The highly sought-after artist, who has previously held solos in Art Basel Hong Kong and the Art Paris Art Fair, reveals how her expressions of memories and the ephemeral are vividly brought to life across her body of work

As a child, whenever Dawn Ng’s parents brought her to the beach, she would always find a way to linger—not to sneak in a few extra minutes of playtime in the sand or to shirk cleaning up responsibilities. Rather, she has always felt this pull to capture the emotion of a fleeting moment before it is gone.

“I just wanted to stay on to take a photograph with my eyes,” the 39-year-old visual artist remembers. “I intuitively felt that there is true beauty and sadness in grasping a moment before it is gone and I have always sought to take it all in a bit more.”

This sensitivity to the passing of time is something that she continues to hold dear and it is a theme that has anchored her prolific output over the years, including her latest solo, Into Air.

In ways that are whimsical yet profound, her expressions of memories and the ephemeral are vividly brought to life across her body of work, which span a broad range of mediums including photography, light, film, collage, painting and large-scale installations.

For instance, 2010’s Walter, a series of guerrilla installations of a massive inflatable rabbit across the country’s landscape of nostalgic heartland enclaves is a gently humorous yet poignant reminder of slices of old Singapore that still remain. Then there is 2018’s Perfect Stranger, a “time capsule” based on a year’s worth of daily text messages with an Israeli psychologist, which has a way of inspiring viewers to slow down as they plumb through the depths of their own memories while viewing her work.

“One of the things that has always bothered me about the processing of time is how it boils down to numbers—cold, linear, sterile data points. I’ve always thought that this is antithetical to the true nature of time, which is emotional and elastic. Time flies when you are having fun and stands still when you fall in love,” says the nominee for the 2021 Sovereign Asian Art Prize.

Ng, whose work has been acquired by the Singapore Art Museum and exhibited at the Musee d’art contemporain de Lyon in France, adds, “The creative challenge that came to me was how do I rip out that spinal cord of numbers from our understanding of time? How do I give time a colour, shape and form?”

(Related: 5 Artworks by Singaporean Artists to Look Out For When You’re at the Civic District)

FROZEN MOMENTS

In 2017, this quest led her to begin an obsessive three‑year‑long study of the creation, melting and evaporation of over a hundred different 60 kilogram blocks of frozen coloured ice, which she painstakingly documented via photography, film and painting. This January, she launched the series as a solo exhibition in a former ship repairs factory at 2 Cavan Road.

There is something undoubtedly captivating about how Ng has managed to memorialise the “death” of ice blocks so poetically via a laborious process of trial and error. She says she melted down about 40 blocks of ice before it became second nature to handle this medium deftly. This experimentation has imparted her with a profusion of “nerdy” anecdotes about dealing with ice and frozen pigments such as her discovery that cobalt blue, usually a bright, intense hue, can turn into a dull lilac when mixed and frozen. 

And to achieve the clear, intense shades of frozen pigments that pop so vividly in her exhibited work, she drew inspiration from the drinks served at Japanese bars. “The ice they use is super clear because of a technique called directional freezing where you insulate five sides of the cube during the freezing process so that gas is compressed. Over time I realised that this method of freezing gave me the best clarity and vividness of colour,” she says.

Each block was then photographed from 10 different angles at four-hour intervals until it melted entirely—and from this vast database of images, she ultimately selected 13 that evoke a sculptural stillness for the exhibition.

“It is about finding that one or two best moments in the entire lifespan of the block,” she says. 

There were times, she recalls, that the team would spontaneously stop to watch the gradual drip and flow of the melting colours. “We knew that I would never be able to rebuild the block exactly as it was—and even if I could, I am not sure that I would want to,” she says. 

For a sense of this fleeting, disintegrating beauty, she also released a film she made of one of the melting blocks. The melted mass was then gathered into large two-metre vats before she laid a sheet of cotton paper over the surface. As the liquid evaporated, the coloured pigments, such as ink and acrylic, are left behind as topographical blooms and textured tributaries on paper, which resemble large abstract paintings.  

She says, “To me, ice is the perfect material precisely because it cannot last. If you think about the truth that from the moment we are born, we start to die—then ice yields to that law of nature in the most acute, condensed splendour.” 

BACK TO LIFE

After a year of coronavirus-induced global travel restrictions and slowdowns, things are back to full swing for this sought-after artist, who has previously held solos in Art Basel Hong Kong and the Art Paris Art Fair. As of press time, Sullivan+Strumpf, the gallery representing Ng, has sold out almost all the pieces presented in Into Air, but more may be released for June’s show in Seoul. 

Also in December last year, Perfect Stranger, which she characterises as one of her most personal and honest works as she had initially created it with the intention of sharing it with just one person—her daughter Ava—had its third debut as a commissioned installation at the Asian Civilisations Museum. This is the first time that the full range of 61 texts based on messages with the Israeli psychologist have been exhibited all at once.

Visitors to this popular exhibition, she notes, often spend long periods of time reading the texts printed on large sheets of gradient-hued paper. The writing ranges from quotes like “Have you ever seen something so beautiful it made you sad” to a list of “don’ts”. 

“I believe words are keys that turn locks in people’s memories,” she muses of its appeal. “I don’t think my stories are special. If they feel special it is because they’re just like anyone else’s. There’s enough of these stories in all of us such that we find ourselves in them.”

Another recently launched series, Small Things, which comprises hand-sculpted paper vessels, offers another insight into her myriad methods of capturing memories. During Singapore’s circuit breaker period last April, she had to shutter her studio and work from home. She and her husband, Wee Teng Wen, co-founder and managing partner of The Lo & Behold Group, would take turns to care for their toddler Ava and it was during these slivers of time that she would build these delicate, organically shaped vessels piece by tiny piece. 

“With a limited supply of paints, tissue, glue and gypsum, I began sculpting these vessels in the back room of my apartment,” says Ng. The pieces are exclusively available on TheArtling.com.

CHANGING TIMES

Now that the world is jump-starting back to life, Ng says the duo are committed to preserving snippets of the “monastic simplicity” from that period that they hold dear. “We decided not to put Ava in preschool on Mondays so that we can spend that time with her. This is something from the lockdown that we wanted to carry on with. We found that we can make even more efficient use of time for work, so that there can be time for just us,” she says of the family’s changed priorities.

The very ecosystem of her profession has been impacted by the pandemic too, she notes. A slew of fairs and shows were cancelled over the past year, which has affected artists and galleries alike and has led to a reckoning of the entire system. Already, some art businesses like Sullivan+Strumpf as well as Chan + Hori Contemporary, which previously represented her, have closed their permanent galleries, she notes. Into Air’s residence in the majestically crumbling shipping factory was “anti-white cube” but turned out to be the perfect space. She says, “I also loved that both this space and series echoes each other’s story of memory and impermanence.” 

Sometimes, it is good for things to fall apart so that we can rebuild them even better.

—Dawn Ng

Although she too is uncertain about the form art institutions, galleries and artists may ultimately evolve into, she says this ongoing disruption of the art world’s hierarchy may not necessarily be a bad thing. “I think destruction is exciting because it gives birth to new forms. Sometimes, it is good for things to fall apart so that we can rebuild them even better,” she says. 

As for her art, there is no question that there is one thing she will continue to do and that is to keep on creating. She says, “All I can do is focus on the work and to keep trying to create the truest and best form of anything I put out there. That, I think, is really what the role of an artist is.”


The March 2021 issue is now available with our compliments on Magzter.