Walk into the National Museum of Singapore’s Gallery 10 today, and you’ll be confronted with a striking art piece that, perhaps, encapsulate quintessentially Singaporean emotions. Projected onto the walls of the gallery is a digital simulacrum, transforming it into a new, imaginary space: A long back alley populated by disembodied, digital dancers – who stamp and sway and pirouette – presenting the act of rehearsal as a performance for the camera.
There is something poignant about the digital mural, which stitches together different alleyways and backstreets in Singapore to create an imaginary place: A space composed from reality, but existing only as an image.
The Art of The Rehearsal is a tension between present and future, existing and becoming, presentation and authenticity. It is that, and not merely the multi-ethnic makeup of the performers, that makes it feel deeply Singaporean.
On a Tuesday morning in February, I find myself at the National Museum of Singapore, sitting across from Sarah Choo Jing at Food For Thought cafe, a half-finished Americano perched precariously near the edge of the table. As all interviews go, she’s telling me a story.
Her story is a charming anecdote that straddles the lines between voyeurism and communication. It’s the sort of story that – on the surface- seems to reinforce the cliché of the dreamy artist. Sarah is telling me about a process she has of collecting the raw material of inspiration from the tenants hotel rooms.
She would slip notes under doors, requesting that the hotel guests write back to her. It’s an experiment that has had mixed results, occasionally leading to indignation from hotel tenants and concierges.
There are certain adjectives that we stereotypically associate with the personalities of different professions. Politician: Ruthless, ambitious, cunning. Professor: Intelligent, absent-minded, detached. Engineer: Analytical, hard working, asexual. Artist: Eccentric, emotional, reclusive.
It has become a cliché to note that all clichés contain within them a grain of truth. But there you have it. While we may have fixed impressions about artists, the definitions surrounding art is a lot more problematic.
Perhaps we are searching for the meaning of art in the wrong place, when we try to make sense of it by strict definition. Art does not come with instructions on the label. Batteries are not included.
We know that art can evoke and provoke and teach, but beyond that, it exists in the grey space between rational meaning and concrete definition. If there’s one thing I learnt from my chat with Sarah, it is that art is inextricably entwined with lived experience, and that to know one is to gain insight into the other.
And perhaps that is the true way to make sense of art: to approach it on an individual basis, like one would a new person in an unfamiliar city.
When did you first realise that you were going to become an artist?
I was actually born and raised in a lower middle-income family, so I wasn’t one of those people who are born knowing they’re going to become an artist.
I found when I was growing up that I couldn’t really express myself through words. I observed people a lot, but my observations translated into images and drawings when I was a teenager. I found that way of communicating very effective and I loved that.
But at the same time I was wary because of my background; whether I’d be able to sustain myself [financially]. So when I was in Secondary Three, I made the decision to take art. Y’know how in secondary school you can choose? If you take art, Then sorry, you can’t take advanced math.
I remember that. I was in Sub Science because I wanted to do Literature.
Yeah! And if you take those you’re in the second last class. So when I made that choice my mum freaked out. My family was like “What, you want to be poor the rest of your life?”
They were being pragmatic about it.
I agreed to take A Math and not take art in class, but I wrote in to the principal to tell her that I wanted to do art. When you make a decision like that and you commit to it, there’s no turning back. I think on a very real level that’s that.
I think it was that moment[that I decided to become an artist]… not when I asked for permission, but when I was granted permission.
On a deeper level the love for art – for any individual – is always love/hate.
If you really love something, you love it but you hate it at the same time. It’s what makes it even more intense: “I’m almost getting it but I’m not!” Y’know that feeling?
Yes. Sometimes I’ll sit there and type, and wonder if I’m using the right word… le mot juste, as they say. And then I’ll see it in print and be like-
“I don’t know!”
“It’s ok I guess… I could have phrased it better.”
(Laughs) Yeah exactly.
And after secondary school? What happened then?
I wanted to take art as an A Level subject because I needed it to be graded work. But I knew I couldn’t go to NAFA Lasalle even if I wanted to…so my option was to go to Junior Colleges that offered art.
At that time we had three schools: National, Hwa Chong, and Nanyang Junior College.The last two were out of my league. (Laughs) I’d go to their Open House and get free cotton candy, but that was that.
I was working on this one-year plan and I had really good educators who always told me about the importance of planning. So I planned, and I told myself I’d be happy to get into Nanyang JC.
