In celebration of International Women’s Day and in conjunction with Singapore Design Week 2018, The Private Museum is pleased to present In Flux by New York-based Singaporean artist, Dr Wee Hong Ling, from 16 March to 6 May 2018. This solo exhibition follows the most recent development of Wee’s artistic practice, featuring three distinct series of ceramic works (Brooklyn, Moxie and My Family Portrait) and, importantly, the inaugural showcase of blacksmithing works by a Singaporean female artist.
Brooklyn is a series that acknowledges both Singapore and New York as Wee’s homes. From one island to another, Brooklyn references her mediation between continents and her abiding state of flux. By contrast, Moxie, a series of large vessels with daring cantilevers, engages the viewer to ruminate on the artist’s internal qualities of fortitude and persistence as requisites of creating sizable ceramic works.
In this exhibition, Wee also revisits My Family Portrait, the sole figurative sculpture from her body of work that has never been shown. In Flux presents her interpretations in clay and steel juxtaposed against the old childhood photograph.
For the second blacksmithing work, Heaven and Earth, Wee experiments with time and chance by exposing nine forged discs to the elements, including the first snow of winter in New York, to develop a skin of rust. Heaven and Earth, inspired by Chinese cosmology, can be seen as the artist paying homage to her mother tongue and heritage.
As a whole, In Flux is an artistic endeavour by Dr Wee Hong Ling to challenge perceptions and break social stereotypes. Personal and endearing, the works mirror her mindset regarding the continual state of uncertainty that she experiences in the physical, metaphysical and humanistic worlds.
Dr Wee Hong Ling is an award-winning ceramicist representing Singapore art and design internationally since 2003. Not only is Wee making an impact upon the field of ceramic arts, she is also committed to raising the visibility of Singaporean ceramics globally.
In 2011, she had a solo exhibition, No Place Like Home, at Sculpture Square in celebration of the 46th National Day. During the Olympic Games in London in 2012, she was invited to exhibit at the Pop-Up Singapore House. After that show, My Paper named Wee one of ten Singaporeans who make the nation proud. And in 2013, she received the prestigious Outstanding Achievements and Contribution to Community Empowerment Award from The Society of Foreign Consuls in New York City.
Wee’s work has also represented Singapore in competitions in the United States, United Kingdom, Australia, China, Japan and Korea. Her accolades include the First Prize at Ceramics Biennial 2006 at The New Hampshire Institute of Art (New Hampshire, USA), an Award of Excellence at the Third China-ASEAN Youth Creativity Competition at the Guangxi National Art Centre (Nanning, China) and an Honourable Mention at the Cheongju International Craft Biennale (Cheongju-si, Korea).
Because Wee considers both Singapore and New York to be home, it is natural that she married the two by organising the first grassroots Singapore Arts Festival in New York to celebrate Singapore’s Golden Jubilee in 2015. The 11-day presentation of Singapore arts and culture in downtown Manhattan drew 1500 attendees.
Last November, Wee was again flying the Singapore flag, this time at the Singapore Permanent Mission to the United Nations in New York. Her installation, Things That Matter, is her body of ceremonial objects and centerpieces that keeps her closely connected to her culture.
Wee’s ceramics can be found in the permanent collections of the National Gallery (Singapore), the Ministries of Law and Foreign Affairs (Singapore), the Shigaraki Ceramic Cultural Park (Japan), the Fule International Ceramic Art Museum (China) and the Guangxi National Art Center (China).
A Constant Inconstant: Dr Wee Hong Ling in conversation with Tamares Goh
To be in flux describes a state of non-constancy, a movement that fluctuates, a state of instability, an ongoing search that is unpredictable. This is the title of Dr Wee Hong Ling’s exhibition and it describes the state that she is constantly in. When Hong Ling first arrived in the United States in 1992 to pursue her studies, she never imagined that she would stay for more than two decades. The stay in itself saw some significant shifts in her life: from scientist to artist, from visitor to resident to becoming very much at home in New York City.
