A Renewed Perspective

Text by Patricia Lee
Photography by Sean Lee

When an artist creates a hit work, it can be a prize as much as a prison. Once hailed as boundary breaking, Damien Hirst is, of late, plagued by dead butterflies and formaldehyde cows, just as every article on Turner Prize winner Tracey Emin returns to My Bed, the semen-stained installation that shot her to fame. The double-edged sword of Donna Ong’s career is The Crystal City. The glassware composition she created for The National Museum’s Night Festival in 2009 has been featured by Reuters and The Huffington Post, and exhibited in multiple variations around the world.

“I made it for a specific occasion,” says the Goldsmiths graduate. “So, I wanted it to be visually spectacular. In terms of concept, however, it didn’t have any personal resonance for me. I’m not particularly interested in cities, so I felt it failed as a personal art work.”

The soft-spoken artist is meeting me on the back of a year that saw her take time out from the art world to complete a Masters in Fine Art at LASALLE—a surprising move for a practitioner beginning to break waves on the international scene. When I first met Ong in 2006, she had just given up the financial security of part-time lecturing to focus on creating art full-time. Although she’d told me she didn’t quite know where this was going to lead, she was resolute about her decision.

Over the next few years, I rarely saw her, but the ferocity of her numerous commissions and exhibitions signalled her growing success. What I didn’t realise at the time was that this crescendo in her career ironically coincided with a creative lull.

Sitting down with her seven years later, Ong has gained the clarity and perspective she needs to move forward. “After lots and lots of interviews, I found myself losing fragments of my story till it became kind of superficial. When you narrate something, you’re giving a condensed version. But in life, it’s not really like that.”

Catchphrases like “creating imaginary landscapes from makeshift objects” and “recapturing childhood dreams and fantasies” do not begin to describe the complexity of her uncomfortable installations. Yet, the more these descriptions were rehashed in articles, everyone—including Ong herself—came to believe that was all there was to work. From dolls trapped in bell jars to seemingly soft coral-like forms made out of hard-metal nails and screws. “The more I said it, the more I convinced myself that was my story. So I started making pieces about imagination and makeshift objects and transformation. But it was never just about that. It was a means to an end.”

Read more in The U Press N˚2 (Singapore edition).