Episode 8: Susanna Tan/Fah Fah Sai Gai


Flowers and plants have always served as an extension of language and a tool for communication. Susanna Tan is a seasoned florist and artist. Having experienced the healing and communicative power of botanical elements first hand, Susanna centres her practice around them — both materially and conceptually.

For this episode, we speak to Susanna about the language of flora and fauna, and how she continues to speak through and with them.
Originally Aired: 8 June 2021




Transcript

Object Lessons Space
Flowers and plants have always served as an extension of language and a tool for communication. We give bouquets to one another in seasons of joyfulness, such as anniversaries, graduations, or birthdays. When words fail, we also offer flowers to convey our sincere condolences.

Since many of us began sheltering in place, plants have also become steadfast companions. Indoor plant hobbyists are on the rise, and many swear by the calming effects of living with greenery. Living with plants can be good for our mental health, and studies have shown that they can even help with reducing stress levels.

This episode features a conversation with the artist Susanna Tan. Susanna is also a seasoned florist, and this has allowed her to experience the healing and communicative power of flowers and plants first hand. Susanna’s artistic practice draws upon this experience, and she centres these botanical elements in her work — both materially and conceptually.
Susanna Tan
The water well was one idea where I felt — hey, I think that should be my role. I don't think I can be someone, or that the artist should be someone, that gives out water when other people are not thirsty or if they do not feel like they need it. If I can see myself, or my practice, as a water well that I continuously fill, or have other people come and fill up for me, it can be positioned at this juncture where people can draw from it when they need it. I think that is a really nice image, and it explains how I feel about working with the community.
♪ Podcast jingle ♪
Object Lessons Space
Hello and welcome to another episode of Mushroomed, a podcast hosted by the Singapore-based online platform, Object Lessons Space. My name is Joella — I’m the Founding Editor of the platform and your host for this podcast.

Susanna is no stranger to the art and design scene. She is sometimes known for her work as Fah Fah Sai Gai, an artist collective she founded to examine the relationship between humans and plants. Elsewhere, she is also known as an organiser. Along with two friends, she runs n ear, a virtual residency programme. When we spoke to Susanna for this podcast episode, she had completed a residency at the Singapore Botanic Gardens recently. During this time, she organised walks in the gardens and invited members of the public to join her. She armed participants with instant cameras, and asked them to take photographs of what they saw around them. These walks were also opportunities for Susanna to speak to these participants about their own personal connection to the gardens, or to nature in general. At the end of her residency, Susanna stitched together a 9 metre long collage of all the photographs her various participants made, giving us a chance to see the gardens and its inhabitants through their eyes.

Another recent project of Susanna’s was done in collaboration with the Indian Heritage Centre. Titled Masala Masala!, Susanna began her project by meeting with various members of the community to learn new recipes and engage in honest and intimate conversations about their lived experiences. After spending some time with these community co-creators, Susanna put together a paint-making workshop at the Indian Heritage Centre. During the workshop, participants could experiment with making paints out of vibrantly coloured spices such as turmeric and chilli powder. The residency showcase also included a custom vending machine.

