are perennial themes that pop up in Ng’s artwork. It alludes to her obsessions with “time, memory and space”, as mentioned in another interview, brewed from having spent ten years abroad and then coming back to Singapore to find much of the familiar displaced. However alongside that, she also discovered a newfound appreciation for the uniqueness of Singapore’s local landscape and its icons.
It’s not an uncommon preoccupation by artists born in the 80s yearning to find their roots and the meaning of home in a globalised era, particularly those who like in Ng’s situation had spent time abroad. “I think it’s a human condition, this need for people to find their way back home – be it a place, a time, a person or just a version of who you were. I find myself always looking back as a way to look forward,” Ng reflects. Her antidote then, is to seek out the things that are unique to Singapore, which are often found in the symbols of everyday.
In Ng’s art, these symbols are portrayed in quirky, playful, and oftimes charming, ways across an assortment of mediums. It celebrates, highlights and puts new meaning to these common symbols in a manner that combines storytelling and documentary, influenced by her education in journalism and art and her past dabbles in advertising. “I think there is an infinite beauty in the most common things. We instinctively understand that when we are young but it gets harder to hold on to that purity and innocence as you get older – the things that we become conditioned to see as beautiful become more elaborate, ornate, or pegged to its value,” she reflects.
‘Walter’ (2013), for instance, is the now-recognisable large inflatable rabbit that visits various heartland locations across Singapore in photographs to give a fresh perspective to these normally ‘boring’ places; in ‘Everything You Ever Wanted is Right Here’ (2012), a series of phases cut out of large-scale photographs of scenes in Singapore combines journalism and art, acting as “socio-commentaries on the tensions, idiosyncrasies and hopes unique to Singapore”; ‘Wonderland’ (2010) saw a fleet of bubbly pink paper boats sailing down the monsoon drains of Bukit Timah, giving the quiet waterways a fresh perspective of enchantment and magic.
‘A Thing of Beauty’ has precedence in recent works like ‘Windowshop’ (2014) that features framed curios of everyday objects collected from around Singapore, as well as ‘Pink is a Crazy Little Thing Called Love’ for Club21 (2014) – a photographic installation of a small landscape of pink-coloured icons of love.
The objects for this latest collection were chosen for the simple elegance and curiosity in their form, shape and colour, Ng shares. “I am telling a story about the things people keep, the feelings and the memories they store inside or project upon something as ordinary as an eraser or a paper cut. I am constantly amused that even the most insignificant object can be pregnant with meaning and therefore precious.”
It is not just the objects themselves that attracts attention but also the way Ng has arranged them – in a variety of compositions that animate them, and with each installation themed according to colour (there are nine monochromatic hues in all, including a triptych of blue).
Ng explains the choice of colour themes as wanting “each photograph to be an image that kept unfurling in colour, the same way the objects would also keep revealing themselves to the viewer. I think there are worlds beyond worlds within any given hue. Apparently human beings can see up to 2.8 million shades even if we don’t have the vocabulary to describe each of them.”
In the making of the art, she confronted the everyday in what can be proposed as cathartic. “It was eventful, akin to puppet theatres, which came with its frustrations and challenges. I enjoy the sourcing process of spending days on end in this city’s heartlands wandering through local nooks and crannies. You meet all sorts of characters. I think the store owners were the ones who found me peculiar, getting excited and obsessed over the most mundane objects like a door stopper or nail clipper, and buying hoards of things in specific colours” she muses.
This childlike reaction is not at odds with the artwork. Wonder, surprise, amusement, humour – these make Dawn’s exploration of nostalgia and tribute to the past accessible and poignant in a way that is optimistic and poetic.