When I got my results back, I was one point short of getting into Nanyang JC. I was so devastated that I cried. I went down to Nanyang JC in person to appeal; I didn’t even call them. I told them, “I’ll do anything. For the next 2 years I can do extra credit work. If you need anything for the school, posters, brochures… if you take me in, you won’t have to do any of those things.”
And they were like “Meh… ok. Go do a mural design and we’ll see.” At that time they were doing 30 murals around Nanyang JC to celebrate their 30th anniversary.
I was like “Oh,this is my chance.” And I went back and did this whole intricate piece of work…. It was a bit cheesy. I brought it back and the teacher tried to be nice. (Laughs) But in the end they accepted me.
After JC, I wanted to go to Goldsmith. It was part of my two year plan. At that time, Goldsmith was the only college I knew that did art and was overseas. Maybe because my teachers were from Goldsmith, so I was all like, “I want to go to Goldsmith; I want to go to London!”
Were your parents supportive of that?
My parents told me that they’d stop funding my education the minute I decided to take art, because they needed me to be very sure. And that I wouldn’t really know the value of money if they kept giving me an allowance.
The expenses for art wasn’t so bad in JC, because you get some funding with AEP, but I realised I needed money if I wanted to go overseas to study art, and my parents couldn’t afford to send me anyway. So I got a scholarship and everything was almost done, but then I ran into family issues.
I decided to stay, and the next step was to go to a local university. So I told myself that I’d go to ADM at NTU. I was painting so much, and a lot of my paintings looked like photographs. I thought to myself, “Maybe this is a blessing in disguise. Let me go explore photography. Why stick to just painting?’
So I went to ADM, and that’s when I came up with…the ‘5-Year Plan’(laughs self-deprecatingly).
They always think of creative stereotypes as disorganised. You’re…definitely not falling into that stereotype.
(Laughs) I swear by it. I still do a several-year plan every year, and update it every half a year. So I did my five year plan, and told myself “I think I need to start living for myself”. So at the end of university, I went to do my Masters in London on an MOE scholarship.
I’m going to segue a bit. Is it difficult to become an artist in Singapore if you’re from a lower-middle income background?
I think it’s relative. I think in Singapore, artists from lower income background… we do get quite a lot of support from the government. And there’s the community backing you up.
The difficult part comes with regards to determination. In the sense that if you come from a lower income background, you may have people constantly telling you that you can’t do it.
But at the same time, that’s when educators and schools come in. I spent more than half of the time in school. You need people who believe in you, and to show you that it’s possible.
There’s always this stereotype of the artist as this impractical dreamer. Would you say, that as a Singaporean artist, you have to be more pragmatic than artists of other nationalities?
I actually have this side of me that’s naturally systematic, and that comes through in my work as well. If you came into my studio while I was conceptualising Art of The Rehearsal, you’d see coloured dots representing the dancers, the music, the specific timing. My friends who came and saw the work space were like, “Oh my god, you’re like an FBI Agent.”
But there’s also the… dreamy side I suppose. I once shared with a curator that “Oh my God, my dream is to go to Venice and represent Singapore in the Pavilion.”
And he was like “Yeah, many artists dream of that.”
And I was like “I think I can do it next year y’know? Next year is open call.”
And the curator was like, “Ok, Sarah, get real. You’re only 27. And it’s not open call sadly. I’m not trying to be a wet blanket.”
There are days where- as organised as I am- I can’t work. I’ll wake up and I feel like life is depressing, and I spend the whole day lying down, writing poetry. I seldom show that dreamy side of being an artist.
I think that’s why you mentioned earlier that you don’t see a lot of my personal biography online. It’s all very formal: “Sarah Choo is a multidisciplinary artist -” I even memorised my artist bio as a way of presenting myself.
I wanted to ask you about your process. George R.R. Martin once said that when it comes to creating, there are architects and gardeners. Architects are structured, come up with a floor plan, lay the work brick by brick. Gardeners plant a thousand seeds and bleed on them. On that spectrum, which one are you?
I really believe I’m both. When I’m thinking of what I do on a day to day basis, it’s an extreme.
On one hand I’m this super planner. I’ll plan what I’m going to have to do every month of each year, how many places I have to go to to shoot, who to talk to, if I should approach the NAC.
Right now I’m working on this new art piece about hotels. I’m fascinated with them: The anonymity of strangers living next to each other, and that intimate moment of being in the same hotel and different rooms, and wondering about the narratives and the people you’re sharing the space with.
But on the other hand, I check into different hotels in Geylang, or high-end hotels, and start writing notes to people and slipping it under their door. To me that’s not structured; you don’t know what’s going to happen. They may scream at you…which has happened. They’re like “What are you doing here?”
