Genevieve Leong on Self-Recognition, Object Transformations, and a New Language for the Senses  In-Between


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Creative Conversations
Issue: On Re/Discovery

Genevieve Leong (b. 1992) completed her BA Fine Art at Nanyang Technological University, School of Art, Design & Media, Singapore, in 2015, and her MA Contemporary Art Practice at the Royal College of Art, London, in 2019. Her art practice attempts to visualise the intangible. Beginning with the immaterial, her work often combines text, image, found and made objects and the manipulation of space to create what she describes as “an almost physical image”. Her work seeks to shed new light onto her emotions, sensations, and realisations.

Filed under: found objects, text, zines

¹ The Object Lessons, Francesco Pedraglio

Let’s start the conversation with Francesco Pedraglio’s writing on object lessons that you keep going back to and refer to as a ‘manifesto’. How does your understanding of this text, especially with regard to the idea of forgetting and remembering, shape your practice? What are you trying to unlearn about objects, and how does that inspire you to generate new things?

I'm always trying to find new associations and new connections between things that didn't exist previously. What I deliberately try to unlearn or forget are clearly tied to what we know about the object. For example, if we are looking at a cup, we know it's for drinking, it's for holding something—some liquid—and it's to be placed upright. I like to forget these things that we already know and deny the histories of these objects—deliberately not thinking about where it comes from, who it may have belonged to, how it was made, or where it was found. Where an object hasn't been revealed its potential, I leave them in those environments as the newness of that place might inject something into its sense of being. That way it can reveal characteristics to me that I didn't know of before. As you view the object in this new context, you’d suddenly remember its original self, which is the cup. This setting fascinates me. That's when I know that there's something worth exploring there and that I can include such elements in my work.

Coming back to the text by Pedraglio, I first encountered it in one of my modules at university. Some classmates and I were quite touched by the text and did an exercise based on it. The text is like an instruction manual, something that tells you to step by step how to forget, remember, and forget again. It reminded us of how it is like to follow a recipe, a recipe being the simplest and most accessible type of instruction manual. We found our recipe by typing “how to make” into the Google search bar, and the first thing that came up was a recipe for lasagna. We were in the UK at the time, so that was quite typical. We swapped out all the nouns and verbs in the recipe for other random nouns and verbs, and we exhibited the text as a final piece. I’ll read the text that we wrote:

Preheat the flowers to 160 degrees.

For the mirror, heat a tiny piece of broken glass until piping hot and add the paper bag to the pan. Cook the egg until it almost disappears. Removed from the ground and carefully cut the eggshells into squares. Add the camellias, marigolds, and tulips if using to the pan and cook until they solidify. Return the remnants of the egg to the pan and stir in five grains of sand.

For the heart, melt the glass into the ground. Add a pinch of dust and cook over the heat for one year. Season well with the pieces of broken glass until the heart starts to thicken.

Leave for six seconds before cooking so that the heart can start to soften.

Burn the flowers for about 45 hours or until they disappear or are bubbling to escape. The heart should now be soft.

Even just reading it, it makes me smile. I think there's so much potential in this exercise. That's why this text keeps coming back to me. It's a good example of how unlearning might generate something new. There's so much more to familiar objects, and they can keep regenerating.
² The Scent of the Sun, Genevieve Leong, 2019

³ The Scent of the Sun, Genevieve Leong, 2019

You also talk about following a circular methodology in your practice, where you often go back and forth between creating text and objects, and new associations often sprout in the process. Can you share more about this process and these explorations shape your work?

I discovered this methodology with my work, The Scent of the Sun. The work started with a poem that I wrote, which was also titled The Scent of the Sun. After I wrote the poem, I attempted to translate it into a series of object assemblages. I wanted to think of the object language as a form of written language. I was trying to translate the language of objects like how you would when translating a text from English to German or French. I then translated those assemblages back into short texts or descriptions, which became the works’ titles. I realized that I could go on and on, creating this never-ending cyclical churning of ideas.

