Naima Morelli

THE SINGAPORE SERIES — CHAPTER 13

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Amanda Heng

Taking a sip of tea in the courtyard sheltered by the white colonial walls of the Singapore Art Museum, I had no doubt. When I get older, I want to be cool like Amanda Heng. This double-braided lady sitting on the other end of the table is an inspiring and yet down-to-earth artist. Despite her friendly nature, she gave a huge contribution to the evolution of Singaporean contemporary art. In the Lion City, economic and technological progress are achieved thanks to a pragmatic government and toiling on the part of citizens. Amanda Heng witnessed the rapid transformation in both the art scene and the society art at large. Her work is a profound comment on this rapid modernisation and a compassionate observation about those who were left behind.

Amanda Heng was one of the early members of the seminal art collective ‘The Artist Village’ and experimented with performance art and installation. When she was a little girl in school, she was always performing on stage. In the school curriculum there were dances, songs, opera, and they were learning Italian songs. “I guess I already had this in me, and it allowed me to feel the beauty of certain things, although I didn’t know what art was about then.”

However, she didn’t go directly to study art immediately after college, but started working as a tax officer. That made me so sick and I knew that was not my life. I started looking for something else, so I went travelling in Europe and I found Europeans taking art so seriously: “I asked myself why we couldn’t have the same attitude here in Singapore. Because here they tell you that you must have a good economy, you must have money. Everything is money.”

When she came back, she looked for a new job. “This was very rare in Singapore, because everybody feels insecure all the time. If you want to change your job, you usually find another job first, before you give up.” Conversely, Amanda decided to not come back to my office job and I enrolled myself at LaSalle, which was a very primitive school back then.

“I studied printmaking and in the process, I realised that I wasn’t interested in making good print. There was too much emphasis on the materials in order for us to produce a collectible item.” She soon became impatient. What she enjoyed was the process of using different materials to make the plate, and the role causality had in making images. Instead of printing on very expensive Italian-made papers, she would use just a canvas and print on it. She would hang it and start making installations, without even calling them installations.

After this first stint with art, she knew she wanted to expand her horizons by studying abroad. Back in her youth, to go out to study abroad was a necessity for many artists, because there was no formal art academy training at the times: “It was necessary to get out if you wished to pursue a more systematic way of learning, not just art, but for any kind of education. In Asian countries, the family has always looked for good education as the best way to make a better living.”

Without the internet, the kind of art books she saw in the National Library were limited to the usual Picasso and Dali and that was it. She also lamented a lack of critical discussion about current issues in the art world or any kind of theoretical debate about art making. And of course, there wasn’t even an art market. A curious person by nature, she got very frustrated, and found her way out. Amanda first went England, and came back shortly after, only to drift again to Australia. She found it a good compromise, as everything produced in Europe quickly made its way to Australia.

In University, she finally found the debate she sought, and she finally got the chance meet the big theorists and lecturers in person: “That kind of exposure was extremely important because you are not learning about things in the text, but you are seeing them in person and learning some attitude that will become part of you forever.”

How did you get into performance art from there? It seems to me that compared to Europe, where performance is a process within art history – more of a theoretical evolution – in Southeast Asia it is more tied to responding directly to issues and things that are happing in society. Is that true?

I think there is some truth in that, but I have always felt performance art reflects a much bigger change in the whole world. Performance art started becoming big in the sixties and seventies and was recognised only on the ‘80s and ‘90s. In the Western world, the art scene and all that. It came in the sixties for a reason, because the sixties were a time of revolution. But that doesn’t mean performance started only then. We can date it back to the futurists’ time.

Right, futurists had a lot of performance as well. It was not called that, but it was actually performance!

The language itself developed. It’s the same thing here. In Asia generally, politically we see what you have already experienced 20, 30 years earlier. The same happens with art. Performance art in China started in the late 80s. It started questioning the traditional forms of painting and sculpture which they perceived as the only form of art. But when we tried to express our contemporary experience, when we wanted to start talking about identity, these traditional tools were limited. So you start looking at the most immediate thing, your own body, your own feelings. Even though you make a performance that doesn’t involve the body, the body is always present. When we started talking, it is through the body. Even if you make a sign, this is already a form of expression. So when you are suffering for some reason and then you don’t have the language to talk, you express through your movements. That is why performance became so important to us. Unlike painting which is steeped in tradition and you need to learn to operate within a certain system, performance art can be contagious and immediate. If I scream, some other people suffering would scream along with me. It’s easy. The ‘90s was our time for that raw energy to come out. Some of us were doing tri-dimensional work, but at the same time would also perform.

