For one of Singapore's most sought-after artists, beauty lies in small everyday things that are ubiquitous to the point of invisibility, discovers Lydianne Yap
It is exactly 12 noon and Dawn Ng is in the middle of a discussion with the manager at Chan Hampe Galleries. Glancing up as we walk in, she breaks into a wide smile before crossing the room to welcome us, lapsing into casual banter almost immediately.
“What are you eating? You look so young!” she teases our make-up artist, with whom she is soon trading Peranakan recipes like old friends. Even laughter is elicited from our usually reserved photographer. She remembers him trailing her around the island to photograph her with her previous guerrilla art installation, Walter. “That was fun! [We went around Singapore] stuffing him into everything right?” she recalls animatedly.
With her disarming charm and infectious enthusiasm, one can't help but feel drawn into her world; a world that the 33-year-old explores with finesse through her increasingly sought-after works. From her breakout installation in 2009, I Fly High Like Paper Get High Like Planes, to that headline-grabbing piece Walter in 2010, Ng offers up slices of her life and thoughts in an easily relatable and whimsical form. While the former explored the concept of home and nostalgia, the latter sought to draw attention to the everyday and otherwise overlooked places in Singapore.
More recently, in 2013, Ng showcased Sixteen at the inaugural Hong Kong edition of Art Basel. Comprising 16 nested wooden chests, it reminisces the decade she spent straddling Singapore, New York and Paris, and her realisation that she was able to pack her life into 16 boxes with each move. The piece was snapped up by a Shanghainese businesswoman at the fair's vernissage for $60,000, not a small sum for a young artist. “I was like: ‘Yay! Let's turn off the lights and go home already,'” says Ng jokingly. “Hopefully [it will be the same] at Art Paris.” Her latest body of work, A Thing of Beauty, is at the time of conversation, on display at a pop-up space opposite Chan Hampe Galleries. But it will soon be headed to France for Art Paris Art Fair 2015 this month.
Comprising nine pieces, one of which is a triptych, A Thing of Beauty serves as an evolution of sorts from her previous exhibition, Windowshop, which was a modern-day interpretation of Renaissance Europe's cabinet of curiosities. “The last series involved scavenging for curiosities like old toys, trophies and marbles to form the content of the installations, but this round I became obsessed with objects that were absolutely common, [such as those found in] in HDB estates and convenience stores — [things that], to most people, are invisible because they are everywhere,” she says.
As such, the new series presents photographed monochromatic installations featuring everyday — and at times, nostalgic — objects. Items are arranged in a variety of structures (a feat she claims took a lot of wires, glue, tape and building blocks, and over 50 attempts each time to achieve), with mundane artefacts such as a fly swatter, tin mug and plastic pepper shaker. “When you're young, it is easy to see the beauty in simple, ordinary things but as you get older, your eyes kind of dull,” says Ng. “You can see beauty only when something is elaborate, ornate or expensive, so this project was really about retraining [people's] eyes to find magic and wonder in the simplest things,” she says of the concept behind A Thing of Beauty.
At first glance, the items are grouped together in a seemingly haphazard fashion. However, upon closer inspection, the suggestiveness of their positions rise to the surface. For instance, in White, a balloon sits beside a safety pin; a fish ball is perched precariously at the top of a sloped wooden block; and a skipping rope hangs from above almost like a noose. “This work echoes Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar or The Virgin Suicides' insight on young women,” describes Ng, who counts American artists Donald Judd, Joel Shapiro, and John Baldessari among her creative influences. “I think women are such complex beings, even when we are little. Our innocence is the tip of our icebergs, something looming and darker always lies beneath. No one and nothing is usually what they seem.”
That said, she refrains from relating more about her intentions behind the pieces, believing that everyone has their own childhood and experiences, which they should layer on as they view her work. “I like that aspect of looking at art, when it becomes a mirror,” says Ng. “In telling a story about myself, I am telling a story about you as well.”
With her consistent use of innuendos and metaphors, it is perhaps unsurprising that Ng has a broad scope of study, having majored in both Journalism and Studio Art at Georgetown University in Washington DC, after switching over from an initial Finance and Economics track — a move her own parents were unaware of up until her wedding last year. “My maid of honour intentionally [let it slip] in her speech,” she shares with a laugh.
But while she may have changed majors covertly, Ng says her parents have always been supportive of her art from the get-go, though admittedly, more so her mother than her father. “Well, my father is an engineer so [art] is just very foreign and alien to him,” Ng shares. It was only in the last four to five years that he started to come round. She adds: “I think because he realised I wasn't going to stop so [he] might as well come for the openings.”
It was her mother, rather, who first kindled her love affair with all things creative. A draftsman by profession, she would bring Ng to the National Library, encouraging and teaching her to sketch whatever she liked from the pages of a book, instead of making a photocopy or buying the book. “That kind of gave me the idea that I could have anything I wanted if I could draw it,” shares Ng. “And I think that form of creativity and imagination really took off later in life.”
These days, Ng has found another huge supporter in the form of husband, Wee Teng Wen, co-founder and managing partner of The Lo & Behold Group (which owns eateries including The Black Swan and The White Rabbit). The pair tied the knot mid-last year after being friends for the better part of a decade. She says that Wee often accompanies her around the island, as she sources items for her many art projects. “We are very involved in each other's work and projects,” she confirms. “There is nothing that we won't run by each other.”
Ng, in fact, is currently designing a merchandise area for Wee's resto-bar Tanjong Beach Club, which will stock everything from swimwear to quirky Mer-Fins (flippers that look like mermaid fins). She is also contributing to the interior design direction of the Group's upcoming fine-dining outfit, housed within the Singapore National Gallery, for which she will also create an art work.
With a F&B entrepreneur for a husband, it seems almost apt that Ng enjoys cooking herself. But because the pair dine out often to keep abreast of the latest dining trends, the occasions she cooks for tend to be breakfast. The menu? Mainly soup-based dishes, such as kway teow soup with chicken slices. “I think it's so creative and a great way to start the day,” she says of her early morning cooking. Ironically, Ng is not a breakfast person and often skips it in favour of supper the night before. “It's funny because every time my husband sees me cook supper, he will say: ‘Why didn't you cook my share?' And I will tell him: ‘You can't eat supper and breakfast! You have to choose one. I'm trying to keep you healthy here,'” she laughs.
Ten months into their marriage and she paints a picture of marital bliss. “You would think that having been friends for eight years, [marriage] is a natural transition. But I realise now that there are new depths to reach [emotionally] and that you can actually become even closer to someone,” she confides. “It sounds cliché but he truly is my best friend and we are partners and accomplices bar none. It is all quite beautiful.”
CREATIVE DIRECTOR/ CATHERINE WONG
PRODUCER/ LYDIANNE YAP
FASHION STYLIST/ JOLIE GOH
HAIR ARTIST/ KENNETH ONG USING REDKEN
MAKE-UP ARTIST/ TINOQ RUSSELL GOH USING LANEIGE
INTERN/ RENATA WAN
PHOTOGRAPHY ASSISTANTS/ ANG JONG JYE AND SAM SIDI