Artist Interview: Mei (Singapore)

Tell us more about how personal history and travel inform your practice.

Reading musician Sufjan Stevens’ interviews in 2008 and listening to his music – which now plays in the background as I respond to this interview – was a source of inspiration when I first wrote my artist statement for an assignment. Stevens’ songwriting involved narratives drawn from what he knew best – experiences from personal history, which he combined with his immersive imagination. I related strongly with the way he approached music-making at that time. When I was still a student-artist, the only thing I knew thoroughly was my family history and experiences of growing up. I also had the idea that I had to create keepsakes of moments dear to me or record instances of trauma and melancholy that I wanted to move away from. As I continued to unearth stories, I expressed them through art-making. This sparked a successful body of work, Being Nyonya, which stemmed from my grandpa’s old photographs. I wanted whatever I made to be sincere, unpretentious, and personal. Back then, I hadn’t travelled outside of Singapore on my own yet.

I had the privilege of embarking on my first solo trip as a recipient of the Winston Oh Travelogue Award in 2009. I read an article about the Khmer Rouge in the newspapers and was interested to travel to Cambodia to experience the aftermath in person, and I did when I was given the opportunity! Never would I have thought that my first solo trip as a female traveller would be impactful enough to change my perception of travelling. Being Khmer was created as a travelogue from the trip to Cambodia and allowed audiences to relive what I saw.

It has since been important for me to travel to feel, gather new knowledge, and then translate my emotions from those instances into something tangible I could share with those who were not present, or who would never get a chance to see for themselves. There is definitely some novelty in that.

Living in a small, crowded city in Singapore, daily routines can seem too mundane for inspiration to strike. The stability in Singapore may provide conditions for artists to thrive, but it is also a double-edged sword – it can also make one complacent. Indeed, one might argue that there are off-the-beaten-path encounters in our little red dot, but being the curious adventurer I am, I have already trodden those paths. Over the years, I have discovered that there is a need to occasionally remove myself from such an overwhelming setting; place myself in solitude; and struggle to see clearly. It sounds odd, but I can only speak for myself.

As a solo traveller, I enjoy the transition to ‘fight mode’ as my consciousness heightens, deepening my awareness to embrace the good and bad yet to come. Daring to walk through dark alleyways without a friend; watching a man being hacked in the skull by someone with a parang and left to die, as seen from inside a bus travelling between villages ; the exhilaration when I finally manage to find a destination after five hours without using any maps or technology, as I do not use a phone… These encounters are not frequent, but they leave me feeling more alive and grounded than before. So I tap into these energies and translate them as best as I can, meditating on them as I pen down thoughts in my journals or recall an impression of a faraway friend in a loose sketch. With the experiences amassed from my travels, I hope to share these emotions with viewers and hope they can feel them intensely too.

I must say I am missing the unknown very much amidst this current outbreak.

Your practice comprises drawing, printmaking, and bookbinding. Could you expand on the benefits of combining these different media and approaches?

I started art-making with an innate urge to copy the likeness of an image, using pencil on paper ever since I knew how to use them. Then, I went to art school, where I was doing what I did best, yet my work was not creative. Instead, it reflected how I wasn’t pushing myself. This continued until my late friend, Sean, looked at an en plein air drawing I made during class, and briefly commented, “maybe you should try using a technical pen.”

Never did I imagine that his passing comment would blow my mind. After trying the pen, my drawings grew more complex, as I created new combinations with pens, ink, and varied media.  But I kept all the successful and unsuccessful studies as archives, as I knew the importance of making many experimental tests. This process often became an addiction I found hard to stop.

Combining various media in art-making is akin to creating composite alloys – merging different metals and elements creates strength and flexibility in the alloy. It is the same for art-making, as new combinations often imbue the art piece with richness and excitement. There is a lot of mystery behind the artistic processes that marry techniques. It often involves tons of experimentation and time, which commands respect for the artist’s tenacity to finish the work. The best part is when the work hangs nondescript in an exhibition, waiting for a viewer to solve the puzzle of how it was made. I find this true, especially in the area of printmaking, which is a field that many still know very little about.

Hence, I love the idea of sharing my explorations in printmaking, a medium that could seem unconventional when compared to drawing and painting. People mistake a print for a drawing or painting sometimes! This allows others to question the process and attempt to break down the steps that could have led to the results, which generates more interest in the wonderful world of printmaking at the same time.

