From NASA Scientist to Ceramicist
Singapore, Visual Artists –
Creating satellites and ceramic vessels with New York-based Singapore artist WEE HONG LING
MIXING CLAY and steel. Exposing forged discs to snow. Large vessels with daring cantilevers.
There is always a part of her strong, vivid character within elements of her ceramic and blacksmithing art that challenges perceptions and breaks social stereotypes. A character that is in flux as scientist and artist, as native Singaporean and New York settled.
Dr Wee Hong Ling has been an award-winning ceramicist representing Singapore art and design internationally since completing her doctoral degree in 2005. Not only is she making an impact upon the field of ceramic arts globally, Hong Ling is committed to raising the visibility of Singaporean ceramics internationally, even though she splits her time between Singapore and New York.
Her recent Singapore exhibition In Flux showcased her ceramic and blacksmithing works juxtaposed with visual elements such as old family photographs – all mirroring her mindset regarding the continual state of uncertainty that she experiences in the physical, metaphysical and humanistic worlds.
A Chat with Dr Wee Hong Ling
As a former NASA scientist, do you see similarities between science and the arts?
There are definitely many similarities between art and science even though they’re commonly perceived as opposites. It’s perhaps because as a student, we were taught that problems in the sciences and mathematics have absolute answers, whereas art is nebulous and subjective.
But in both art and science, problem-solving is the common denominator. I bring the same rigour to art-making. Logical reasoning, calculations, and understanding of chemistry and materials science are applicable to both my previous practice in research and my current practice in artmaking.
You’re a Singaporean based in New York. How do the 2 cities influence your work as a ceramic artist?
As an artist, I’d say that my creativity is a function of my surroundings, be it physical, social or cultural. Being in a place with creative energy helps one generate other good ideas. New York City suits my practice because it has plenty of art and culture, as well as creative individuals in various fields. I love the meeting of fascinating minds! Even the people busking on NYC subways are extraordinary talents sometimes. I’m inspired and stimulated constantly.
It was only when I left Singapore and landed in the United States that I became so much more aware of my Singaporean-ness, my Asian heritage and my mother tongue. I wanted to hold on tighter to those parts of my identity. My mother tongue became more important to me and my proficiency in the Chinese language has actually improved over the last 25 years when I’ve had fewer opportunities to use Mandarin.
How do we put Singapore ceramics and arts on the world map?
Over the last 50 years, Singapore has made a huge economic footprint for itself but what have we contributed to the world’s art and culture? History will not remember a country by its highways, skyscrapers and tourist attractions.
Before Singapore can put itself on the world map for arts and culture, the nation has to build its repository of Singaporean arts and culture, and accept a broader definition of success beyond financial gains and material comforts, and develop a greater appreciation for talents beyond academic achievements.
As an artist, I do my part by representing Singapore in international exhibitions and competitions, and organising Singapore-theme events. To celebrate our Golden Jubilee in 2015, I took a year off my studio practice to organise the very first citizen-initiated grassroots arts festival, Something To Write Home About: Singapore Arts Festival in New York. I invited 50 Singaporean artists and their collaborators to present short films, literature, music, dance, theatre, visual arts and culinary arts to showcase the best of Singapore’s arts and culture to 1500 attendees over 11 days in downtown Manhattan.
Where do you create your ceramic work? Do you have your own studio?
My primary studio practice is in New York City and I work out of a community studio with shared spaces. Sometimes I get invited to do artist residencies and it is always a treat to use a different facility, work with different people, use different materials and communicate in different languages.
What ceramic traditions are close to your heart?
In terms of my ceramics, my work tends to have a high centre of gravity, which is a prevalent feature in ancient Chinese pottery going as far back as 4500 years. From Shang Dynasty Bronzeware to the Terracotta Army to Sui Dynasty ewers, it is perhaps in my cultural DNA to find that feature aesthetically pleasing.
Two years ago, I came across curium porcelain – the ancient craft of repairing ceramics with staples. During the Qing Dynasty, masters in this craft would break porcelain deliberately to see how creative they can be with their repairs. The mastery lies using in the cracks and the staples in the repair as adornment. It was a frivolous use of time, resources and mastery but its beauty blew me away!
What Singapore and New York food do you crave for after a hard day at work?
In both places, what I really crave after a hard day at the studio is a homecooked meal. Because I live by myself and it’s difficult to cook for one person, I eat out all the time in NYC. If I have any free time, I’m unlikely to spend it labouring in the kitchen, over a hot stove. Prepared food is readily available in NYC. I don’t even shop for groceries anymore because the perishables just go to waste.
Since I don’t cook, I’m not a picky eater. I’ve learned to channel all my fuss into my work. But I still have my favourites – I love the thin-crust New York pizza and I can have a good bowl of laksa anytime. And I’m most appreciative when I get invited to a homecooked meal or when a friend bakes me a cake for my birthday.
If a young girl tells you she wants to be ceramic artist like you what advice would you give her?
I’d tell the young person that ceramics and all forms of art-making is 90% failure + 10% success. No one would ever see the hard work or the failed pieces. You’ll share your success with others but you’ll bear the failures by yourself.
If you can’t live with uncertainty or failure, art-making is not for you. Adaptability is an important muscle to train. Take risks but be prepared for things not to work out as planned even if you’ve done everything perfectly.
This advice may sound discouraging but I think it’s important to de-romanticise art-making. Even though it’s fulfilling, it’s best to be prepared for the difficult path ahead. I’d be doing the young person a disservice if I told her otherwise.
Story by Carol Kraal. Photographs courtesy of Dr Wee Hong Ling