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STILL WATERS (between estrangement & reconciliation) 1997, ARX 5, Singapore Art Museum, Site-responsive performance | Drain, Glass Dams, Water | ©  Jason Lim
STILL WATERS (between estrangement & reconciliation) 1997, ARX 5, Singapore Art Museum, Site-responsive performance | Drain, Glass Dams, Water | © Jason Lim
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From Head To Pubes: Discover Singaporean Artist Suzann Victor

Picture of Joyce Choong
Updated: 4 October 2016
If there’s one Singaporean artist you should know, it’s Suzann Victor. An established name in the Singapore art scene, Victor has been active since the late 1980s. She is a student of Lasalle College of the Arts wanting to transform the pretension viewed by outsiders to the art world, and thus making it accessible. Together with her classmates from Lasalle, she literally took her art to the streets, occupying a section of the public sidewalk outside Orchard Point shopping center as a makeshift exhibition space. We spoke to the Sydney-based artist about the prevalent use of light throughout her work, and her desire to offer the most exceptional experience through her art.

Exchanges with Suzann Victor reveal an artist who has thought through all interpretations of her work, owning every perceived angle. Her penultimate aim is to offer ‘aesthetic encounter(s) that filter from the retinal to the heart, mind and soul’, and her enrapturing works offer just that – experiences that distill intellectual and emotional responses from visual imagery.

Victor began as a student in Lasalle, and with her peers, she set up 5th Passage, a platform for art exhibitions and performances. Initially supported by the National Arts Council, a controversial performance by fellow artist Josef Ng, in which he snipped his pubic hair in public, resulted in a decade-long prohibition of performance art in the country. While a scarring incident, she retrospectively views it as ‘an important art historical moment in a relatively young visual culture’, performance art being a rupture in the state’s control of artists. The performances were a ‘turn in the road’ for her, and as the arts slowly matured, support for her work slowly grew.

Headline of The New Paper on Josef Ng | © Groyn88
Headline of The New Paper on Josef Ng | © Groyn88

Victor’s seminal work, ‘Contours of a Rich Manoeuvre’ (2006) is now one of the highlights at the National Museum of Singapore. The work features a line of red chandeliers that moved in synch with each other as if under a charm. ‘Contours’ was first commissioned for the re-opening of the newly refurbished National Museum of Singapore. A grander 12-chandelier version eclipsed the eight currently shown at the National Museum at Art Stage Singapore 2015 under Gajah Gallery. The kinetic installation was further developed and shown at the 49th Venice Biennale, making Victor the first woman to represent Singapore at the prestigious bi-annual art event.

Courtesy of Gajah Gallery | © Andreas Kepplinger
‘Contours of a Rich Manoeuvre’ (2006) | © Andreas Kepplinger

‘Contours’ is recognizably Victor’s doing; light from the electric candles shine through the crimson-stained glass pieces, creating a luminescent halo surrounding each one – an effect seen in many of her other works as well. With each swing, the arc of light becomes a dynamic stroke in mid-air. The chandeliers swing to twelve sets of different time signatures, each 15 minutes long, painting a myriad of transient images on an intangible canvas. Within the interiors of the National Museum, the chandeliers make a bold aesthetic statement. They are also, however, statements about time, the viewer’s physiological reaction to these pieces, as well as the ephemeral image of a Red Dragon – a symbol of Asian power.

Victor also contributed to the Singapore Biennale in 2013 with ‘Rainbow Circle’, a stunning indoor rainbow created by sunlight intersecting a sit-specific curtain of raindrops in the National Museum of Singapore. Victor says she found thrill in being able to induce rainbows indoors by capturing a meteorological phenomenon. She also found satisfaction in being able to use only two materials — sunlight and raindrops — to create the piece. Her fascination with light and the kaleidoscope of subjects it opens up has been at the forefront of her work for years, a common thread running through many of her installations.

Rainbow Circle (2013) | Courtesy of Suzann Victor © Martin Kirkwood
‘Rainbow Circle’ (2013) | Courtesy of Suzann Victor © Martin Kirkwood

While a conscious choice, her use of light exists as a response to the context and purpose of the work. That an intangible, ephemeral ‘thing’ as light has the ability to change perceptions with a slight shift of angle is a source of wonderment for the artist. Light has been able to cast a spell over man in all its different forms, according to Victor, and can convey the sublime when used appropriately. ‘Rainbow Circle’ is a ‘majestic confluence of sciences’, blurring the lines to create the ultimate light show on earth — in this case, within the confines of a museum.

Even in a different medium, a feeling of lightness permeates her work. Victor was invited to a three-week residency with STPI, an institution specializing in print and paper. Her experiments with the media resulted in an array of works, both two and three-dimensional. Her prints hark to the same fleeting brushstrokes formed by her swinging chandeliers, an expression of energy in a wash of colors. The Immaculate and We Cloud series made use of paper pulp as paint, and were carefully placed on round sheets of acrylic and arranged to take on the appearance of a cloud. Echoes of her interpretations of natural phenomenon reverberate through her work.

Immaculate Conception of a Cloud (2015) | Courtesy of STPI and Suzann Victor © Cher Him
‘Immaculate Conception of a Cloud’ (2015) | Courtesy of STPI and Suzann Victor © Cher Him

Despite being based in Sydney, Victor’s roots are undeniably Singaporean. A more recent commission for the Singapore Art Museum for the country’s 50th year of independence from British rule, aptly called ‘Bloodline of Peace’ (2015) The installation work is a breathtaking quilt of approximately 34,000 squares of Fresnel lenses, within which a drop of human blood is sealed. The blood was drawn from Singaporeans from all walks of life; they were volunteers from key communities who donated a tiny part of themselves for the artwork.

Walking through the shimmering wave is an optical sensation; a juxtaposition of the very personal up for very public scrutiny, individual splotches of blood culminating in a scattering of light. The viewer is the center of this experience. Light follows as you move through the wave, giving rise to the phenomenological — the effect of the artwork ‘looking back’ at the viewer — an effect that continues until each is out of the other’s perceptual field.

Bloodline of Peace (2015) | Courtesy of Suzann Victor © Simon Marshall
‘Bloodline of Peace’ (2015) | Courtesy of Suzann Victor © Simon Marshall

Victor’s installation works may have come later in her practice, but are very much in line with her practice as a performance artist. Physically dominating as they may be, her visual pieces communicate concepts in a language synonymous with the performance pieces she did in her earlier years. Then and now, it is undeniable that Suzann Victor’s works strike a balance between individual understanding and universal truth, aesthetically poised between grandiosity and sensitivity.