Crossing borderlines of consciousness

by and

Most of us have experienced waking up in a strange room, perhaps in a hotel or a friend’s house, and, for a split second, not knowing where we are — that fuzzy, vague feeling in the twilight zone between waking and dreaming. Imagine having those same feelings when waking up in your own, usually familiar, room, as though you had partially lost your memory or sense of identity.

The art in “Asleep, A Room Awakens,” a solo exhibition by Singaporean artist Donna Ong, attempts to put such fleeting, obscure and indefinable feelings into images. The exhibition is showing at Wada Fine Arts in the back streets of Tsukiji near Ginza and is comprised of three pieces: two video works and what could perhaps be awkwardly described as a photo installation. The latter (from which the exhibition’s title comes) features boxes containing layers of acrylic and transparent sheets of film that are overlapped to create shimmering, even ghostly, photographic recreations of room interiors.

For individual pieces, Ong first makes dioramas of interiors and photographs them. These are then printed on sheets that are layered to a depth of nearly 6 cm, creating a 3-D image of floating doors, windows and furniture fixed in neither a concrete space nor a concrete reality. There are about a half dozen such boxes lining two of the gallery walls.

The inspiration for “Asleep, A Room Awakens” comes from images of interiors that can be seen in that palace of dreams, the cinema. But Ong deliberately omits telltale signs that would give these rooms a strong character of their own, rendering them as vaguely familiar universal spaces, meeting places halfway between the conscious and the unconscious.

Ong, still only 30 years old, has two degrees to her name: the first in architecture from University College London’s Bartlett School and a further degree in Fine Art from the renowned Goldsmiths College in London. The second degree came about when the idealistic Ong won out over the cautious one that had originally decided she should take the more stable path of working in an architecture firm rather than striking out on the rocky road as an artist. Following her heart instead, she more closely shadows her father, a sculptor and artist, rather than her business-minded mother, who is the managing director of a fashion firm.

“I decided that as life was short, I couldn’t waste any more time, and had to follow my dreams,” she told The Straits Times in 2000. “In short, I changed paths and did art!”

Ong has racked up numerous appearances at international art fairs, including the Kwandu Biennale in Taipei last year, and the year before that at similar events in Beijing, Moscow and at home at the Singapore Biennale. She has also scooped up several arts awards and prizes and took part in a three-month residency program in Japan sponsored by Arts Initiative Tokyo.

Although “Asleep, A Room Awakens” explores borderline states of consciousness, Ong is not afraid to tackle subject matter more clearly tied to the real, political world. The video work “The Meeting” is based on historical events behind Japanese-American relations from the 1920s, when America attempted to limit East Asian immigration into the country.

In 1927, as a goodwill gesture and to encourage mutual understanding, a former missionary to Japan launched a project to send dolls donated by U.S. children to those of Japan. More than 10,000 blue-eyed dolls were sent over, and the “Friendship Doll Project” was a big hit, with Japan responding in kind by sending to the United States exquisite kimono-clad dolls representing Japan’s various regions.

When the two countries became enemies in World War II, however, the Japanese dolls, many of them on display in museums and galleries, were put in storage, and the blue-eyed dolls in Japan were defaced or destroyed.

Ong’s black-and-white video piece places an antique doll from each country in different positions in interiors that slowly change in composition, framing and lighting. While some areas of the frame remain shrouded in darkness, the light picks up on other features of the scene — a staircase, or the blonde hair of the American doll as it sits facing its counterpart in uncomprehending silence.

Ong’s works have been called morbid, and with the dark tone and atmospheric accompanying music of “The Meeting,” one can see why. Moreover, the piece’s slow development and lack of sequential story may try the patience of some viewers. “The Meeting” could be exploring the huge divide between the two cultures and asking whether, and how, the gap can be bridged — but it is open for interpretation and, like all art works, for the viewer to take from it what they put into it.

“Donna Ong: Asleep, a Room Awakes” is at Wada Fine Arts till Jan. 30; open 11 a.m.-7 p.m. (closed Mon. and Sun.). For more information, call (03) 5848-7172 or visit