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Leap Tony Godfrey | 2010


Donna Ong’s first major exhibition in Singapore on her return from London in 2004, Palace of Dreams, was typically paradoxical in that it was at once fantastical and heavy with material. On the walls were 24 elaborate and very precise technical drawings of wings – each entitled Awaken not the Slumbering Drawing – and in the centre of the room a desk with a drawing board. But the desk firstly, had an excess of objects attached to it - mirror, ghetto blaster, plants, etc - and secondly, it had itself sprouted wings. The wings were clearly those of insects but they also looked like those made by Tatlin for his utopian flying machine Letatlin. So the viewer could surmise this was the desk of a man or woman who endlessly drew technical drawings of insect wings perhaps to be remade larger as if they would enable human flight.

Ong’s background is not untypical of many Singaporean artists of her generation: born in 1978, her mother was Peranakan, (ethnic Chinese long domiciled in the Malay peninsula) her father was the ninth child of recent Chinese immigrants. Because two of the older siblings had joined the Communist party, to the horror of the parents, and been exiled to China, Ong’s father and the other youngest sibling were sent to an English language school rather than a Chinese language one where they might have been “polluted” by communism. Her father went to university in Australia. Therefore Ong, born in 1978, grew up in English speaking house, and never learnt the language of her aunts and uncles. The house was filled with antiques for her father, himself a sculptor, loved objects. But these objects were seen as interesting objets d’art rather than the natural and appropriate furniture and backdrop of a Chinese household. Perhaps the way Ong’s works are about creating imaginary spaces whilst being often filled with manifold objects comes from this background. She herself went to architecture school in London and then Goldsmith’s College London to study Fine Art.

The fictional person who lived in Palace of Dreams was it seemed not only an inventor but a collector too – someone obsessed with gathering objects around himself, and making a taxonomy for them. This is in some ways paradoxical for if collectors gather things from the world, secrete them and organise them, inventors create new things to put in the world. This seeming paradox was true also of the installation she made for the first Singapore Biennale: invited to work with four rooms in the judge’s quarters of the disused city hall, rooms heavy clad in dark wood she created four interiors filled with objects that seemed to belong to obsessive and reclusive men. When we enter someone’s room we look around for clues as to the nature of the occupant: the furnishings of a room convey the personality of the person who owns or inhabits it; the combination of objects tells a story, or at least gives us clues with which to create that story. These were rooms that a child would be scared to go into lest they were lairs for predators, but would be fascinated by because they were so mysterious. One room was filled with crystals: another had a table covered with jars filled with dead babies – or to be more precise dolls. Tubes connected these jars to others behind containing pearls or ball bearings. Murdering or preserving, mutating or creating life: what was going on in this room was uncertain.

This uncanniness of dolls, the way they mimic life and can be invested with love, but are lifeless was explored further in a project that in its final manifestation for the Jakarta Biennial of 2009 had no objects, only photographs and videos. Readers of Freud’s 1919 essay “The Uncanny” (unheimlich – more correctly translated as unhomely) will recall that Freud used the automaton, the mechanical man, in Hoffman’s story as an emblem of the unheimlich – the thing that seems homely but is unhomely – comfortingly familiar but yet threatening. And he constantly refers to this automaton as a doll. If we think of how a child treats a doll it is the most familiar, homely and loved of objects. But yet a doll is not truly a girl’s best friend: it is an alien object introduced by others. It is no coincidence that dolls in horror films (Chuckie for example) often become vicious. But the dolls in Ong’s work are not vicious but melancholy. Photographs of the dolls were arranged in a grid on a table as if a doll collector had tried to establish a taxonomy of dolls. Beyond the table in a darkened space videos were projected of dolls meeting in rooms.

The installation was based on the curious and failed friendship project between Japan and the USA in the nineteen thirties. Mindful of growing hatred and distrust between the two nations a clergyman arranged for children to send American dolls to Japan to show how nice and cuddly Americans really were; the Japanese responded formally by sending a doll from each province to show how nice and cuddly they were too. When war broke out no-one could believe such tales of good will and the dolls were hidden away or ritually destroyed. In Ong’s installation they are arranged in the taxonomy of a grid and this taxonomy could be that of a collector or of the investigator listing criminals or suspected criminals. In the videos they linger in empty rooms, neglected emissaries of love. Nothing can be more homely (Heimlich) than a dolls house but in her videos the dolls meet in anonymous spaces, waiting rooms, existential spaces.

In a series of ten works made with the Singapore Tyler Print Institute In The Deep, Not All Who Wander Are Lost she expanded on (or quite literally contracted) this theme of the psychological interior. Taking copies of photocollage prints she had made of caves with stalagmites and stalactites she cut them up and reassembled them sandwiched in between twelve and fourteen Perspex sheets. There structure is like that of model theatres children can make with different sheets of card representing the stage, the curtains, the scenery, the actors. There are no actors here, save our own eyes. The spaces are mysterious and often ambiguous. These are very small works: we have to peer closely to see into them. Most people find them very beautiful. They are miniature landscapes and our instinct is to see all miniature things (like dolls houses) as both perfect and beautiful – innocent of the blemishes of a large and messy world. As children we dream of flying and as children we also dream of caves, lairs and hiding places. Many children make caves to hide in by piling up their sheets or blankets and bedclothes. It is where they can hide from the world, where they can re-enact their fantasies. These works of Ong’s are profoundly ambiguous: they are both tiny intimate space and in our imagination ‘caverns measureless to man’.

Last year she used this technique of cutting up paper works and re-assembling them sandwiched between Perspex sheets again but this time it was traditional Chinese paintings that she cut up and the resulting work much larger three metres in length. In this there was an element of vandalism: cutting up drawings, but also an element of nostalgia. That this was a lost past that can only be reconstructed as a dream landscape. But one could read it also as a critique of the sort of art she cut up: these weren’t masterpieces of Chinese art that she cut up; the images were clichaic and a bit cheesy. As often in her work the decisions were up to the viewer: three small cameras were fixed to this work and viewers could move them around to catch different details of the work shown on adjacent video monitors. They could survey and reframe the work. Just as the earlier installations were potential lairs and traps for those that entered so these perspex boxes were traps for the eye. But we were trapped not in somewhere that was physically dangerous but emotionally evocative and uncertain.

The paradox of Donna Ong’s work is that it is simultaneously about fantasy and actual objects in the world – at once phantasmagoric and literal. Sometimes her work has been about fictional spaces that can act as metaphors for mental states; on other occasions she has responded to the genius loci – the spirit of particular places. This was the case with a recent work made on a deserted island near to Hong Kong. A line of inverted green bottles has been hung by her snaking through a derelict room. Was this the left-over of an alcoholic obsessively, compulsively putting his bottles once the beer was drunk in an orderly line? Somehow it seemed to be about music: the line rose and fell like a line of music on the page; the bottles asked to be tapped so that a rhythm or tune was discerned. And there was the way the green glass caught the daylight that seeped into this old wooden room. As well as her ability to construct evocative memory-scapes and her wry but gentle sense of humour it is this ability to make moments of beauty out of ordinary leftover materials that distinguishes her work.

©Tony Godfrey 2010