four women being photographed

Amanda Heng/ Performance Art in Context: A Singaporean Perspective by Lee Wen

Insights into performance art in Singapore...

video image of woman drinking a glass of water
Video capture from documentation of Amanda Heng performance entitled Water is Politics, 2003. Photo by Stephen Black

blindfolded woman captured on video
Video capture from documentation of Amanda Visits the TAV(The Artists'Village) Exhibition (2008)' photo by Stephen Black

Singirl in a kopi shop
Singirl Revisits 1 – Long Fu Coffee Shop (Telok Kurau Road/Joo Chiat Place) exhibit photograph by Louis Ho

If you would like to extract and use the following text, please feel free to do so, but acknowledge the source of the article, meaning Stephen Black and Singapore Architect. The text of the article appears below...

We Chatted...

One of Heng’s most seminal works, Let’s Chat has been presented since 1996 in Singapore, Japan, Indonesia and the Philippines to a variety of audiences... The work recreates the familiar experience of preparing bean sprouts for a meal, a customary practice in Asian households. This traditional chore is one that many homemakers and children would recall, as conversations are exchanged during the course of this domestic task. By bringing this activity to the public domain in locations like galleries or shopping arcades, Heng encourages audiences to participate and recall the communal spirit of sharing and conversing, which may have been forgotten, due to the fast pace of contemporary life.

From the Educator’s Guide – Speak To Me, Walk With Me, a 2011 publication by the Singapore Art Museum. The guide was produced in conjunction for Cultural Medallion winner Amanda Heng’s career-long retrospective.

We had no bean sprouts, but we did chat.

More accurately, on March 21, 2012, we had an informal two-hour interview. Surrounded by unpacked artworks from her retrospective, we sat at a table with two tea cups, a teapot and a recorder. Amanda’s studio was warm, but not unpleasantly so. Soft light came in from the windows. Outside there were the occasional sounds of birds.

In this same studio, more than twenty years ago, Amanda began to study drawing, print-making and casting. art: life drawing and casting. This space, which was once a primary school classroom, was then a studio of LaSalle College of the Arts. Here she not only learned, she began asking serious questions. Other students were also asking questions. Eventually, these people, led by Tang Da Wu, created the Artists Village, now recognized as the beginning of contemporary art in Singapore.

“The Artists Village was a place where we could exchange ideas. I was very hungry for art knowledge and had many questions about why things happened in society and changed our lives. I wanted to discuss art. At LaSalle in the early days, the teaching tended to be more about technique. Singaporean artists who were trained overseas in the 70s and 80s were informed of the many movements happening in the world then.” Artists returning from overseas shared information about all kinds of art, including social art and the Green Movement in Europe. At the time, Tang Da Wu’s work was “all about the environment.”

In the 80s and early 90s the institutions were not quite established. Their ideas about visual arts stopped at the traditional paintings and sculptures. The Art Council was involved with traditional paintings and sculptures.The Art Museum and the Substation were very new. The strongest works were found on stage: theatre, performance, dance, those kinds of things. There was little understanding of the needs for art spaces and exhibitions. They may have set up funds and other supports, but the policies and procedures were alien to us. Artists trying to develop new forms of expression were mostly not regarded serious by the institutions. So, being outside of the official art world, there was a lot of room for experimentation. There were no rules. We had an open field to find out what we needed for our own development. I enjoyed those days.”

The National Theatre pops up in our conversation. Amanda enjoyed the place and, in the late Sixties, she was one of ten students representing her school in the Youth Festival. They performed the Peacock Dance. She mentions Goh Poh Seng, the first chairman of the National Theatre Trust. He also ran a publishing company, was vice-president of the Arts Council and self-funded a financially disastrous David Bowie concert. A doctor, he wrote a book of poems called Bird With One Wing and If We Dream Too Long, considered to be Singapore’s first novel. He envisioned turning the Singapore River into a destination alive with restaurants and shops; he wrote proposals to the government to make it happen.

“ I heard Goh had a pub that was open to writers. This was when the government was strictly against long hair. The threat of the ISA was real and Operation Cold Storage had happened just a few years earlier. Those people were still in prison. Goh got tired of the restrictions and left for Canada.” Amanda pours more tea. “ Those were very difficult times…”

Uncertain of what she really wanted to do after graduation, she had first worked in the tax bureau, then as a tax agent for an international company. With little interest she witnessed the huge economic booms and busts of the Seventies, when everyone was talking about shares. Government slogans and campaigns were everywhere.”I felt really tired.” She quit her job and traveled throughout southern Europe.

Our conversation leaps to the 2006 Singapore Biennale and Amanda’s Worthy Tour Co (S) Pte Ltd (2006). Worthy Tour Co was a” travel agency” that offered a tour of Singaporean cultural relics collected by individual Singaporean collectors, including extremely rare tropical bonsai, collections of Mong and Qing dynasty paintings, as well as Chinese film scripts for Singapore-related movies in Mandarin, Cantonese, Hokkien and Teochew made from the 1960s to 1980s. These treasures, unwanted by the Singaporean government, were welcomed by, and are now exhibited in, various museums and institutions in Xiameng, Hong Kong and Shanghai. Amanda mentions other collections, including one about the culture of the Singapore River. She describes a pair of footwear made of recycled tires. Her imagery is so real I can almost see the sandals, the construction sites in which they were worn and the red-hatted Samsui women who made them. At SAM8Q, Worthy Tours bore the caption: Singapore: A Passionless Culture Barren City?

