Essay: Extent to which people who ‘are not in the arts’ can be engaged with art (focus: Amanda Heng)

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  • Extent to which people who 'are not in the arts' can be engaged with art (focus: Amanda Heng)
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Introduction

Since the 1960s, art has been evolving towards “dematerialisation”, in which the concept behind the art was regarded with more poignance than the physical materialisation of the artwork. As a result, the relationship between the artist and the audience is one that has become increasingly integral to the experience of the art, as art has started to focus on the audience’s experience of it and metaphysical understanding of the art.

Local artist Amanda Heng, however, deems it a distinctive aspect of her practice, stating in an interview with ArtAsiaPacific, “My art has always been collaborative… my practice engages people who are not in the arts.”

This prompted me to question whether the extent to which people who “are not in the arts” can be engaged with art. Upon attending an exhibition in which the performance art of local artist Amanda Heng was exhibited, I was struck by how her art had inspired other young artists who made their own art as a response to her performance piece, Let’s Walk. This was evidence of how her performance art engaged with artists, but I wanted to explore further by questioning whether it could also engage with “people not in the arts”. Hence, this built up my research question of “My art has always been collaborative… my practice engages people who are not in the arts.” To what extent is this true in regards to Amanda Heng’s performance art?

This essay is driven by two main questions. Firstly, what is collaborative art? and secondly, to what extent does Amanda Heng’s performance art engage people who are not in the arts?

Performance Art

According to theartstory.org, performance art is defined as “a genre in which art is presented ‘live,’ usually by the artist but sometimes with collaborators or performers.” Performance art seeks to challenge traditional mediums of art such as painting and sculpting.

Instead, performance art uses the body as its medium. As a result, performance art is uncomfortably close to exhibiting the human experience. According to Allan Kaprow, in performance art, “The line between art and life should be kept as fluid, and perhaps indistinct, as possible.” Performance art achieves this by its very nature as by witnessing the artist’s awareness of their body, we, in turn, become aware of the self, and thus turn an introspective lens onto our own lives. The relationship between the artist and the audience is thus particularly poignant in performance.

Performance art in Singapore has had a very tumultuous and controversial history. The art form was proscribed from 1994 to 2004, after a controversy incited by a group of artists called the 5th Passage. Josef Ng, one of the performance artists, committed the action of cutting his pubic hair with his back turned to the crowd as part of the performance. As a result, the notion of performance art has connotations of censorship and taboo surrounding it within Singapore society, which could perhaps affect the way the audiences might perceive performance art.

Collaboration in Art

In this essay, “collaboration” is not defined as a partnership between two artists, but rather, between the artist and the audience. In the quote by Amanda Heng, she states her intentions to “collaborate” with “people not in the arts”. Within this essay, “people not in the arts” can be defined as people with no formal art education, defined in the sense of having no knowledge of art history.

The criterion for the nature of the relationship between the artist and the audience is one that is too dynamic and thus difficult to pin down to be universal. Hence, I have categorized the various standpoints on the types of collaborative relationships between the artist and the audience, which can be segmented into three categories: the audience as viewers, participants or subjects.

Viewer

“Viewers” are merely members of the audience who have witnessed the performance. In this essay, the “viewers” can be further separated into two groups, the “passersby” and the “spectators”. The separation of the “viewers” into these two categories can be applied to public performance art, as with the case of public art, it “belongs to everyone”.

The “passersby” refers to the members of the audience who did not intend to search out the art within the public space but rather, are subjected to the presence of the art occurring in the setting they are in. The “spectators” refers to the group of people within the audience who are aware of the art taking place and who have the intention of seeking out the art.

Participants

When the audience becomes the “participant”, the audience contributes to the work of art. In the case of “participation” of the audience, the audience is on equal footing with the artist in terms of importance in regards to the work.

An example of this in contemporary art is a performance piece by Joan Jonas which took place between 1968 and 1971. The theme of her performance centered around the the way the female body is gazed upon within society and how that affects the women’s self-image.

The work invited the audience’s gaze and as a result, the audience became “participative” in the concept behind the work. It demonstrated the position of power the “participant” had, which was perhaps symbolic of how in the objectification of the female body, the woman is put into a vulnerable position under the objectifying gaze.

The “participation” of the audience brought forth the focus the potency of the gaze which had an additive effect on the impact of the work. As a result, they contributed to the art’s meaning and hence they have “participated” in the performance.

Subjects

The “subject” in art can refer to “the matter to be described or portrayed by the artist”. It can be a portrayal of any person, object, scene or event.

According to the Ways of Viewing by John Berger, “Soon after we can see, we are aware that we can also be seen.” This perhaps depicts the relationship between the audience and the artwork when it takes on the role of the “subject” as by viewing the artwork, the audience allows an exchange of gazes to occur between the artwork and themself, thereby becoming a “subject” of the artwork as well.

When the audience takes on the role of the “subject”, they become an integral part of the artwork. In this case the subject of the artwork is the relationship between the audience and the artist. The relationship then becomes integral to the art itself and the artwork cannot exist without it. The art is defined by the audience’s interaction with it as the audience is the focus of the art.

