If our era of Trump, Brexit and populism has taught us anything, it is that deep down, humanity is collective, dangerous and deeply flawed. It then seems almost natural to retreat into our own cocoons, building borders and chambers that divide and separate. But as with every rule, there is always an exception and Singaporean artist Dawn Ng knows this well. In her latest project, she has opened herself to the world, revealing her most intimate thoughts, memories, desires and fears to mesmerising results.
Ng’s Perfect Stranger(2017) began as an experiment following a chance encounter with an Israeli psychologist whom she met after delivering a talk at Singapore Art Museum. Over the course of a year, this person, whom Ng shares no friends or acquaintances, asked her probing questions. This conversation was distilled into 61 individual colour-soaked photographs laid across Ng’s pristine studio floor. She admits: “I don’t think I knew where the work was going whilst I was making it, but I knew I had to get to the end to find out.”
Studying fine art and literature, Ng has always had a poetic sensibility and commitment to narrative. Far from being an escape to life, Ng believes that reading and writing are crucial dimensions to life itself. Across each panel, aphorisms, anecdotes and elements of their conversation have been inventively collapsed together to create a rich and unfolding exchange between these two women. Throughout these cinematic, dreamlike interactions, we get glimpses of intimacy, humour and fragility: Is something real just because it feels trueor when I was five there was nothing I hated more than swim class. But never do these haunting recollections enter the realm of cliché.
Together, the works read as sea of delicious pastel colours swirling together in a chromatically stunning cocktail. It’s no then surprise that Ng admits her interest in the light and space movement of the 1960s and 1970s. Central to this movement were the American West Coast artists like James Turrell, John McCraken and Robert Irwin, who transformed geometric shapes and light to create light filled objects and experiences. Ng, who has created interior projects, design and adverts in a former life, has done the same. She describes Perfect Strangeras an ephemeral place that “exists between sleep and unconsciousness, the gentle awakening to a new beginning.” And you cannot help but feel as you have entered into another world.
In making these works, she admits to the narrative of the initial project slightly drifted away, becoming something else. More than just a process of documentation, Ng envisions the ensemble of colour-filled panels as a refuge from the complexities and chaos of the outside world – a place for self-reflection and discovery. When asked about the concept of a perfect stranger she says, “often when someone says they miss something, they are alluding to a time, person or place. But in my understanding, what they truly miss is a version of themselves which they can never get back to again.” This feeling, one of longing – or perhaps hope – that we can find that someone who completes us, forms the motivation of her work. Ng wants us to dig deeper, to sift through her archive to determine where and how these desires form, and to what extent they’re self-projected and imagined.
As we navigate through her maze, we can’t help but spin together narratives that reflect a little bit of our own personal histories – seeing flickers of our own intimate thoughts memories, desires and fears. In doing so, we unlock a deeper, more probing investigation of our own inner thoughts: something that may reveal the knotty truths buried deep in our psyches. In this way, Ng’s practice reminds us of the importance of chance encounters, deep reading and opening ourselves up to strangeness of the world. Maybe then, in our increasingly fractured and balkanised age, we’ll see a gradual thawing between people with different histories, origins and trajectories. After all, there is often magic in the unknown.
Dawn Ng, Perfect Stranger, shows at Sullivan+Strumpf, Sydney, from 24 November to 22 December 2018.
This article was originally published in Art Collector issue 86, October to December 2018.