11 was a project that started soon after Telok Ayer Arts Club was born. Dawn Ng was one of the first artists we thought of who could fulfil the brief of “art in a restaurant-bar”. Over the course of this time, getting to know her, both as artist and friend, I’ve come to not only understand her practice and respect her professionalism, but also notice strands of synchronicity between the ideas in her work and even our knowing each other. (By some manner of coincidence, my mother — friends with Dawn’s aunt — brought me to Dawn’s very first exhibition back in Singapore when she moved back from New York in 2008.) These themes — such as time, loss, fate or destiny, tethered relationships, motherhood, death, and the soul or spirit — come up often when we talk about work or life.
When Dawn first spoke to me about her idea for 11 , it was hard to conceive of the full extent of the work. I remember how she pitched it: with a mood-board and sketches on these A3 sheets of paper held together by massive bulldog clips. I was quickly sold.
It began with the universal cliché of two strangers meeting at a bar. By building upon the artist’s interests in human relationships and stories, the project became a perfect example of how a creative idea — when reined in by set parameters, discipline, direction and attention to detail — can result in something wonderful.
By building upon the artist’s interests in human relationships and stories, the project became a perfect example of how a creative idea — when reined in by set parameters, discipline, direction and attention to detail — can result in something wonderful.
As the artist’s first “foray” into performance or theatre, you could call 11 a social experiment, for some element of control is relinquished by letting people participate and determine outcomes. Even so, the artist lets go of as little as possible: she uses scripted dialogues and strict instructions that tell participants when to open their eyes, speak, or hold hands with the other and (secretly) arranged seating using the guest-list we attained beforehand. Every detail was considered: timing, the length of each story by reading it aloud to each other, sourcing for the right gong to conclude each session, even providing a finger-wetter to make it easier for participants to turn the page. We painted the once “white-cubey” “Arts Club” a dark green — creating the atmosphere of a black box. We installed thick velvet curtains to halve the space, to mark a pre-show area, and stage. I was scared, but Dawn pulled it off.
Late last year, I spoke to Dawn, reminiscing the project, to tease out parts of her processes and motivations. Hopefully some of these ‘synchronicities’ come through as we bounce around topics. We did this in a back-and-forth style, like the scripts of 11 . Here we go.
AVN: I love how the intricacies of an entire theatre production was needed for this performance. When we first began, little did I think it would require such logistical scale: umpteen rehearsals late into the night, script changes, extra volunteers and staff, plotting music scores. Do you feel the same, or do you always operate at this level?
DN: It happens for every project. Over time, you are better able to anticipate those waves of work — some you can predict and plan, while others remain unseen, but you can feel the tide gathering a certain force below. Each body of work begins with a simple curiosity or a falling in love with an idea. That part is easy. It is the obsession and manic dedication needed to transform that idea into a reality that outweighs your own that is both exhaustive and exhilarating.
AVN: It was very consuming, but rewarding.
DN: I remember when we realised we would even need to construct wooden cases to enclose the voices, like sound booths, so people wouldn’t be talking over each other all at once. You’d need to feel safe, like no one else could hear you, for you to say those words in such a way that you felt those words. Only when you mean what you say, do you become someone else.
AVN: That’s so true. Reading words off a page is so much more than reading words off a page. I’ve always been fascinated with the act — and art — of reading aloud. It’s hard to read words off a page without some kind of understanding, and in that way, some kind of becoming.
DN: I agree. For both the reader and the listener.
AVN: Especially when they’re together in a contained booth no wider than 60 centimetres. You can’t help but become. The box served as a little fantasy portal where you could be someone else for a minute (or at least till the bell chimes). Those boxes mimicked a confessional. The proportions were perfect — all you saw was a person and a script in front of you, and you held their hand.
Only when you mean what you say, do you become someone else.
DN: Post-COVID, can you imagine ever squeezing so many strangers in one room again, and getting each pair to hold hands inside a less than one metre by one metre booth?
AVN: Never. I found the set-up that took place as guests gathered before the performance to be such an important preamble to 11 . It created a real sense of drama: building suspense while establishing some familiarity before what could be quite an intense next hour.
DN: Most people signed up thinking they were going to watch me perform some staring game. But when they get to the bar, they realised that they were the ones who were going to spend the next hour performing. That “oh shit” moment kicked off their cocktail consumption in a way that was funny to watch.
AVN: Ha! That’s the “I want my money back” moment.
DN: As long as they didn’t leave with a “I want my life back” moment by the end of the show, I think we didn’t do too badly.
AVN: Most of the participants later realised that it wasn’t so bad. Judging from the way everyone lingered after each session, I figured they had fun.
