11 Jan 2018

Perfect Stranger – Un Certain Regard, Curator Essay

Words by: Khairuddin Hori

“Thought and language are to the artist instruments of an art.”

It was more than a year ago that Dawn Ng got acquainted with child psychologist Zehavit Efrati and entered an exchange. This exchange was not one of patient and physician, but a shared process that excavates deep personal moments and the mind of an artist.

What then began as a body of private elucidations from a would-be mother to her first-born child and daughter is now laid bare as an immersive installation. Born from a year’s worth of daily responses to questions from a newly acquainted psychologist and friend, 48 bodies of text that binds Perfect Stranger lie supine on the floor. As a piece of situated installation , the artwork occupies the entirety of the gallery. Thin lanes between each printed module invite visitors to traverse barefoot amongst the manuscript; otherwise, from a specially constructed podium, one could hover and contemplate over its field of affecting colours.

Perfect Stranger is an assemblage of words, notes, messages and poetry. There is a piece entitled Choices, asking if it is A OR B, YES OR NO, SIT OR STAND, SINK OR SWIM and DIE OR GROW, seemingly simple questions until we look at them square in the eye. Lucky Boy reads EVERY THING YOU GOT EVERY WHERE YOU GO ANY TIME YOU PLEASE NOTHING YOU WANT MORE THAN THIS. And in Don’t, part of the text tells you to DON’T BE LIKE SO-AND-SO’S DAUGHTER.

In works of traditional Japanese, Arabic and Chinese calligraphy, we find words, text and design, where words and passages often singularly dominate most of their surface medium. Words and typography are indeed not foreign apparatuses of artists. Since modern times, one of its most well-known application is found in the 1929 painting titled The Treachery of Images by Belgian surrealist, René Magritte. Featuring an illustration of a typical smoking pipe, the painting also carried the text Ceci n’est pas une pipe, meaning, this is not a pipe. The painting, whose text appears to deny the very object it blatantly illustrates implies that the image we see is but an illusion of a pipe. It would later play a leading role in the discourse of meta message, or the subtext underlying a dialogue and the suspension of disbelief.

There is power in words and phrases to emote and evoke the limits of our imagination. Take as an example, the impact of The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living (1991), the title of a famous shark in a formaldehyde tank sculpture by British artist Damien Hirst. Another, this time painted directly onto canvas is Chistopher Wool’s Apocalypse Now (1988) with the words SELL THE HOUSE SELL THE CAR SELL THE KIDS literally filling the entirety of the painting. Most recently, amidst various scandalous events, we witnessed an invocation of a series of powerful text-based work from the 1982 Truism series by Jenny Holzer that reads ABUSE OF POWER COMES AS NO SURPISE. To name a few, contemporary artists such as Holzer, Barbara Kruger, Shirin Neshat, and Tracey Emin have consistently and consciously employed the use of words as an integral and effective part of their work. Profoundly signifying rites of passage associated with womanhood and motherhood, Dawn’s biographic, confessional scripts recall vestiges from the work of these artists. But Perfect Stranger forsakes slogans, protests or calls to action in place of the poetic.

Before it transpired into an art project, the messages embedded in Perfect Stranger were initially intended as a ‘gift’ 35 years later, like a form of bequest and time-capsule from a mother to her daughter. Drawing from her own personal journey as daughter, wife and eventually mother, Dawn also invokes the Singaporean vernacular, peppered between accounts of daily encounters with things such as food, places and culture specific experiences. They are confessions, and advice for her young daughter. In transferring these words onto surface, Dawn has abandoned the comfort and utility of objects and the visual image. The visual body is now a corpse, removed from performing its usual, central role in the understanding of the art. Each module exists as if a graphic image, echoing the artists’ background in applied arts. Printed on heavyweight paper, their focus is each assigned to two basic elements, colours and words. With this minimalist approach, colours exist independent of form, ebbing in and out of its own shades and material perimeter, appearing to glow and float from the white gallery floor.

In the hands of Piet Mondrian, Kasimir Malevich and Carmen Herrera, we have witnessed the power of pure graphic forms and colour. Typically, not projecting anything more than blocks and shapes of colours. Such works function primarily to challenge traditional conceptions of art and visual representation on two-dimensional surfaces. A constant quarrel with such approaches is often linked to what is pertinently perceived as artless absence of skills, lacking in use of materials, and presumptuous conceptual strategies under the pretext of art. Yet artists and art of this nature have been inserted into the canons of pivotal art movements such as Bauhaus, DeStijl, Suprematism and Constructivism.

It is futile to group new works made today within these parameters, however it is prudent not to simply brush off adaptations of such approaches. László Moholy-Nagy, the Hungarian-American artist encouraged a relook at the history and production of art in the advent of industrialisation in the 1900s. Automation, an approach in art-making once wished for by none other than the master of graphic reproduction Andy Warhol, is today a reality. Photographers as an example, have in recent times honed their craft on digital platforms where photo-editing and retouching are processed with unlimited possibilities on the computer. Even processes towards achieving the ideal photographic print have been fundamentally digitalized where additional tweaks and endless number of near perfect facsimiles could be imprinted on a myriad of surfaces. With the advent of 3D printing, the same is happening with sculpture and ceramics. Artists have embraced such advances in technology and incorporated them into their craft.

Despite the lack of visual illustrations, Perfect Stranger rejoins the link to her earlier oeuvres, extending their purposeful function as sociological records and time-capsule for the future. With Walter (2010), Dawn located an 8-meter-long, white, inflatable sculpture of a rabbit in less regarded, yet public spaces such as the red-light district and old children’s playground. 31 Kinds of Wonderful (2012), consisting of 31 objects, one made each day in remembrance of home while she was living in Paris was first displayed and made available for sale in a boutique in town. Later in the same year, Everything You Ever Wanted is Right Here, a suite of photographs cut-out with colloquial phrases imbues nostalgia and a collective consciousness of loss. In her work Sixteen (2013), the first of sixteen boxes assembled like an open Russian Matryoshka doll is inscribed with the text IF YOU OPEN THIS BOX IT WILL CHANGE FOREVER. Its primary concern is ‘the immediate in life’, in this case, an analogy of coffins and death. Sixteen reminds us of the Japanese movement known as Micropop, where its artists often disregard theories and ideologies, revisit long forgotten objects, to make it personal, with reinterpretation of ‘an accumulation of moments’ and ‘taps into the unconscious’.

This line of interlocution, between the personal, social, memories and the future has been the main subject in Dawn’s journey. Each of them attentive to their immediate cultural environments. Like the others, Perfect Stranger prompts its audience to come face to face with words that impel introspective dialogues.

Dawn’s exchanges with Zehavit Efrati spanned the entirety of her first pregnancy, well into childbirth and after. The influence of this life-changing event on how the art developed is undeniable. One could be enraptured by how life grows into form inside a body. And to be conscious of one’s personal role and responsibility for it calls for a need of clarity. Words could stay as scribbled notes in the diary of an artist for the rest of us to discover much later. Louise Bourgeois for example, famously had her diary entries and writings that drove her art elucidated only in 1998, when she was 87 years old . Tracey Emin meanwhile, had denied the prospect of having children as she said, “There are good artists that have children. Of course there are. They are called men.” Dawn’s fearless drive for clarity through direct communication in Perfect Stranger is a bold step for un certain regard . She emotes what rings bells for the rest of us, woman, man, son, daughter, father and mothers. Washed in illuminating ink within the bounds of otherwise white surfaces of paper, Dawn situates our fragmented lives into frames of perpetual perspectives.