Ok, I have to hear this story. I’m assuming it was in the Geylang hotels that you got screamed at? How did you start collecting stories in this manner?
(Laughs) Actually, the high end ones are the ones where you get screamed at. The ones at Geylang… sometimes I end up talking to the other tenants. Sometimes they end up coming to my room, and we sit down and chat and drink.
My first experience was actually in Singapore. I was in a Geylang hotel and the walls were really thin. I could hear the couple in the room beside me fighting. I don’t know if they were a legit couple, but the voices belonged to a male and a female. They were fighting quite intensely, and I found their exchange of words so hurtful.
I felt guilty listening in, but I felt so much for the lady… and I didn’t say anything. That was my first experience of an interaction with strangers in a hotel room. I started to write about these experience: Who are these people? What are their experiences?
In China I had this weird ‘conversation’. I was knock-knocking on the walls with the tenant in the next room. I dunno what we were knocking for…we just kept knocking, and we could hear each other laughing [through the walls]. It’s a little weird, a little strange, but I find it fascinating.
When I went back to London for my studies, I stayed in some hotels because I was curious. And there was a build up, I would listen [in on various hotel room tenants], and try to communicate by letting the person in the other room know I’m present… dropping my heavy stuff on the floor, for example. And I thought, “Wouldn’t it be fascinating if I wrote to them?”
So I’d write a note to a few hotel visitors and slip it under the door, asking them to reply to me by giving them the room that I’m in. It sounded good right? Like receiving a letter.
And then they filed a complaint to the front desk: “This lady in room so-and-so is bothering me and my wife! It’s so inappropriate.”
(Laughter around table) But I don’t think it’s weird. You’re reaching out to someone, trying to get a human story back.
It is inappropriate; if I were them I’d feel so weird.
But some of them responded: Some of them wrote poetry; some of them wrote rubbish; some of them doodled. I kept the interesting ones and thought, “Let’s push it further”.
So I’d slip the notes underneath their door, and then wait outside their room, so they can see me and know who I am. Not like “Ew, someone’s stalking me”, but just this girl outside waiting, who can’t see them and doesn’t know them.
Some of them slipped notes back, so that worked a bit better. It’s still ongoing, and I might continue doing this for a while. I find that fascinating: That experience with a stranger. It’s so real, but the same time in the morning, everybody checks out, and it’s gone. You don’t see them again.
I love living in that moment; I almost become another person. I’m no longer Sarah Choo the artist with the memorised bio. (Laughs) I’m this weird stalker-voyeur instead.
So all this accumulates into a body of work. But I don’t present the ‘romantic, getting drunk at 2am’ side of myself. I plan the side that plans, with the proper curatorial statement. Or the side of me that teaches in school, as a formal, proper educator.
As an artist, it’s different, you don’t have to uphold that image of being a role model.
There’s this sociologist I studied in school called Erving Goffman-
Oh, where did you study?
Ah, FASS at National University of Singapore. I call Sociology a degree in deep thoughts about being unemployed.
(Laughter around the table)
Goffman theorised that there are different roles of performance that each person takes on: You wouldn’t talk to your spouse the way you talk to your students. Instead, you put on different masks with different people. Does that tie into your art and your biography?
That’s something I’ve been exploring ever since I started doing art. We put on different masks, different identities all the time. I observed that in people around me since I was young: My parents; my aunties and uncles.
But I think what’s really fascinating is the in-between…not really when you’ve put on one mask or the other, but the process of switching between roles. Grey areas really fascinate me.
That seems to tie in to Art of The Rehearsal. It’s supposedly showing performers rehearsing, without their ‘mask’ on, but on the other hand, they’re really doing a performance for the camera.
Exactly, yes! Usually if I don’t tell people anything, they’d be like “Why rehearsal? Why set it in the back alleys?”
It’s always difficult to get artists to talk about their processes in a meaningful way. But when you’re conceptualising, do you immediately know what kind of medium you’re going to use? Or is it an evolving process?
It usually evolves. I usually start with what I’m trying to convey, which I’m not always able to articulate in words. It’s a mood, or a colour.
When I start to have an idea, I collect objects from different places, and write notes. Sometimes it makes sense, sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes I don’t remember that I wrote it. The medium usually comes towards the end of conceptualisation. I’ll think about that “If I want to say this, should I say it in a video, or a photo, or a sculpture? But if it’s a sculpture, why?”
I don’t really categorise myself as a painter or a photographer or a video artist, but more multi-disciplinary, because it’s about finding the right medium to convey my intentions.