DN: For me, that felt special because one of the catapulting points for this work was Mandy Len Catron’s New York Times essay in 2015, “To Fall in Love with Anyone, Do this.” The essay explored psychologist Arthur Aron’s success in getting two strangers to fall in love by asking each other 36 increasingly probing questions . This is based on the notion that mutual vulnerability cultivates closeness.
AVN: There were some groups that took to the idea more instinctively than others. I wonder if it was an overall dynamic and energy, or just the right mix of chance strangers. A group of advertising people dived straight into it. I remember the first group — a practice group with friends & family — grinning as they started. The synchronised yet cacophonic murmurs gave me goosebumps.
DN: I liked that sound too. All those overlapping voices reverberating from the 11 sound booths felt meditative and centering. I imagine that is how it sounds before we are born, when we are in the womb — the murmuring of the world beyond.
AVN: Do you think 11 could take on a different format?
DN: I think it would be interesting to do a performance where half of the strangers are real actors. So, the intended effect for the 11 participants who aren’t actors would be akin to slipping in and out of confessional booths — each person gets the most heightened experience of exchanging dialogue with a most convincing priest. The best conversations would be about that tension and release.
AVN: That sounds like something you could charge good money for.
DN: That’s actually what therapists do.
AVN: And comedians.
DN: Without tension and release, it’s just inane endless drivel, which is what goes down on a bad date.
AVN: Do you think art has or should have a therapeutic potential?
DN: I think it’s meant to land inside someone — whatever that “it” is. That word, colour, form or sound.
I imagine that is how it sounds before we are born, when we are in the womb — the murmuring of the world beyond.
AVN: So, in a way, and bear with me, an artist is like a therapist — or a comedian.
DN: A clown and a quack guru. Sounds about right. [Laughs]
AVN: [Laughs] I like this idea of guru . Today everyone has one — in all new shapes and forms. We talked about this new wave of “spiritualism” once.
DN: “Spiritualism” is the religion of our generation. I’ve heard that you need some good drugs to find answers. You’ve got to obliterate that ego.
AVN: It’s sad that it takes a strong drug.
DN: Is it though? If all it takes is masticating on a mushroom to get us closer to the truth, I’d say as a human race, we lucked out. But I find the adrenaline of theatre one of the best natural highs.
AVN: Thanks no doubt to the unpredictability of a live performance. No matter how many times you rehearse, each session presents something different.
DN: Yes. I’ve played the same character in different sessions, and yet there is always a variance and uniqueness each time.
AVN: Do you think 11 could take place in a museum? Say, in a constructed bar?
DN: I think it could happen anywhere. It boils down to an effort to connect more erratically and honestly. Once in a blue moon, I’d pull someone visiting my studio into the prototype booth to dive into 11 . At first it was strange and confrontational, then there would always be laughter, thrill, fear, curiosity, a heated word or two, connection, and, ever so often, a trembling lip, a watery eye… You started to recognise those fictional characters within yourself or in people you knew. At the end of that day, we aren’t that different, you and I.
AVN: Have you ever been involved in theatre?
AVN: That says a lot. Which part did you play?
DN: I played one of the Vaginas. The one that achieved a climax.
AVN: That must’ve left quite an impression.
DN: Can’t say I want to do that all over again.
You started to recognise those fictional characters within yourself or in people you knew. At the end of that day, we aren’t that different, you and I.
AVN: Speaking of highs, adrenaline and climaxes — do you think people are just chasing their very first high over and over, wherever they find it: religion, love, sex, drugs, art, music? Do you remember yours?
DN: I don’t know if people are chasing it. I actually think most people forget it over time despite subconsciously longing for it. Personally, I’m not actively seeking it out at this point in my life, but I know I am constantly fiddling with my work in such a way that it becomes a conduit to that kind experience. Do you get what I mean? It’s not as simple as creating a first encounter per se — that would mean creating something that is simply fresh and provocative, which is short-lived and honestly, a bit flat. A first encounter is so fucking overwhelming you feel it shooting through your veins right down to your core. You feel that way, not because the encounter is new, but because it resounds with something so much bigger and universal that somehow, on a personal level, it feels entirely familiar and true.
AVN: I think you’re right; most people don’t remember their true “first high”. Perhaps it happened as a baby: a first swing, taste of sugar or simply seeing one’s own mother coddle you, telling you she loves you. I think we all want to go back to that “safe, loved, embraced by mama” feeling.