She feels very happy for young artists, because they got what the older generation fought for and they can always take advantage of scholarships and exchange programs. She points out that the problem is that the art industry is very new in Singapore. She saw it coming into being, and she saw it being institutionalised, being integrated into a plan of economic growth before it could develop on its own: “And this is very very problematic, because art is not born to be an economic vector. This is the biggest problem the younger artists have to consciously think about.”

Another contradiction she notes is in the underlying mindset: “The general Western art philosophy method and ecosystem is based on experimenting and questioning the norms, whereas in Asia general traditional culture is not to rock a boat. It looks at how to be harmonised. That goes against the spirit of asking questions and push things to the limit. I think young artists have to be conscious about this cultural belief and see how they can negotiate between their heritage and, on the another end, something you are interested in.”

How do you personally try to resolve this conflict?

I feel that this spirit of pushing to the limit is a very important essence of what art making is about, even though the traditional way of conceiving art in Asia raises those kind of questions. The real problem is when this kind of spirit and thinking becomes politicised by the state. When young artists start questioning state policies, things become very personal. There is often a wrong understanding of why we need this rebel spirit in creativity. What happens very often is for politicians to conveniently condemn it and save themselves from problems in the understanding of a lot of important issues. I believe that understanding your role as artist is a central question. You need to look at it critically. How do you argue for your ground? How do you negotiate your space? These are the things which are even more important than art making itself. Once you understand these issues, then the art will come naturally to you. If you have this spirit in yourself, then everything can happen.

Then you don’t even need to define what you do as art, since that becomes an extension of your thinking and way of being in the world. Did you have this kind of clarity since the beginning?

Of course I went through a lot of difficulties with institutions. The contrast came from the institutions wanting to have you agree with them and subscribe to their policies, or else become their enemy. I didn’t want either of these positions. I didn’t want to negotiate for right or wrong. What I want to negotiate is that art is something very important and we all should support it and protect it. Artists must know that, especially the young ones. It’s very easy to just give in, since everything is made so easy now. You want funding, you get funding, you want to go overseas, you go overseas, you want to exhibit in Venice, you exhibit in Venice. It’s easy. This is not art making for me.

When everything is easy, you don’t even ask yourself why you are making art. If you have to struggle, you would continuously ask yourself if it is worth it…

Yes, but then because art today has been staged in such a way that it is almost like creating a movie, it is almost a star system, what people see is just this final product. Very often the process of development is hidden. Someone becoming a star overnight. It is easy to ignore, rather than acknowledging that the art making is all about this thought process. It is through this process that you understand a lot of things, you find your clarity. There is not enough emphasis on the process of experimentation. School programs are designed so that in two years, a student will become a star and exhibited internationally. So you see, everything is shortened, it becomes instant. These young students come out and think that becoming an artist is so easy.

So do you think younger artists ever have the time to engage in this process of discovery of their craft and themselves?

The process is very shallow. The way I see it, the process reflects what’s happening in the world, including your personal life, your feelings, your growth process and all that. You have to engage in all these things, which means that you are very consciously living your life and then start questioning every part of it. This becomes part of your work. In the end you might become someone important, but it is through this whole process that your character is developed, your values become clear for you. You fight for them, you hold it tightly. It is this kind of substance that we should be talking about.

Where do you feel the discussion is usually headed instead?

Most of the time it is talking about the work, the forms and everything. It looks like art and it is easy to teach. Nowadays any kind of technology can make polished nice work. But where is the soul? That’s what I’m talking about. And this issue is really peculiar to Singapore, because we gained independence only in ‘65. It is such a short time. We have many different races and we just came out from the protection of the British Empire. With independence, you would think you might get back your soul, but of course you can’t. You have to dig and question and quarrel and negotiate. So this is the real process.

Do you feel the new generation of artists is somehow connected to your generation?

I’d say it depends on individuals. There is a need to be connected to the local history. But generally in schools now, our work is in the curricula, so they have to study us. They invite you into schools often because they want the students to have that contact, which I think is important. I tend to do a lot of that. When I was in residence at the Centre for Contemporary Art, to engage with the school students was part of my proposal of activities. I’d bring them to Gillman Barracks, give them a tour and tell them what role it claims and how in the future they can change this place and recognise the importance of it.