Engagement in Art

“Audience engagement” with an artwork can be defined as how the audience develops interactions or experiences pain or pleasure when experiencing the piece.

The Onlooker VS The Observer

The audience can be separated into two components – the “onlooker” and the “observer”.

The Onlooker

The “onlooker” partakes in a passive, detached means of perceiving the art. Their engagement with the artwork is transient and fleeting, without lasting impact.

Kevin Chua writes that art that evokes theatricality rather than absorption is art that does not “engage” the audience. He writes that “absorption is being, theatricality mere posing”. The “onlooker” engages with art on the level of viewing the art “theatrically”, as they do not view the art as a space in which they exist with the ideas that the artist is trying to convey, but rather, as something to be viewed from a distance.

The Observer

The “observer” partakes in an active engagement to the art wherein one derives meaning and experiences an internal shift within themselves.

As Lee Weng Choy wrote in his essay “Let’s See: Amanda Heng and the Performance of Looking In Art”, the difference between the “onlooker” and the “observer”, is that the former looks at art, wherein the latter looks in art. According to Lee Weng Choy, looking in art makes us “contemplate familiar situations and see them in unfamiliar ways”.

Transforming from the Onlooker to the Observer

Upon looking at this categorization of the audience, it can be said that “audience engagement” can be defined as the transition from the Onlooker to the Observer. Art that can provoke this transition is art that “engages”.

In an attempt to create a criterion for art that “engages”, I have categorized the varying views in art history on what “engaging art” is into three main components for further inspection – the setting, mobility and psychological impact of the work.

Setting

Performance art is a medium that is unique in its ability to change in meaning overtime when performed in different settings. Setting consists of the time, location and context in which the performance occurs.

Image 1: Banksy in Bristol

Banksy is an example of a contemporary artist whose engagement with their audience relies heavily on setting. His concepts tie into the the “urban, social, legal and architectural” contexts of which the artwork was created in. His work was “engaging” as it resonates with the issues within the community he has presented them in.

Mobility

Is there a universal visual language in art? According to John Berger in the Ways of Seeing, “The way we see things is affected by what we know or what we believe”, Each person or member of the audience has a different plethora of life experiences defining the lens through which they view a work of art. A work of art might “engage” with one member of the audience, but not another member. This is the question of whether total relativism is the only answer to interpretations of art.

Total relativism is the view that all definitive truths are merely the result of differing conventions and frameworks of assessment and that they are defined by the context which has given rise to them. Hence, it argues that there are no universal standards for art, as which symbols “engage” with the audience as interpretations of art vary from person to person.

However, according to Stephen Greenblatt, a literature scholar, “Mobility rather than universality is the key.” He argues that while no art can be universal because it is created in the context of the artist’s circumstances, “mobile” art confronts emotional content which transcends the barriers that confine each member of the audience to the subjectivity of our own perception. This is perhaps the reason behind why certain paintings in art history have the ability to “engage” with a wide majority of the audience, even centuries later.

Psychological Impact

Unlike other art forms, performance art does not have to be produced in a studio, or even take a concrete form, the psychological element behind the works are the foundation of what makes it “engaging”.

Perhaps a “engaging” performance can be defined as one that uses guttural and controversial imagery. Masters of the feminist performance art scene, like Marina Abramovic are known for testing their mental and physical limits in their performance art, acting out “undoubtedly radical” but “sensual” performances.

Rhythm 10, Marina Abramovic (1973)

An example of such is depicted above, Abramovic’s Rhythm 10 (1973). In this performance piece depicts Abramovic stabbing ten different knives into the spaces between her fingers rapidly. This performance causes physical bodily harm to Abramovic and evokes a sense of tension and terror within the audience. It is, however, a work of art as it is unpredictable and jarring as an image, causing a psychological impact on the audience to varying extents.

The body has close relationships with “politics, pain and pleasure” of the human psyche and thus with one’s identity. The body is a powerful medium as the artist’s heightened awareness of the physicality of the self and by extension, the audience’s own awareness, performance art might be more “engaging” as a result of the psychological impact of this connection.

Amanda Heng

Amanda Heng Liang Ngim is a contemporary artist in Singapore, known for her multidisciplinary and collaborative approach to art. She works across multiple mediums, namely performance art, installation, photography and print media. However, of performance art, she stated, “It was the most immediate material for articulating my ideas and engaging with the public in real time.” Hence, I have chosen to focus on analysing only Amanda Heng’s performances, as she herself has claimed that she opts for the medium for the purpose of “engaging” with her audience.

In this extended essay, the focus is shifted to analysing three of Amanda Heng’s performances and their ability to “engage” with the audience, as she intends it to. In her performance S/He (1994). Heng discusses the dichotomous elements of Western and Asian cultures within her own identity. In Let’s Walk (1999), Heng highlights the role of women within the Singapore community, particularly the workforce. In Yours Truly, My Body (1999) Heng discusses the suffocating societal standards of beauty that women have to navigate.

