Artist Donna Chiu; Curator Zhuang Wubin
Imagine yourself, sitting by the window while looking at a painting to dry. Time passes without the ability to know when the paint dries. The mood of helplessness and the feeling of passivity mirror artist Donna Chiu and her family’s diasporic journeys – the highlight of her solo exhibition at Lumenvisum, “Sitting by the Window, Looking at the Painting Dry”.
Image courtesy of Zhuang Wubin
As you walk into the exhibition space, there is a gloomy and melancholy atmosphere. The works are mostly muted in colour and scattered in different corners of the space. They are often grouped in pairs as if they are landscapes that we passively see through a pair of glass windows. Next to the pair of old school tables and chairs, there is a pair of black and white, light and shadow abstract images. Donna mentioned that these images were taken during her home quarantine when she tested COVID positive. Side by side, the two images evoke a sense of “waiting for time to pass”, depicting nothing more than the shadows and light passing through the window blinds at different times of the day.
Image courtesy of Lumenvisum
Next to it is another pair of images. The image on the left is a blown-up black-and-white image of what looks like a “finger crossed” hand gesture. The image on the right is a stacked image of two identical images of what I presume is a body part. The top image is printed on matt paper and is torn with half remaining, while the full image underneath is printed on semi-gloss paper. The combination of these images as if indicating to me that no matter how fragmented the diasporic journeys are, there is hope that they will be okay. Other than photographic works, on the opposite ends of the space sits a pair of paintings. Her choice of colour paint and her repeating brushstrokes create a sense of heaviness. This tone connects with the rest of her photographic works and lingers throughout the space.
Image by Michelle Chan
I found myself slowing down when experiencing her works as if time became stagnant for layers of emotions to build up and then disperse. Perhaps it is the passivity of these abstract images that allowed me to pay more attention to the curatorial details and installation choices. There are a lot of textures involved. Almost all sets of image pairings use different types of paper and mounting. An image from the observatory is printed on foam board while others are printed on photographic paper. The photocollage and the Instax works are framed while others are nailed on the wall. Some works are mounted with big rustic nails, while others use round magnets. The “finger crossed” hand gesture image is only mounted at the top creating a curl-in bottom. With light effects, the shadow of the print introduces volume to a static image. I am unsure who decided these details, whether it is Donna, the artist, or Wubin, the curator. Perhaps the idea is translated from the layering and texturing in the artist’s collage works and paintings. Either way, the mix of different printing materials and installation methods adds a layer of materiality. It can enhance the audience’s experience of the artist’s expression of her diasporic journeys.
For me, the most interesting part of the exhibition is the juxtaposition of the bookmarked pages from “a class-book of PSLE HISTORY for singapore primary six”, the text by Lee Kuan Yew, and Donna’s photographic work.
Some bookmarked pages from a Singapore Primary 6 class-book; Images by Michelle Chan
The textbook is for children under 12 years old. The pages clearly indicate that there was national education on the history of China and Hong Kong in Singapore back in the seventies. Children of the nation would learn simplified facts of Hong Kong’s or China’s history, such as “Hong Kong has been ruled by Britain since 1842” and “The Chinese Revolution started in Wuchang on 10th October 1911. The Chinese called it the Double Tenth Revolution”. At the opposite end of the exhibition space displays a loosely installed piece of paper, with a text by the prime minister then, Lee Kuan Yew, on 16 August 1959. It writes:
“But I suggest to you that the English-speaking students who will emerge in 10 or 20 years time from the English, Chinese, Malay, and Tamil schools will be completely different – a completely different person from the English-educated persons of the past. They will not be deculturalised or devitalised. They will have vitality and confidence and a sense of dedication to our own country and our own people.”
This text is in fact an extract from the Singapore Government Press Statement released on the same day. It was part of the speech for Radio Singapore with the topic “The English-educated and the future”. The combination of the 3 pieces (the class books, the text by Lee Kuan Yew and Donna’s artistic works) makes me think about the national identity of Singapore. How is a sense of belonging to a place called “home” created in a national scale? And then, considering the artist Donna, a Singaporean citizen who has had several diasporic journeys, is not the product of the Singaporean school that educated the nation with common values and ideals. What would her experiences be and what feelings would she have?
The exhibition demonstrates the layers of inner conflicts and anxieties of the artist and her family’s diasporic journeys in multi-dimensional ways – from the artistic works themselves to installation choices and materials that reflect the political environment at that time.
Catch the exhibition before it ends.
Photography in Southeast Asia IV:
Donna Chiu – Sitting by the Window, Looking at the Painting Dry
Date: 31.03 – 30.04.2023
Location: Lumenvisum, L2-02, JCCAC, 30 Pak Tin Street, Shek Kip Mei
Time: 11-1; 2-6pm Tues to Sun