Having worked primarily with paper — a 2D surface — the outcomes can get quite dull with regard to presentation. I started to fold them and illustrate on custom handmade envelopes, as I was influenced by making mail art from 2012 onwards. This progressed to adding relief elements like pop-ups, and later on, adding texture with embroidery.

Collaborating with other artists and musicians can also add more dimension to the artwork, especially when each practitioner comes from a different background and art practice. I had the opportunity to collaborate with my friend, Juan Manuel Ruétalo, on a project called Larga Distancia. This helped to maintain our friendship across antipodes, as he lives in Uruguay. Without the collaboration, I wouldn’t have worked with collages and produced a series of works with the Surrealist method, Exquisite Corpse!

Because I move a lot, my work remains in a pocket-sized format that is smaller than A4, which further informs the viewer of my state of mind. Making something small without losing the power to evoke excitement is challenging. The passport-sized Travelogic has managed to house a collection of intimate prints and embroidered drawings, which is also interactive as it allows the viewer to play with the book’s physical structure. You can stretch it to view it as a landscape; turn it upside down and create motion by playing with it as if it’s an accordion; create sounds by dragging it across a surface; and most importantly, enjoy the moment as if you were on a journey to a strange land.

Your artist-book Travelogic is an ode to Elizabeth Bishop’s poem, Questions of Travel (1965). Are there any other literary works that have inspired or impacted you?

I would say Wabi-Sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets & Philosophers by Leonard Koren lead me to read In Praise of Shadows by Jun’ichirō Tanizaki and later Kusamakura (草枕, Grass Pillow), a novel by Natsume Sōseki. I have written lesson plans for experiential learning stemming from segments of the first two books and had the honour of showing several classes at LASALLE College of the Arts how to celebrate the beauty of imperfection by conducting a participatory lecture-performance. I have also produced an art object from the third book, as inspired by the literal meaning of a grass pillow, a phrase which coincidentally signifies a journey in Japanese poetry. Now after this interview I am obliged to find Bashō’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North. (Haha!)

Could you tell us more about your experiences in printmaking, both in Yogyakarta, Indonesia and in Singapore? What are some key differences?

Spirit, culture, and attitude.

My practice in Singapore was very strict. It has given me the discipline to develop good habits, which I still put to use today. However, while being very self-absorbed in perfecting the basics of the traditional printmaking techniques I learnt while working on assignments for school, I had lost the important ability to enjoy investigating playfully in the process. I was dissatisfied with my work, cried a lot, and was extremely hard on myself. Often I forgot that I was not a machine, and I failed to understand that little accidents could have been happy mistakes that revealed the human touch. This only proved that I followed instructions well, which stunted my explorative growth. Printmaking had been employed traditionally until I had a chance to witness it outside of school and intern for a month at STPI. I observed the brilliant innovation of printmaking and paper-making by everyone in the workshop. Seeing is believing.

I met many wonderful artists who majored in printmaking at the Faculty of Fine Arts at the Institute of Art Indonesia (ISI), Yogyakarta, when I was involved in a printmaking-centric workshop-residency in 2016. Accounts of their time in art school might sound extreme if it happened in Singapore. According to my Indonesian friends, they had the time and space to dabble with printmaking with minimal guidance from their teacher. They had limited access to printmaking guidebooks – those that existed were not updated and had useful pages torn out. Learning was done as a community. To understand how etching was done, for instance, they visited a chemical supplier to purchase some hydrochloric acid, following a senior’s advice (yes, no licence needed!). Apparently, the acid was too strong, causing the plate to fly up to the ceiling in a minor explosion and everyone had the shock of their lives before bursting out in laughter. It was definitely one of the few exciting memories in the journey of printmaking that they will never forget. A kind of experiential learning that is completely absent in classrooms in Singapore.

My friends in Yogyakarta learn by working collectively and with a lot of creative freedom, whereas in Singapore, we learn by following instructions and are often individualistic in our pursuits. There are limitations to both — if only we could strike a balance between the two.

During my residency, the old art school student in me resurfaced as I cursed at a print I produced that was not up to standard. My late mentor, Danang Hadi a.k.a Tape, who was concerned about my negativity, immediately put down his work, stood beside me and spoke to me gently but clearly. Pointing at my print and looking into my eyes, he said, “this is you. Every line is life. You must not say this about your work.” I was silenced in that instant and tried very hard to hold back my tears of guilt. Then he continued, “be free.”

