Boedi Widjaja trained as an architect and has worked as a graphic designer before he began to practice art in his thirties. Today, Widjaja is one of Singapore's most engaging conceptual artists, drawing on his personal history as a way to comment about the experience of migration, alienation, hybridity, globalisation and the relationship between city and self, in works that engage with practices ranging from drawing, installation, sound and live art. I spoke to him about identity, belonging and home in Singapore.
SW: Can you talk about your lived experience as an urban migrant, and how it has influenced your artwork.
BW: My elder sister and I left our home in Solo City, Indonesia due to ethnic tensions and at the age of nine, I came to Singapore. We were without our parents hence we lived with stranger-families, and moved five times in the first four years. Singapore was very different from Solo City and I was deeply struck by the straight, endless highways, boxy concrete flats, and the new sounds and smells. I didn’t speak much English or Chinese at the time, hence, culturally, it was quite disorienting. Perhaps due to my initial experience of the city, my works tend to be dialectically related to the city—a perpetual state of tension. At the same time, drawing helps me to envision a complementary relation (akin to the Chinese concept of ‘yin’ and ‘yang’) of figure and ground, in which the gap between the city and me is generative. Making marks on paper or placing a building on a site, they both suggest a figure/ground spatial relation that work together to produce an image, a thought, an idea.
SW: You work across disciplines, how does the lens of architecture influence your artwork? And why did you begin to incorporate live performance into your practice?
BW: My architectural education profoundly influence my art. I read Plato’s Cave in my first year and the text continues to be an important ontological reference today. I was also introduced to writings by Heidegger, Benjamin, de Certeau and later on, Derrida, Foucault, Deleuze and Baudrillard. I suppose my interests in conceptual notions of ground and movement, image and media, representation and language, were inspired from these readings. Architecture school gave me a much needed space to technically and formally work through these ideas.
The reason for live art is to create and participate in spatial relations with my environment and audience. The impulse is to ‘build’ a spatio-temporal construct using physical movement, objects, place and time—akin to making a structure that is both dynamic and invisible. Live art is also a method to bring in a corporeal dimension into the process. I work a lot with the subject of memory and I’d like to think that we remember by using our entire being: mind and body. Depending on context, the liveness may be necessary for a powerful transformation and engagement to happen.
SW: What is PATH and how does the project negotiate issues of place, origin and identity in Singapore?
BW: The impulse behind the PATH series was my change in citizenship. After living for almost three decades in Singapore, I decided to call the place home. I expected a greater sense of ease and belonging in the city but the reverse was true. Without my foreigner status, I was unable to justify to myself the deep sense of displacement that I felt in the city. At about the same time as my citizenship conversion, there was also a sense of public resentment against foreign talent in Singapore. I felt that it was the right time to begin a series where these issues could be addressed. The first work in the series Path. 1, The White City was commissioned by The Substation, Singapore’s oldest independent art space. The work was a two-week long engagement with visitors through a joint act of mark-making and conversations. The gallery walls were covered completely with paper and the ‘blank’ space gradually accumulated in-numerous graphite marks—a joint act of personalisation by both the artist and his community. Path. 1 directly addressed, with the support of visitors and friends, the cultural disconnect that I felt when I first came to Singapore. Subsequently, each work along the Path. series became an opportunity to engage with my fossilised memories of the city and to extend their truncated forms. By drawing in additional present day information, new points of references are built into the mnemonic structures. The act of complicating the memories enabled me to bring in a dynamism into them, hence, bringing about a change in my sense of belonging.
SW: What does home and belonging look like for you? How is your artwork an expression of these notions of home, belonging, identity and place in Singapore?
BW: I see home not as a place but rather, an internalised spatio-temporal relation. In other words, ‘home’ describes my relation with a place more than the place itself. I imagine home as a deep sense of rootedness, a gravitational power that lends weight, and gives firm traction with the ground. It has a sense of continuity and history. Home is flow and surrender, where I no longer feel on the edge. My works express a desire for home while acknowledging the struggle, anxiety and imagination that came with my own migration experience. I think that my works speak in some way, not only of the Singapore’s open borders, but also its rapidly changing, transient quality. How does one develop a sense of belonging to a city that behaves like a virtual operating system—an environment without physical permanence and one that socially changes all the time? The government is today promoting Singapore as a Smart City, a technologically advanced, well-connected city for global innovations to take place—how apt! Within Singapore’s reality, how does one speak about grounding? These are abstract questions and art is my method to engage with them.