5 Minutes With... Pioneer Performance Artist Amanda Heng
The late 1980s marked the beginning of the contemporary art epoch in the Singapore art history. At the forefront of this movement was Amanda Heng, one of the founding members of the Singapore art collective, The Artists Village, which was founded by eminent contemporary artist Tang Da Wu in 1988. Singapore’s first “artist colony” brought together like-minded artists to explore progressive new ways and ideologies in making art in response to societal changes.
The signature works of such iconic Singaporean artists will be at the centre of the M1 Singapore Fringe Festival, which takes a new direction this year. Held from January 17 to 28, the 14th edition of the festival sees 16 local and international works themed around Let’s Walk, the title of a series of walking performances first created by Heng in 1999 in response to the 1997 Asian financial crisis when female employees were the first to get retrenched. Let’s Walk explores the lack of progress for women in society, and curiously, the beauty industry boom which saw women enhancing their looks in order to keep their jobs.
Troubled by this trend, the pioneer performance artist invited members of the public to join her in a walk, notably walking backwards along the streets with high-heeled shoes in their mouths, with only handheld mirrors to guide them. The performance has also been staged overseas in countries such as Indonesia, Spain and Sweden. On January 20, the Cultural Medallion recipient will revisit the 1999 performance with art and design student participants on a route beginning at The Substation and ending at the Merlion Park. So has anything changed for women in the workplace in the 20 years since the 1997 Asian financial crisis? Heng shares her thoughs.
How did Let’s Walk come about?
Amanda Heng (AH) It was the things happening around me at that time, to my friends and family—women were asked to go because they were pregnant or companies were downsizing. And what was glaring were the many beauty advertisements then. Women were judged on how they looked, and they themselves felt they lost out because of that.
Has anything changed since then?
AH I can’t speak for all women, because I’m not in the workforce as such. But generally, the current sexual harassment issues in Hollywood are blatant examples of how some things never change. But change lies within the individual. If you’re thinking seriously about identity, how can you rely on someone else to define it for you? We need to bring about change ourselves.
You will revisit the work with student-participants. What is it like working with them?
AH The work will remain the same, but the context is different. The way the internet generation thinks is different. It’s hard to get them to be more hands-on, but it’s interesting because then you bring them back to the basics. It’s a learning process for me as well and I’m constantly challenged. I would say that it’s more of a participatory work because the ideas come from me as an artist, but it’s necessary for the participants to go through the process for them to have their own experience.
What are you excited about this year’s festival?
AH The audience has become an important part of the experience. In our art scene, we rarely talk about the art or artistic merit per se. So I hope that we can bring that to art in itself—let’s talk about the art. Is performance art a genre or a practice? What kind of tradition does it have, with the traditional art forms such as painting or sculpture? Almost every contemporary work engages the audience, but there’s no discourse here. I hope that with these workshops where I work with the students, and the exhibitions, we can bring this back. How do we talk about art as part of our everyday conversation?
Your search for a meaning in life led you to the arts. Have you found that meaning today?
AH I think the meaning is in the process, which is what performance art is about. You show the audience the full process, rather than the final work. It continues with whatever it is I’m concerned with—usually a response to what has changed in our lives. It’s not just about being a Singaporean, but how do you survive in a global world. How do you find a meaningful life in any situation?