We’re all for introducing children to art from an early age (see our article on Raising a Museum Kid) and I’ve previously reviewed the National Gallery Singapore‘s inaugural Children’s Biennale, as well as the Singapore Art Museum‘s kid-centric exhibition series, Imaginarium. In what seems like just a blink of an eye, two years have passed and the second edition of the Gallery’s Chidren’s Biennale opened a couple of months ago. I could have written another review of the show myself, or assigned one of our writers to do so, but hey, been there … done that! What, then, might be a fresh approach? Well, we thought, since it’s a show aimed specifically at younger visitors, it would make perfect sense to seek the views of a representative of the show’s target demographic. So, folks, meet Amanda, aged 5 years and 10 months – and Plural’s youngest correspondent!
I thought of Amanda right away when we were looking for a child for this assignment because she’s something of a budding artist herself. According to her mother, she’s been into all things arty – colouring, drawing, painting and crafting – from a very young age. We thought it would be pretty cool if, aside from getting to experience and enjoy the Children’s Biennale, she could meet and chat with a real-life artist – someone who conceived and created one of the works in the show. What would their conversation be like and might it, perhaps, ignite a small spark, sow the tiniest seed of a dream in a talented, creative child like Amanda?
Singapore artist Donna Ong‘s immersive, evocative and meticulously assembled installations are familiar to discerning art-lovers and art collectors both at home and abroad. Her works have been shown in museums and international biennales and she’s won several prestigious awards.
Yet this quote, which has appeared in more than one article about her, suggests that she is eminently suited to making work that speaks to the very young (as well as the young at heart!)
“I promised myself as a child, never to forget what it felt like to be a child – to dream and invest in the imaginary, the fantastic, the impossible. My work is about trying to keep that promise.”
In Every World, the artwork she created for the Children’s Biennale, she certainly keeps that promise – in spades – immersing the viewer in not one, but five wondrous, magical worlds. Enclosed within frosted domes which you have to duck (or clumsily crawl, if you’re not child-sized) under before popping your head into an opening, are elaborate, wonderfully detailed assemblages, meticulously put together from hundreds of paper cut-outs. The world beneath the dome might be a pretty English garden filled with flowers and birds or an undersea landscape teeming with corals, seaweed and brightly-coloured fish (Amanda’s favourite), a cactus garden or an underground cavern. Donna’s domes envelope and surround the viewer, shutting out the sights and sounds of the world outside and allowing you to escape reality for a little while.
I had planned for Amanda to spend an hour at the Biennale before ending up at Every World, where we were to meet Donna. She had a blast, running from one exhibit to another, touching, looking at and experiencing everything.
But when Donna appeared, she suddenly got a little shy …
Clearly, however, Donna is someone who likes and is comfortable with children and knows how to relate to and engage with them. Pretty soon, she and Amanda were getting along like a house on fire. Here are some snippets from their conversation.
On becoming an artist and early influences
Donna: I did art when I was little but I don’t think I was that good at it. I only got serious when I was about 16. Do you think 16 is old? When I was 16 I started to think this was something I might like and want to do more of. Do you want to be an artist when you grow up?
Amanda: I’m not sure … I don’t know yet.
Donna: Who taught you how to paint?
Amanda: My teacher and also my grandma.
Donna: I learnt art from my father. My father was a sculptor. Is your granny an artist? Do you paint with her?
Amanda: No, she’s not a professional artist, but she paints watercolours. Sometimes she teaches me some techniques.
Donna: My grandma taught me how to cook and she’s taught me a few dishes. Do you know how to cook? Do you cook sometimes with your grandma?
Amanda: No, but I bake with her. One time we made a birthday cake for my dog!
Donna: Guess how I did the flowers? Did I paint them or …?
Amanda: You cut the pictures out.
Donna: Yes, I cut them out. Did I cut them myself or did I have help?
Amanda: I think you had helpers.
Donna: You’re right! There were so many cut-outs and 5 domes. I had 6 helpers and it took about 3 – 4 months of intensive cutting. It took a long time to make all this stuff! How long does it take you to make a painting?
Amanda: 3 days, but not 3 whole days. 3 hours a day, so 9 hours altogether.
Donna: Wow, you’ve got good concentration skills to work on a painting for 3 hours. Sometimes when I do art I get really tired. Do you get tired? And do you have to clean up after you’re done? When I finish at the end of the day there’s always a big mess in a studio.
Donna: How do you decide what you want to paint?
Amanda: I go to class and in my first class I did 2 small canvases – a pumpkin and a mushroom and now I like painting. Then I painted ice cream and a pie. The third painting was a chicken and then dolphins, a beach scene and then a view from a window. That’s the one that I just did.
Donna: Do you just paint or do you use crayons or colour pencils too?
Amanda: No, I just paint.
Donna: I never painted when I was a child, I only did sculpture. What’s your favourite part of making art? Thinking about it and imagining it before, or after, when it’s finished?
Amanda: My favourite part is when I finish.
Donna: Me too! I like the after. When I see the artwork. When it is finished. The beginning part is the scariest. When there is nothing there. It starts from something that I wish was there, but it’s not there. I think, “It would be so nice if I was in the middle of a garden, so I’m going to make a garden.” I always make something that I want to be in. Actually it’s more for myself than for the kids! I make artworks that I would like, I guess, it’s like making special worlds.
On making art for children
Donna: It was interesting because I had to think a lot about safety and also about how to engage and sustain their attention. Usually, when I make art, it’s for adults and we never think particularly about safety but for children we think, if they run, are they going to fall? You know, many of my friends, who are older, climbed in and said their knees really hurt. So we put cushions in for the older people but for the young people they can all just run in and they can stand up and look around. Did you hear the music? We tried to make it more engaging and interesting for the children. And we put in lights as well. Did you see all that?
On left-handedness and wearing black
Donna: Amanda, are you left-handed or right-handed?
Amanda: I can use both hands.
Donna: Oh, wow! Actually, me too. I play tennis and pool with both hands. But I write with one hand – the left.
Amanda: I write with the right hand but I can draw only with the left. I can’t write with the left.
Donna: Did you know, for people who are left-handed, it means you use your right brain. And the right brain is, like, more artistic – it’s the artistic part of the brain. So both of us draw with our left hands, Amanda! And look, Amanda, you’re wearing a black dress and I’m wearing a black dress. Artists seem to like to wear black a lot. I think maybe we wear black because we like to take a back seat and let the art shine.
… and that, folks, is what Amanda and Donna talked about when they met at the Children’s Biennale!
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
[Editor’s note: The feature image is a detail from Donna Wong’s Every World, 2019 and is provided courtesy of the National Gallery Singapore.]