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Behind the Business of Being Boedi Widjaja

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Ever since bursting onto the art scene in 2012, Boedi Widjaja has made short work of establishing himself as a name of note on the art circuit. He was named one of ArtReview Asia’s eleven FutureGreats in 2014 and a finalist of the Sovereign Asian Art Prize in 2015. Most recently, he was a recipient of the Singapore Art Museum and QAGOMA co-commission for Black–Hut, Black–Hut for the 9th Asia Pacific Triennial and the 6th Singapore Biennale. Exploring themes of diaspora, displacement and hybridity, his conceptual, multidisciplinary works have graced institutions as far-flung as Venice, London, and New York.

Much has been said about the merit of his individual works and the personal narratives that inform them. However, what’s less explored are the collective efforts behind his successes. We speak with Boedi Widjaja and his wife, Audrey Koh, about the husband-and-wife (and sometimes daughter) teamwork behind the scenes of the business of being the artist known as Boedi Widjaja.

Art as a family affair: a young Naomi (Boedi and Audrey’s daughter) performs in Cradle Song, part of Boedi’s exhibition, Path. 6, Unpacking my Library 。书城, at Jendela Visual Arts Space, Esplanade Singapore on 1 Nov 2014. Video footage credit: Canon Singapore.

You both entered the art industry mid-career, after stints in other industries. What’s your process of working together on artistic projects like?

Boedi Widjaja (BW): I think we are still in the process of understanding what making art or what the artistic medium is about. And I think that there is the very deep stuff, and then there is the more practical, logistical aspect of it. But I think these two are very much in synthesis such that one cannot realise itself without the other.

If you think about the artistic medium as a kind of room or space, then perhaps Audrey hovers or occupies the part of that room that deals with the pragmatic and logistical. I tend to occupy the other side of the room, where it’s more about the psychological, philosophical part of the artistic process. I lack the capability to go as far as her in thinking about the actual material realisation of the project, but we sort of move across that room from time to time. Audrey insists that she’s not an artist, and I’ll let her explain why she thinks so.

Audrey Koh (AK): I think that artists generally have a very strong and very deep desire to express themselves, regardless of what form that expression takes. I don’t have that desire at all. I’m more interested in the work of an art producer, in helping the artist to make the work happen.

Of course, there will be times where I’ll come in also to sort of like to prod or to inquire about the concept he has, or the feasibility of execution – so those are the times where I’ll get involved. But I’m not interested in that expression aspect of being an artist.

Have you always made work together in this manner?

BW: I would say yes, because prior to me getting into visual art, Audrey and I had been running a design company together called Plastic Soldier Factory for about 10 years. The dynamics at the time was quite similar: I would be more in charge of the creative and aesthetic decisions while Audrey would be more in charge of the project management and in making things happen.

I tend to struggle when it comes to bringing that thing from the invisible world and making it into something that is real that can be touched and experienced. That takes such a huge incredible amount of energy, and I have always worked with Audrey to make that shift between the world of ideas into this world.

This soil was in fact part of a site-specific installation titled Path. 10, A tree talks, a tree walks 梧桐语 . 菩提径 (2019)
To the unknowing eye, this looks like ordinary soil. This soil was in fact part of a site-specific installation titled Path. 10, A tree talks, a tree walks 梧桐语 . 菩提径 (2019). It contains hybrid DNA spliced from Boedi’s Y-chromosome, chlorophyll of the Chinese parasol tree, and an encoded text – the artwork title.

How did you make the transition from design to art?

BW: I think unknowing to myself, I had always been drawn towards the artistic process. Creative autonomy was very important to me even during the design days, and I struggled quite a fair bit with having to accommodate our clients’ needs and demands–

AK: He would fight with clients! [laughs]

BW: I tried to be as persuasive as I could but I think there was a real and reasonable limit to what I could and couldn’t do as a designer.   

AK: Every time we received a project, let’s say a brochure, he would start by considering: What is a brochure? And sometimes, he would spend an hour discussing this with the client for an hour. I remember thinking to myself, wow, this client is very patient with you!

So you were questioning the brief from a conceptual standpoint?