For this episode, we speak to the artist about her fascination with flora and fauna, and how she continues to think through and work with these non-human accomplices.
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Object Lessons Space
Something that I've always begun most of our conversations with, and also something that I found is a very good way of beginning any conversation with an artist that we have on the show, is to ask them about some of their earliest or most formative experiences with art. What would you say that is for you? This could be anything from something you experienced early in your childhood, or maybe even more recently, but you found was quite defining for you.
Susanna Tan
I would think the earliest I can recall, that formally introduced me to art teaching, would be when I was like five or six. I used to take these Sunday enrichment classes that my mom sent me to, and that was the place where I started to learn how to draw the human figure, the houses, and the sun — like how you draw the sun at the corner of the paper? I think that would be the most formative experience I can recall. I actually found some drawings or paintings that I did when I was at that age, but I don't like it that much. That was when I realised how I was taught to draw in a certain format, and everybody's drawing probably looked quite similar.
Object Lessons Space
I remember that you would try to take advantage of the exact [corner], almost like a quadrant, right? It's quite funny. It's really interesting that you said that you found these drawings from when you were younger as well. Did they come up because you were doing a spring clean, or were you actually looking for them recently?
Susanna Tan
It’s definitely more of a spring-cleaning kind of situation. It’s a constant kind of chaos at home. I do my work from home too, so it's a home studio kind of thing. To clear up stuff and to get ready for a new set of stuff, I move things around quite a bit. It’s constant chaos, but in a controlled way. I knew that I had these paintings or drawings that I did when I was younger around, but to see them each time when they resurface — it's a very strange feeling.
Object Lessons Space
Like almost uncanny, right?
Susanna Tan
Yeah, and I realised how much I don't like them, but yet you can't really throw them away.
Object Lessons Space
What do you not like about them, though?
Susanna Tan
I wonder if you have come across kids’ drawings that are really imaginative, and you go like, wow, you know? This must really come from a children's artwork. But my work is so controlled, and so taught, and so proper, that I feel like I, as a kid, must have been a really good kid, following instructions and whatever the teacher taught. But when I connect them to how I was brought up, how I make my work now, or how I understand stuff, there are a lot of things to undo from there. I do feel like there is a sort of relationship.
Object Lessons Space
It's very interesting that you talk about being a good kid, colouring within the lines, and things like that. Now you work with the language of flowers and plants — things that we can't really control, and we can't really make them conform to a particular way — no matter how much we try. I wanted to find out more about how this whole working process for yourself came to be. When we last spoke, you spoke a little bit about the history of how you came about this while working in a florist, but also how this was something that interested you when you were still in school as well. What first drew your attention towards flowers and plants as a tool for communication, but also a tool for your own artistic expression as well?
Susanna Tan
If I were to think about that, it would definitely be in my college years when I was working on my dissertation and trying to find an angle to hold the whole practice together. The research topic is about loss, grief, mourning, and memories. Soon enough, I reached a part where I looked into a lot of funeral customs and objects — one of them is portraits, and one of it is plants or flowers — how flowers are offered as softer objects of veneration. To me, I felt like there was a part where people offer them for comfort, for desires, but they are all wishes and regrets. That's when I felt like, hey, that's a really good tool for me to talk about something heavier in a softer way and with more nuances. At the same time I was doing this research, on the side I was also arranging some flower bouquets — which happened by chance. I think it started as a friend's birthday, and a couple of us wanted to get her some gifts. Someone asked, “Oh, what about a flower bouquet?” I think I volunteered to put together something and it was really quite well received. From them on, I did quite a bit of the whole flower bouquet thing, and that kind of matched everything together — in terms of the research, in terms of making artworks, and in terms of making flower bouquets. The stories and experiences through these three parts come together quite well, and I truly believe that plants and nature can stand in for stories that are harder to interpret, handle, or harder to communicate.
Object Lessons Space
It really makes a lot of sense. Something that I wanted to come on to later was like this place of loss and grief in the context of your practice, and how you speak to it in your works as well. Before hopping on to that particular note, I'm interested in how you would think of yourself and your practice as well. The main reason why I'm asking this is because I've realised that some artists can really hesitate in aligning themselves with certain descriptors or labels. For example, if you're a person that makes images, some might hesitate to call themselves a photographer or a filmmaker, even. I was wondering, in the context of having worked with flowers and having worked with plants within an artistic context, would you consider yourself an artist or a florist, an artist-florist, or both? or none of the above?
Susanna Tan
