Singapore heaves a sigh of relief as it prepares to embrace the phase 2 easing of the lockdown. One thing we all have come to terms with is social distancing and time freeze. It’s as if in a blink half of 2020 has just passed by, leaving everyone with a deep paradox of realities and eventualities. Is this really happening? What do we want to remember this phase as? I met Ren Zi during our NPE art residency in Singapore in Jan 2020. Little did we know time after that would be a black-out, as if an impasse. Life just went into a reverse gear, as lock down was announced, like we watch in movies, like the present never existed, and there was nothing called future.
As I looked around, I wanted to reach out to many artists, to keep art conversations alive. As a community, are we listening to each other, are we involved beyond our own cliques, beyond the “I”? Talking to Ren Zi, a Singapore based multidisciplinary artist, new dimensions of ‘us’ where he diminishes the ‘I’ unfolded. An expansive conversation of the journeys of an artist took place and the minuscule observations in between the lines opened the pandora of ‘time’, deliberating the current phenomenon of the Covid-19 that the sentient beings are experiencing.
I thank Ren Zi for sharing his artistic journey. Isolation period has opened up newer conversations of collective efforts, of pushing our boundaries, raising questions of “Is community a goal, means to an end or a process?”
Ren Zi, tell us something about your art journey, how and where you started and why did you chose art as your field.
Many people still associate art with production, whether of physical or virtual works. It’s so much more. For us, “art” is a mode of thinking & being, not just expression. Rather than a choice, we came to do what we do as an inevitability.
In fact, for a long while, we tried distancing our self from making art. But when faced with a series of personal crises 15 years ago, returning to it helped process the trauma. At the same time that lifted the shade we had pulled over our eyes, to look hard again at the challenges facing the world: Economic uncertainty, persecutions of the ethno-religious & non-human other, mass displacement, growing disenfranchisement, climate change, environmental devastation.
What is art for you and what drives the idea of your practice? What is your genre of work and tell us why and what you do?
Human action stems from how we perceive & relate to this construct called reality. Reality is framed by mythic meta-narratives that give sense & order to our lives, society & the universe. Folktales, heroic sagas were early forms. Now we have science as the dominant myth of our time.
Unpacking these narratives is key to understanding socio-political as well as personal realities. When situations become dysfunctional or no longer align with new understandings, how can we recode these myths to unmake & remake reality?
We’re more interested in opening up possibilities than reaching a single solution. It’s about considering alternatives which are just as valid under different conditions.
In that same way, we aren’t shackled to a fixed method of presentation. As artists, we instinctively resist attempts to be boxed in. We want to be able to draw on different modalities that might include text, sound, video, the tangible, digital or performative, to create a conceptual, emotional, experiential works.
When we started making art again, our focus was on tearing down & reassembling our personal mythology. This happened across two arcs, Topographies of Loss & Naming our Bright & Dark Stars.
A residency in New York offered us a chance to scale up our interrogation given how the city has attained mythic status in popular imagination. That led to our current interest in extrapolating the consequences of Singapore’s numerous myths within the context of Anthropocenic anxiety. With the high level of social engineering here, we can think of Singapore as a petri dish of humanity.
The first arc within this exploration is Singapore Twilight, which was 5 years of work from concept to presentation in 2019. It imagines an apocalyptic alternate future in which Singapore falls for the third & final time as a result of its besieged fortress mythology/mentality.
You refer to yourself as “us” and not “I”. How is that so?
It’s acknowledgement that within each of us is not a universe but a multiverse of selves. On another level, it diffuses the egotism we associate with a destructive, oppressive global system causing many of our world’s issues.
In our conversations, we discussed what’s happening globally and talked about the concept of time. Could you expand on this and your thoughts of what we are learning from this lockdown. How do we understand the perception of time?
One can’t talk about narratives & possibility for change without thinking about time when these are but functions of time. By the same token, time is a construct which has long been pondered by philosophers, theoretical physicists & authors of speculative fiction.
While lockdown itself hasn’t sparked new revelations, one senses that more people realise how plastic time can be when they aren’t anchored to a fixed schedule of activity. Days slow or stand still. They cycle in repetition. Or you lose track so completely time stops having any more meaning.
That’s the idea behind a group show we’re planning for 2021.
What does it take to build a community of fellow artists? What can Singapore add to its flavour of art?
Enforced isolation has also emphasised the importance of human connection & how we take that for granted. Among artists, we rely so much on friends for social & emotional support, to bounce ideas, pool resources.
Rather than a blanket prescription, it might be more interesting to raise questions. Is community a goal, means to end or process? How would we commit to collective efforts? How can we agree to disagree? Can we maintain mutual respect, integrity, humility while pushing each other forwards in healthy, non-triggering ways? When is community local? When does it transcend geo-political boundaries?
These are added impetus to next year’s show which would be our excuse to bring together few of the people for whom we have much respect both here & those based abroad.
What works are you contemplating for the future?
As the chain-rattling ghost of Singapore future, we’re still mapping out other alternate timelines. There’s that possible group show mentioned before. As well as research into a cross-disciplinary grassroots endeavour which pre-empted the Singapore Biennale by a couple of years in considering issues such as community engagement, historicity & urban redevelopment.
Is there anything else you would like our readers to know?
Time loops. The future is now.
In the phase 2 of the easing of lockdown, mundane surveys claiming “Artists are non-essential”may continue. We all have to concede to the fact that the artists are the pivotal people who embrace the creative mind to open new dimensions and carve new journeys of life that has helped the sapiens to evolve. We all have felt the inner conversations with our sentient being that teach us to watch our own space, and respect others space too. Ren Zi’s innate and honest reflections of his journey does bound us to find what junction of the time loop are we all in, and where are we going as a community.
We look forward to witnessing his next show in 2021, and wish him all the best. Connect with Ren Zi.