As we move from point a to b, we often take for granted the very thing which our feet meet and glide over as we shuffle from place to place. Floors, corridors, staircases, even elevators are common transitional spaces that are very much a part of our everyday life.
Yet, these ubiquitous objects and spaces—such as the floor—usually elude our consciousness and perception. The floors lay low, literally, in the hierarchy of ‘things’ we encounter daily. As such, animating the floor by allowing it to behave in a way that is unlike its ‘original’ nature draws attention to its existence. This interactive performance involves it protruding playfully, blocking and disrupting your movement through the corridor. Such language of interruption is adapted to what we encounter daily in our urban environment.
Personally, I find it fascinating how the presence of these things, with its physicality, shape and colour, can force us to behave differently. It is our prescribed response and understanding of such passive objects that I want to subvert. To alter the behaviour of the floor and to animate it is to generate your curiosity about its function and existence.
Bending over backwards, for you.
This figure of speech which means to work very hard to accomplish something for someone; to go out of one’s way to do something for someone else, besides yourself, is sometimes the sentiment that comes along especially when teaching Art. That is, we go out of our way, to make Art a bit more palatable, a bit easier for the student to stomach or take.
But of course, that is something that I have come to realise is not valuable and something I resist giving in to, because Art, or rather Art-making is difficult, and Art is not that simple. At the same time, it has been proved, over the time that I have taught, that students do learn more through the struggle. Of course, this is not to the point where the student suffers, but it is precisely from the position of discomfort that helps foster a new space for them to grow and discover.
When embarking on this work, it was a pleasant return to the position of an Art school student, where, like how we throw our students into discomfort or the unknown, we have to learn to wander and work our way through it. Whilst this path had been tread many years before, going through the familiar processes of gathering, experimenting and encountering problems in Art-making, were a gentle reminder of how we, even as teachers, as adults even, are subject to that same rigour and distress that students face, which strangely was reassuring.
What was more reassuring was not just simply the process of innovating and solving problems as one works through whilst driven by inquiry. Rather, it was the landscape of attitudes and emotions that accompanied the journey, as well as the connecting with the world, that is the people encountered, that was meaningful. To me that reflects how Art-making is never a solo nor singular effort, and most importantly it is not that simple; it challenges, teaches and grows us, if we allow it too.
The emotions and people as mentioned, are what makes the work ever more real and alive because it is full of human touches, interactions, feelings and conversations. Even if I were to acknowledge that these things are not evident in the final work, the Artist alone knows this and I feel that is sufficient.
Fear and doubt, for example, were consistent companions who would appear and linger throughout the duration of the Art-making process. Thankfully, if we allow for others to step in like mentors and friends, the encouragement and assurance they offer, quickly dispel their presence.
One such fear that existed right from the beginning, was the fear of letting the people who provided the opportunity and myself down. These feelings arose even before the project began. When granted the opportunity and privilege to participate in this exhibition, to do anything that we wanted, I was at a loss. For one, as much as it is natural for one to fall back on what we are comfortable with (in my case, making video installations), I did see that this opportunity comes as an open space, that allowed us to challenge oneself by asking different questions, as well as, satisfying an itch (mine of which was to make something sculptural).
Whilst faced with those decisions to try something new, or not, the desire and pressure I placed on myself to make a good work crept into being, causing me to put off and delay even proceeding with the work. I wanted to make a perfect work, according to my own expectations and criteria: a work that was conceptually sound and accessible. Yet at the same time, I was also struggling with the fear of doing a bad job.
The possibility of failing, to me, seemed to lurk at every corner of decision-making. For one, when deciding on whether to venture into a medium that I had fallen out of touch with, or to simply continue with familiarity and convenience: video editing. At the same time, I was also trying to ask myself different questions to continue from where my art practice had left off. However, I seemed to keep revisiting again and again the same juncture and set of ideas and concerns, which proved frustrating and disappointing.
At this point, friends, mentor, fellow teachers and even family provided timely nudges, reminders and wake-up calls, that, despite how I
felt at that present moment, I have what it takes in me to work it through. When my mentor and fellow teachers assured me that they believe in what I had done and what I can do, it gave me the support both morally and physically to continue on.
