Interview by | Secret Ingredient: revelations, paths and dottiness


Artist Nicola Anthony is interviewed by writer and journalist Anastasia Ong at about her solo exhibition, SECRET INGREDIENT at SPR MRKT. Catch the exhibition before 30th November, or join Nicola there on 27th November when the artist is present. 

Anastasia Ong: Who are you and what is your background? 

Nicola Anthony: Recently I have been both a confession box and a means of catharsis for strangers in Singapore. Some may call me a voyeur. Really, I am an artist collecting other people’s words and secrets which inspire me to create everything from public light sculpture, to drawings and text art.
My current solo exhibition used a confession box and online confession portal to gather secrets from the public before making artwork based on them.

Nicola in her studio
Nicola in her studio

Anastasia Ong: What gave you the idea of creating art centered around private secrets and revelations told by people? Did any particular event inspire this?     

Nicola Anthony: I know a lot of secrets, and I have had a lot of secrets kept from me in my life. I try not to keep my own secrets.
I like to tell the stories that reveal truth and let us glimpse below the surface of human beings. I began making prompts for people to ‘submit’ their words and inner thoughts back in 2006 when I launched the Word Collection Project (ongoing). This simple call for words reveals that whether people write something mundane, sad or happy, there is always a beauty in discovering these hidden parts of people, and perhaps noticing a kinship. This time I challenged the public to go further and submit confessions which they may never have uttered before.


Anastasia Ong: How has the artwork in Secret Ingredient taken shape based on the paths mapped around the Telok Ayer area?

Nicola Anthony: I love the idea of mapping – it can be a very precise, practical thing or simply abstract and metaphorical. I walked the area a lot during my creative process to absorb influences. In the window, you will see looping lines based on sketches of my meanders around the area. If you look closely you will see that these are not lines but sentences: I used my routes as a guideline to write out every single public confession that I received.
For the Atlas Series, because the confession box was overflowing, I decided not to tell any specific Telok Ayer stories. Instead I incorporated symbolic materials and references from the former bay area, and I let the full tidal force of human emotion that I was receiving from the open-call for confessions guide the artwork.

Secret Ingredient, Nicola Anthony, Artist, SPR MRKT, SPPRMRKT, Singapore, Art, gallery exhibition, burned paper
Dream Place, (Atlas Series), Nicola Anthony, 2015. Rice paper and ink in embroidery hoop.

Anastasia Ong: How has the artwork taken in influences or materials from the Telok Ayer area?

Nicola Anthony: The sea was here but then it disappeared. I was inspired by the symbolism of this original edge of the island, which was also the arrival port for many immigrants and cultures, the start and end of journeys. The cleansing presence of auspicious water (and ink) is also a reference to healing in the Atlas works which seek to balance the weight of the confessions.
While exploring the many places of worship here, (one of my favourites being Fook Tet Soo Khek Temple with its cockle shell roof), I was asked: “Upon arriving into new life after a treacherous journey, what is the first thing you would do? You would thank God.” I began using incense and meditation to concentrate, and then used the incense in my own cathartic process to burn into the drawing paper – the artwork is as much about what is visible as what is invisible or missing.

'Atlas', a collection of drawings in embroidery hoops, Nicola Anthony
‘Atlas’, a collection of drawings in embroidery hoops, Nicola Anthony


Anastasia Ong: What are some of the most interesting secrets that you’ve come across so far? 

Nicola Anthony: A lot made me smile, and many were quite heartbreaking. They are worth reading if you are passing by the window of SPRMRKT.
They include everything from confessions of love to admissions of shop theft. People wrote of guilty pleasures, embarrassing moments, sexuality, unspoken memories, and deeper subjects such as depression, suicide, loss. Unexpectedly, people opened up about sadnesses in their lives. It was difficult not to be able to reach out to these strangers, but I have responded in the way I promised: by turning their confessions into artwork which airs the truth, and hopefully providing a cathartic release for some.

Secret Ingredient, Image by Glenn Lim_Public artwork, 'secret ingredient' installation art by Nicola Anthony_2
Anastasia Ong: How is the general response to this collection so far? What are some of your best and worst feedbacks. 

Nicola Anthony: The collection has struck a good balance between drawing people into the intricate surface layers, and also speaking of a deeper more powerful subject – I am thrilled that nearly all of the new artworks have already been sold! We wanted to make the work accessible to all, so each piece works as stand alone artwork or can be collected as multiples allowing a larger display or even an installation.