Worthy Tour was a piece about her homeland, but one of Amanda’s most noted works is about her own home, specifically her mother.

“Knowing my mother becomes a necessary process of finding my own identity and values... memory and history have to be re-addressed critically, especially in the forming of new beliefs and values in our lives.”

From The Art of Engagement in Everyday Life, an interview with Amanda Heng by Kaimei Olsson Wang, in a publication for the 2010 Future of Imagination 6 International Performance Event Singapore With Another Woman (1996), Amanda presented an extremely intimate piece; amongst other elements, there were photos of herself and her mother, both naked.The biographical/autobiographical documentation associated with the “domestic” piece is the equivalent of watching an explosion filmed in slow motion: one sees strong hidden forces at work.

Amanda’s mother had no opportunity for a formal education.She started taking care of others from a young age. She survived the war, got married, and then, in accordance with Chinese custom, began taking care of her husband’s parents and his siblings-- as well as the nine children of her own. All of this in an impoverished Singapore, where “nation-building” effectively banned all Chinese dialects.

“The worst thing to do to a person, is to deny them their language and mother tongue, because embedded in the language are their cultures, beliefs and values; language is a person’s soul; something they are proud of. This country belittled dialects and failed to understand its values. Things were changed overnight and all of a sudden, mother and the older generation were not supposed to use their own dialect to talk to their children.

Of course people continue to use dialect but there was a stigma.You were looked down upon... Your own culture was downplayed and everything from the west was good. Young people tried to avoid dialects. Even the way we eat was affected. How can you become a centered person when the language of your parents suddenly becomes something almost illegal?”

The Singapore government not only took the language of Amanda’s mother, they took the family village she, Amanda’s immediate family and about 100 relatives lived in.”I never experienced living as a nuclear family until our house in the village was taken by the state. We were not the only one. It was a big issue of that time, many places were claimed for developing HDB flats. But places like Oxley Road and Bukit Timah were rarely affected.

Where we drank tea was once the home of Women In The Arts, Singapore (WITAS), a collective started by Amanda together with a group of woman artists in 1999. When she found out that she was the only woman artist offered a studio in Telok Kurau Studios, she decided to open her studio to all women artists once every month, for artist’s talks and the exchange of ideas. An archive for women artists was eventually set up and is still housed in the studio. The WITAS website was launched in 2003.

Amanda is both pleasant and frank. She smiles with a direct gaze when she expresses herself.

On Art

“Today I don’t see many artist’s initiatives… funding is usually the first thing comes to mind in our conversations about art projects nowadays.”

"…the government is overwhelming. Policies overlook every aspect of your life, including art-making. The point is that the individual has to be aware of this and make decisions about how you want to work with it.”

“I still cherish the hope that there are people who are more civic minded, who are willing to take social responsibility to make life better for people and society. Especially the intellectuals and academics, they are the people who are capable, who have the knowledge to understand and explain life issues. I think of someone like Ghandi, or Dr. Sun Yat Sen, Ann Sang Sukee and Prof Yonus… I aspire the possibility of change by talking, by leading people to discussions, to discuss issues with clarity and to examine policies and how they affect us. People have to learn to engage in discussing public policies. You don’t have to be a politician to discuss politics. The government cannot make decisions on policy without engaging in discussions with the public.“

“You don’t have to be a politician to discuss politics.”

Amanda found her artistic voice in S/HE, in which she confronted Eastern and Western imperialism, and the sexism found in both. "When S/HE was performed again in 1995 and 1996, the work took on new meanings... the differences in these two cultures can be advantageous for me... I have learned how I could embrace these two streams of thought and make them my strengths. This realization gave me great confidence in appropriating language, text, symbols and images from real life, my personal memories and everyday experience... Soon, the image evolved. I had my head covered, walking and searching for the audience with a stick in one hand and a lantern in the other, with the full blast of Chinese classical music and Western choir playing simultaneously in the background."

"Sometimes, these elements challenged or commented on one another; for example, in my use of baking dough to wipe away the marks on my face as I recited the Confucious sayings: "When you are at home, obey your father; When you are married, obey your husband; When your husband dies, obey your son." I then threw away the dough with great force as a symbolic and visual rejection of these traditionally accepted roles for a Chinese woman as a subservient subject to the men in her life."v1

1 From an interview on the Franklin Furnace website, Amanda Heng - "S/HE: PERFORMANCE

The material world, from its smallest intimacies to its longest cultural traditions, has been the focus of Amanda’s work up to the present. In our conversation she talked about future projects, expressing the need to distance herself from Singapore and what she has done. …“ In a way I am trying to figure out how the criticality, the spiritual and poetic can all be made significant in my aesthetic and practice.”

The time has flown; I’ve more questions but they will have to remain unanswered. I take a simple portrait of Amanda outside of her studio, then move into the hallway for another.

“Watch your head, be careful of the nest.”

I turn to see a collection of leaves, paper, rags and string. Earlier,I’d thought it was an artwork. As we watch, a bird lands on the ragged suspension. Oblivious to us, it pokes its head in and out of the nest. We glimpse a little beak. Like the themes found in Amanda’s oeuvre, this is a very small part of life, yet one filled with the Great Beauty of Truth.

Performance Art in Context: A Singaporean Perspective " written by Lee Wen is also recommended to those interested in learning about the history of performance art in Singapore.

1 thought on “Amanda Heng/ Performance Art in Context: A Singaporean Perspective by Lee Wen”

  1. Pingback: Apophenia Near the Causeway | blacksteps

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