Conversation with Singaporean Artist Melissa Tan

04 November 2021

‘False Doors, Glass Skies’ at RKFA

By Ian Tee

 

Melissa Tan. Image courtesy of the artist and RKFA.
Melissa Tan. Image courtesy of the artist and RKFA.

 

Mapping and story-telling are running threads that connect Melissa Tan’s artistic output, from the earlier works that take psycho-geography and the texture of rocks as points of departure to her recent interest in narratives embedded in the stars. Even as her subject shifts from the earth to the sky, the Singaporean artist carries a meticulous attention to detail in the creation of her works. This manifests in lace-like surfaces of paper and metal in her mixed media pieces, as well as pigmented resin which mimic the appearance of rock minerals. Her fidelity to process and material transformation result in compelling objects that draw viewers in to explore her view of the world.

We speak to Melissa on the occasion of her fifth solo exhibition ‘False Doors, Glass Skies’ at Richard Koh Fine Art, Singapore. In this conversation, she reflects on ten years of artistic practice and elaborates on a new series of sculptures that continue her research on female mythological characters.

Melissa Tan, ‘Under the Blanket of Bedrock Edition 2’, 2011, paper, acrylic paint and incense sticks, dimensions variable. Exhibited at ‘The Singapore Show: Future Proof’, 2012, Singapore Art Museum at 8Q. Image courtesy of the artist and RKFA.
Melissa Tan, ‘Under the Blanket of Bedrock Edition 2’, 2011, paper, acrylic paint and incense sticks, dimensions variable. Exhibited at ‘The Singapore Show: Future Proof’, 2012, Singapore Art Museum at 8Q. Image courtesy of the artist and RKFA.

Melissa Tan, ‘and the darkest hour is just before the dawn’, 2014, first solo exhibition at Richard Koh Fine Art, Singapore. Image courtesy of the artist and RKFA.
Melissa Tan, ‘and the darkest hour is just before the dawn’, 2014, first solo exhibition at Richard Koh Fine Art, Singapore. Image courtesy of the artist and RKFA.

I would like to start our interview on an introspective note. You graduated with your Bachelors in Fine Arts from LASALLE 10 years ago. How would you describe the Singapore art scene then? What was your experience starting out as a fresh graduate out of art school?

At the time, the art scene was so vibrant. There was Art Stage Singapore and Gillman Barracks had also recently launched, so there were many events to attend and artworks to see from international and local galleries. As a fresh graduate, there was much to take in.

I began interning at the Singapore Art Museum and learnt a lot there. I am thankful for my two mentors, Silvia Chan and David Chew who were patient with me and taught me on the job. This internship is among the many experiences that have shaped me. My friends and I were also trying to juggle working and our own art practice. We decided to rent a studio space together and continue making. Their encouragement spurred me to continue honing my skills.

Chang Sae Tang, Phaiboon Suwannakudt, Pratuang Emjaroen at Pratuang’s House.
Chang Sae Tang, Phaiboon Suwannakudt, Pratuang Emjaroen at Pratuang’s House.

Looking back, could you share one significant experience in your career so far?

Being part of the 2016 Singapore Biennale is something I will not forget. I was a very young artist and participating in this biennale was an incredible experience. I was in the company of artists I admired, and it was exciting to see everyone setting up their works and piecing everything together. I loved walking through the galleries and seeing the behind-the-scenes process, people opening crates, searching for things and pushing to complete their works on time. It felt warm as everyone had the same energy and supported each other.

What is an important advice or learning point you found beneficial in navigating the art world or sustaining your art practice? 

I remember two statements from my LASALLE lecturers. Firstly, to never wait around for inspiration because it is unreliable. I liked this because we carve our path and chart our own trajectories. The second was to not worry about “style” or things that define us, but instead to try out as many things as we possibly can. After all, the process is a discovery and it is only when we look back that we can see how things connect.

I also love the phrase “action is character” from Carey Mulligan’s character Jenny Mellor in ‘An Education’. I wrote it in my sketchbook a long time ago when I was in school, and it is funny how that phrase has stayed with me through these years.

Melissa Tan, ‘False Doors, Glass Sky’, 2021, exhibition view at Richard Koh Fine Art, Singapore. Image courtesy of the artist and RKFA.
Melissa Tan, ‘False Doors, Glass Sky’, 2021, exhibition view at Richard Koh Fine Art, Singapore. Image courtesy of the artist and RKFA.

Melissa Tan, ‘False Doors, Glass Sky’, 2021, exhibition view at Richard Koh Fine Art, Singapore. Image courtesy of the artist and RKFA.
Melissa Tan, ‘False Doors, Glass Sky’, 2021, exhibition view at Richard Koh Fine Art, Singapore. Image courtesy of the artist and RKFA.

Let’s talk about your new solo exhibition ‘False Doors, Glass Skies’. It continues your interest in goddesses and women in mythological narratives. Given this backdrop, I find the title rather ominous as it seems to point towards the barriers that continue to hold women back. Could you say more about the exhibition title and the direction taken in this new body of work? 

The title plays with the idea of doors and skies. We think doors are easy to pass through and that skies are limitless. However, they are not, and it takes continuous effort to keep pushing forth. I am very inspired by female contemporary writers who retell myths and show how relevant these narratives are today.

