Photos: Eddie Teo
Contrary to her preference for working with everyday objects in the creation of her art pieces, Dawn Ng’s oeuvre of work is anything but ordinary. Many of us would remember news of a large white rabbit suddenly appearing in the heart of Singapore’s urban landscapes. That was Walter, one of the 32-year-old’s most well-known solo projects. In a way, the ingredients were simple—a large float sculpture placed in the city—but the effect had a far deeper outreach. It made us pause to look and appreciate our surroundings, and in the process, “discover the extraordinary in the everyday” with a childlike curiosity.
And come March, Walter will be making its rounds on an international stage—with stops at two museums in France to coincide with the Singapore-themed Art Paris Art Fair that will be taking place in the Grand Palais in the French capital. There, Ong’s latest body of work, A Thing of Beauty, recently exhibited at Chan Hampe Galleries (see pictures), will be exhibited.
“I think these simple things really form the fabric of my growing up and my becoming an adult. Quite naturally, I subconsciously draw from them and use them in my work. I’m very interested in the everyday and ordinary. I think there is world beyond worlds in something that you just take for granted on the surface and I’m interested in peeling back those layers and helping people find something beautiful in what would be the invisible normal,” explains Ng, when asked about the appeal of simplicity.
In between outbursts of laughter as these photos were being taken, the cheery artist delves into the details of her practice, the emotion in colours and how she finds balance amidst the madness.
How did you fall in love with art?
I am not sure if I fell in love with it. I chose it; I wanted it; but mainly because I was interested in telling stories. I’m drawn to stories are embedded in the truth. I think that the truth is always interesting and telling it with simple things helps people look at it in a way that’s almost like a child again.
Can you tell us more about your art practice and the medium(s) you work with?
I am a multi-media visual artist. I work with all sorts of mediums – paper, paint, photography, the list goes on. When I was in college, I focused only on painting but I bear no allegiance to any one form today. I think every artwork or story demands its own means of coming to life.
Do you have a favourite?
No I don’t. I think that keeps my practice exciting for me. I’m find myself still young in my practice and in my career, and I’m excited by having each project as sort of an adventure with a certain material and what kind of story that material can tell.
What are some of the key themes/narratives you explore in your work?
Memory, time and identity.
Where do you draw your inspiration from?
I don’t draw inspiration from any one person or thing, but I find endless fascination in bits and pieces of everything. I do travel a lot and when I’m away, I do meet other artists and look at the work presented in galleries. I think there’s a certain zeitgeist in an era that people are interested in, topics that are bubbling up. Beyond the art world, I do a lot of wandering and a lot of strange things. I also do a fair bit of art research. Having done a fine arts and journalism double-major, I do pick off the back of that and really study the artists I’m interested in.
How far are you influenced by trends?
I think everyone is, whether they’re conscious of it or not. You can’t escape the environment you’re in and everything affects the way you do, what you see, what you read. We are just a product of our time and I think it’s interesting that every artist has her own version of the story.
Tell us more about colours in your latest work. They’re very colourful, yet very subtle.
Yes, I’m starting to just realise that. It’s funny because my favourite colour is white, which is a non-colour. But maybe deep inside me, it’s just like a rainbow. I find colours interesting to play with. I think people have a very simplistic understanding of colour. But we always simplify them, when there a multitude of shades is a colour like blue. There are worlds within worlds that I want to peel back and stare into. The use of colour in very important in this work (A Thing of Beauty) because although the images are sort of flat and immediate, it is an image that keeps on revealing itself in the same way the colour white has so many shades within it. Colours are very emotional, they speak to you without words.
How does space fit into the way you develop your ideas?
I usually do what I want to do and figure out how it’ll fit into the space later. But I do like to work with both very small and very large works.
How particular are you about doing everything on your own?
Very. But as I wanted to concentrate on the choreography and the building of things for ‘A Thing of Beauty’, I really didn’t want to fuss too much on being the one to press the button.
What’s been the most challenging part of your work as an artist?
Finding any kind of balance. I am just starting to find my own method in the madness. Projects of a larger scale demand more than just an idea. It involves a team of people—assistants, photographers, and other people—coming together to help you realise what you thought of. In that management of that bigger system, to get everyone on the same page, it can be challenging. And because you know this is not a nine-to-five job, it can be a very unhealthy lifestyle (sleeping very very late, waking up at 4am and coming back to the studio to obsess over things, fixing things) when it’s exhibition time or when it’s a solo.
How difficult is it to know when a particular piece is complete?
I actually had a conversation with an architect friend about it recently. It is the eternal question and for me, it’s very instinctive. I’d know when it’s not right, and when it’s not quite done. It’s just that you’re not settled with it and I keep fussing with it. Sometimes, pieces complete themselves and I feel like I’m just along for the ride. It’s something that’s not really in your control. Sometimes mistakes lead you to a better outcome, a better form and texture of what you’re working on. Sometimes it’s just an internal settlement when you look at a piece, it clicks together.
What’s been the most satisfying?
The next blank page.
How do you hope audiences interact with your work?
I never consider them.
So what do you think about while you’re at work?
A lot of things. When you’re at work, you think about everything and nothing at the same time. But there are times when I’m really into something, I lose track of time and the hours can just fly by and suddenly it’s night. I don’t even know what I was thinking of. I was just thinking about how do I make it work, whether some compositions are better than other, whether some colours work or not, what is the story, whether things have an integrity, whether they have a truth in it, does it seamlessly come together.
It sounds like things can get quite intense.
Yes they do, and sometimes my husband would call me to make sure that I’ve eaten. He’ll come and drop-off stuff he ta bao-ed.
Does he stay to keep you company at work?
He doesn’t because he’s tried to, but he says that I’ve not a single chair in the office and they’re so uncomfortable so he just leaves me be.
Who are your top 3 favourite artists and why?
Right now? Baldessari, Shapiro, Basquiat. Ideas, scale, velocity.
What do you look out for when you observe other art pieces?
The sense of the sublime. What I mean when I say that, is something that is immediately moving even if you may not know why. Something that is bigger than yourself, something that make your eyes re-calibrate and understand something that you’ve not seen before. These are a few things that I find drawn to within other people’s work.
If you could sum up your journey in art with one word, what would it be? Why?
Beginning. I like beginnings. Everything is possible at the beginning.
Can you tell us more about your upcoming projects?
A Thing of Beauty is a new solo of photographed installations of small, locally sourced objects — the objectified minutia of everyday life culminating in a structural wonderland of monochromatic shapes built on stone. I handpicked the objects provisioned for the palette of this work from a total of 138 mom and pop shops throughout Singapore’s residential heartlands, making each installation an anthropological documentary of things we collectively own in this day and age.
This story was first published in Vol 4 of Gallery & Studio.