Looking Inwards

Speak To Me, Walk With Me (photo credit: SAM At 8Q)


Speak To Me, Walk With Me. As the title suggests, Amanda Heng’s most recent exhibition is one of few contemporary art shows that invites the participation of the audience in a different way. That is, to make them part of the art-making process and not simply the art-viewing process. This is in tandem with Amanda’s belief that art occurs when there is direct encounter between people, making social interaction necessary in order for her themes of art to be created. The themes favoured by Amanda seem to be self-representation and historical memory, as shown in this exhibition.

Amanda’s work prompts the recollection of histories through the way she presents common memories to us. Her almost ‘cheesy’ way of doing so causes the recreation of some of these memories as well.

In Singirl Revisits, it looks as if Amanda is paying tribute to some forgotten or overlooked pieces of Singapore’s cultural history. While most of us can agree that Singapore is not just about the Merlion and brightly lit night skyline of skyscrapers and hotels, we seldom mention the kopitiam or kampong as traits of Singapore. Amanda reminds us that these places are bits of our past that give meaning to the Singapore we have in mind, the bits that we (for the kampongs, the older generation of course) communicated and interacted with in our everyday lives. Though this did not come across as art to me, just well, part of my daily life, Amanda has translated this into her artwork and effectively made me rethink what Singapore’s culture is built on.

Her style of tribute however, is adopted in this cheesy way, almost like parodies of our National Education efforts. What do foreigners picture when Singapore is mentioned? Cue the Singapore Girl in the familiar Sarong Kebaya. Amanda visits places like a coffee shop at Joo Chiat and the last kampong at Lorong Buangkok in this iconic outfit, taking pictures with an ecstatic wave or a cute ‘twist’ action. Wasn’t that how we all looked when we went on National Education excursions to Kampong Glam, Little India and Chinatown? Here, Amanda recreates what we were taught in primary school with the addition of the modern iconic Singapore Girl. It brings to mind once again that these bits of our daily lives are indeed what truly are Singapore, the fragments that have stood still as we urbanize and progress, seemingly leaving them behind. Beyond the parody lies a serious protest against the erosion of Singapore’s cultural identity in light of advancement.

I found myself asking a few questions again in her next series of artwork, Yours truly, my body. Her commentary on the world’s perception of beauty comes through as she presents the issue of self-violence for social conditioning. This is one of Amanda’s harsher works, appealing directly to the viewer’s visual and audio senses, causing discomfort to some. It starts with us seeing the usual ‘pin-up’ girls in magazines, depicting the world’s idea of the ideal woman, of what beauty should be. Part of our social interaction? Certainly. We immediately identify with this theme as we see types of ideal beauty on television, in magazines and on the Internet. At the same time, we come across reports of the normalizing of plastic surgery or news of people undertaking life-threatening diets to look more ideal. Her strategy is to question this idealized beauty. In the video, Amanda scrubs a slab of pig meat with blood to represent the pain women go through with plastic surgery to meet social standards of beauty. These self-compromising acts are a torture to the body.

While not all of us are guilty of these acts, we are probably guilty of such thoughts, and it prompted me to think of the way I viewed myself. When I first saw the video, I thought that Amanda was simply exaggerating things with the use of raw meat and blood to present the idea of social conditioning. She did however achieve her objective with me, that is to provoke me to rethink what beauty is, and how the definition of beauty is ever changing within cultures. I began to think about how these definitions of beauty started, and realized that I was taught what beauty is from a young age. I learnt from stories and conversations that a beautiful person has beautiful skin and hair, is tall and most probably slender. Because of this, I could identify who was beautiful and who was not. A common experience that resulted in the pursuit of beauty for many women.

Another of Amanda’s pieces that explores cultural histories is Missing. A somewhat spooky atmosphere is created with little white dresses suspended and red threads hanging from the ceiling. Amanda’s tribute to the many baby girls that are killed in some cultures that prefer sons over daughters. The red thread is associated with the supernatural in Chinese belief and the floating white dresses add a haunting element. While this is the least relatable to me as it exemplifies another culture, knowledge on it is definitely common. I have heard of cultures that practise gender favoritism through word of mouth, documentaries, and as we always have it, the Internet. The emblems used in this piece helped identification with the topic explored easier, and associations can be made almost immediately, drawing on shared knowledge. What I knew about gender discrimination in some traditional cultures was called to mind. While the association was not drawn from shared experiences or memories, Amanda has very successfully made use of common education to resonate with the audience, introducing the personal perspective once again.

Amanda’s participatory style is very evident when viewing two decades worth of her artworks in a single exhibition. For example, we can see how beliefs are birthed from the interaction of societies and the communication of these ideals from one culture to another. This introduces issues that many of us are familiar with. It is direct encounters like these that make the art-making process more inviting as I find some of my common memories in her work.  Though not in the literal sense where we work alongside Amanda to create the works, but we are part of this society and  hold the same views. In this sense, Amanda’s works become more personal, which is a very apt way to examine self-representation. It is probably more impactful than the use of abstract painting or a poem to portray how we view ourselves – perhaps we could call this a ‘heartland style’ of art, that anyone can find understandable.  Amanda’s effort in involving the public in the art-making process makes her work very personal, almost a ‘everyone’s work’.