That’s a really good question because I struggle with that a lot. A lot in the sense that maybe two years back, if you asked me this question, I would have separated the role of being an artist and being a florist. I see them as being quite different, but at the same time, when I try so hard to separate them, it constantly clashes with each other in terms of taking up my time, because each role has a different requirement. You have to jump into a different mind space with things to consider. At one point when I was trying to separate myself into two parts, it was so difficult. It felt like I was living a double life. But right now I can comfortably say that I would just call myself an artist that works with flowers.
Object Lessons Space
Two years ago, you might have tried to keep things quite separate, but was there anything that really shifted your perspective on that? Did something happen over the course of your experiences, or did you encounter certain things that helped you arrive at the conclusion you have arrived at now?
Susanna Tan
Mainly, it was perspective and mindset. While I was struggling with the identity, or what to call myself, I realised I had very little growth in terms of how I would envision both roles or both practices to evolve. But then, I just became my own stumbling block for my own wishes. After marrying them together, I feel more comfortable calling myself — on the whole — an artist who works with flowers or plants. I no longer fight the thing that is trying to fight it. After that there was more growth and a clearer path as to where this is leading to, so I guess it made more sense there.
Object Lessons Space
I also realise that you mention the place of loss and grieving in your previous response as well. I wanted to spend some time on this because something that I've also realised with encountering works that touch on emotions of loss or grief, is that sometimes in the context of these bygone days, the narrative is always tinged by longing and desire. Having thought about this for a while now, how do you grapple with the question of nostalgia in the context of loss? Do you find it productive, distracting, or is it something else altogether for yourself?
Susanna Tan
I think nostalgia is always nice, but it's a warm place or like a lukewarm place. It's always a place to return to for comfort or for a hug. Personally, I do feel like after revisiting nostalgia, maybe there can be something that comes out from the energy that you gather around nostalgia, and to forward it in some way. That’s how I view nostalgia. I think it's always nice. When I really need to feel comforted, I like to visit that. But at the same time, the warm hug makes someone complacent — or for myself, at least. There’s also the challenge of leaving the warm hug and the safe place to want to take the big steps to do a new adventure. When you feel that you need it, you can go back to that. It’s like a constant going out and coming back.
Object Lessons Space
Spending some time on something that you were recently involved in as well, during your time as an artist in residence at the Singapore Botanic Gardens, you organized walks around the gardens with members of the public. As part of this, you asked them to share their own stories of the times they spent in the gardens as well. I was really struck by how personal some of these moments you've created well, and I'm sure you must have found it incredibly illuminating as far as having these chats with people. I was wondering whether, thinking back to those walks that you conducted, there was a particular impression or conversation that has really stayed with you, even until now. This could be something that you find yourself really challenged by, inspired by, or just in general found the whole entire encounter really enjoyable as well.
Susanna Tan
The time spent in the Singapore Botanic Gardens was really very illuminating. Before that, the idea of working with plants and believing that they can stand in for topics like grief and loss was a belief. Well, it’s an informed belief through research, and my findings and references, but it had not been tried out in relation to my fellow humankind. With that community aspect of the residency, it reinforced my belief about what plants can do for the living, and I do have, like you say, many special moments that I spend in the gardens alone, and also with somebody else. There was one particular story where this lady was trying to tell me about this OneMillionTrees movement where Singapore is trying to plant a million trees — by when, I'm not too sure — but she was telling me about the experience of actually organising it for her family because she would like to remember her niece. I believe her niece passed away recently, and it became an activity that revolves around nature, but something bigger is looming. I draw a parallel between what she's doing and what I'm doing. The kind of conversation that comes through is quite nice for me to hear, and to reflect on or to understand what actually is an artist's role, or what exactly is the artful way of living?
Object Lessons Space
Something that I've also been incredibly struck by is the fact that some of these conversations seem like they're incredibly personal experiences as well, conveyed to yourself out of this relationship that you've built with some of these participants. I know that for this particular project, you had people walking around with Polaroid cameras, making images, and writing down their own notes as well. But as an artist, and this is something you mentioned as well, what is the place of art in all of this, and what is the role of the artists? How have you been thinking about the responsibility of yourself in having access to all of these stories, and also the perhaps burden in some way of responsibly depicting them, portraying them, and telling their narratives in an accurate or precise manner?
Susanna Tan
