Fantastical Reality

The Sixth Day by Donna Ong (credit: artitute.com)

BY EDISON CHEE

When I first encountered The Sixth Day at Chimera, Singapore Art Museum’s Private Collector’s show, I felt like I had stumbled upon somebody’s secret diary tucked away in a hidden room, full of mystery and intrigue. It is one of my favorite pieces I’ve come across at the show, and I surmise that its appeal is largely driven by its dream-like quality.

The Sixth Day is built on the idea of allowing the viewer to navigate the artwork based on his own presuppositions, while delivering several themes and messages as he moves from the bigger picture to the finer details of the installation. It is set up in a way which invites the audience to be intimate with the objects, closing the space between the artwork and the viewer via devices such as the little spiders made out of wire. This interaction is facilitated by situating the structures in close proximity to one another, and especially by the inclusion of a small desk in the center of the installation which diminishes the actual physical roaming space one would have if the desk was not there. The viewer is invited to enter the installation space emotionally by first recognizing a narrative in the scene. The ambient lighting felt so musky I could almost feel it on my skin, which heightened my senses and piqued my interest. Enclosing a small space with the structures, viewers are bidden to enter the space and explore the world in private, establishing an intimate connection between the artwork, the viewer and his inner self.

The confined space allows the viewer to go into a small retreat within himself, reaching even into the recesses of the mind. Memories are invoked as he surveys a portion of a separate world which Donna Ong had carefully sculpted into the space, navigating the physical space either in a clockwise or anti-clockwise direction. Such a set-up resembles the religious architectural buildings of old, specifically in India. For example, in the case of Hindu Temples, the worshipper first prepares himself as he looks upon the carvings on the exterior facade which brings to mind portions of religious texts. He then ascends the stairs into a small inner sacred space where statues of the Hindu gods are placed. An almost claustrophobic experience, but intriguing nonetheless. The similarity between these two experiences shed some light on why the artwork captivates. How a person relates to himself changes when his personal space either expands or contracts around him, affecting not only his field of vision but also his sense of his immediate surroundings. At the point when the viewer has already entered the space, he is now ready to commune with himself as he explores the intricate elements of the artwork.

The spiders made up of curled wire comes as a surprise in such a pristine environment seemingly devoid of life. Yet the form of the spider lends much weight to the visual impact of the small creature. As the wire spirals while forming the body, a sense of motion and life is imparted. That, and the fact that they guard over their eggs – off-white round pearly spheres – embeds a strong potential force ready to spring out at any moment, akin to that of a stretched rubber band. In reality, a spider would probably cause a person to withdraw from it in anticipation of any slightest movement. However in this encounter, the glossy white surface of the spiders make them seem perfectly harmless, and this interweaving of our understanding of reality and what is presented in this narrative makes it so entrancing.

The symbol of life which is the egg, is most apt in this installation. It is the starting point for the human foetus, a single cell which when fertilized by the sperm proceeds to divide and multiply into millions and billion of cells from then on. Similar to the potential for movement stored up in the spiders, here there is a potential for life stored up in these spheres. The potential in both these devices provokes the viewer to question if there is something beyond what is already displayed, and personally I felt like I was eagerly waiting for the eggs to crack open and the spiders to move. As I played out the possibilities of what could happen, the narrative of this artwork led me to form mine through my own.

Finally, the combination of jewelry on the furniture adds a sense of deliberation to the piece. Draped over the ornamental pieces, the pearl necklaces serve to add a human touch to the experience. The imagination of a fictitious owner decorating her furniture grounds the artwork in reality, and the viewer is gently prodded to entertain ideas of meeting somebody. It returns the viewer to the original narrative of how one enters the private space of a person where he is able to dig into secrets – an idea which appeals to our innate curiosity.

The Crystal City by Donna Ong (credit: artitute.com)

The Crystal City is very different from The Sixth Day. Described as the skyline of a glass city, it immediately sets the viewer in a third-person perspective, overlooking the undulating terrain in the lofty city. The installation does not give much leeway for the viewer to interact with the space physically, if at all. The glass forms forming the skyline make the scenery more organic. The sculpting of the space surrounding the artwork seems to be the sole responsibility of the forms – a myriad of curved shapes and sharp edges projecting into space, interacting with one another to create a sense of motion. However, it is harder for me to invest in the narrative of this artwork.

The ambience of the artwork is spectacular. Warm light emanating from the ground fills the glass sculptures bottom-up, some fully and some partially. The green gradient negotiates successfully with the dark background, bringing to life the imagination of a world within this glass city. It is natural for the audience to want to peer into the artwork, to try to find the source of this light energy. Yet this inclination is also evident of a world which compels the viewer to observe and investigate, perhaps hoping to find some sort of life on the streets of the city. However, there are no additional devices like that in The Sixth Day which aid the viewer in being drawn into an understanding of either real or subconscious fantasies while navigating the artwork. It appears that the viewer is allowed to freely imagine and connect the crystal skyline to his personal experiences in the past, rather than guiding and providing waypoints for him.

This could be the reason why The Crystal City did not work for me. The freeform imagination required of the viewer is like a blank cheque handed to me, except that I do not know if I needed this liberty in the first place. Even if I was ready to immerse myself into the glass city and fill my lungs with its air, I could already sense that the cheque would bounce. There is only so much I could interact with the space surrounding this artwork, and that’s where I was hamstrung in my attempts to appreciate the artwork. Personally, I tingle with excitement just imagining that The Crystal City was built on the ground instead of on an elevated platform, extending upwards and outwards such that it becomes a maze-like mini glass city which I could walk within.

My experience at Chimera and FutureProof was largely defined by Donna Ong’s artworks, and they left an incredibly lasting impression on me. They brought to life my secret fantasies of exploring mystical lands and story worlds since I was a little boy, especially the Magic Faraway Tree described by Enid Blyton. If you are someone who would love to meet the Cheshire cat or crash the March Hare’s mad tea party, the rabbit hole into your fantasy world could be found right within one of Ong’s artworks.

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