Amanda Heng is a Singaporean contemporary artist who rose to prominence in the 1990s as a pioneer of performance art in Singapore. Her performances, photographs, and installation works explore the issues of gender difference, identity crisis, and the lived experiences of women.Read More
Initially working as an income tax officer, Amanda Heng entered the art world later in life, at the age of 37. She graduated with a Diploma in Fine Arts from LASALLE College of the Arts in 1988. That year, she also helped found The Artists Village—the first artists' colony in Singapore—in Ulu Sembawang.
Audience participation has been key to Amanda Heng's practice from the outset. S/HE (1994)—her first performance—involved the artist staging such acts as narrating Confucius sayings and mixing flour and water that she would later throw at the audience. In Let's Chat (1996), Heng brought together art and a domestic activity traditionally regarded as women's work—seated at a table, she invited members of the public to converse with her as they prepared bean sprouts for a meal.
Amanda Heng was a proponent of performance art at a time when it was still new and even unwelcomed in Singapore. Following Josef Ng's controversial performance in 1994, during which he clipped his pubic hair in public, the state government placed a decade-long ban on funding performance art. In addition to staging her own performances, Heng fostered an environment for the form by co-founding the Women in the Arts collective in 1999.
Many of Amanda Heng's performances take place on the streets, in which walking serves as a mode of meditation. In Let's Walk, the artist, as well as members of the public, holds a high heel shoe in her mouth and walks backwards, guided by a handheld mirror. First performed in 1999, it was in part a commentary on the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis, when women were the first to be let go during company downsizing. In the 2019 Singapore Biennale, Heng utilised walking to contemplate the aged or ageing body; entitled Every Step Counts, her performance led the participants from the Singapore Art Museum to the Esplanade and back.
Though most known for her performances, Amanda Heng also works with other media to explore the varied histories and experiences of women in Singapore and, by extension, Asia. The installation Missing (1994), for example, consists of baby girls' dresses eerily suspended from the ceiling, in reference to the practice of female infanticide. In the photographic series 'Another Woman' (1996–1997) Heng portrays her mother and herself in moments of tenderness or distance, examining the connection between women who grew up in strictly patriarchal households.
Heng continued her engagement with public and their experiences with We Are The World—These Are Our Stories at STPI, Singapore, in 2017. In preparation for the exhibition, she restaged Let's Chat, inviting 12 participants to discuss a precious object in depth. From this performance emerged an installation of 24 prints that recount the personal anecdotes through photographs, drawings, and writing. Accompanying QR codes directed the viewer to further documentation of Heng's conversations.
In 2010, Amanda Heng received a Cultural Medallion for Visual Arts for her contributions to Singaporean contemporary art. In 2011, Singapore Art Museum organised Amanda Heng's first solo exhibition, the retrospective Speak To Me, Walk With Me. As the artist told ArtAsiaPaicifc in 2010, solo shows are rare in her practice because of the collaborative nature of her work, saying 'I don't want to be an isolated figure.' She has participated in numerous international exhibitions, including the inaugural Singapore Biennial (2006); the 7th Havana Biennial (2000); and the 3rd Asia-Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art (1999).
Sherry Paik | Ocula | 2021