While working on ‘Under the Arched Sky’, I came across many stories about goddesses. For the new show, it is a continuation of this research but I wanted to focus on mythological characters whose narrative arc hinges on transformations, such as Daphne who was transformed into a laurel tree when she was attempting to escape from Apollo. I knew the story from a young age and saw images of Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s famous sculpture depicting it. When I spoke to writer Samantha Yap about this body of work, she pointed out how the transformations are often into something “lesser” and not necessarily ideal. This made me think, if only we were able to, in Jeannette Winterson’s words, “to dream in the right shape(s)” and conceive of or interpret these changes differently.

Stainless steel pieces on the studio floor. Image courtesy of the artist and RKFA.
Stainless steel pieces on the studio floor. Image courtesy of the artist and RKFA.

Melissa Tan, ‘Charybdis’, 2021, mirror finish stainless steel, epoxy resin and pigment, L 88.7 x B 55 x D 12cm. Image courtesy of the artist and RKFA.
Melissa Tan, ‘Charybdis’, 2021, mirror finish stainless steel, epoxy resin and pigment, L 88.7 x B 55 x D 12cm. Image courtesy of the artist and RKFA.

I noticed that in works such as ‘Megaira’ (2021), the outline of a female figure pointing her finger can be seen amidst the intricate stainless steel cut-outs. Beyond the mythological references, are there features specific to this set of works? 

As there are so many existing images and stories about these characters, I was quite careful with what I wanted to incorporate into this series. For instance, the reference of ‘Medusa’ (2021) was from a medallion with Athena and Medusa, in which the latter takes on a protective function. I like the notion of wearing an identity as a protection or channeling another as a way of safeguarding oneself. The idea of protection, magic and enchantment was on my mind as I made these works.

“The idea of protection, magic and enchantment was on my mind as I made these works.”

How do you approach the relationship between story-telling and abstraction in your practice? 

Pop culture references tend to resonate with me, and I realise that there are points of connections if we search for them. For example, myths are often referenced in science fiction shows. In the series ‘Raised by Wolves’, the character Mother is based on Lameia from Greek mythology. These layers make the genre richer and more meaningful.

Melissa Tan, ‘Cardea’, 2021, Found object, epoxy resin and pigment, H 28 x L 13.2 x B 13.2cm, Image courtesy of the artist and RKFA.
Melissa Tan, ‘Cardea’, 2021, Found object, epoxy resin and pigment, H 28 x L 13.2 x B 13.2cm, Image courtesy of the artist and RKFA.

“I like the idea of metamorphosis as part of the creation process; that the sculptures need to have this capacity for change. They undergo destruction in order to transform.”

Melissa’s studio. Image courtesy of the artist and RKFA.
Melissa’s studio. Image courtesy of the artist and RKFA.

Melissa sanding down resin pieces outside her studio. Image courtesy of the artist and RKFA.
Melissa sanding down resin pieces outside her studio. Image courtesy of the artist and RKFA.

Are your working methods or processes affected by restrictions as a result of the pandemic? If so, how have you adapted?

It is still difficult to create my works from home, as I use hazardous materials that require power tools and extra space. Initially, I was  frustrated but I feel more certain about my processes now. I can be obstinate, working harder to shape the artworks the way I want. I am not willing to compromise.

Could you talk about the artists or practitioners whose work you admire? 

There are many artists I admire. I look up to my lecturers from LASALLE: Hazel Lim, Salleh Japar, Jeremy Sharma, Ian Woo, Adeline Kueh and Betty Susiarjo. Also, with my studio located at Goodman Arts Center, I see Tang Da Wu and Han Sai Por working hard every day. It is  heartwarming to be in the company of older artists who have the same passion for art making, even after many years.

Melissa Tan and Ong Kian Peng, ‘Sound Waves of Empty Seas’ (detail), 2019, Mirror Finish Stainless Steel, gears, dimensions variable. Image courtesy of the artists.
Melissa Tan and Ong Kian Peng, ‘Sound Waves of Empty Seas’ (detail), 2019, Mirror Finish Stainless Steel, gears, dimensions variable. Image courtesy of the artists.

My next question deals with collaboration in your practice. I am thinking about ‘Sound Waves for Empty Seas’, your collaborative piece with Ong Kian Peng, as well as the fabricators you work with to produce these recent metal constructions. Initially, did you find it challenging to open up your studio practice? How do you frame these relationships?

I like working with collaborators whom I feel will change my practice or allow me to do something I would not have thought of. With Kian Peng, he showed me that the slowness of movement lends another poetic layer to a kinetic artwork.

My practice has also been affected by my discussions with writers, who have helped me to see things differently. For instance, when I told Samantha I could not think of an image for the Chinese character “安” for the work ‘Safe’ (2021), she brought up the association of a lock. Her suggestion resonated well with the narrative of Queen Hatshepsut which inspired the reed-shape key motif.

Looking ahead, are there any goals or projects you hope to realise?

Perhaps a larger scale sculpture! That would be nice.

‘False Doors, Glass Skies’ was on view at Richard Koh Fine Art Singapore, from 5 to 27 November 2021.

 

 

This interview was originally published on  Art & Market (A&M) on 4 November 2021 here. It is republished here as part of a content partnership with A&M.