“The studio is where strange magic happens, as much for the artist’s imagination as for the public’s. It’s the conjuring place of new concepts, styles, or forms.”
Continuing our series on artists in their studios, where we attempt to explore artists’ working habits and the places that nourish them, here is artist-writer Ng Hui Hsien’s first-person account of a month spent at Objectifs – Centre for Photography and Film, as part of their 2020 Women in Film & Photography artists-in-residence programme.
Yummy pizzas, comforting tea, roasted black coffee, and a bunch of starving artists. That was what I saw when I stepped into the Chapel Gallery of Objectifs in early November. It was an inviting sight. For a freelancer who usually works alone and from home, it also spelt community.
It was the first day of a month-long residency for eight of us women in the arts – Amrita Chandradas, Adar Ng, Kanchana Gupta, Chloe Chotrani, Gladys Ng, Shirly Koh, Vivian Lee, and me. The residency was part of Objectifs’ Women in Film & Photography programme. As we resident artists sat in a circle and took turns introducing ourselves between bites of pizza, common interests surfaced. A yearning to deepen our relationship with the natural world. A fascination with family histories. An interest in visual representations of women in popular culture. A desire to learn more about spirituality. And – okay, for some of us – a very soft spot for wine. (Or alcohol in general, I am not that discriminating.)
When Emmeline Yong, the co-founder of Objectifs, told us that she was aware of how tumultuous the year might have been for art workers and that she had no expectation of any polished work to be produced by the end of the residency, I heaved an all-too-audible sigh of relief. My workload for November was heavy, and I was already struggling to find rest. I wasn’t up for a productivity-driven, results-focused arts initiative. But a supportive space to slow down, incubate ideas, and cultivate meaningful connections? Sign me up!
It seemed fitting then, that one of the first things we moved into the Chapel Gallery was Vivian’s tatami mat. It was swiftly followed by Chloe’s carpet. Books and a small bunch of fragrant pandan leaves appeared next. Over the next month, these items proved indispensable in encouraging heartfelt conversations among us residents as well as visiting curators, artists, and writers. They were also good for … well, power naps.
During the residency, Adar, Amrita, and Kanchana took time to reflect on their art practices and develop their respective photography and video projects. In a bid to skill-swap and learn from one another, Chloe, Gladys, Shirly, Vivian, and I each took turns to facilitate a workshop or sharing session amongst ourselves. We did this under Conscious Connections, a platform that Vivian and I started earlier this year to co-create programmes related to well-being.
One example of such a sharing session would be Chloe’s active dreaming exercise. She first encouraged Gladys, Shirly, Vivian, and me to move freely to rhythmic music, releasing the tension in our bodies. As we laid on the floor and entered a half-awake, half-asleep state, she began to hit softly on a shaman’s drum made out of goat skin. Something in me stirred, and my breathing slowed. I was intrigued. The drumming was low. Primal even. If – like Chloe said – some people have described the sound as the heartbeat of the earth, I could understand why.
As the session unfolded, the five of us – collectively and individually – went on a journey that involved a tree, a cave, and our own associations with these entities. If this sounds a little surreal, it was. I felt certain suppressed emotions in my subconscious bubbling up. I also, however, experienced calm. It was a kind of intuitive knowing that defied logic.
The rest of our sharing sessions saw us creating cyanotypes, making compost, flipping through photobooks, and watching short films. As a group, we also organised a journaling session for other resident artists and took part in activities initiated by them. Amrita for instance, facilitated a relaxing afternoon of colouring mandalas. Adar held an intimate sharing session about memories close to our hearts. Kanchana showed us her work-in-progress and led a discussion about sexual politics in Indian cinema. She also taught us how to wear a sari, at which I failed spectacularly.
As the residency drew to a close, the supportive Objectifs team organised a day-long open studio and invited a number of people in the photography and film circles to visit. I remembered struggling when trying to sum up – succinctly – to someone what Conscious Connections is, and what Gladys, Shirly, Chloe, Vivian, and I had been doing during the residency.
“It’s like art therapy!” Gladys tried to help.
“It’s like a retreat,” Vivian offered.
“It sounds like a hippie commune,” visiting filmmaker Sun Koh wryly quipped. I laughed. Perhaps there is an element of truth to all their remarks.
Labels aside, the residency was what I had hoped it would be. It was a sanctuary, a safe space for quiet moments of reflection, but also the sharing of skills, ideas, and intimate thoughts. The weekly tea sessions organised by Objectifs created opportunities for meaningful encounters with visiting artists, curators, and writers as well. There were a few tears (in a good way), but also, a lot of laughter, kindness, and care.
I see the friendships that the other artists and I forged during the residency as seeds. They are seeds for a community to grow and flourish, even if the fruits of that labour are not apparent yet. Like subterranean networks of fungi connecting trees in a forest, they lay the vital groundwork for mutual support, understanding and potential collaboration, contributing to the functioning of an intricate ecosystem that we are all part of. In a way, they are akin to gentle, nourishing conversations that have begun, but haven’t yet ended.
And I am not sure if I ever want them to.