The Private Museum in Singapore’s Waterloo Street Art Centre is showing Wee Hong Ling’s ‘In Flux’ from 16 March – 6 May 2018. The exhibition features the installations of the clay artist who meditates on her place in the world between different societies, homes, and conceptual influences.
Dr Wee used to work as a NASA scientist before she discovered her passion for the material and artistic medium of clay, pursuing pottery and ceramic processes. Based both in New York and Singapore, her work translates her relationship with her two living environments, family, and own path in life into metaphorical shapes and themed concept works, using the vocabulary of the craft to explore her own story and artistic curiosity in self-reflection and within local and global communities.
‘In Flux’ combines the series ‘Brooklyn’, ‘My Family Portrait’, ‘Moxie’, and ‘Heaven and Earth’. ‘Brooklyn’ creates a dialog between Singapore and New York, focusing on the way of living in both places. ‘My Family Portrait’ explores the concept of family depiction, connotations, and understanding of this close social unit and its representation. ‘Moxie’ entails bold, big shapes and line works, contrasting the other series with weight and voluptuous designs. ‘Heaven and Earth’ uses thin and round designs to ask about associations with ground colour schemes, fleetingness, and Chinese heritage, as the artist addresses her own culture with nine disks attributed to Chinese cosmology. The pieces in ‘In Flux’ contain the artist’s clay process as well as blacksmith work and steel, show exposure to elements, and reveal a previously unseen work in ‘My Family Portrait’.
Sarah-Tabea Sammel: How do you approach the tactility of the medium?
Wee Hong Ling: The learning curve was very steep for me when I first encountered clay, because my hands were not familiar with making things. But I found its malleability very kind and forgiving—it was the perfect material for me to embark upon art-making. Working with this material is like a dialog. I have lots of ideas but the material lets me know what it can or cannot do. I need to coax the clay into what I want. I’m never heavy-handed. Just as in playing an instrument or a sport, hand skills and muscle memory are a matter of practice. But being at ease with logical reasoning, materials science, calculations and glaze chemistry helped with my transition to ceramics.
STS: How are the colour and contrast of your designs shaping your final works - and in what way do you embrace the journey of the pieces through the processing of the materials as part of your design concept?
WHL: When I’m making my work, I firstly focus on the form. Until I’m satisfied with the form, I do not even consider the surface. I know artists who work in the reverse. It’s just a preference; there’s no right or wrong. Because I’m a purist, I see form or architecture as the foundation. If the structure and its silhouette is not strong enough to stand on its own, colour or glaze will only be serving to distract from the weakness of the form. Typically when people are not happy with a piece they’ve made, they try to slap on as much glaze or as many colours as possible to cover up the flaws and imperfections. I’ve learned very quickly that that doesn’t suit my personality. If a piece doesn’t pass muster on the form, I’d rather it go into the clay recycling bin than get fired and goes into a landfill after. If I didn’t like it before it went into the kiln, why should I expect to like it coming out of the firing? Even though there is much to learn from repeating a process and from creating multiples, I don’t feel the need to keep every single piece. Art-making has taught me to let go. My process is simple: create fearlessly, edit critically, repeat tenaciously.
STS: What does the theme of family and home mean to you and how does it resonate in your materials?
WHL: Because I’ve lived so far away from my family for 25 years, that idea of home shows up in my work over and over. “Home” means love, joy, solace and security, as well as emotional entanglement, expectations and disappointments. With a life divided between New York and Singapore, my work is about my longing for home. That missing is a huge part of my consciousness. Not that I was deliberately trying to make that work, but I notice that the finished work always reminds me of my loved ones or my heritage. For example, “Together” was a piece that represents my parents’ togetherness for 40 years. My “Lineage” series is about family relations and my “Lulang Houses” are about my desire to build a home, a village, a community.
STS: Do you consider natural materials to have a metaphorical function?
WHL: Working with clay has a metaphorical function. I’m so drawn to it because I’m learning about myself. For example, if I repeat a process enough, I’d eventually developed sufficient muscle memory that I don't need to think about what I’m doing. Ironically, that for me, is also the stopping point. Because the autopilot mode, to be unthinking, is the antithesis of my giving every step and every detail heightened importance. If the artist is not investing herself/himself, the work, no matter how skilfully executed, is as good as dead. If I notice my mind drifting while at work, I stop and move on to something else where I need to solve new problems. I take a break to prevent developing a “blindness” to what I’m doing. I may revisit a series at a later time when I can again think critically about that work... when it’s fresh again.
STS: How would you describe your journey as a scientist and artist - and what similarities do you find in your work that reflect in your current show?
WHL: I consider myself an accidental artist. I was a Science student all through school. Art was a foreign language to me. In the middle of my doctorate degree, an American friend signed me up for a Beginners' Pottery class as a gift to me, at a small studio in downtown Manhattan. I thought, “I’m not creative or artistic!”. I already disliked it before I even started. But the moment I touched clay, it felt like I just woke up from sleep. I didn’t know what “passion” meant till then. So I consider my path to be serendipitous. The works in this current exhibition is about defying stereotypes and it’s about courage because this exhibition is to celebrate International Women’s Day, hence I explored forms that are considered too big, too heavy and too difficult for a female artist. Even though the skills involved in doing scientific research and creating a ceramic vase may seem very different, many are in fact transferable. Problem-solving is the common denominator and I bring the same rigor to art-making.
Wee Hong Ling is giving several talks in Singapore during her stay, with 20 events planned for way over 10,000 students prior to her arrival. She contemplates on the role of artists as educators.
WHL: The purpose of the talk is not to sway students towards to arts but to let them know that there is much beyond academic achievement, that it is important to find one's passion and purpose. When I was a student, artists [were] like unicorns—we only read about them in books, we [had] never met one in person. I wish I had been exposed to more career options as a young student, hence my commitment to speaking at Singapore schools. This is where I can make a difference. It’s easy to forget what we learn in textbooks. Hopefully they’ll remember the story and feel empowered to pursue their own dream.
Wee Hong Ling will support the Singapore Literature Festival in New York in June, helping to art and community interaction at this, what she calls, “citizen-led grassroots festival”.
Further information about the gallery and the exhibition can be found HERE.
Any views or opinions in the post are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the company or contributors.
Back to Top
Sign up for the latest updates
in Asian art & design!