Mysteries in a Familiar Language
BT TAN JINGLIANG
Strategically tucked away at the furthest end of the second-floor galleries of Singapore Art Museum like a secret room, The Sixth Day (2008) by Donna Ong calls forth an instant wave of familiarity upon first glance. Once again the always beautiful, delicate assemblage of objects that characterizes much of Ong’s work, here is a set of ornate wooden whitewashed cabinets and dresser laden with all of the signs of a careful, nurturing, maternal hand. Flanked by glittering crystal lamps, draped in strings of white pearls and lined with a multitude of glass tanks and vessels, a gentle domestic space is delineated within the arrangement of objects. Dozens and dozens of small white spheres resembling eggs with a young green sapling growing out of each one fill up the incubatory glass vessels, transforming into narrative symbols of birth and creation that hark back to the Christian myth of genesis, as the title of the piece suggests.
Yet just as much as the allusions to fertility abound, an air of deathly obsession lingers. An overbearing, pallid whiteness that surrounds the space begins to seem at odds with its associated images of nurseries, incubators and maternal dwellings. So beautifully arrayed upon glass dishes and behind glass windows were the little white “eggs”, like dead little showpieces in a shop window display, that they seem instead suspended from growth within this icy interior. Which maniacal, naive mother-to-be has laid the table with her finest pieces of glassware to such immaculate perfection in this dusty, forgotten room, waiting alone to celebrate a birth that might never come? We find ourselves looking upon a stark portrait of the stillborn creative attempt, stagnant and waterlogged; a time devoid of life.
Recurring consistently and hauntingly in Ong’s work are themes of futility in hope and dreams, death of the creative attempt, neurotic compulsions that result from desire and longing, and eventually, a desperation that manifests in unhealthy secret obsessions. Yet this is not to speak of her work as painful displays of an indulgently pessimistic worldview. While presenting the potential for falling and failing with every yearning, the work never departs from its deep-rooted faith in the wistful, earnest wish, which becomes all the more compelling when the stakes of hopes being dashed are raised just as high as that of a dream fulfilled.
The method Ong is often associated with – of transforming otherwise mundane, everyday objects into exquisite metaphors for ideas, spaces and worlds that would otherwise reside only in the mind – precisely counteracts any such an impression of negative self-wallowing for viewers of her work. This finds form most effectively in one of her most lauded pieces entitled Secret, Interiors: Chrysalis (2006), an installation comprising four rooms inhabited by four fictitious personas, each harbouring a secret hope that manifests itself into wondrous assemblages of found objects and furniture. In one of the four rooms of the eerie narrative quadriptych, we find the idea of a stagnant creative spirit that clearly recurs in The Sixth Day, explored in a fictitious and much more macabre manner: a tableau of failed experiments to instill life within the stillborn; dolls soaked and encased within boxes and jars of unknown liquids, connected by tubes to queer mechanisms reminiscent of primitive chemical laboratories.
The magic of the piece lies in the way Ong draws upon the narrative potential of fiction to expound on themes of hope/futility, birth/death and fear/desire with true novelty that transcends reality, yet at the same time ground it firmly back in the real world with the use of objects that become metaphorical components of her storytelling without losing their individuality in form and function. The plastic straw that becomes the surgical tubing remains unaltered in its being as a straw upon close view. It gives us an uncanny sense of familiarity and closes the distance between artist and viewer, for these ideas have been woven from articles so simple and so close to the everyday that we remember, all at once, that beneath the complexities of art is a real person whose materials for expression are just as basic as ours and whose work originates from emotions just as real as any other’s. One can relate to Ong as a fiction writer or film director, except she has simply chosen to operate with a different language from printed word or moving image, and with real ingenuity. Here, the piece outwits spectacle; becomes human.
In fact, one may find that Ong’s work becomes more accessible when likened to that of cinema. The film director delineates the cinematic space within his ‘film world’, selects a part of it to place within a frame and invites his audience to immerse themselves completely for at least the duration for they watch the film. Similarly, Ong rigorously chooses, arranges and transforms her materials and undergoes a similar process of “placing them within a frame”, revealing only a selective portion of her own fictitious world within a physically delineated space. Here, her objects take on a life of their own, without departing from their real-world tangibility, and in the absence of the fictitious people-characters they bespeak of, become the characters themselves. They request from the viewer a complete faith in the imaginary, and reward the curious who delve deeper into what they see and who confront the work on close view. It is precisely here where the narrative attempt in The Sixth Day falls short.
While Ong showcased her mastery of the language of the found object and its narrative potential in Secret, Interiors, it may be difficult to say the same of The Sixth Day. Where objects should have risen from their form and function to become components of an adroit imagination, part of that magic crumbles upon a second look. Perhaps it was the dazzling brilliance emitting from the two crystal chandeliers, for so glamorous and pretty-looking they were that one cannot help but see them as pure ornament. Somewhere along the way the narrative failed to hold its own, exposing the mundanity of the elements in all of their nakedness. Instead of a deep fascination that outlasts the manufacturability of the material, we are left with the nagging irritation of having recognized the bulk of the store-bought objects in the piece and the sense of a deadened craft, a distance from the artist’s hand. Ironically, it is precisely such a deadening of craft that the work speaks of so wistfully.
Concurrently held alongside the display of this piece at Chimera at the Singapore Art Museum was Future Proof: The Singapore Show, a noticeably less sleek, rawer showcase of local contemporary art by young emerging artists, in which Ong also showed. Entitled Crystal City (2009), this piece is a marked departure from her earlier thematic tendencies and practice of imbuing a narrative quality in her work. Object-metaphors seem to have become purely formal – an assortment of crystal bottles, jars, bowls, glasses and decanters in all shapes and sizes are arranged in a massive, room-length assemblage, forming the visual illusion of an urban city skyline. Here, the whole is certainly greater than the sum of its parts. Looking at Ong’s work in chronology from the early beginnings of Doctor Auctor (2002), the very first of her created spaces and fictitious personas (in the form of a photo-series), to the frailties of The Sixth Day, one first wonders, on a very superficial level, if Ong’s exploration of object-narratives has somewhat “peaked” in Secret, Interiors.
In Crystal City, fiction and narrative have simmered down to a low hum and tensions are found instead within material. In between delicacy and hardness, the diaphanous quality of the glass and concrete palpability of urban city, one confronts the relationship between conflicting images of the illusory and the implied real. This calls to mind similar and much more overt tensions between the industrial and organic in her work in Landscape Portraits (A Beautiful Place Closeby) (2009). Made in the same year and indicative of a similar turn in Ong’s artistic practice, seemingly soft, coral-like bio-forms are made out of hard metal nails, screws and a variety of hardware. A bizarre union between the natural and the man-made, these forms incite instinctive responses about the controlling of nature, about the seamless melding of the dichotomous. We remain in familiar realms of Ong’s object-language, but it has matured from merely demonstrating formal or metaphorical representations. It has acquired a newfound level of universality, and perhaps mystery too.
Where Ong’s earlier work may be approached moving from a distant view of the elaborate narrative whole to close-ups on each object-part, in her later work we find that we are looking at a much more subdued and minimalist content that is much more challenging to access – much more mysterious. We find it difficult to speak of it in its entirety or with great specificity, or with as much confidence of understanding as we could before, yet it never quite detaches completely from the recurring familiarity that it strikes with the viewer’s own experiences of the tangible world. There is always impetus for response to the work even if this response is harder to articulate – and to respond is to demystify and to make a connection. One can hope for the future that Ong’s art will continue to evolve and speak to us in the language we may know well, but each time more refined, and more demanding than before.