Written by: Nicole Friets | All photographs provided by: Donna Ong
It may come as a surprise to learn that Donna Ong, winner of the 2015 Prudential Eye Awards (Installation Category), once struggled with art class in the past and still occasionally faces doubt regarding her chosen profession. Donna’s installation work has been shown in places such as the Singapore Art Museum, Hara Museum in Japan, Moscow Museum of Art, Kunstlerhaus Bethanien in Berlin, Queen's Museum in New York, Primo Marella Gallery in Milan, and Projekte Krinzinger in Austria. We talked to her about what sparked her interest in the arts, challenges artists face, and her goals as an artist.
When did your interest in art start?
My father was also an artist so I grew up in a house full of artworks he had made, as well as reproductions of artworks made by famous artists. Even the garden had small sculptures amongst the plants and trees! I suspect it was this childhood environment that started my interest in the arts.
Dissolution | 2009
Was your love for art something that you feel was a natural talent or something that developed over time?
Since my youth, I’ve loved drawing and making things even though I wasn’t any better than my fellow classmates. In fact, I recall really struggling in art class and later on, at art college. However, it was something I really wanted to do and spent a lot of time trying to improve my skills. I remember going for extra drawing lessons and holiday art courses.
What is your favorite style of art and why?
I work mainly in sculpture and installation, though I have recently started doing film. This also happens to be my favourite style of art because it is immersive and affects all one’s senses - body, mind and emotion.
Gift Series: Pluvia Silva | 2013
What aspect of your work do you find the most satisfying?
I love researching and coming up with ideas. This always gives me a big buzz. I also love talking to people about the ideas I am excited about and hearing their opinions and insights on the same topic.
Lost and Found | 2009
Have there been times when you doubted that you were going in the right direction?
Often. Every time I have a setback, someone criticises me, or I have an anxiety attack about the state of my poor finances, I start doubting my chosen path. Art is a difficult career as it is a very solitary one. There is only one person in the research department coming up with the ideas - and that same person is also the one producing and marketing the work. This means you a lot of confidence in both yourself and your work because the buck stops with you.
What are some challenges of artists in general?
The challenges are different from artist to artist. For me, they are mainly time and money management, and saying no to good projects so I can concentrate on the projects that will be better for my practice and career.
Can you share a particularly challenging time you went through and what you did?
I moved to Berlin in 2013 because I ran into a creativity block and felt stuck as an artist. Things were beginning to feel routine and comfortable. Making art seemed easy and even boring. I wanted to shake things up and interact with artists and artwork that were very different from my work and from myself. In Berlin, I encountered countless excellent artists who were articulate, talented and disciplined. Being in such an environment showed me how much further I had to go and motivated me to continue experimenting and striving for excellence.
Why did you end up moving back to Singapore?
I ended up moving back in order to strengthen some of the relationships I had developed with the people here in Singapore. Although art is something I love and will make lots of sacrifices for, my faith, family, and friends will always come first. For example, my faith is invaluable as it gives me the confidence to pick myself up from failure and to move past crippling fears.
What do you do when you run into a creativity block now?
I pray, sleep, go out and do other things that interest me like sports, or read a good book. These days, I generally fuss or panic less when I run into creativity blocks. I know that the ideas will come in their own time and I just need to be patient.
Secret, Interiors 2008
What is the ultimate goal you want to achieve with your art?
I would want to create artwork that affects the viewer - causing him or her to question, think, and ultimately effect a positive change in his or her perception of life. However, at the moment, I find myself unable to move away from making art that is beautiful and that is an escape from everyday life. So we will see how attainable my goal is.
What message do you want others to get from your artwork?
Ultimately, I want to speak of hope and life. However, sometimes, the work needs to get dark in order to highlight the light.
What advice do you have for aspiring artists?
Follow your instincts, and be humble enough to ask for and follow advice when you need it. It also may take a long time to get where you want to go, so it is important to be patient and enjoy the journey rather than fret about the future.
Donna is currently hosting her second solo exhibition in Singapore titled “My Forest Has No Name.” To complete work for this installation, she detached herself from the world digitally. Describing it as her “most kitsch work to date,” Donna traces various portrayals of the tropical forest from colonial times to the present. As someone whose favourite collection tends to be her latest work, this exhibition will hold that place “at least until the next new project comes along.” Her exhibition can be experienced at the Gillman Barracks until 28th February. Other pieces of Donna’s work can be seen online at www.donnaong.com.