Art World Forum catches up with the emerging Singaporean artist, Melissa Tan, on her practice, the art scene in Singapore and a few pressing points that should be addressed.
Tell me a little bit about you and how your practice came about?
I graduated from Lasalle College of the Arts in 2011, and while in school I was interested in process and material-based works. In addition, themes on landscape, mapping and geography were my subject of interest. I began the series The Secret Lives of Rocks that were drawings meant to document the process of growing crystal clusters. There I explored with materials and assembled them together, using incense sticks to burn and layer paper, to illustrate heat and compression as done during the formation of crystals.
Gradually, in the series Arc of Uncertainties I was looking at rocks in space, meteorites and lost asteroids. Arc of Uncertainties echo the formation of lost asteroids in which the paper relief works are shaped after these minor planets. I came across the term ‘lost’ minor planets and found that fascinating. Objects so large that are difficult to track, rendering them as misplaced or forgotten and of which perhaps in time, will resurface when we least expect them to.
I feel the trajectory I am working towards is in creating sound sculptures that deal with the translation of nature into different forms.
As an artistic contributor to the creative scene in Singapore, what’s it like being an artist here?
Being an artist in Singapore, making art a full-time career is difficult and stressful due to the high cost of living. Like many, I teach part time to support my practice, most often art education is an option most practitioners consider. Some work full-time in other industries and practice part-time as well.
Space is also another challenge artists face, the high cost of rental for spaces and limited government subsidised funding. Studio spaces are temporary and unfortunately it is common to be constantly moving from place to place.
Space is a challenge artists face all over the world, specifically in major cities. Would you say your environment, or space availability, affects your practice? If so, in what way?
Most definitely, the environment shapes the way I think and create work. Being born and raised in Singapore I think Arthur Yap’s The Space of City Trees is a good idea of how Singapore’s landscape is shaped, and distinctive to the place. Urban planning in Singapore is deliberate. The development of the city’s infrastructure is extremely calculated and always constant. This fascination with the concrete garden made me revisit the idea of using granite in my work for the Singapore Biennale 2016 An Atlas of Mirrors. The landscape around me greatly affects my practice as such.
Regarding space availability, before I had a studio I had difficulty creating large sculptures. I live in an HDB where the artwork and pedestals were unable to fit through the doors of my home. That was when I started looking for a space which was needed. Ever since moving to the Goodman Arts Centre I have been able to work on larger sculptures and more series of work as well. Space availability gives me more room and freedom to explore a range of possibilities, with less restrictions on scale and medium.
You predominantly work with paper, is there something specific as to why it may be a preferred medium?
I began the series The Secret Lives of Rocks that were drawings meant to document the process of growing crystal clusters, the layering of paper was meant to illustrate the idea of compression. I enjoy the malleability of paper and its organic properties. At the same time, juxtaposing paper with a seemingly incongruous material like metal – that is hard, cold and reflective – renders the work raw and tense, sensibilities that I try to push for in my work currently.
What is your opinion of the regional art market? Number of collectors, number of artists, number of opportunities…?
As a young artist I am still currently learning about the regional market with exhibitions I participate in and by speaking to other practitioners in the field. Because there has been a great increase with the number of young artists graduating from the many institutions in Singapore and overseas, there seems to be a saturation of creatives and with a lack of platforms where they may showcase their works.
There are passionate collectors who care for the Singapore artists, but overall I think time is needed to slowly cultivate more belief in the arts in Singapore.
If you could suggest a topic that could be addressed and discussed by industry leaders, what would it be?
I would encourage industry leaders in Singapore to not only provide opportunities to local artists but also the researchers, historians, theorists, curators and other academic professionals who help artists articulate their ideas and provide a framework of understanding towards their art-making.
Art-making in Singapore is often misunderstood in the ‘grand scheme’ of Southeast Asia. I feel local academics must be given a voice to address this problem and to place contemporary art-making in Singapore within proper context.
Name one artist you look up to?
I admire a lot of artists. I look to my lecturers at LASALLE College of the Arts who have shaped my practice; artists such as Betty Susiarjo, Hazel Lim, Jeremy Sharma, Ian Woo, to name a few. I do admire Tacita Dean’s practice and how she pursues her narratives. At the same time, I look up to local writers such as Arthur Yap for his poetic insights on the Singapore landscape.