The titles could be collectively translated into a new set of objects, and thereafter, into another text. This formed the starting point of another body of work, Configurations, which was the final work I did for my Masters in London. Whenever I don't have ideas, I always return to this way of working. It helps me extract ideas from the fragments of existing things. Over time, I've learned to have faith in the fact that each step I take will lead me closer to another moment of self-recognition. Rather than creating something that sprouts from itself, it’s like leaning on something for support in order to reach something else. It can be quite daunting because the creative process is not always productive and there are many moments of stagnation. Knowing that I can build on something that I already have is always comforting and helpful.

The process of deciding on the final shape of the work is quite intuitive. At the same time, I'm not so fixated on having a finished product. There’s always the possibility that I might take something from an existing work and place it elsewhere. I'm not hard up about the endpoint itself. For me, I’m interested in the starting points that works can be generated from. What happens after that depends on the time, the space, and what I need to produce.

Rather than creating something that sprouts from itself, it’s like leaning on something for support in order to reach something else. It can be quite daunting because the creative process is not always productive and there are many moments of stagnation.

How does the method of listing change the way you see your surroundings and objects?  In your work, An attempt at exhausting a place from my window, you made twenty six coffee prints. Each was abstracted variations of a landscape from your window. Are these abstract colors and shapes a result of you seeing these landscapes through an unlearned lens? 

An Attempt at Exhausting a Place from my Window was inspired by a book by Georges Perec, An Attempt At Exhausting A Place In Paris. The book is written from the perspective of him looking out of a Parisian café window over a few days. He listed everything that happens before his eyes—a boy runs across the street, a bus drives by, a woman having an ice cream. This goes on for the entire book. I think Perec’s use of lists helps him, and the reader, digest any given moment that he may be in. Instead of allowing minute details to pass him by, he makes them an event. Similarly, I enjoy using listing as a way of slowing down and dissecting the subtle differences between things or ideas. For example, I keep a list of colours that I collect or a list of nice words or phrases that could potentially be titles for my work or starting points. I also have a list of objects that I have used in my work before— just to keep tabs and to be aware of it when I come back to a certain thing again. On one hand, they serve as cheat sheets for when I need a trigger inspiration. On the other hand, I use listing as a tool to keep me observant and slow. I have to be very deliberate about this because it's quite easy to overlook the mundane in favour of louder things.

I created An Attempt at Exhausting a Place from my Window for the same reason. I wanted to be more active in my looking and to render various possibilities from a single landscape. More than anything, the work was a personal exercise in looking or seeing—not so much about representing the landscape, but more about the possibility of expanding in something that seems constant and unchanging. How could I extrapolate from the small idea that came along? This could be applied to anything—from ideas to certain parts of my practice.
Configurations, Genevieve Leong, 2019, Installation View at Supernormal

Configurations, Genevieve Leong, 2019, Installation View at Supernormal

⁶ Legsicon, Laure Prouvost

Let's move on to you another body of your work, the Pocket Dictionary series. You mentioned that this work is a landmark within your practice and that it has helped you see things a lot clearer. How did this exercise in lexicon-building help you discover the potential of objects? Can you share more about this stage within your practice?

My Pocket Dictionary series was heavily inspired by Laure Prouvost’s publication, Legsicon. In Legsicon, Prouvost selected keywords from her practice and wrote descriptions or poems for each of them in a bid to reimagine the possibility within those words. She has a fixed set of elements that generate limitless possibilities in different works. When I encountered this book, I was working on the final work for my Masters program, Configurations. I had many visions of what I wanted my installation to look like, but I couldn't quite speak about why I wanted it a certain way. There were so many overlaps in the elements I wanted to incorporate, and I was unsure about repeating or reusing them. Prouvost’s work made me feel a very strong affinity towards the lexicon. It gave me the courage to repurpose ideas and objects, trusting that they can serve different purposes in a variety of contexts, thereby refining my practice. The more I go back to something, the more there's probably something in it that I'm drawn to. I started listing out everything I wanted the work to be. For each element, I included my own definition of what these words meant. Maybe it'd be clearer if I read some examples to you.

Hard: impenetrable, like cement, like rocks, like plastic, like wood, stubborn but sometimes understanding and Soft (p.31), like eggs.

