21 Creatives for #SGABF2018 — Mary Bernadette Lee
SGABF: Your installation, Power to the People (2016), was a protest against media-generated information. It was on display in a commercial shopping mall, and you had been amused at the irony. What is your take on displaying art in the “right places”? In your opinion, where does art belong?
Mary Bernadette Lee (MBL): I think the artist has to be intentional about an art's deliberate placement and presentation so as to communicate his/her intentions in the best possible manner. “Right” is subjective; someone’s right can be another person’s wrong.
Art is everywhere and anywhere as long as it is recognised and appreciated. One must ask himself, what is art, and what right does it have to “belong” to a specific type of environment, community, or person? “Belonging” is determined by man’s perception, just the same as asking someone to define what beauty is.
SGABF: Your practice has often been referred to as a phenomenological approach to apprehending the relationship between the exterior and its interior. Is working with various mediums your way of breaking artistic barriers?
MBL: Yes, it is my attempt to diversify my ability to express in different ways. My approach has always been about understanding the material and exploring the ways in which I can work with it. I like that variety opens up fresh possibilities to explore new meanings.
I avoid pigeon-holing myself. I believe that understanding new materials & mediums, and learning new skills value-adds myself as an artist because it allows me to understand what works and what doesn’t. The knowledge of mediums and application informs one another, and therefore, multiplies the ways of seeing and expression by many folds. My relationship with mediums continuously inspires me to innovate alternative ways of expressing—not for art’s sake—but with deliberate intention to communicate and to educate.
SGABF: Conducting workshops for persons with special needs is one of your endeavours to make art more accessible. In your opinion, what is it about art that is “inaccessible”? If you have an ideal state for the creative world, what is it?
MBL: I think about that a lot. When you think about it, art has always been accessible. Some of the great artists we know today did not start out rich or influential, and many of them started from nothing and from the bottom. Some started really late in their lives and pursued it with great discipline and fervour. So I think it is the mindset and attitude that makes art inaccessible, and not art itself. As far as I know, the desire for art appreciation, expression or practice must come from within.
In my experience of working with people, I meet a lot who are hesitant and carry fears and doubts about their own artistic capabilities. My experiences help me to understand that underneath this veneer of apprehension, there lies a spirit that is willing and wanting to learn. The door just has to be opened to enable them to have access to and approach art.
SGABF: You once said that you wanted to be known as an artist who is known to be true to herself. What does that mean? What are your opinions on the climate of the arts and culture in Singapore?
MBL: I have a long way to go and I am still discovering new things about myself. So far, staying true to myself is about being honest in my practice. I am honest and transparent with my process. When I teach, I find it important to impart as much as I know to my participants so that they gain wisdom along with skills and knowledge that they can pass along to others. My thought process is always along the line of, “How can I value-add others through my teachings?” I find that I can constantly reflect on my role as an artist and educator when I put others before myself. In this instance, being true is constantly asking myself questions to gain that clarity I need in order to be purposeful in my vocation.
Being true to myself is also being true to others. Being an artist is hard work, and the process is long and arduous, which can be frustrating and disappointing. But I want people to know that all of that is normal. I am unafraid to show and tell people that being an artist is not glamorous; it is just a title and a word that people prescribed meanings and associations to.
When I create, my honesty must come from my own experiences, and not from the experiences and/or work of others. There is a fine line between plagiarism and referencing, and it is very important to be aware of the difference. Singapore is small, so I think there is a higher tendency to borrow ideas from one another and the end result is a rather homogeneous pool of works. Similar content and subject matters also seem to breed popularity and trends. It is also easier and more convenient to ride on some of those trends to generate content to feed what the public wants to see and experience. But does homogeneity promote growth or does it encourage “herd mentality”?
I admire and respect some of Singapore’s significant creative trailblazers, and I appreciate all that they have done and are doing. However, I personally still feel that many of us have yet to find our “cutting edge”. There is a general interest to grow the arts and culture in Singapore—I appreciate that a lot because we have definitely made progress—but we should not stop at “general”. We have the abilities, skills and talents to think more critically. I have faith in our people, I really do. We should be thinking, “What or how else can I or my work be more innovative and relevant?” and “In what ways can I push myself or my work to be different from others'?”
In order to grow, being safe isn’t an option.
SGABF: In your opinion, how do you think fairs like SGABF can contribute to the ideal creative world that you envision?
MBL: I think accessibility and availability can be addressed. The mentality is difficult to change overnight and a way that we can work around it is to bring literature and art to people. SGABF has been mostly in places where a specific target audience can reach but can the fair reach a wider range of audience? If they can, then why not do it?
Go to the heartlands. Go to the zoo. Go to the markets. Be unexpected. Be playful! Go to places where you can educate, inspire and breathe life into. The city is already saturated with art and culture. What else can SGABF do? Be available and inviting to those who are curious yet intimidated by what “art” is. Show them that our doors are always open to explorations. Simply thinking about the possibilities excites me.
I think SGABF can be inclusive in your own unique language. There is always room to explore the who, what, why, how and where for future editions to come.
Mary Bernadette Lee (Mrydette) is an artist in Singapore. Her practice is a phenomenological approach to understanding the relationship between the exterior topography of body, architecture and place, and the interior tapestry of psychological states. Her work thrives on the spontaneity of individual autonomy in art making. Through art, she works with people from all sorts of background to encourage expression and creation.