With two projects now that have a community involvement aspect to it, I found myself a reflection point of a water well, because I think the encounter that I have with the participants who came on for the workshop, or the interviewee that I get to talk to through this residency, I often question like my own role. In this exchange, I do feel like they are more of the artists. They are playing the artist’s role — I'm just here to observe, and document, and to intervene in a way that I can re-communicate this to a wider audience. The water well was one idea that I felt like — hey, I think that should be my role. I don't think I can be this someone, or the artist should be someone, that increasingly gives out water when other people are not thirsty, or don't feel they need it. If I can see myself, or see my practice as a water well that I continuously fill, or have other people to come on and fill it up for me, they are positioned at some sort of a junction — it's always ready for other people who need to draw from it. I think that would be a really nice image to explain how I actually feel about working with the community, or even consider my practice to be a more socially engaged one. It’s about giving and receiving, and what do you think you need, and what do you take, and when do you know when to take?
Object Lessons Space
That’s such a beautiful metaphor. I know that with some of your recent projects, such as the one at the Singapore Botanic Gardens and the one that you did with the Indian Heritage Centre, some people might describe them as community engagement. You did work very closely with the community, so it definitely is accurate to a particular degree, but I know that you're still trying to navigate this yourself. I was wondering what a socially engaged artistic practice looks like to you, and what you will consider that to be, because I know this is something that you're not sure whether to completely align yourself with at this particular juncture, right?
Susanna Tan
In my idea of understanding community art, it feels like there is a lot of outcome-related collaboration with the community in making or co-creating an artwork together, but at the same time, the artist is forming up the framework to lead to that. But I think what is different for the Indian Heritage Centre residency that I did was that the framework itself is the collaboration. It's a little loose in the beginning, and it's a little hard to envision what the outcome would be, but it's nice to have the community in, or the participants in, at the earlier part of the artmaking, rather than the action of the artmaking — to have some thoughts exchanged and how it leads to a certain way. That was quite beautiful for me, and I'm really glad that I managed to follow through with the support of the Centre and also from NAC, so that was really nice and unexpected.
Object Lessons Space
It seems as if it's something that you're still taking time out to think about, but in some way, many facets of what you've been doing and actively exploring already sort of weave themselves into a very socially engaged angle as well.
Susanna Tan
Maybe one thing that surprised me most is I thought I would not enjoy too much face time with people, but often when you meet a story or a person that's so precious and special, it keeps you going. It motivates you to be more committed to your practice, so that was a really nice point for me.
Object Lessons Space
Something that I've also been intrigued by is the collaborative effort between yourself, Leow Weili, and Dominic Khoo. To begin, it started with this real friendship between the three of you, really having a good time together, meeting up weekly, and spending a lot of time in each other's presence; but it has — for now — culminated into an artist-led and artist-run digital residency. Could you tell us a little bit about n ear — what sparked off these conversations between the three of you, and why the residency also felt like a natural, yet crucial manifestation of the conversations you were having?
Susanna Tan
For n ear, I think we started about three years back. It began quite organically, I believe, and it was simply just a longing to have a place where we could continue what we did back in school: having reading groups online, putting out like critique sessions about our own practice. That led us to the weekly meetings we have, and we took time to share about our own interests and practice and the values that we see in our own artmaking and practice. That's where we got to know a lot more about each other and found a common place or a common theme that sits well together. The readings became different in each of our own pursuits, but there's a common understanding and area that we're all interested in. From that, we thought to ourselves, would other artists also like this kind of peer group where they could also gather? That’s when we feel that we want to do more. We see n ear as a hub, to be a bit more rich in resources, to understand how artists need to be supported, and in what aspects. Being artists ourselves, how we could really live up to our potential with this support, and how do we create this sustainable, generative artist community? That’s a really big plan we wanted for n ear to envision, but being such a big plan, the three of us just see this as a vision. In between, the steps to get there, we are not so clear yet. We brood about this on like, and each time we have new ideas, we accumulate them. For about two years, we just continued doing this. When the pandemic hit us a year and a half back, that's when one of our ideas found its own timing to come through. That will be the virtual residency that we started. I think this actually draws back to the previous question that you asked about nostalgia. I see this gathering, or weekly meeting, at a really comfortable place as a warm and safe place to go back to, but at the same time, I think we were trying to innovate or trying to think about things in a different perspective that's waiting for it's time to come. When the timing was right, when we ran the virtual residency, there were new ideas and new artists that we met, that we can share our own understanding of other's roles and artmaking with their practice. That was a really nice point.
Object Lessons Space
Something that I also wanted to get a sense of was how the experience of running the digital residency or virtual residency has been for all three of you. I was wondering how you found the experience of running it, and what some of the perhaps more memorable points that come to mind are about having this opportunity to facilitate such encounters with artists and their practices are.