In the exhibition stand four distinct series of works: Brooklyn, Moxie, My Family Portrait and Heaven and Earth. The Brooklyn series comprises a set of bowls, named after the borough next to which Hong Ling currently resides. It is an example of a culturally rich, cosmopolitan area where a mixture of people from diverse communities and ethnicities have gathered. New York at large is a melting pot of cultures, where people and stories collide; Singapore – from which Hong Ling originates – is likewise both a port and an island of opportunities for work and living. Hong Ling acknowledges both Singapore and New York as her homes, a contradictory state that amplifies her feeling of flux. The word “Brooklyn” implies water, which links directly to her roots in Singapore, an island surrounded by water. It provides a distant yet constant background for her practice. In Brooklyn, the symmetrical forms have common cantilevered rims that subtly roll inwards and, where need be, securely hold the bowls’ contents. As a family of forms, they suggest a sense of protective comfort as an extension of containment, akin to the way a home both houses and protects its occupants.
In contrast to the openness of forms in Brooklyn, the Moxie series is marked by colourful pursed edges that hide and deny any access to the interior form; consequently the viewer is forced to imagine the internal surface. It is the qualities of internal strength and mental fortitude that the title alludes to. The colloquial expression “moxie” means to have courage or gumption. The measure of courage is also the measure of our willingness to embrace disappointment, and this underlines the qualities necessary for the continuous momentum in art-making.
The two versions of My Family Portrait series are separated by a long gap of 15 years. However, both are variants on the same theme, taking a common point of departure expressed in very different materials, and thus connected by a fundamental belief in the notion of family. Using an extremely rare practice, almost obsolete in Singapore, the recent series is a landmark presentation of forged steel works by a Singaporean artist.
Experimentation is further evident within the series Heaven and Earth, a reference to Chinese cosmology, where Hong Ling allows natural forces to act on the surface of nine steel disc-like plates. Pivotal to her approach is the idea that “Heaven” stands for the imaginary ideal, vis-à-vis the “Earth” as reality, the title evoking honesty in the description of the continuous ambition versus harsh reality-checks whilst making her work. Using factors such as time, weather and chance, as well as planned events versus coincidences, Hong Ling uses conditions as a means to inflict material changes, allowing a displaced creativity to act within the process but not in the physical making of the object. Time is another constant within her practice. In the absorption of this whole process, Hong Ling creates her own unit of measure for time. The alignment of experiment and risk also directly explores an interface between art and science. This methodical enquiry borrows from Hong Ling’s previous background as a scientist, allowing her to create experiments in pursuit of the next challenge, whether structural, material and/or aesthetic. These experiments are a constant that has an impact on the outcome of her ongoing practice.
Tamares Goh (TG): You were a scientist. Some people see science and art as two disparate extremes that belong to different worlds. On the contrary, being a ceramicist is not too different from being a scientist in a way. It involves stern discipline. There’s alchemy involved, there are tests, failures and unexpected outcomes. Could you tell us more about your process and how your previous training informs your current practice?
Dr Wee Hong Ling (WHL): Art and Science are commonly perceived as opposites. I used to think that until I encountered clay. It’s perhaps because as a student, you’re taught that problems in the sciences and mathematics have correct answers, whereas art is nebulous and subjective.
But in both art and science, problem-solving is the common denominator. Even though the skills involved in analysing a satellite image and creating a ceramic vase may seem very different, many are in fact transferable. I bring the same rigour to art-making. Being at ease with logical reasoning, materials science, calculations and glaze chemistry helped with my transition to ceramics.
Honing one’s craft is extremely important, especially if one wishes to do something well. It’s like playing the scales in music or preparing the rice in sushi-making. Practice is critical. I’ve witnessed great scientists and artists at work. All of them have devoted their lives to achieving mastery. Canadian author Malcolm Gladwell proclaimed that one needs to practise for at least 10,000 hours before achieving expertise in any skill. I’d add that practising with the intention of breaking through one’s own glass ceiling is even more important. Having the discipline to never settle for “good enough” is what separates excellence from mediocrity.