You lived through the ‘90s which was a very rich time…

The ‘90s were important because so many things happened. There were many changes in Asia. All of a sudden we came to question our heritage, our traditions, because we are now thinking about this new entity, this new nation, this new country. We are no longer thinking about ourselves as Chinese, Indian or whoever. But about how we survive without foundations. How do we develop these new values in a void? We can’t. We need to dig back and ask if this is relevant for us or not. In that time, it was very important to start posing precisely these questions.

It’s interesting that you started as an artist right in that period. Was the need to resolve these issues for yourself that brought you to art, or was it something that came from inside first?

I started because I felt threatened, because the government started introducing policies to construct a new identity for Singaporeans. The most terrible policy was the change of the language policy. We used to have a Chinese school, a Malay school, and an Indian school. The policy established all-English schools. This change made a big difference. It first started by stopping the use of dialect for the Chinese, because the Chinese have many different dialects. In the case of my mum, she wasn’t educated. She couldn’t speak Mandarin and she could only use dialect. The government first stopped dialect in radio, news reporting and all that. In meant that this generation of elderly lost all their means of communication. They also lost all their entertainment, because dialects were used for the wayang and movies. No one actually discussed it, but it created a lot of problems. In a family, the old generation could not talk go the younger generation, which means your traditional values that are passed orally from the elderly to the young stopped. So we witnessed a change of values. Can you imagine this form of communication and passing on the heritage and all the wisdom of their lives suddenly stopping, all while the country was still looking for a new identity? How was this new society supposed to operate?

It sounds awful. How can you build something without any kind of rooting?

Yes, so clearly everything become based on the economics. Everything became based on numbers. Can you imagine it? But you are dealing with human beings, so clearly a lot of people started feeling fear and insecurity. Where do I go? Who am I? Where is my place? I can’t go back to China, so how am I going to carry on? So I started looking and asking questions about all these things. I went back to my mum and really tried to understand her and what she experienced.

You explored the topic in your series “Another woman”, that was a very beautiful and touching series. I’m interested in exploring the issue of language a bit more. So your primary and secondary schools, were they in English already?

They were in Chinese and we took English language as a second language. My growth coincided with these policy changes, so when I came out to society after college, all of a sudden everything changed. English became the only language in society. Of course people still use Chinese, but they were looked down on as if they were a second-class citizen. They were confined. We used to have a Chinese University, called Nanyang, which means the teaching language was Chinese. This still exists, but it has been hijacked and coopted into English. Nanyang was very important because it was started by the people during the British colony time, as a local educational system beyond the colonial one. Also the Malay founded their own school and they were private, not funded by the government. Nanyang was particularly important; very important lecturers came to teach. Even if they didn’t destroy the building physically, they quietly changed the teaching media into English. The official reasoning is that Nanyang University had strong connections with communism in China, which wasn’t true. Politically, they were painted as dangerous people we should get rid of. They set up all these political changes and policies of change of language, to kind of neutralise every cultural influx, to make us Singaporeans.

A sense of belonging is very much tied to the language. How was it addressed by artists?

I think language is a free space which no one should have a monopoly on. This is what I believe. I’m proud of my heritage and traditions, but also critical of them. I’m looking at whether they are still relevant to our contemporary living in Singapore. You must develop this ability to look at it critically. So then I also recognise that being a new country here, to survive to be among very different religions and political developments here, that there is always the idea that you are always be on guard. There is always this sense of insecurity. There are of course realities that you need to address, but in order to find your position you must try to understand and not just get rid of an entire culture. I believe every culture, every civilisation has their own values, and its own richness. But you have to go and understand it. Then I’d call myself a multicultural country. What I see is that they are killing our different cultures and telling the world that we are a multicultural country. Which is bullshit. Because I live here, this is not the reality I’m experiencing.

That’s the image that Singapore wants to convey to the world.

The problem of making policy changes overnight is that they ignore that the individuals needs to reconcile emotionally, psychologically. They need to process change. So when I worked with my mother I cried a lot, because I felt her pain. And it wasn’t just my mother. It was the pain of an entire generation. Many generations. I felt particularly sad for my mother’s generation, because they escaped hunger, escaped war, they came from different countries and thought they had found a home here in Singapore. They fought so much. They gave everything and they got treated that way. No one is thinking about that. No one is speaking about that, and we don’t even have a sole language to talk about it in, to be critical and speak out with clarity. When I say we don’t have the language to express that, is that because we are still finding the language. We ended up using the one of the British colonials.

