Into A Parallel Dimension

The Sixth Day (2008) by Donna Ong. Image: Yap Jia En


Greeted by stillness and a feeling of stagnation, Donna Ong’s work, The Sixth Day welcomes us to a rather different part of Singapore Art Museum’s Private Collector’s show Chimera. Amidst all the metaphorical, allegorical and conceptual works is this installation, which is rather more of an experience. The dimly lit room did not invite you to a homely place; yes it did make you curious to come closer and inspect it but certainly not to live in it.

The Sixth Day (2008) by Donna Ong. Image: Yap Jia En

The Sixth Day (2008) by Donna Ong. Image: Yap Jia En

The Victorian interiors of the room initially seem allegorical transporting you to a set from an Ibsen production. But the installation has its own whimsical surrealism – what with the way glass and reflective surfaces have been treated by the artist. One finds several spherical objects – from glass bowls to egg-like stones to pearls and other vessels kept in cabinets and the shelves. The presence of spiders on these egg-like formations makes the dream complete and brings the viewer into Donna Ong’s surreal world. Most of her works show this alternate, surreal reality and she has said that this is because:

“I promised myself as a child, never to forget what it felt like to be a child. To dream and invest in the imaginary, the fantastic, the impossible. My work is about trying to keep that promise.”

One can connect the dots with the name of the piece – The Sixth Day – referring to the biblical sixth day of creation – when God created humans. The spiders take on a nurturing role and the spherical objects in the display metaphorically represent eggs. It has been speculated that the depiction of the spiders is Ong’s way of paying homage to the artist, Louise Bourgeois.

A deeper interaction with this work and with other works by Donna Ong is fostered by the manner in which one approaches them. Distance plays a great role in understanding and developing a relationship with the installations that Ong makes. Viewed from far away and then viewed from close proximity; and another glance at the work just before leaving the room enables you to see it in a different light.

At a close distance The Sixth Day – disintegrates. It somehow loses the narrative suggestion of the biblical sixth day. From a closer proximity those vases and glass vessels seem not from the Victorian era, but something that the viewer might find in their own homes. When one comes to this realisation the image of the work changes from the unapproachable, vintage, whimsical and white Victorian room to, “Oh! I have that vase on my dressing table too!”

This breaking of the narrative is one way in which this work is different from Donna Ong’s other pieces. Once this narrative breaks, so does the whimsical and surreal nature of the work. The appeal that it held slowly diminishes and then there is nothing more to say or see in the work, nothing new or fantastic. This isn’t helped by a curator’s text on the wall beside the artwork.What could have been a moment of revelation for the viewer when s/he connects the “The Sixth Day” to the biblical day of creation is ruined by over-explanation on the wall, and the singular appeal of individual discovery is lost. The work becomes just another room with some vintage looking furniture inside it – Good to see once, but just that once.

At this juncture it is important to see and discuss a work by Donna Ong where the narrative plays a greater role. Crystal City (2009) which was presented concurrently at Future Proof in SAM at 8Q, which is also mesmerizing as it shows the range and diversity in the kind of installations that Ong makes.

Crystal City (2009) by Donna Ong. Image: Internet

Crystal City is also placed in a dimly lit room but the light from the sculpture itself creates a whimsical and dreamlike landscape adhering to Ong’s belief in depicting the surreal and fantastic to keep the inner child in her alive.

On a rectangular table, the sculpture is made completely out of glass: glass vases, tumblers, pots, bowls and even shot glasses. The skyline of the aptly named crystal city rises above its individual components, the light that brightens and dims periodically reveals the various skyscrapers and reflects and refracts to show this intensely moving city.

A narrative can develop as one views this work; from far away the city shines brightly, catching your eye because of the ingenious and skilful use of material. The sheer quantity of glass draws you towards the sculpture. Once you are closer to it you notice the roads, corners, joints and the intelligent use of different forms of glass, found objects. A vase still looks like a vase although it has been combined with another glass bowl to make a building. The fact that the object has been used without changing its form makes you appreciate the effort that has gone into making the work. When you step back from the work the whole seems greater than the sum of its parts and you view the installation as a “crystal city” and not as an amalgam of glassware.

Another curatorial text states that in this work Ong creates two “conflicting images” by representing the glassware as glassware and as an imagined skyline. In no way are they conflicting, in fact they quite complement each other – what could be more representative of a surreal city than one that is made completely out of glass?

My first reaction when I saw Crystal City was, “Wow! This is like The Fortress of Solitude (the place that Superman creates on earth)”, and this feeling of amazement brings me back to this work again and again. Moreover being aware of some of Donna Ong’s earlier works it also reminds me of Secret, Interiors: Chrysalis (20) presented in the Singapore Biennale 2006.

The Secret Interiors: Chrysalis (20) by Donna Ong. Image: Internet

The similarity of the arrangement is quite extraordinary in the case of Crystal City and Secret, Interiors: Chrysalis (20) however the motive and the placement of the arrangement are completely different. And this gives rise to a different interpretation, feeling and association with the work. Hence although they might be formally similar they still elicit different responses in the viewers.On coming closer to both of Ong’s works at SAM one can really see the artist’s progress and struggle and this makes the viewer feel close to her  and the work in a way that nothing else can.
Ong leaves you with the feeling of having visited a parallel dream-like reality, one that you have been well acquainted with, whose roads and alleys have been clearly marked. It is a place where you can be willingly lost and aloof from the real world and when you have had enough you can escape from there and find your way back to the order of real life.