BW: Yeah. We ended up taking a sabbatical from our design work in 2008, to spend some time to think about what it was that we wanted to explore with our work.

Image still of A tree rings, a tree sings 树龄°述铃 (2021), a work comprising travel photos that Boedi took when he returned to his grandfather’s hometown
Image still of A tree rings, a tree sings 树龄°述铃 (2021), a work comprising travel photos that Boedi took when he returned to his grandfather’s hometown. The work explores the idea of embodied ancestral memories, and imagines the kinds of images and sounds that one might inherit through DNA transmissions.

Having had substantial experience running a design outfit, and for Audrey, having business experience in the legal and tech industries, how does working on artistic projects compare?

BW: I think we definitely brought in some of our experience in running a design company. We would sometimes look at the artistic practice from the outside, to sort of conceptualise it as an entity as well.

But the main difference – at least for me – is to remember why I chose to enter visual art world and not continue on with the design business, and not let factors such as art world trends detract me from pursuing the concerns that are authentic, that mean the most to me as an artist. To maintain that integrity moving forward in developing the practice, I think that’s something that I do my best to remember. Because it does get quite tempting to be part of the latest conversation.

And I think to resist that kind of a client-designer or service provider-client relationship that we used to have when we were running a design company. So it’s not really about meeting the demands of the market, it’s really about practising your craft and your art, in a way that is the most grounded, the most real.

AK: It was a big learning process because the art world is quite different from the industries that I had come from – legal and tech were quite close, and design too, but we learnt a lot about how the art world does things differently when we started.

What were your biggest challenges moving into the art industry?

BW: I think the lack of predictability in the beginning was a big one. I’ll be very candid – when our grant proposals and proposals for open calls were rejected, I took them quite badly at first. Audrey was much more resilient compared to me.

AK: I didn’t expect all our proposals to be accepted. But it’s perhaps because I’m not the artist, you see, so it was easier to face rejection.

BW: It was also a very new experience because as a design outfit we had the luxury of not having to pitch a lot.

What does a day in the studio look like for you?

BW: I never thought about that before. I mean, a morning coffee is a must. [laughs]

I wouldn’t say that there is a routine or a ritual that I must follow, but I discovered through this COVID pandemic period how much I require my personal solitude, which I have taken for granted in the past few years. It was only when COVID happened and the daily logistics changed quite dramatically, that I realised how much I needed it to have that headspace to create.

AK: We go to the studio together, we work together, but we work in different spaces physically. It depends on what project we are working on, so at the time we will sometimes have new projects that are concurrently he’s looking at. So right now currently he’s working on three Path projects and each project will have its different demands, or different stages of development.

Drawing-intensive works such as 等著你回來 (Waiting for you) (2016) require more time and lack of distraction
Drawing-intensive works such as 等著你回來 (Waiting for you) (2016) require more time and lack of distraction. Image credit: Boedi Widjaja.

There are certain projects where he’ll spend lots of time making the work, for instance drawing ­­– his negative drawings. He will then need to sort of hole up to draw. In these cases we try to keep other kind of activities where we’d need to write and explain – such as grant applications – to a minimum. We try not to do that if possible during that period, to allow that carving out of that space.

And then other projects such as installations involve logistics that require him to discuss more extensively with different parties involved. Because he doesn’t work with, let’s say, painting, which would require a more oil-based and dirty studio, a fair bit of his works seem to revolve around the ideating at the desktop or drawing.

BW: Yeah there’s a lot of planning involved, I mean, like a live artwork requires planning and logistics. I think pretty much the only production that I do in the studio would be drawing and mark-making. If I could have it my way, I would love to have a studio with nothing but just one table. Nothing else, yeah that’s it.

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Boedi Widjaja was an artist-in-residence at the NTU Centre for Contemporary Art from 1 September 2020 – 28 February 2021. Two works that he had started working on at the residency, A cry, a voice and a word that shall echo and Forevermore will be shown at JWD ART SPACE, Bangkok at A Life beyond Boundaries (The Geography of Belonging) curated by Loredana Pazzini-Paracciani soon this month (dates to be confirmed).

Keep in touch with his work through his website.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. 

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