With language, do you mean as actual language or as cultural expression?

Both. you can’t separate them. This is why if you want to kill a person, you just kill their language. This is the most fatal thing to do. The point is that during the colonial time, the British gave us the education not to encourage us to think independently. They actually wanted us to be educated enough to be productive. This is the coloniser’s mentality. During the colonial days, language was a tool to survive, so we could serve the British Empire. It is not for you to think what my future is about. The English language is not our soul language. The English language holds different values which are important for the British, but not for us. In other words, we are still being colonised. Today, that is by Chinese Singaporeans who speak English.

Can you please articulate a bit more about this idea?

I’m wondering what the agenda of Chinese Singaporeans is. Are they just pushing an update of the British Colonisers’ agenda? Or are they really trying to build an identity for Singapore? I suppose making a country, setting up a home, but the point is that it looks like they are creating their own personal propriety. And they are not taking into account people’s emotions and psyche. That’s very wrong. We are basically a democracy to the world, but inside we are even more communist than the communists. The world doesn’t know about this because no one speaks up.

You have travelled a lot also with exhibitions, and your work often deals with “Singapore Issues”. What do you think of artists not wanting to be identified with their own country, for fear or not looking “international” enough?

I’m so used to the art institution saying that my work is too domestic, too personal. When you make international work, it must address international issues. But my feeling is that I became known outside my country precisely because I say something about Singapore. Who wants to see all the same things in art? Every artist comes from a different background and has different influences. Of course also stereotypes exist, there are misunderstandings about human beings living together in a specific space. If you share a specific context, you are bound to understand certain values differently from other people. But these are broader values, not confined to just the countries where these are prevalent. For example, while Shakespeare is Britain’s cultural pride, he speaks to all humans regardless of their nationality. He just expressed some truths in a certain language, but in the end all humans are the same. It is about how my work touches you. You don’t need to be Singaporean to understand my work.

You were also one of the early members of the Artist Village. Can you tell me a bit about your version of the story of how it started?

The Artist Village was necessary, because in those days once we finished school we didn’t know what to do, how to continue. A few of us started sharing studios in certain places in Singapore. At that point in time, Tang Da Wu and others were teaching in LaSalle and we were looked up to them. Their stories, their methods of teaching, what they knew was inspiring to us. At some point Tang Da Wu found a cheap space in an area reserved for the army to train and certain areas were for framing. Some artists already had spaces here, and they started to convert the whole place and they started to move in. A community of artists already existed in Singapore but was sparse. The Artist Villlage became a place for artists to gather. It used to be cheap, but then they started to raise the rent of this area and we couldn’t afford it, so we moved out.

You also had a women artists’ collective. What compelled you to start this group?

It was of course very hard to talk about women’s issues in Singapore, because we are perceived as privileged compared to the Southeast Asian neighbourhood, if only in terms of education. However, there are so many deep-rooted prejudices in the culture, in tradition in Chinese, Indians and Muslims. Only when you pay attention to them in your day to day experience and pin it down, you can see it. I became very conscious about that, because it was part of my identity. I had been assigned a studio space by the National Art Council which turned old houses in art housing schemes for artists. Since I knew few female artists, I decided to open my own studio to them and form a group. We held talks on a monthly basis and we organised an archive which started in 1999 and launched online in 2003.

Traditionally, Chinese culture organises around societies and clubs. Would you say that reverberates also in the way of making art in Singapore?

In Singapore there are hundreds of these groups to represent printmaking, Chinese oil painting, calligraphy, sculpture and all that, but it’s very different from our initiative. Those groups are formed as a formality and they often hold no regular activities, except perhaps a show at the end of the year. They don’t take the role of developing the local art scene or their own practice collectively. In our group, we actually started looking at the role of women precisely in this kind of structure. Chinese culture had all these clans and associations in the old days. They were formed for a very important reason. When the ancestors came from China, they were new here, so they formed their groups together. If you come from Canton, then you recognise your people from your same homeland. You got together and you formed a group, you built your temples, your schools and all that. In these groups women were not allowed to come to Singapore yet, only the men. Once they established themselves, they brought the women, or they got married. So women were never in the picture in this kind of structure, which continued in business, in political parties and in everything else. This is precisely a patriarchal structure. Occasionally some strong women came into it, but that’s pretty much it. So when we formed our group, this specific thing was discussed. We are not a group like that. We don’t need this structure. In that, we were different.