It was such an enriching experience working with the artists I met in the printmaking studio. I learnt many more lessons there than in Singapore, and understood that there were artists who could get so much out of having very little. They used DIY techniques discovered through playful experiments without having access to specialised printmaking supplies, which would produce results similar to those of artists who had access to state-of-the-art equipment. This experience allowed me to appreciate the accessibility to art materials and resources in Singapore, but also made me reflect deeply about living in this excessive city with plenty of entitlement. Upon my return, I made up my mind to join my mentors in experimenting with printmaking, and in the next year, I moved to Yogyakarta to practice art full-time.

Outside of creating art, you’re also an art educator. Could you tell us more about the importance of art education, especially in Singapore?

I feel art educators have a huge responsibility in Singapore. There is so much more that we must do to promote the arts, whether it is in Performing Arts, Literature, or Fine Art.  Being an educator, I am aware that I have a voice. I also have a choice to use this voice to share the abundant resources that extend beyond the classroom to spark further interest in the subject, or to rest on my laurels and only offer the class what is required within the lesson’s objectives.  Being an art educator, it is my duty to engage students actively in a non-intimidating fashion to enter the magical world of art. It is my duty to break down jargon into comfortable bite-sized pieces of knowledge so that everyone involved in the art session can fully immerse themselves in the artistic process and hopefully leave with lasting impressions that they are urged to spread inspiration to everyone.

As our society becomes more fast-paced than it already is, the world grows less compassionate, placing more value on science and numbers. It also doesn’t help that the use of technology is more prevalent, further impacting our emotional intelligence. How, then, should we cultivate empathy and connection? Art education has a huge part to play in holistic development. Introducing art education from young nurtures the child to learn and think differently and positively, and an art educator has a key role to play in this.

I find it very difficult to inspire others as an art educator when many do not dare to take risks and fail to teach by example. That happens a lot when art education (as with many other jobs outside education) is treated as just a job and not a passion. This mentality results in many overworked and jaded art educators who develop other priorities apart from teaching. One must not lose hope just because not many students in an art class or a workshop will become artists. Rather than being cynical, an art educator should empower students by teaching them that they can also join the backbone of the arts. Educators can offer perspectives on job opportunities –aside from becoming artists – and inspire them to become art administrators, technicians, art critics and conservators. People in these professions have a huge part to play in supporting the scene.  Teaching art is a process that develops the mind and allows a student to gain self-awareness and develop introspection.

Instead of going according to the syllabus that features a lot of dead white male artists, how about sneaking in local living artists and emerging artists when teaching? How about sharing updates on what local talents are doing the across music and theatre scenes as well? Once, I pushed for musician friends to create live music for one of my lessons, so that students could experience experimental music live and use the sounds as a medium to translate automatic drawings from the subconscious. When it all ended, the students asked the guests questions that seemed unrelated to their art practice but the interaction was mind-blowing. You can see some documentation here.

Unless there is an active and consistent promotion of the positive impacts of art education, the priorities placed on arts and culture in Singapore will progress slowly. There is so much art can do for everyone holistically, but this can only happen if more of us had the opportunity to be involved. Once this seed is planted, the positive perception will be harder to break — we just need to believe.

When more emphasis is placed on art education as well as art shown in exhibitions, we end up celebrating each student’s or artist’s artistic processes. I’m sure this will invite more Singaporeans to grow curious about art-making and develop an appreciation for art, and to view it as essential as daily exercise and mindfulness routines.

It is like watching the behind-the-scenes outtakes from a film you were so engrossed in and learning about the time and budget that went into producing the sets and special effects. The same goes with acknowledging documentation through writing, journaling, and understanding processes from start to finish. Some of these art practices are intangible, but are all very important aspects in contributing to the final masterpiece. As a result, it is important to create accessible resources and channels that can reach learners and laymen alike. With curiosity comes interest and interest leads to hands-on experiences, which will deepen the understanding of our world.

In art education, the ability to develop an unconventional lesson that can generate continued interest, and realising it during a workshop is just as rewarding as completing an artwork. Art education is just as intense as art-making for me as I inject a lot of myself into each session, creating different alter egos to perform the roles suited to each lesson’s aims. At the end of the day, the main intent is to touch someone, anyone; even just one person is good enough. Aspiring to create art lessons that students will never forget may take a lot of energy and brainpower, but to all art educators reading this, the hard work is all worth it – for art’s sake!