I can see the whole dichotomy between gardener/architect. If you don’t mind me saying: during the conceptualisation stage it seems like you’re more of a gardener, and then when you start to execute…
That’s when I have my ‘FBI board’. I think my professors always commented on that as well. In university, I used to stay over in the studios, and they would all leave in the evening. When they came back in the morning I’d be brushing my teeth and go like “Shannon, I have a great idea!”
And she’d be like, “Please go away, and brush your teeth… don’t talk to me right now.”
What inspires you about other people’s work?
Usually it’s the scale and the interactivity that gets to me. When it’s something that’s so big and overwhelming thatyouI feel drawn into that world. I can’t remember which artists: that’s the issue with my memory. I remember things in spurts: Storefront windows in a mall; films; posters I see on the street.
Who are your primary, formative influences? They don’t have to be working in the medium you work in.
I love writers. I find their ability to convey emotion through words so fascinating, and something I can’t really do. Sometimes it’s just a sentence, but the rest of the book I don’t identify with, but I still find that so powerful. I love local writers: Cyril Wong, of course. Alfian Sa’at.
I find Gregory Crewdson’s work very beautiful, and artists like Ma Lian technically very skilled.
And I love different singers. I find their strength amazing… I find the role of the performer fascinating; how they put on a performance for the crowd, but at the end it just fades, it’s just quiet, and then there’s that emptiness.
There’s a parallel between the end of a performance and the end of an exhibition, where the crowd receives the emotion. As an artist we can hide behind our work, but they can’t. How do they cope?
As an artist you can go “Oh, I don’t want to talk today,” and it’s fine. But as a singer, when you have a concert it’s too bad, you have to perform.
It’s embodied art.
Exactly! You’re almost like an object. I find that fascinating. Chuck Close is this artist who used to paint exquisitely with his hands: photo-realistic, huge, portraits. And then he suffered a stroke and he couldn’t paint anymore. And I think that would be a blow to any artist, where you lose your craft because of your health. But he developed this technique where he pixellated his pictures and paints with his mouth. You just have to step backwards and the effect is the same.
I love his paintings because they’re very beautiful, but it’s also of the story behind his work.
Since we’re talking about how the story informs the work, has your personal biography as a Singaporean Chinese woman influenced your art? Singapore is often romanticised as being a confluence of East and West.
A lot of themes of the role of women in society, and the woman as object turned up in my photography. But I wouldn’t say a lot of my work overtly comments on being Singaporean.
And it’s not politicised?
What I find interesting is reflection, not statements. If I do comment on a situation, it’s not completely Singaporean per se. It’s more like [a theme shared] amidst cities in general.
A universal theme… or at least universal for those who live in cities.
Correct, correct. But I think being Singaporean does feed into my practice. When I was in London I was showing a lot of my work that I thought was international or universal. A lot of people couldn’t understand certain things: Why was it so meticulous? Why is everything so planned? Why is everything so straight? Why are the lamp posts and trees so evenly spaced out?
That’s fascinating. It affects you subconsciously.
I definitely don’t do it consciously, but when they ask me, I’ll say “I suppose I grew up like that.”
My family plans, I plan, even the government advocates for ‘planning’. A lot of artists I’ve met don’t really plan. They’re more of the “We’ll see how it goes, let’s just shoot it on this camera” type of individuals.
For me it’s like “No no no, we need to shoot on this camera, in this format, so that when we output it the quality will be there.”
I’ve noticed a fascination with cities in your work that really fits one of the big themes of our publication. What do you love about cities?
I love the two opposites of being in a city: I love the crowd, the people, the lights. But the crowd is kind of empty: You don’t really know them, and you don’t talk to these people. And of course, you don’t really care.
Maybe I love that romanticized idea of being alone in a city. Which is so sad right?
I also love the anonymity that runs both ways. This ties in with the hotel idea, and my relationship with objects. If there’s an object that has a lot of memory attached to it, or people whom I’m close to, I don’t feel at ease. I love things that don’t make me feel comfortable. I like feeling disassociated, an outsider looking in.
Cities give me that feeling. Not specifically Singapore, but London, New York, Paris. I can form these short, intimate, accelerated connections with different people. But I don’t have to upkeep them. They can disappear, and I’m happy when they does.
Broadly, what do you think is the purpose of art?
Art serves many purposes and functions: When I was a student, I saw art as an interrogation of certain themes; research; questioning certain notions.
As an educator, I see art as therapy. I see a lot of my students expressing themselves in art. But I think for me, it’s communication, whether you’re challenging or reflecting.
