The doorway to Amanda Heng’s studio is half-hidden within a small jungle of potted rubber plants and Japanese bamboo. “I can’t live without plants,” Heng says. “I like these ones because they’re hardy. When I’m traveling and nobody gives them water, they last. When they get too big I take cuttings. You’ll notice that my neighbors have similar plants. That’s because I distribute them!”
Heng’s studio is tucked away down a quiet, upmarket residential street in the Telok Kurau neighborhood, a 15-minute drive from central Singapore. She moved here in 1997 when the National Arts Council (NAC) converted a former elementary school into studios. Cooled by a gentle but constant breeze in spite of the sweltering May heat and humidity, Heng reflects on her two-decade career, leafing through ring binders full of photographs of past performances. With a retrospective at the Singapore Art Museum (SAM) planned for October 2011, she is currently organizing the documentation of her early work, a difficult task since many of the images are stored on now-antiquated floppy disk and video formats, and some cassettes have decayed with age, their information trapped inside. Heng and the museum’s curators are working with restoration specialists to retrieve the footage.
Though Heng has participated in many international biennials and performance festivals, the SAM exhibition will be her first solo show. “It’s a contradictory position to be in because my art has always been collaborative,” she says. “In Singapore, the public tends to see art as something exclusive, created by geniuses. I don’t usually do solo shows because my practice engages people who are not in the arts. I don’t want to be an isolated figure.”
Performance art is only just emerging from its taboo status in Singapore. Following a 1994 performance by Josef Ng in which he snipped his pubic hair at the Parkway Parade Shopping Centre, the NAC suspended all funding for performance art. The ban was lifted in 2003. “When I moved into this space, I had to sign an agreement that I would not use it for performance,” Heng says. Undeterred, in 1999 she formed the collective Women in the Arts, using her studio as a venue for performances and other media. “We gathered here every month. It was our informal education about women’s issues—topics that weren’t discussed in art schools at the time.”
Since 1999, and in numerous countries, Heng has staged “Let’s Walk,” street performances in which she and members of the public hold high-heeled shoes in their mouths and walk backward using handheld mirrors to guide themselves. The work was partly a response to the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis. “Many businesses were suffering, but the beauty industry made a lot of money. When companies downsize, the female employees are the first to be fired. A lot of Singaporean women were ‘upgrading’ themselves, going to beauty salons, having plastic surgery and so on to keep their jobs. A woman’s looks are still worth more than her abilities.”
Before leaving, I noticed a wooden-framed photograph of Heng and her mother propped up against the wall, part of a 1996 series in which the artist explored and documented a rapprochement with her mother. Unusual patches of discoloration and corrosion snake around the edges of the print. Heng laughs as she explains: “I was away in Germany for a few weeks in the mid-1990s, and when I came back, I discovered that termites had attacked it! But what they did to this print is quite beautiful. They’re my natural collaborators!” Heng returns to the ring binders—there is more archival work to be done. A gentle but resilient figure, she is quietly focused on how best to reach out to her audience next year.