In Conversation with Jane Lee, October 2020

GL: FREE BIRDS (2015) was made during your residency at STPI. It is quite an unusual work for you in that it is the first time you’ve worked with time-based media. What drew you to working with animation and, in particular, the motif of birds?

JL: Before embarking on the residency, and for more than a decade, I had been playing around with abstraction in painting. I had never dealt directly with images or imagery in the past. Yet, at that point, I’d always wanted to explore introducing images into my work. Imagery is an element that people can relate to more easily, but earlier in my practice I found no particular reason to incorporate it into my paintings as I was more focused on ideas of materiality. So, when STPI’s invitation came along, I figured it would be a great opportunity for me to explore a different strand of making and thinking; of what playing with images might look like.

However, when I first began the residency, I had no immediate idea of what I wanted to work with in terms of images. I started to centre some questions on what the institution was rooted in – the notion and material of paper. That got me thinking about where paper came from – trees – and I began to dwell further on aspects of nature, from which birds – and ideas associated with them – drew my attention. I became very invested in the motif of a bird; less the variety of colours and appearances, more a simple silhouette of a bird. As I slowly expanded on this exploration, ideas such as freedom and entrapment were woven in. I was also convinced that animation could be a good way of presenting the image of a bird. 

FREE BIRDS (2015), coiled Mylar, stainless steel, frosted acrylic, and projected animation (00.43 min) on loop, 54 x 54 x 2.5 cm

Birds connote a sense of freedom, and I like to draw connections between them and human beings. I would like to also bring this back to a very crucial point in my practice. My relationship with painting was first shaped by my formal training in Chinese painting traditions. These traditions were very much shaped by instruction and regulation, and made me feel rather entrapped. After a few years of painting within that discipline, I started to more seriously consider what exactly I was doing – what did it mean to create art for art’s sake? I then began to slowly liberate myself from my painting teacher’s controlled approach, transforming my treatment of medium and material. My painting language began to more sensitively respond to daily life and took on a very pronounced tactility; every gesture could find a relation to movements and actions from the everyday: touching, turning, pouring, pulling, pressing…  I decided to throw away my brushes. 

You could say that my exploration with birds – as form and as idea – at STPI was also a subconscious shift away from the formal painting traditions I was trained in, as well as a new field of possibility different from my usual large and bold painterly gestures. A newer, freer way of doing things, I suppose.


GL: The animation is projected on a very interesting screen surface made up of coiled Mylar. How did you come up with this? It reminds me of some of your earlier paintings where bits of painted canvas are similarly coiled into circular forms (Turned Out II (2011)). In some ways, even though this is a time-based work and there is a lot of movement in the animated image, the result is still very painterly in that the coiled Mylar gives the projected image a kind of materiality that grounds it in the stillness of the present somehow.  

Installation view of FREE BIRDS. Photo courtesy of STPI.

JL: STPI, as you know, has its own paper mill and is known for its papermaking techniques. Being personally invested in materials, I wanted to work directly with the medium of paper, and so the Creative Workshop team brought me to a paper shredding factory here in Singapore. There, I noticed bags and bags of these fine strips of paper. I was immediately attracted to them, and realising that they would be discarded, we arranged for them to be brought back to STPI. I started to play with these strips and, working with my hands, I realised I ended up coiling them very instinctively. Gradually, the act of coiling became a very big part of my residency project. It was all quite serendipitous and unexpected; while coiling I noticed some transparent scotch tape stuck to parts of the paper, and it made me think about possibly coiling a material like Mylar as well. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly how and in what order I came up with these ideas, but I think it all occurred to me gradually while working with these materials.


GL: I remember chatting with you during your solo exhibition in Osage Gallery back in 2009, and you said you were interested in pushing the boundary between painting and sculpture. Although your more recent work engages with a similar visual language and ideas of repetition, materiality and colour, it seems to have left the medium-specificity of painting somewhat. Has your focus changed and what’s the reason behind this shift?

JL: I’m actually very open to new ideas, concepts and media; I don’t want to restrict myself to painting now. I suppose especially since I’ve been practicing for quite some time, I’m a lot more ready and receptive to embrace unexpected approaches; I actually see it as quite a natural progression and evolution for my practice. In fact, this is very reflective of shifts and transformations we experience in life – they happen; change happens. That remains a key aspect of my work – to reflect life in art and art in life.


GL: Looking at your practice over the years, there are very distinct bodies of work, each executed with a very specific set of material and formal concerns while still leaving space for variations. Have you always thought in series? What is it about working with seriality that interests you? Do you think this has something to do with your background in fashion?

JL: That’s an interesting question. To be honest with you, I never really planned to create in seriality or variation. Many of these creations happen quite spontaneously. Like my coiled works, for example – variation emerges from the process itself. Coils can take form from various directions and configurations, and that’s how I try to present them. In this way, it’s not about intentionally making them into a series to fulfil a kind of overall shape or completion of the project. I don’t think about rationalising or organising these works like that. The way I work is rather fluid and spontaneous – I know sometimes it can be hard to imagine this because of how my work or career is often presented! 

I don’t think there are fixed rules to how I group or conclude certain works as a series. Most of them remain quite open; I often return to or revisit similar ideas after some time, and discover new possibilities in expanding a certain line of thought or action. I believe most artists work in this way. There are many factors: experiences in life, fluctuations in emotion, intuition, being led by the process of making, the beauty of spontaneity… all of this contributes to my choice of material, colour and gesture.


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