I have been interacting with the public at SPRMRKT through my first venture into performance art. I invited others to sit opposite me, tell a secret, or write it in the confession book. It’s a challenge for both artist and public! One negative response I received was, “Why on earth should I confess to you?” It was actually a very insightful reaction: it shows how intimate and difficult it is to reveal yourself, but also made me feel I had failed in that person’s interaction, although this is all part of the process of course. The Curator Daniela Beltrani is an established performance artist, so it’s been fantastic having her guidance in this new area.

Anastasia Ong: How long do you spend on each piece of artwork?     

Nicola Anthony: The process involves patience when burning the paper, blowing on it to stop the paper singeing, and being very aware of the rhythm of this exhalation and then the inhalation of the incense smoke. It slowed down my pace, but also caused me to really focus on the making-process. Alongside this precision, there is also an element of chaos to the burning. Sometimes it is not controllable, so each layer may be remade many times.

Anastasia Ong: What is your favorite piece from this artwork and why?

Nicola Anthony: I love the window installation of secrets, because I see it taking people by surprise when they start to read – and I think life should most definitely contain unexpected surprises and glimpses into a stranger.

Of the hoop works I especially enjoy those which allude to the shoreline with water ripples and a mirror embedded behind. The combination of water, the burned away spaces and the ‘silver lining’ will provide a moment of stillness and a unique viewing as each of us sees our own face within the depths of the sea.

Shore, Nicola Anthony (c)
Anastasia Ong: This collection is quite different from your normal work. How has your practice change over time? 

Nicola Anthony: That’s a question I get a lot! I am a bit naughty because artists are advised to find a specialism and make it their niche. But instead I move between materials, forms and techniques as I am greedy to explore and be inspired. Over time I am developing new ways of telling stories, but with each progression there are threads of connection – words and stories, use of multiple pieces or parts to build up a larger work, and often circles, nuclei, dots and mapping.


Anastasia Ong: Not all of the sets are the same, could you tell us about the sets in this collection and the reasons for the materials used?

Nicola Anthony: In this exhibition there are two main series of work created within layered embroidery hoops: The new work is called the Atlas Series and involves drawing with the voids and marks created by burning the paper with incense sticks, pigment ink, circular mirrors and drawing. Within the Atlas Series some pieces use ‘secret ingredients’ such as symbolic materials (brown shipping and packing paper, rice paper, different scents of joss stick) or works where I have burned seed-like or rice grain shaped holes.

Nicola Anthony, silver rice floe
The second set is called the Constellation Series. A progression of hoop works that were created to branch linguistically from the central word, ‘home’, forming a mental map of real and unreal connections between my two homes, London and Singapore, and many worlds in between. Constellation launched in London as part of the Ex Parte exhibition at Singapore Inside Out, so it’s fantastic for the series to have its Singapore debut now. Of course it’s very linked with the ideas of arrival, departure and life-journeys that has permeated this exhibition. Meanwhile a few Constellation pieces are currently also touring Europe in an exhibition called M O V E WITH (OUT).

Alongside this I also created some big text drawings on paper, and a text drawing installation that spans the entirety of the glass window, containing all the public confessions.


Screen Shot 2015-10-21 at 11.50.55 AM

Anastasia Ong: I noticed that many of the art works are round in shape – any particular reason why? 

Nicola Anthony: Good question! I am quite dotty and I am drawn to circles and loops. I am fascinated by mandalas, the symbolism of eternity and regeneration in each loop, the physical and biological reference to cells, seeds, atoms, etc. When you multiply the circles they become points and dots that echo aboriginal dot paintings, markers on a map, pinpricks of light in a star-atlas…. there’s a lot of meaning for me.


Anastasia Ong: Is this collection only featured in SPRMRKT? Can you tell us how this happened.

Nicola Anthony: When I first had the idea for Secret Ingredient, I was looking for an unusual art space with a big window to create artwork on and have light pour through, akin to stained glass. I also wanted a space where people linger, and SPRMRKT as a gallery-cafe was the perfect location: It is a place where people congregate, perform daily rituals, meet their ‘clan’. SPRMRKT have been fantastic to work with and open to all sorts of creative ideas.

The Atlas Series has been made specifically in relation to the surrounding locale, and of course the window installation is very site-specific and fleeting – it’s waves of secrets will be washed away after November 30th. I am continuing to make new works that are created using these techniques so watch this space!


Interview by Anastasia Ong at

SECRET INGREDIENT by Nicola Anthony is curated by Daniela Beltrani, and runs until 30th November 2015

SPR MRKT Gallery Cafe, 2 McCallum Street, Singapore 069043

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