We are the world, and these are our stories – or, specifically, those of the 12 participants engaged in a collaboration with Amanda Heng as part of her second residency with printmaking institute, STPI. The pioneer performance artist was involved in founding The Artists’ Village collective shortly after a trip to Europe that inspired her, thanks to the richness of its contemporary art scene. Now, armed with memories – and the objects to which they’re attached – Heng has created 24 multilayered works that are part of the exhibition We Are the World – These Are Our Stories. And, as she wants you to know, the sum is greater than its parts.
You opened your first day of your STPI collaboration with your seminal performance piece, Let’s Chat (1996). How did the 12 participants you worked with respond to it?
I began the residency not knowing what I was going to do, but I did want to focus on the tangible, so I recreated Let’s Chat. [The STPI papermakers and I] sourced for beansprouts from Woodlands for this recreation to see if we could incorporate them in papermaking. We experimented with all kinds of materials: sugarcane, pineapples, coconuts, even durian! Knowing how to treat each ingredient’s the difficult part, though, and printing images on these papers didn’t create the effect I’d hoped for. Along the way, I asked if anyone within STPI wanted to be a collaborator. They’d need to bring an object close to their hearts, something with an interesting story behind it. I eventually opened this collaboration to the public, too, and we ended up with 12 participants.
Each print is immensely private, yet nostalgic. What was one of your favourite bits of the process?
That’s difficult to answer, because I see the 12 pieces as one work. Each of the participants brought objects that had stories attached to them, and this collaboration wasn’t to seek out who had the ‘best’ story – rather, it was about discovering why that particular object holds so much value to the person. Through the revisiting these memories, we then attempted to reflect its importance in each artwork.
How long did it take in general for the collaborators to open up, since you required each of them to talk about a treasured heirloom or object?
The month-long residency didn’t afford us much time. I didn’t know how long this project would be – or how many participants I’d have, much less the objects they’d bring. It took about seven to eight months for all the stories to be weeded out, in order to fully understand the object and its relation to the story.
Where’d you get the idea to incorporate QR codes in this exhibition?
This was built from my first STPI residency in 2006 called Sin Girl, and that featured just one print – but as a performance artist, I wasn’t satisfied that it was two-dimensional. With the advent of technology, I decided using QR codes would be the best way to reach out and connect with the younger generation. This is part of their ‘language’, whereas I struggle to grasp it. So I linked Sin Girl to a website and opened it up to the world, and the 2D print became so much more than that. We Are the World – These Are Our Stories uses that same idea. With QR codes, you’re branching beyond just the tangible.
What was it like approaching art-making in a studio-based setting, given your extensive experience as a performance artist?
It was definitely a challenge, but that was precisely why I took up this residency. I’ve done studio work prior to my past performance pieces, so in a way I was returning to that. I’d also really enjoyed working with STPI during my first residency – and got to collaborate mostly with the same bunch of people during this exhibition, too. But more importantly, I accepted the residency to push myself to apply the principles of performance work in a studio setting. Performance pieces are very much connected to other forms of art, and it's more about the process than the end-result – and this, in the same way, was process-heavy.
What’s one of the most fascinating lessons drawn from this collaboration?
It fascinated me that, while I oversaw and conceptualised it as a whole, it was the participants who put in far more effort than meets the eye. Sometimes our memories evade us, so they had to ask family members or friends certain things to piece facts together.
Looking forward, do you reckon you’ll experiment with other mediums for future pieces?
I’ve never confined myself to certain mediums, which I think is important especially in performance art. It usually involves performing alone, so you’re involved in everything and thinking 'How do you want to engage with people?' So most of the time one work encapsulates several mediums, and as a practitioner, I’m always looking for new ways to understand the world.
And do you see yourself revisiting We Are the World – These Are Our Stories in the future?
I think my style – of taking the most traditional approach to storytelling – will always be very much part of my work, even in my performance pieces. If I do revisit this, I might modify it to make it more relevant to today’s culture. It does become harder to keep up with technology as you get older!
We Are the World - These Are Our Stories is at the STPI until Feb 25. Entry is free.