The encouragement I received, I must state, is different from responses like, “I’m sure it’ll turn out fine”, or “it’ll be okay in the end!” rather, it’s the assurance and comfort received that even if I fail, that failure is not a determinant of my worth, nor is the artwork an end-all. Eventually, I still managed to pursue my concern of bringing to attention the everyday, but pursued a style and form of construction that was unfamiliar, which took a bit more courage.
Conversations with friends and people whom you trust to get advice, or to offer their perspectives were also important parts of the art-making. It is especially so when what they see differs from what you set out to do. It is easy to be defensive when the response deviates from what you had intended and expected, or simply something you did not wish to hear to hear. However, when one lets down guard and learn to see another way, these perspectives enrich one’s own vision as it causes us to re-look and look again. For one, my initial idea of imposing the language of traffic cones and barriers in public spaces on the floor extrusions, was questioned as these two languages were disparate did not help to attend to my original intention; which was to bring attention to the floor. It did not sit well at first, but as I allowed it to gnaw at my pride and thoughts, I realised that this critical comment was valuable input and I took it up and re-thought the forms as well as the design of the work.
Technically, designing forms that would not distract the viewer’s attention yet pay respect to the floor design was challenging, but what was more difficult was visualising these forms with the correct dimensions of the corridor, to make sure they work in real life. As such, my own research included not only taking photographs, but also making measurements as well as rubbings of the floor that acted as an index to work with. The rubbings proved to be difficult when not going through the correct protocols to gain access to do so. Being hasty and ignorant resulted in being stopped by security, which was expected but nonetheless something memorable and silly to look back on.
However, because of the constraints of time and the inconvenience of having to keep going back to try out the prototypes, the next best thing was to try it out by rendering it 3D on a modeling software: Sketchup. As much as it was a struggle to learn the programme from scratch, with the help of my sister who recommended it to me, this tool helped immensely in composing the forms within the space and even made me realise misconceptions I had on the construction of the forms.
Making the prototypes too was another challenge as it was time-consuming due to the amount of cutting and measuring. On top of that, I was trying to optimize the use of space on the board using tessellations, and that task itself was challenging for my mathematics-deprived brain. Admittedly, there were times where I did whine (inwardly) and questioned why I was putting myself through all this trouble: cutting silly cross-like shapes to make cubes, and wondering about the inefficiency of it all. But at the end of the day, with some help from family, the work was ploughed through, as testing out concepts in real life was important as opposed to working with ideals in mind.
All in all, going through this rigour of making, thinking, reflecting and feeling made me feel grateful that I could take up the position of artist, or art student, for that matter, once again. For I can better understand with the unspoken and complex feelings that my own students grapple with, when faced with art making: the confusion, the stubbornness, the pressures, the fear of failure and the lack of confidence in one’s self. It would be too simple to say to the student, “I’ve been there, I understand what you’re going through”. Rather, I feel all the more now, that as teachers, practicing art keeps us, not only refreshed as it connects us with not only ourselves but with others, but going through the motions of art-making helps us empathise, and our assurances are all the more meaningful if we truly understand the emotional journey that Art puts them through.
I would not be bending my back over for them, but what I hope to do at least, is to accompany them without making it too easy, assuring them of their worth and that even if things do not turn out to be what they seem. There is a need to remind them to perceive the failure or setback as a worthwhile experience and a form of growth, and therefore, not to give up. Similar to art-making, as my mentor, Wei Hou has posited, teaching is a practice. If we learn to see it like how we make artwork, we should expect that it is inevitable that we run into problems and perhaps fall into pits of fear and doubt from time to time. We too go through the same emotional journey that making art puts us through, and it can be a lonely business. However, if we allow and accept the fact that we will fall, as well as opening up ourselves to receiving help, criticism and support from others, the teaching, or rather, the practice will no doubt be an enriching one.
My personal tutor from back at art school, once reminded me that the ‘Practice’ in ‘Art Practice’ is present tense, and therefore we have to keep on practicing. If there were a final solution in mind, it would not be called a practice. And perhaps it is advice like that which echoes from the past, which make Art-making and the teaching of Art a worthwhile endeavor which never fails to give and grow us, so long as, we do not give up on it.
|| Joanna Ng