My process is simple: create fearlessly, edit critically, repeat tenaciously. From preparing the clay to cleaning the tools, I give every step heightened importance because sloppiness has a cumulative negative effect. Every little thing makes a difference with the final result, even if it isn’t immediately obvious. So I do everything within my power to make sure the piece is done to the best of my abilities, paying attention to all details. But once a ceramic piece goes into the kiln, especially with an atmospheric firing, I have to give up control and embrace the surprises.
For Heaven and Earth, time and chance played a significant role. Over a period of 8 weeks, I put the nine forged discs out on my fire escape and exposed them to the elements, including the first snow of winter in New York, to develop a skin of rust. There’s definitely alchemy involved. As the saying goes, “if you look for beauty, you’ll find it.”
TG: In this exhibition, you presented yourself with constant challenges, especially mass and scale. Can you tell us a bit more about these challenges that you impose on yourself? What is your philosophy?
WHL: My philosophy is: commit to something and give it everything you’ve got. A large component of the art process is self-discovery. With every project, I’d stretch myself a little beyond my comfort zone. If there is no struggle, I know I haven’t pushed myself or the material hard enough.
I usually begin by thinking about the constraints I am presented with, whether they are physical, structural, mental—and the ways I can overcome them. I’m methodical in my approach, so I’d carefully consider the parameters, how I can deal with the obstacles, and how I can create something meaningful within those limits.
In terms of challenging myself, my personality is such that I do not naturally choose an easy path. With age, I’ve developed a tolerance for failure. That’s how I grow, learn and expand my capacity. To quote Michelangelo, “The greater danger for most of us lies not in setting our aim too high and falling short; but in setting our aim too low, and achieving our mark too easily.”
In 2007, I did a residency that allowed me to experiment and build large objects, which I couldn’t do at my studio in New York. That was where the first Moxie was born. In addition to size and mass, the biggest challenge in the Moxie series is the cantilevering top plane. Structurally, there is nothing supporting that material going out horizontally into space. The challenge is fighting gravity and making sure there is enough structural integrity. I failed multiple times. But just because something is difficult doesn’t mean it’s impossible.
I often think about Singapore in the early years of independence. We had few resources and our survival as a nation was questionable. If our forefathers had taken the path of least resistance, the last 50 years would have unfolded in a very different way. If no one had taken on work that was hard, where would we be today?
TG: Do you consider your works complete once they are finished or do you revisit them?
WHL: I work only in series, because there is much to learn from repeating a process and from creating multiples. If I make a group of ceramic houses, at a certain point, I would have developed sufficient muscle memory that I don’t need to think about what I’m doing. Ironically, that for me, is also the stopping point. Because the autopilot mode, to be unthinking, is the antithesis of my giving every step and every detail heightened importance. If the artist is not investing herself, the work, no matter how skillfully executed, is as good as dead.
If I notice my mind drifting while at work, I stop and move on to something else where I need to solve new problems. I may revisit a series at a later time when I can again think critically about that work… when it’s fresh again.
Also, stopping doesn’t mean quitting. It simply means that I’m taking a break to prevent developing a “blindness” to what I’m doing. That is my practice, to ensure that my attention is always acute when I am working.
TG: Tell us more about why you wanted to be involved in International Women’s Day, and your wanting to rethink what’s conventionally perceived of a woman art practitioner?
WHL: I looked at many archival images of old factories, studios and schools. The prevalent division of labour, at least in the field of ceramics, is women as decorators while their male counterparts perform the role as makers because the latter’s tasks are physically more demanding. For this exhibition, I saw an opportunity to counter the perception that women can only make small and “pretty” things. If everyone adheres to stereotypes, how can a society progress?