Looking at her work as an artist as a whole, Heng has executed performances which attempt to expand on the relationship between the artist and the audience to varying degrees. In this essay, however, two questions must be answered – to what extent is her work “collaborative”? To what extent does it “engage” the audience of people who are not in the arts? In my analysis of three of her works, I will be evaluating the extent of which her work fulfills the criterion I have outlined earlier in the essay.

Analysis of S/HE (1994)

In S/He, Amanda Heng juxtaposes Eastern and Western values, traditions and gender roles. In this performance, she uses language, gesture, sound, symbolic objects and visual images rooted in both traditions. The performance conveys the “rediscovery of her identity within her cultural confusion” by examining the everyday experience of her life. Heng’s performance is influenced by her experience as a Chinese woman living in an increasingly globalised and multicultural society such as Singapore, wherein Western influences impinge on Chinese traditions.

Heng’s use of languages – English and Chinese – is especially significant in conveying the cultural dissonance she feels as a result of the clash between two cultural ideologies. In a TEDTalk titled “How Language Shapes the Way We Think”, cognitive scientist Lera Boroditsky explains how different languages create different “cognitive universes” which shape our perception of the world. Heng’s close magnification of the differences between the languages have larger implications on examining the different ideologies of these cultures. It depicts a struggle not only between using different words, but rather a struggle to reconcile two ways of thinking and finding one’s identity amidst the conflict.
Within the performance, the symbols she used challenged or commented on one another. She used baking dough to wipe away ink on her face while reciting a Confucius sayings, “When you are at home, obey your father; When you are married, obey your husband; When your husband died, obey your son.” Thereafter, Heng forcefully threw away the dough. This was visual representation of the rejection of traditionally subservient roles of Chinese women.

Evaluation

The performance served as a social commentary relevant to the setting in which it was presented in. In the 1970s, Chinese medium schools and universities were closed down in Singapore as a result of the advent of a more English-speaking society. Graduates of these schools were seemed to slowly lose their competitive edge as jobs required a competent command of English. The effects of this in society which carried onto to the 90s, the timeframe in which Heng presented this work, and hence, S/He engaged with the setting it was framed in. Themes of an existential quest to redefine wants self identity are also themes that are “mobile” in nature.
The audience, however, did not transition into becoming “participants” of the work. This is because their presence had no additive effect to the meaning and experience of the art, other than being voyeurs into a deeply personal redefinition of identity that the artist was undergoing. Hence, the performance can be qualified as “engaging” but perhaps not “collaborative”. Furthermore, the symbols from Chinese culture might not be understood by “people not in the arts”, therefore negating its psychological impact.

Analysis of Let’s Walk (1999)

Image 3: Let’s Walk by Amanda Heng

Let’s Walk is a series of performances by Amanda Heng which first took place in 1999. The artist, along with other people who were a part of the performance, walked barefoot with a high-heeled shoe in her mouth and a mirror in her hand. Amanda Heng performed this piece as a statement on how women’s preoccupation with outer beauty.

Heng’s use of the high-heeled shoe could perhaps act as a symbol of beauty in the workforce, as they are formal workwear. Heng holds the high-heeled shoe in her mouth, effectively silencing the symbol of the “woman”. This could perhaps be a frustration with how women’s beauty is prioritized over their intellect in the workforce, and hence they are effectively silenced in order to keep their jobs.

Heng’s pose involves holding up a mirror and gazing into it. Her expression in the performance is forlorn and solemn, looking at her own reflection not with pride or admiration, but rather resignation. This perhaps comments on the relationship between a woman and her own self-image, as her beauty has become a commodity that she must bank upon in order to progress within society, that she is disillusioned with it.

The participants consist of her and other women imitating the same poses and motions. The act of walking backwards is perhaps indicative of women’s progress in a contemporary society. Although the participants seem to be moving from one point to another, they do so in a backwards manner, expressing the idea that women’s progress within society is not truly moving forward as backward ideas such as basing a woman’s worth on her beauty are still expressed within the workforce. The idea of all the participants walking the same route together, each individual in this same post and motion, suggests that this experience is also one that is collective. Even the title, Let’s Walk, refers to the experience as one that is shared by a group of people instead of just one individually specific to the artist, thus making a commentary on a societal issue.

Evaluation

The performance is relevant to its setting, as it was a response to the 1997 financial crisis in the Singapore workforce. Women had to bank on their beauty in order to keep their jobs, hence, although most industries were going through an economic downturn, the beauty industry was thriving in this time period. Heng based this performance on a commentary on the societal commodification of beauty, and the damaging effects this has on women’s self-image. This is a theme that she continues to explore in her future works, implying its “mobility” as a concept. She also uses relatively literal imagery in the use of the reflection, which immediately indicates to the “people not in the arts” that the work explores self-identity.

However, in this performance, the “people not in the arts” (the people who are not participants who mimic Heng’s motions) are not “subjects”, as they do not define the concept behind the performance. They are, however, “participants” who contribute to the art by acting as the societal gaze on women. As this performance was taken to a public space, the audience could perhaps simply be “viewers” as well.

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