I believe that art is like a language, your ABCs and your words are your colours and light. You create a sentence – a picture, a sculpture – something visual, and you communicate with others.
When you talk to people, sometimes your words get misread, and that’s the same thing with art. People don’t always ‘get’ it. Sometimes they see it in a different way. And that’s fine.
Could you bring me into the process of creating Art of the Rehearsal?
We wanted to talk about local cultural dancers in Singapore but in a way that had mass appeal. And this is actually why I was very excited to take on this project because it’s challenging. I have so many friends in the creative scene, in dance, but they don’t talk about their experience, because it’s not hip hop, it’s not ballet. So how can we get people interested?
[The setting consists of] about 20 different places that we were trying to stitch together to look seamless. It took place over two night; we didn’t sleep and took a van around Singapore, just documenting the streets.
We would talk to the people in the back alleys. And while we were documenting we saw individuals in the scenes[we wanted to use]. There’s one with a dancer inside a laundry room? On the actual set there was a lady carrying cloth inside. We were inspired by that.
The shooting process took two whole days. We shot everything [with the dancers] against a green screen before we superimposed them into the composite of backgrounds.
Do you personally enjoy collaborations?
I used to absolutely not, because I’m a control freak. Everything needs to be done by me. But as I’ve grown [as an artist], I’m starting to see that no one person can do everything.
I think this project is successful because we had different people who’re good at what they’re doing taking charge of different things.. I don’t have to worry about the lighting for example, because Jeff will light it well.
The thing is that the Director of Photography, Jeff’s commercial background really helps: He’s seen so many ways of shooting it, how to angle and frame it.For me it wasn’t about that; I came in with a thematic approach. What’s common, what connects everything?
For me I’m glad that happened because as the director you get to focus on the big picture and not micromanage. That’s something I’ve been learning to [not do] from Jeff throughout the project; He’s very chill, very cool, very open to suggestions, and he’ll ask people “What do you think? Ok we can try.”
Does technology open up new possibilities to artists?
In the 17th century, art was a lot about painting. And then photography came along and it changed the way a lot of artists work, because it’s again grey area, documentation and staged. Film making and animation and multimedia… even augmented and virtual reality; it blurs the boundaries even more.
In the past, one could look at a painting of another world and go “Wow, it’s blurring reality.” But now? When you put on goggles, you feel like you’re literally transported. And the ‘realness’ of the encounter makes it more intense.
I think it’s important for individuals, artists or consumers to embrace that. Have you watched Black Mirror?
Yes, it’s a really good series, but you can’t binge watch it or you get depressed. It’s interesting you mentioned that. Does technology compromise art?
Yes, because now you can consume online, people buy cheap art online. It’s scary because the investment value in art, the way you look at and receive art, it can be altered, and not in a positive way. Like “Ok, videos, let’s just see Art of The Rehearsal online”. But the space itself is part of the experience.
I’m putting my own biases out there: There used to be this mystique to seeing art in real life. If you wanted to see a Picasso, you’d have to be in Barcelona, for example. And now you have this ‘copy of a copy’. You can just go on Google Images and see Guernica.
It’s quite sad. When you see the actual work you see a lot more subtleties. I think the younger generation – the students – need to be educated on that also. A lot of them take it for granted. I’d ask them what they saw at the recent Art Fair and they tend to go ‘Oh, I can Google.’
The experience is not just on the work, but also listening to collectors, listening to patrons, being at the galleries to hear what’s being talk about. You have to actually be there.
One thing that struck me about Art of the Rehearsal was that it’s a merging of real places, put together to create an imaginary place. What do you think we can do to preserve these real places?
This is another one of those educator questions. More can easily be done to preserve these places, but I also understand from a big picture view, it’s tough. We really don’t have a lot of space. If I were in the shoes of the people deciding, I’d be in a tough spot.
But there are a lot of memories that are attached to these kind of places. It’s essential because people want to hear and see our culture, and we don’t have much, because we’re such a young country. When you remove these places, it’s like wiping your memories, until you become this digital, robot country.
I’m feeling so contradictory saying this because it’s what I do [as an artist]. I love these connections but I also reject them. I’d rather be in new places, creating new works and artificial memories between these strangers and myself. Maybe I’m a reflection of this culture.
Images and video courtesy of National Museum of Singapore and Sarah Choo Jing. To see Art of The Rehearsal for yourself, visit Gallery 10 at The National Museum of Singapore. Free admission, from 10am-5pm daily.