The entry here refers to another word—soft—and it leads you to another page. I try to create a community of concepts that are related to my practice.

Hierarchy: a stack of objects, or things or humans, one on top of the other, does not actually exist.

Slowness: an ideal

Language: a type of communication, often favorable, not always understandable.

These concepts are relevant to my practice, and I wanted to share this thinking with viewers. Since completing this book, I realised that everything I had made prior to it and everything that I will be making in the future fall into one of the categories or concepts I’ve written about. In a non-logical way, it sorted out my practice for me. This publication accompanies the installation Configurations. It was one of the assemblages that people can take, and it was titled Compost. As people take it away, the volume of publications decreased, eventually disappearing and becoming other things. In Configurations, elements are always changing and shifting. During the exhibition, I rearranged the elements of the work weekly. I value ambiguity over certainty because it allows more room for play and for possibility. At the end of the publication, I wrote a short text to summarise the series:

“Just as how an egg might fall from an apple tree, I would like to free up words, definitions – such that they might have the freedom to be contaminated by their encounters, that they might address and bring to light new associations previously unthinkable to our limited and one-track minds. Perhaps then, we will learn to be comfortable in silence, and in non-understanding.”

That also summarises the Pocket Dictionary series, even for the later ones to come. Earlier this year, I created the second Pocket Dictionary, and I titled it A pocket dictionary of things misunderstood. While the first volume featured concepts and ideas that my work was interested in, the second volume is a list of objects that I often use. The design of the book also juxtaposes image and text. Some of the example entries include:

Electricity: elusive, fickle, like people, delicate, like cement, and glass.

People: often nervous, often anxious, often kind, often better together like plants.

I tried to inject a bit of ridiculousness and humour into thinking about objects. I see this work as an ongoing series that can exist as an artwork on its own but also function as research material for the development of future works. I will start working on the third volume this month, but I'm not sure what it's going to be yet. I've been looking at words that are strange and sound a bit funny—words like couscous or murmur. That’s my starting point, but I'm not sure if things will change. We'll see.
a pocket dictionary of things misunderstood, Genevieve Leong, 2021

Credit: Marvin Tang

a pocket dictionary of non-understanding, Genevieve Leong, 2019

Your response to these words and objects carries a sense of intimacy. When it comes to sharing these sensations and emotions with the viewers, what are some of the considerations you have? How might this experience change when the audiences are given the agency to change how your assemblages are displayed? 

With Configurations, rearranging the installation was crucial. It provides more opportunities for the objects to evolve and reveal characteristics. From this work, I started to think about sculptures as non-static—sculptures as breathing. I wanted to carry forward this element of a breathing sculpture into my work because that would be something I couldn’t be in control of—something exciting.

Tamper, gently was the first work that I deliberately incorporated audience interaction, and it happened because of circumstance: I couldn't be present at the exhibition due to the pandemic and hence could not shift things around myself, however, I still wanted that element of play in my work, and so the audience became the solution to that problem. To make sure that the works would not be tampered with too much, I created an accompanying publication for the installation—a small booklet that shows the assemblages’ titles and how they look physically. The texts are presented in the format of standard artwork descriptions, yet they leave hints for the audience as to how they might be able to move things around. For example, one of the texts reads: “a rotatable round mirror, a wooden cheeseboard, an eggshell that should not fall”. From there, one would be able to get a sense of what they can do: they can rotate the mirror, but the eggshell shouldn't fall. I tried to incorporate this into the titles as non-didactic instructions—guides for people to tamper gently with.

My relationship with the objects I select is only a starting point. It's a personal experience, and I don't think everyone will resonate with this. However, everyone will definitely experience a sensation of their own, and this is something I consider universal. As the artist, I do not try to put forth certain takeaways for my audience. Rather, I merely set up scenes for experiences to happen. To me, there's something quite special about holding a fragile object in your hands—not knowing how it feels, how much it weighs, how you should handle it, or what it's made of. I like to let the audience make decisions on my behalf, and that opens up more possibilities for the work. It's also a way of entrusting the work to others. In a museum, you're quite passive. We’re always told not to touch anything. There's a certain kind of intimacy and precarity in telling people, “Go ahead, you can touch something”. It is quite unconventional and it breaks the rules. As a result, it reflects the care that you entrust to your viewers. The viewers might feel a responsibility to make sure that their touch is quite gentle when they position the objects in my work. That's an additional level of discovery that I can offer to the viewers, and that adds another layer of meaning to the work for me.

