Published on 24 December 2017

The prolific arts practitioner reflects upon her work and the arts in Singapore.

By Melanie Lee

Cultural Medallion recipient Amanda Heng has over three decades of arts practice tucked under her belt, and is known for her pioneering work in contemporary art in Singapore. Next year’s M1 Singapore Fringe Festival theme, “Let’s Walk”, is inspired by a series of the 66-year-old’s iconic street performances with the same name. She shares with The A List the philosophies guiding her practice.

How did you become an artist?

In the 1970s, I worked in an office job and soon realised such work did not make me happy. I felt like I was in a dark tunnel and I had no idea where the light at the end was. I resigned and went backpacking to try to figure things out. That act of being able to look at my life from outside was significant. At that time, Singapore was going through a lot of drastic changes such as urbanisation, economic development and increasingly strict rules and conditions. I had a lot of questions while living in this newly independent country and art became a way to express my thoughts on these issues.

How did you come up with the idea of walking as part of your performance art?

Walking is an everyday act. In a gallery or particular arts space, I find that the artist is also the art piece. However, when I bring such art into the streets, the emphasis is on engagement from the participants. They become the active viewers and they no longer wait for me, the artist, to dictate to them how they should respond. This shift in focus is important to me as it involves more unknown elements and risk-taking, which are essential to performance work.

Your first “Let’s Walk” performance in 1999 was a response to how working women were turning to beauty and cosmetic treatments to keep their jobs during the 1997 Asian financial crisis. What are your thoughts on female beauty?

I prefer to think that beauty is up to each individual. If you claim to be liberated, don’t let others define what beauty is on your behalf. Have the courage to be different from the norm. If you feel such perceptions needs to change, commit yourself to doing something about it and don’t just complain. We women make up half the population in Singapore, so there’s a lot of good that we can do!

How do you feel to be a muse and contributor for next year’s M1 Fringe Festival?

It’s an honour for “Let’s Walk” to be selected as the featured theme. The fact that there’s been so much global attention with sexual harassment recently shows that gender equality still very much needs a platform for engagement. More broadly, I also hope to introduce more people to my approach of engaging the everyday life with art. My hope is that I do my part in helping art become an everyday language here, with more people going beyond just “liking” art without really knowing why. I am tired of the audience being pampered, saying I don’t know this or that. If you are truly interested in something, make that active effort to figure out what it means. Read up, form opinions and ask informed questions. It is only then that art can have that power to be a source of inspiration, hope and solace.

Could you tell us a bit more about your most recent walk from Clifford Pier to the Causeway which you took from September to November 017?

It is titled “I Walk from the South to the North”. The participation is a little different from my previous walks. I deliberately do not get myself acquainted with the route so I start to ask around for directions so where I go depends entirely on who I chance upon and how forthcoming they are. I’d get these people to draw out maps or write out directions and these form part of the documentation for this project. Many people I approached were generous with their help and were surprised I wanted to walk so far. They kept insisting it was much faster to take the MRT nearby.

Let's Walk Lidköping, Sweden (Photo: Peter Lind)
I Walk From The South To The North (Photo: Mish'aal)
I Walk From The South To The North (Photo: Mish'aal)
Let's Walk Fukuoka, Japan

What advice would you give to struggling artists?

I’m still struggling! And I know many other artists – young and old – who also struggle. I’d say my thoughts on this would be that struggling should not be an individual issue. If a society feels that art is important, then there needs to be an environment that allows artists to survive. If Singapore wants to be an arts hub, then at a societal level, art needs to be regarded as a proper profession.

Amanda Heng will be involved in the following free public programmes during M1 Singapore Fringe Festival 2018: 

Revisiting Let’s Walk
20 Jan 2018, 9am (around 120 – 180 minutes)

Meeting point: Outside The Substation (report at 8.30pm) 

A Walked Line Can Never Be Erased
10 – 27 May 2017 | Objectifs

Documentation from walking projects, including Heng’s recent “I walk from the South to the North” durational live performance.

Contemporary Art and The Everyday
12 May 2018, 2 – 4pm | Objectifs

A panel discussion between Amanda Heng, Woon Tien Wei and M. Zaki Razak. Moderated by curator Qinyi Lim.

Click here for more information on next year’s M1 Singapore Fringe Festival.

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