Susanna Tan
The first moment that was quite memorable would be whether this virtual residency would work out. Weili and myself, we see our practices as being quite material-based and quite tactile. Dom is a sound artist and music producer, so he's more well versed in materials that are located in the digital realm. We had quite a few sessions to think about whether that will work out for artists who have their practices in a traditional form. Would we want to push that, and would we want to challenge that? But at the same time, I felt that the real challenge was to see how these traditional forms of art works, or art practices, could be presented in a virtual way, which is the big direction things are going, right? That was when we said that we really want to do this, and we really want to test it out. Being able to have artists that responded favorably to our initiative was really nice too. Like you mentioned, Genevieve Leong is overseas, and being a virtual art residency, we're not confined by space or time. If we shift our perspective, actually, it's quite limitless what she can do or what we can do for her. There are no previous examples we can really reference, so we set our own goals about what will then make the residency a productive one or something that is of value.
Object Lessons Space
It's really interesting that you said that this was something that you really came together and tried to make really productive and generative — and also something that was very original as well. I wanted to ask whether there were any sort of reference points the three of you had in mind when putting something like this together, because it's such an innovative yet interesting idea. It's incredibly timely for where we're at right now, in the situation and context that we are in, but were there any sort of reference points in terms of similar programs or similar experiences, or was this something that was really birthed just by the three of you coming together and having those chats?
Susanna Tan
When we had the idea, we were also thinking whether we were the only ones thinking about this. As we do, we punched this in Google and did a search about it. There were two courses that gave lessons or had some sort of a residency online, but I felt like it was a different thing that we were describing. We're just using the name quite loosely both, “virtual” and “residency”, but it's an entirely different kind of format. That course had an enrollment and there were classes, so there were really no good examples that we referred to. Through the different meetings and sessions that we had, of course, this is only part of what our discussion encompassed. We do have studios that we looked at, artist’s practice that we see, and collaborators that are interesting. All these little parts form the residency format, and how we would like to borrow different procedures or aesthetics to see how this will unfold.
Object Lessons Space
I'm really excited to see how the residency moves, particularly now that we're back in some form or shape of a restricted movement situation again. I just have one final question for you. Throughout our chat, you've spoken at length about your enduring relationship with botanical elements, and it's something that will continue to feature prominently within your practice as well. But I'm also wondering, having dealt with a variety of topics and having worked on various skills, what sort of new frontiers are you hoping to meet with these non-human collaborators of yours? What are some of the questions or issues that you'd like to examine or articulate by way of flora and fauna?
Susanna Tan
I’ve made artworks that referred back to the bonsai plant, or old trees, cut flowers, and spices for now. It’s not exhaustive yet, I feel, the plant list or the nature list that I can see the relevance in explaining or expressing the human emotion of grief, of loss, and of love. This big part would actually be finding new stories, or new analogies, to have new insights about how these ideas can be further elaborated upon. Recently when I look at plants, I realise how we use them to our desire — they feed us and what we want to do — but what's feeding them? What’s motivating them that allows them to serve us? I was really interested in the source of that energy, which led me to the sun. I was looking into the topic of the sun — what are they doing for the plants, and ultimately for us too? That was one area that I’m really looking forward to looking into. The other part would be — I’ve covered the plant side of nature. The fungi side is also really interesting, and is something that I would like to spend more time on too.
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Object Lessons Space
Susanna Tan is a visual artist who makes works about thriving disappointments, regrets, loss and love with plants as mediators.

If you’d like to see more of Susanna’s works, you can visit her website at www.susanna-tan.com.

Thankyou so much for spending time with us today. As usual, we had a lot of fun with this conversation, and I hope you’ve enjoyed sitting in. You can find more articles and transcripts from these podcast episodes on our website, www.objectlessons.space.

We also have a presence on all the usual social media platforms, including Instagram, Facebook and Twitter. If you like our work, we do have a Patreon page that you can check out as well.

Mushroomed is a podcast series hosted by Object Lessons Space, and produced in collaboration with the wonderful people at Singapore Community Radio. Thankyou so much for spending time with us today.



 
Mushroomed is a series of conversations around art making, artistic networks and ecosystems. Sit in on conversations with artists and cultural practitioners. This podcast is hosted by the Singapore-based online platform, Object Lessons Space, and produced in collaboration with Singapore Community Radio.


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