Friday, January 8, 2021

Interview: Susie Wong

Susie Wong (photo credit: Tamares Goh)
Susie Wong’s current work contemplates memory, mass media, and the consumption of circulated images. Active as an artist and arts writer since the 1980s, she forged her own path in Singapore’s art scene. Her practice has been enhanced by curatorial projects and her work as an educator at LASALLE College of the Arts. She has contributed art criticism for the Straits Times as well as features for magazines including ID and d+a in architecture and design, among many others. Recent projects include a multimedia installation for Objectifs gallery, and a site-specific video projected on the windows of her HDB flat as part of the National Gallery of Singapore’s series, out of isolation: artists respond to covid-19.


Cultural ReProducers is pleased to share four conversations with parenting artists in Singapore, begun during a residency there where connecting with fellow artists often meant meeting online, because of the pandemic. This interview is part of a creative exchange between Cultural ReProducers and the artist-run gallery CommaSpace


Susie with Anmari, at her 1993 solo exhibition Portraits & 
Places, National Museum Art Gallery, Singapore

Cultural ReProducers: Did motherhood change your relationship with the art community in Singapore? If you could, what might you change to create a more supportive environment there?




Susie Wong: During that time, in the 90’s and early 2000s, even being an “artist” was quite a new phenomenon in Singapore, in terms of numbers. I experienced the art community as an inclusive place. I felt – as a single parent – like I belonged. Perhaps it was a less structured place, and I can make it effective for myself and my child by including her in most activities. In retrospect, the art community had been fluid and accepting.  By art community I include as well the institutions I worked with along the way – I brought her everywhere - meetings, events, workshops - and I have not encountered any exclusion. It could be on account that I work with more women than men who led the projects. 

As for the wider community of Singapore–being an artist, let alone a single parent/artist, does attract more prejudices, as one can expect—culturally, traditionally. Today perhaps, there is greater acceptance of artist as a profession, a career, than before. Being a single parent, particularly a woman, still attracts a stigma. There is a national idea of “family”– traditional mould– that is being heavily rooted, and endorsed politically, and therefore societally, as the conservative segment of our society holds to gendered stereotypes in a family. So if I were to promote changes for inclusivity, I will propose new “family” models, alongside other forms of diversity. Examples of discriminatory policies are the lack of subsidized care or support for single women/parent with “illegitimate” offspring, in public housing, and in childcare. There do seem to be some changes, at least, support from various NGOs.



CR: Could you tell us a little bit about your daughter? 



Susie:
Anmari is precocious, an independent spirit. She is now very involved in the arts, an arts manager

Susie and Anmari at Susie's 1997 exhibition Soul & Flesh
Valentine Willie Gallery, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

in the F&B industry, also a curator, writer. She has always been assisting me, recording or documenting my work.  She just shared with me a picture of us at the opening of an exhibition at The Substation in the 1990s. in it, she was holding a voice recorder, looking all serious, and recording our speeches.

Cultural ReProducers: How did parenthood shift your creative practice? Were there changes in the work itself?

Susie Wong:
Anmari was born in 1989. Prior to her birth, I was already searching for my artistic practice and voice; I had spent one or two years teaching art, and had participated in small group exhibitions. My daughter was born at a time when my marriage was breaking down. Around that time, I was in Indonesia, in a kind of artist space/studio/residence in which I had made paintings, drawings, and connected with other artists there. In 1990 I returned to Singapore with her.

My practice still continued to be paintings, and I had some solo exhibitions. Painting is a very solitary practice, a space of solitude; in terms of time and space, it was a manageable way of juggling baby/child minding and art. The most difficult part was obviously the income that I needed to cover my living expenses. Selling my work had not made me financially independent. I had to resort to writing, editing and teaching; I have been a freelancer since those days. 

I think motherhood has provoked a certain interest and questioning of my place as a woman / single parent in society; this can be seen in several exhibitions and works. Being isolated in terms of my freelancing work— not fully connected in the conventional sense — meant that my work tends to take on more domestic perspectives and family situations. The frequently flailing empowerment in a society that presumes women as equal resulted in a new awareness. This became an important source from which ideas flowed. From the 1990s and on, collective engagements were important for my artistic growth.

Being a single parent and being an artist both involve… a lot of constraints. But I think the separation of two - being a parent and being an artist - there’s not very clear demarcation in these roles for me. She is really a part of my work. And today what is really lovely is that we bounce a lot of ideas off each other. She is very interested in the arts, inevitably, right? It’s her destiny. [laughs] Throughout the 30 years that she’s been around, she’s been exposed to a lot of artistic practices. So it’s – what is the word for it? It’s synergistic.

video stills from dancing alone, 2020, Objectifs, Singapore


















 

 

CR: What advice would you pass on to a new parent struggling to balance parenthood, paid work, and an artistic practice? 


Susie:
I think of life and art as quite seamless. I always thought of the child as precious, placed as foremost in my sights. Once that is so, the struggle to balance becomes less acute. As for paid work, such a necessity, I live simply, and do what I can. Looking back, those must have been difficult years (maybe even depressive years), but I learn to live literally day-to-day, perhaps hand-to-mouth. I have been a part-time or freelancer for decades, and I actually believed for the longest time that this is the future model of work. The wonderful thing is that all this extra work - writing, workshops, teaching, curating - revolves around art as well, so I rarely need to step outside the field. It is at the emotional level that the child has played an important role in my life. You learn utmost patience, in growing slowly, and savoring the world.