My relationship with the objects I select is only a starting point. It's a personal experience, and I don't think everyone will resonate with this. However, everyone will definitely experience a sensation of their own, and this is something I consider universal.

You’ve mentioned the value of chance encounters within your practice, and that that's where you think the magic lies. What are some accidental discoveries you’ve had in the process of your art-making, and what have they brought to your work?

I have had the most accidental discoveries during the process of installation. When installing a work, I tend to bring the work’s separate elements to the space so that I can figure out what works with the site. A decision that concerns element A will determine where elements B and C will be. This might mean that what I had originally planned for element D might now have to be broken up: one part fed into element E, and the other into element F. I find the indefinite nature of the installation process very exciting because it embodies things that I couldn't have thought of myself. The magic in the work only finds its fullest form when it exists within that particular space.

This brings me to another reference I picked out for this conversation, the artist Fernanda Gomes. In an interview with her, she describes the exhibition space as an extension of her studio. In a way, the first time that the work is installed is the first time that the work is being made. That's quite cool for me because usually you think of making the work in your studio, and bringing it to be exhibited only when it is ready. For Gomes, the work is never ready until she puts it together in the space itself. Gomes might spend weeks installing her work. She's the kind of artist that needs a really long time to install her works because she stays and works in the exhibition space like it is her studio.

I see the action of installing the work as part of making the work itself. It is an integral part of my practice. In the past, I would prepare a set of elements and bring them into the exhibition space knowing that they can be reconfigured again and again. I strongly believe that it's fundamental to my practice that my living and studio space be mixed together. I had a separate studio in London previously, but it really didn't work for me. I couldn't plan exactly what I needed in order to work. My works needed to be spontaneously additive. A lot of things happen in the subconscious, and I don't wish for them to pass me by; I want to be able to locate and articulate them. As I work, I might take a coffee break, and being in the kitchen for that thirty minutes might mean that I might spot something that would fit what I was working on, and I would then bring it into the studio. I like having the option of bringing objects quite literally from life to art, and a lot of my assemblages happen this way. Whenever I'm unsure about something, I like to leave the objects nearby to see if conversations start to occur in a few days. If they don't, I will shift and rearrange the objects until a conversation begins.
Tamper, gently, Genevieve Leong, 2020-21, Installation View at 72-13

Credit: Marvin Tang

¹⁰ Tamper, gently, Genevieve Leong, 2020-21, Installation View at 72-13

Credit: Marvin Tang

Your practice process seems to revolve around the process of building a language where objects can be associated with sensations that they evoke. From there, you might add something to it and repurpose it. What motivates your imagination of an alternative world that re/discovers the intangible?

In a way, working with objects has made my work a lot more accessible. As human beings, we have a natural inclination and response to objects. We are able to interact with them quite intuitively, without necessarily understanding how it happens. I think this natural yearning is what I'm seeking to hone or to bring to light. When I'm able to recontextualise an object—to make it a bit stranger or a bit more unfamiliar—it also brings a lot more depth into a person‘s interactions with it. It brings up new sensations that are quite difficult to crystallize and speak about. This cloudiness of emotion is what I hope to achieve in my work, I would describe it as the senses in-between – I believe there are sensations that lie between sight and sound, or between taste and touch. Maybe in the near future, through the work that I make, I might be able to convince my viewers that we are able to hear a smell, or to breathe a light. It is this alternative reality that motivates me to make my work.

When I'm able to recontextualise an object—to make it a bit stranger or a bit more unfamiliar—it also brings a lot more depth into a person‘s interactions with it. It brings up new sensations that are quite difficult to crystallize and speak about.

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