Donna Ong was born in 1978, Singapore. Whilst being a remarkable artist, Donna Ong is also a product of the positive arts policies that have supported Singaporean Artists through education and patronage. In modern day Singapore, for reasons that are open to debate, the artist is a valued member of society.
I first encountered her work with “Eden” (2007). An installation in the form of a garden on a container formed from brooms and toilet brushes, and clips. These objects were arranged to mimic trees and flowers. It was a playful garden, and I had wondered at the time if the artwork had evolved with the space, which was a temporary public space, erected for the Arts Festival.
In a public discussion, Donna Ong explained quite clearly that the idea her work evolved with the space and social interaction was very wrong. Ong stated that all of her work was meticulously planned down to the millimetre, nothing was happenstance. She was very serious about this precision, and remains so. For Ong her installations, her recreated spaces, are environments that are supposed to be experienced in a very specific manner so that the spectator can appreciate the installation’s narrative. With Donna Ong, there is always a specific narrative.
The pictures I have shown here are from an installation entitled “Letters from the Forest ll,” (2015). It followed an exhibition at the National University of Singapore, “Tramping and Camping through the Colonial Archive,” (2011), which exhibited an archive of drawings and specimens from Singapore’s colonial past and the British obsession with collecting, classifying and documenting.
“Letters from the Forest ll,” is essentially a desk covered with letters, engravings and specimens; butterflies and seeds, and the accoutrements by which these finds could be measured. I admit the aspect I most like about this installation is the clear presence of the art’s hand. Not only did Donna Ong plan and organize the desk and the placement of the imagery and objects with her normal precision, but she collaged the illusory imagery of the jungle on to layers of glass creating a surreal, 3d victorian jungle. These are beautiful artworks independent of the installation but here they are placed insitu as domains upon which we can gaze, on and across the colonial desk.
Ong refrains from literal condemnation of this past through an almost nostalgic presentation, however, maps and letters there included allude to the paradise of South East Asia and the wealth of materials, and people, that could be exploited. The beautiful imagery masking an ugly history.
I feel this work was a turning point for Ong, both in terms of the complexity of her narrative and in the manner in which she now created her space. Her work now frequently includes not only a physical space to inhabit but an illusory one (an image) to gaze upon.
TOK and Visual Art discussion points
What is an installation?
Does art have to be in a museum or gallery?
What is meant by “the hand of the artist”?