I was delighted to be invited for a chat with DegreeART’s charismatic Chantelle Purcell. She has been following my relocation to Singapore and wanted to find out more about the motivation behind it, and any tips I have for other artists and individuals seeking a dose of a new cultures or hoping to travel to new worlds. You can read the magazine pages below (click to zoom in), or scroll down to see the larger text version (for those with lower res screens or eyes!)
You have been given the opportunity to work and live in Singapore, what will you be doing whilst you are there?
I am creating a whole new body of work, through which I intend to challenge my artistic process, exploring new ideas and directions.
When my plane first touched down, I had a plan, but no real idea of the course my artwork would take – I had to allow that openendedness even though I felt a little unanchored. As I entered Singapore, one of the first things I saw was the mesmerising kinetic rain sculpture commissioned especially for Changi Airport, and I felt much more at home.
Embedding myself in this unfamiliar place is of course introducing me to a fantastic array of new people, cultures and concepts – all of which are slowly infusing into the creative process.
I am also writing about South East Asian art for the art journals and platforms that exist here, a subject which not many western writers have written about from the ground yet. I am quite active in the arts, and my practice is always influenced by my other interactions with creatives and writers. This year I have set up the UAL Alumni network in Singapore with co-founder Andrea Fam, and in 2013 I am setting up an online platform for art critics and artists to collaborate in Singapore.
What discoveries have you made so far about the South East Asian art scene?
It is fascinating to be in a world where the definitions and complexities of contemporary art are still developing. Existing over the last 10-20 years, it is a relatively new phenomenon as opposed to say the last 50 years in the West. Singapore itself is an extremely contemporary culture, but it is clear that it is based on different histories, cultures and foundations than those I am familiar with. These seep through, both in day to day life and in the arts.
If we feel that things have transformed quickly in the West, it is nothing compared to the East, where the speed of change over the last century is beyond anything experienced by preceding generations.
Historically, the rich cultures and geographies of the region have been the passageway between East and West. This resulted in a desire to transform and adjust, coupled with responses of resistance to a process of rapid modernisation that can feel like a loss of conventions. A balance has been sought between tradition and modernity; cosmopolitan and local; Asian and Western.
It is a time in which many different versions and perceptions of the world exist – where there are complex intersections of the past, the present, and multiple versions of traditions, identities and cultures. Artists are creating work about this time of flux whilst also living within it.
How can locational context influence and inspire an artist to develop their practice?
The most exciting artists I have seen so far in South East Asia have used their complex histories and contexts to cultivate a tight connection between art and life, creating art that goes beneath the surface.
With both Asian blood and British blood in my veins, I am often dealing with versions of these complexities in myself. Although my own work does not address this directly, it has recently examined personal and historical narratives, as well as explored the mapping of meaning, identifiers and signifiers – the connections and communications between people and cultures.
For me personally, changing my location has always brought new inspiration and perspective on the themes I investigate through my work, and this will be no exception. As I’m sure you can tell, there is so much here that inspires, and there is also a whole new visual vocabulary that comes with changing your locational context – in the landscapes, cityscapes, architecture, flora and fauna of Singapore and the diverse countries in the region.
What advice would you offer to artists relocating their studio space?
With all its inspirations and new perspectives, relocation also comes with inherent change. Some thrive on this change, other creatives need to feel ‘at home’ in themselves for creativity to flow. It was important for me to anticipate this and make sure the environment was right to continue my artistic practice without taking too long to adjust. I am lucky in that I have strong connections still with London and the projects I am working on there. This has made the transition smoother for me although it has also been a challenge at times! I think artists should be mindful to allow themselves time to adjust and to recognise that this is needed.
On a logistical note – It takes a long time to pack up a studio! Things don’t fit into neatly labelled boxes like when packing up a house – if I had labelled my boxes, I think they would have included ‘Date stamps (modern and vintage)’, ‘Found objects (misc)’, ‘Found textures (from magazines, rubbings and maps)’, ‘old brushes (that I can’t bear to part with)’, ‘sparkly things and gold leaf (the magpie box)’.
In terms of finding a new studio – do your research first. I knew that having to spend time studio hunting in the first weeks or months of being here would have stifled my creativity. Luckily I was in touch with artists in Singapore before I relocated, and many of them explained the common practice of converting spaces to studios. My research told me it would be difficult to get an existing artist’s studio, given that the National Arts Council funded studios are not available to non-Singaporean artists. Being part of an artist network is important to me, so my studio was born in a lovely live-work space just next door to Telok Kurau Studios – an artist village and arts housing project of the National Arts Council.
Can you give us an insight into what your new body of work may focus on?
Whilst I am still exploring ideas of connections, languages and mapping, I am starting to think more about the creative process itself, and some pieces have begun focusing on this as a subject matter. I am also hoping to work bigger here, and I am looking into using spaces to create installations and interactive artworks.
I have been influenced by the idea of the ‘Kampong’, or village. Whilst Singapore is now a sprawling metropolis, like many cities it began as a collection of villages, and the roots and traditions still exist, either in their projection through into contemporary culture, or in their absence and felt loss. This is even more apparent in surrounding countries in South East Asia. My recent explorations draw parallels between the obsessive nature of the intricate artworks I make – usually composed of multiples and repeated elements that comprise a whole – and the concepts of rituals, mantras, performances or actions which repeat to form tradition and stem from traditional rural life.
Your practice is very much concerned with language communication and cultural shifts how do you think this will develop whilst being based in Singapore?
Other than physical shifts like the Kampong to the contemporary, I am also looking at old and new languages. I am fascinated by the unfamiliar words, scripts and characters I am surrounded by here. I am also keen to contrast this with other new languages and terminologies that are emerging, such as specialist lexicons that develop around a sport, or the language of social media with its formation of new words and meanings such as ‘unlike’.
In an act of forming my own new meaning, identifier and signifier, I am embarking on a project to translate my name into Chinese. Many artists here with Chinese ancestry have a stamp which they use to sign artworks. Given the prevalence of the use of the stamp as a way of mark making in my drawings, it will be interesting to get my own stamp made. It will also be a special signature that will adorn only the artworks I make during my time in Asia. Given that there is no direct translation for my name, there are many different meanings and versions to be explored – an interesting process in itself.
I am also very lucky to be able to travel and explore the differences between cultures – so far I have spent time in Indonesia, and next year I have field trips planned for Malaysia and Cambodia. Additionally I hope to visit many of the art hub cities in the region.
In your blog you talk of art acting as a type of social glue ‘harmonising’ rather than being confrontational which we are used to in the West.
What can we learn from this type of approach?
Yes, this actually is one of the social shifts I have written about – the ‘harmonising’ approach is one which has been left behind in many places in South East Asia. It is the nature of the beginnings of art – to record, provide beauty, preserve history, and help people understand each other. However, in any culture, soon the artists want to explore challenging issues through their practice – not just the beauty of the world, but its hardships as well. In my blog I have discussed the changes that have happened in Singapore and the South East Asian art scene – which has become much more open and expressive in recent years, where artists are now being given the freedom to confront issues.
I think we can learn that to do something new and different is always a challenge. It is fantastic to see the art world opening up, but it has also made me think about different cultures and diverse sensitivities towards issues such as religion, nudity, and sexuality. In the west we are often numb to these issues, unruffled by harrowing or crude images due to over exposure or perhaps a wall of distance between us, and that also is not always a good thing.
Having said that, I am exhibiting in a group show at Guerilla Galleries called ‘100% nude’ this January in London – but I am pleased to confirm my contribution is a drawing, not a performance piece!