For the last five years, I have been keeping my work to a smaller scale, nothing large or heavy, due to a neck injury… until this exhibition. I wasn’t sure if I could do it, but I wanted to challenge myself.
In addition to ceramics, I went to learn blacksmithing, and I am including my steel works in this exhibition. It is no wonder that 95% of blacksmiths are men because that work is extremely demanding on the body. But what I wish to convey with this exhibition is that what we may lack in experience, skill and strength, we can make up for it with moxie, tenacity and heart. This body of work is about conquering fears, overcoming obstacles, expanding capacities and shaking off shackles. How else do we break new ground and turn what seemed impossible into reality?
TG: The title of this exhibition, In Flux, relates to a constant movement, a transitory action, migration both literal and also metaphysical. Would you like to elaborate more about this and how you see your own place in the midst of these movements?
WHL: When I first came to New York, I thought my stay would only last four to five years. I never imagined I would live here for 25 years. Now, home is both Singapore and New York—two continents, two time zones, opposite ends of the world.
But besides moving physically between places, I’m also constantly vacillating between left- and right-brain, restraint and indulgence, functional and sculptural work, my Asian heritage and my Western education, being a native/insider versus being a visitor/outsider.
I question why we have to be so dogmatic about needing to choose a direction, a type, a label. To me, “in flux” implies never being stagnant. I value all these different influences in my life, and I work with all these facets of me. Uncertainty and ambiguity leave room for imagination and growth.
And just like me, my creations never fit neatly in one category. While most of my ceramics could be used, they are also sculptural objects serving a decorative purpose. I find things which are difficult to define more interesting. I love objects that make the viewer ponder about their multiple roles…objects of contemplation.
TG: Despite the state of flux in various situations, you present a family series that you refer to as a constant. Tell us more.
WHL: Though it was never my intention to make abstract representations of my family, the subconscious works in mysterious ways. When I made that first abstract figurative clay sculpture in 2003, I didn’t know why I had made it. It was unlike my other work; until one day, I found my childhood family portraits and it all made sense.
When I was a child, families would go to professional studios to get a portrait taken during Chinese New Year. The black and white photographs all have the same configuration—my parents in the back, my two older brothers to each side and me, in the middle. Those childhood family portraits must have left an impression on my psyche, and that is where the work came from!
Last year, as I was learning blacksmithing, I found myself building these steel structures that have windows in them, just like my ceramic houses. When I put the pieces together, I recognised the arrangement as my family portrait once again. These two personal artworks created 15 years apart, both titled My Family Portrait, are included in this exhibition because these sculptures show that while I can be in an abiding state of flux, my family lies at the core, unwavering. In my life’s journey, they are my true north.
Tamares Goh is an artist who currently heads the Adult Learning team at the National Gallery Singapore. She is a part-time lecturer at the School of Art Design Media at Nanyang Technological University teaching the Cultural and Creative Industries module. As a former Head of Visual Arts at Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay, she has been curating exhibitions at the arts centre since 2003. In 2013, she was the co-curator for the Singapore Biennale and in 2017, she was appointed as the producer for the Singapore Pavilion at the 57th Venice Biennale.
Thursday, 15 March 2018
Guest of Honour:
Tan Su Shan
Managing Director and Group Head
Consumer Banking and Wealth Management, DBS Group
Saturday, 17 March 2018
For more information and documentation of the artist talk, click here.
As part of the exhibition, Dr Wee Hong Ling visited 20 Singapore schools to share with students about her studio practice and themes presented in the exhibition.
For more information and documentation of the school talks, click here.
16 March 2018- 96.3 HAO FM (Radio Interview)
19 March 2018- Money FM 89.3 (Radio Interview)
7 May 2018- Capital 95.8 FM (Radio Interview)
8 May 2018- Capital 95.8 FM (Radio Interview)
9 May 2018- Capital 95.8 FM (Radio Interview)
10 May 2018- Capital 95.8 FM (Radio Interview)
11 May 2018- Capital 95.8 FM (Radio Interview)