DN: Human beings have the capacity to be surprising. I have a friend who I used to work with in New York. We’d take these long car rides up to Connecticut for meetings so we had all this time to kill and we’d talk about everything and nothing. Once, he brought up his father who had upped and left his family when they were growing up. They woke up one day to find a letter from their dad explaining that he could not do this anymore, and that was that. He was gone. I couldn’t wrap my head around that goodbye. I kept pressing him: had he seen this coming? Had there been clues? What did they do as a family the day before his father split? Over the years, was there anything abnormal in his father’s behaviour? He insisted there were no signs. Then he paused and said that perhaps once or twice, when his father thought no one was around, he’d put on a classical jazz record in the living room and cry. This story floats to the surface of my memory pool every now and then. Maybe it’s the idea that everyone is a mystery, and that you never really know someone, in the same way that you never quite know yourself.
AVN: The idea of understanding life and its many “mysteries” comes through quite a lot in 11 . However, you also seem to turn them on their head, like in Story No. 5 [FACEREADER] when the fortune teller starts off saying
“Something happened to you when you were 13 and when you were 20. Something big. Think back. What happened?”
And you find out later that this fortune teller can see numbers in one’s face:
“Yes. Inside your right nostril. And resting on your chin.
Yes! It’s right there. Cliff-hanging like a piece of nose shit.”
DN: Isn’t that life though — that the greatest revelations are sometimes punctuated with a fart? I find beauty in that relationship between the monumental and the mundane as well as the profound and pathetic. Therein lies the intrinsically human.
Maybe it’s the idea that everyone is a mystery, and that you never really know someone, in the same way that you never quite know yourself.
AVN: Do all the characters in the stories come from somewhere personal for you, or mostly imagined?
DN: A mixture. Sometimes I pick a fact or interesting detail about a person I know and start building a story. Other times, I take a wisp of a conversation I have heard or had myself, and spin a whole new web. On some level, I think we are all the places we have been, all the people we have met, and all the things we have ever felt.
AVN: Have you ever been a writer? Why did you become an artist?
DN: Writing was the other half of my degree. I double-majored in English writing and fine art. I don’t know if I am an artist. I know I am compelled a certain way, and I operate in a certain way. I have certain ideas on some subconscious level that I keep circling back to question or take apart. I feel I have a duty to create, otherwise I would be a lousy waste of resources. Does this make anyone an artist or just another human being?
AVN: Would you write a book one day?
DN: Perhaps. Have you read the artist-photographer Sally Mann’s memoir Hold Still  ? I think it is beautiful, though creative non-fiction is more compelling to me. In university, my professors were convinced I was going to head to Columbia University after college to pursue a Masters in English, but I was drawn to images and storytelling in the advertising world of New York at that time. I also felt that writing in a public way would always inadvertently hurt the people I love. I still haven’t reconciled that.
AVN: You seem to imply that if you did write, you’d be writing non-fiction, autobiographical work. I remember reading an interview with Virginia Woolf where she said, “How it would interest me if this diary were ever to become a real diary: something in which I could see changes, trace moods developing; but then I should have to speak of the soul, and did I not banish the soul when I began? What happens is, as usual, that I’m going to write about the soul, and life breaks in.”
It makes me think that writing a “diary” is inextricable from writing about the soul, or simply that life — with all its mundaneness, dirtiness — is worth writing about. There is no fiction that isn’t derived from real life. As you said: “I think we are all the places we have been, all the people we have met, and all the things we have ever felt.”
There is no fiction that isn’t derived from real life.
DN: Yes, completely. You don’t have to write a biography to delve deep into your own life. In Perfect Stranger (2018), Angie, the director at Chan + Hori Contemporary, pointed out that the text-based mixed media work was littered with details about my mother but not my father. I didn’t realise until then how much storage space my mother occupies in my psychological hard drive.
AVN: That work came out around the time your daughter came into the world, yes? Motherhood is an infinite loop: your concept of it is tied not only to your child, but inextricably with your mother. This biological fact always boggles me: baby girls are born with all their eggs, which in some way means that when you give birth to your daughter, you “give birth” to all your potential grandchildren.
DN: That’s mind blowing. How about men and sperm?
AVN: I think men only develop reproductive sperm upon puberty.
DN: I had a rough pregnancy. The nausea and throwing up lasted the entire nine months. It was like being seasick on a boat you could not get off because that boat was your body. It was misery. I was still trying to floor it at the studio. I’d step out after production meetings and cry in the car. I think Ava took all that in. You can’t tell now because at four, she’s happy as a lark, but she was a wound-up baby. Irate and inconsolable.
AVN: My mum said she was depressed when she was pregnant with me. I’ve always wondered if that wired me a certain way too.
DN: Do you think you are naturally tuned to a melancholic setting?
AVN: I’ve felt that for a long period of my short life, yes.
DN: I think introspective people tend toward that setting. What do you think you have learned from your mother about being an artist, and her role as a working mother who is also an artist?
AVN: People often ask me this, but I don’t look at my mum as an artist. I’ve always mostly just seen her as my mother. It’s only in more recent years where we’ve begun to speak more about her work. Her role as a working mother and artist meant that she was doing a lot of odd jobs — as artists often do.
And what I’ve learned about being an artist? I think, before I knew better, I struggled to understand why my mother was always so… angry, for lack of a better word. I think artists come from a place of dissatisfaction or disgruntlement because they’re always noticing and observing little nuances that others might miss. You could call that sensitivity.
I think artists come from a place of dissatisfaction or disgruntlement because they’re always noticing and observing little nuances that others might miss.
DN: My mother was the opposite of angry. One thing she taught me when I was little that stuck with me was this idea that I could make anything I want. It wasn’t as romantic as it sounds. I simply grew up in a middle-income family so my mother was pretty frugal; whenever I wanted to buy something, she’d show me how we could make some facsimile of it. On our weekly trips to the National Library, she would carry an empty spiral notebook and fill it with drawings of images in books that I liked. I now see drawing or photography as a way of possessing.
AVN: What a nice thing to teach. Creating little traces, palimpsests of beloved objects or images. Symbols of symbols. It’s little wonder you’re an artist — constantly trying to represent and recreate things in your head. It takes confidence, and it seems your mum gave you just enough.
DN: Over the years, much of my practice explores the idea of time in relation to death. Without death, there is no time. I have always felt that time only possesses great beauty and worth in the absence of eternity; that is why much of my work deals with this “holding on” to the ephemeral.
I now see drawing or photography as a way of possessing.
AVN: Has this idea of “holding on” intensified after you became a mother?
DN: It hit me when Ava was born that although I see to her start, she will most likely see to my end. That sense of finality is magnified in the experience of having a child. What do you think occupies your head more, words or images?
AVN: I’d say words, because I’ve always been more interested in the lyrics of a song than the components of the music itself. I also can’t visualise things — I have to see it drawn out. I’m guessing you see images more, or is that just a presumption about artists?
DN: In Perfect Stranger , a work based on a year-long Q&A exercise with an Israeli psychologist in 2016, the psychologist asked me: what is more important, images or words? I still stand by my response then:
Facts on Words and Pictures
I think in pictures and illustrate in words. I remember things I photograph but rarely anything I write. I have enjoyed more films than books in my life but am more likely to fall in love with a sentence than a face. I find it easier to seduce with an image and destroy with a word. I find it hard to look at someone who I know is lying to me. I am sure there is a word for everything but none to describe true beauty… I believe we all long to be seen without having to say a thing.
11—A Performance Piece by Dawn Ng took place over 4 weekends from January to February 2019 at Telok Ayer Arts Club, 2 McCallum Street.
Telok Ayer Arts Club, https://telokayerartsclub.sg/
DAWN NG, https://www.dawn-ng.com/
The white cube “[r]efers to a certain gallery aesthetic characterised by its square or oblong shape, white walls and a light source usually from the ceiling”. Brian O’Doherty coined and popularised the term in his critique of this aesthetic in 1976, through a series of essays written for Artforum magazine. “White cube – Art Term,” Tate. https://www.tate.org.uk/art/art-terms/w/white-cube
Mandy Len Catron, “To Fall in Love with Anyone, Do this.” The New York Times, January 9, 2015. https://www.nytimes.com/2015/01/11/style/modern-love-to-fall-in-love-with-anyone-do-this.html
“Arthur Aron,” Department of Psychology, http://stonybrook.edu/commcms/psychology/faculty/faculty_profiles/aaron
Georgetown University in Washington DC, https://www.georgetown.edu/
The Vagina Monologues by Eve Ensler first premiered in 1996 at HERE Arts Center in New York. See Laura Barnett and Eve Ensler, “How we made: The Vagina Monologues,” The Guardian, February 4, 2013.
Sally Mann, Hold Still: A Memoir with Photographs (New York: Little, Brown, 2015).
Virginia Woolf, The Diary of Virginia Woolf, Vol. 2: 1920-1924, (United States: Harcourt Brace, 1980).
“PERFECT STRANGER,” DAWN NG, https://www.dawn-ng.com/projects/perfect-stranger/
Chan+Hori Contemporary is a gallery which represented Dawn Ng. Chan+Hori Contemporary, https://www.chanhori.com/