Priyageetha Dia on The Colour of Divinity, Evolving as an Artist and Dismantling Patriarchal Structures
Priyageetha Dia (b. 1992) is a Singaporean artist whose practice lean towards site-specific installations. Her research stems into bridging the banality of lived spaces and the act of subversion using the female body and gold mediums. She is also known for her controversial public work The Golden Staircase in 2017 and the installation of golden flags at a public housing in 2018. Contributing to the discourse of what constitutes as art in Singapore, Dia continues to challenge limitations with new thinking of art in public spaces. Dia has been actively showcasing her works since 2017. In January 2019, she was presented with IMPART Visual Artist Award by Art Outreach Singapore.
Dia was the centre of public attention following the installation of two artworks in 2017 and 2018 respectively. Ever since her works ignited ferocious and dynamic public debate, the artist has not slowed down. Her works have been exhibited multiple times since, and she has snapped up some awards along the way as well. We speak to the inexhaustible artist about the beginnings of her relationship with gold as a material, her inspiration, and how she’s evolved.
For our conversation, you’ve picked out works by the Cuban artist Ana Mendieta. Most of her works come to us through the artist’s own documentation. Performative works are often ephemeral, so the importance of these records cannot be overstated. As an artist who also works deftly between installation and performance, and as someone who documents your own work as well, do you think that process shifted for you with the addition of mainstream media and its documentative interests?
The vision of an artist constitutes a narrative, and so documenting the work myself brings out a perspective that is specific to me. Only an artist can truly capture moments of rawness within performative works. When you talk about media and third-party documentation, I find that it often becomes problematic very quickly. There is this underlying observer bias that informs how they frame a performance or photograph a work. It comes to a point where you feel a very acute sense of alienation between the photographer and the work, because there is no honest engagement with the photographer. When it comes to this sort of documentation, these are just pictures or photographs, and not artworks.
From what I experienced following the installation of The Golden Staircase, many tried to force a particular point of view onto the work. Some photographers wanted to include me in their photographs of the work, and that really created a distance or unfamiliarity between me and the work. There was a photograph of me on the staircase published in a national broadsheet, and that was forced. I kept saying no because I wanted the work to stand on its own. I didn’t want to be a trophy artist, but the photographer insisted.
This is why I always insist on documenting my own works. These images capture the essence of the work, and form part of the work as well.
There is an inherent power embedded within being able to tell or narrate one’s own works on one’s own terms. This is especially the case for female artists, including Mendieta. Personally, what do you enjoy most about encountering Mendieta’s works?
Recently, I’ve found myself captivated by the way she uses her body in her works. In previous works, I was always concerned with the space. I didn’t give much thought to the body and how it negotiates the space. However the discussion around The Golden Staircase and Absent — Present thrust my body into the public space for open criticism. I wanted to address that.
Mendieta was very much connected to nature and the Earth, but my works are more concerned with the built or man-made environment. I’m interested in these concrete structures we are surrounded by, and how we related to this very masculine energy that they exude. I worked on a series of images where I covered myself in gold and placed myself into the environment of an abandoned housing estate. When you look at Mendieta’s works, I feel like some of that has been translated into how I approach my own works now. Previously, I worked with a perspective that could be described as “the outsider within” — the body was invisible, but its presence was definitely there. Now, I work towards making the body visible within a visible space.
It seems like a lot of the criticism that came your way from both The Golden Staircase and Absent — Present was coloured by the fact that you were working as a female artist. This makes your choice of Medusa incredibly fitting. Medusa is a mythical character that has fascinated centuries of artists, writers, philosophers and playwrights with her defiance and strength. As time passes and cultural imaginations evolve, depictions of Medusa have also morphed. Is there a particular rendering of Medusa or image of her that always comes to mind when you think of her?
When I was growing up and watching cartoons about Medusa, they almost always portrayed her as a monster. As I got older and evolved as a woman, I began to find the story of Medusa resonating with me a lot. As a character of female monstrosity, she became my muse.
When we think of the Medusa today, I would like to think of myself as a contemporary Medusa. This is not to say I turn men into stone with my gaze, but I have been described as a snake by many people. When The Golden Staircase went up, some members of the public called me a snake as well. I want to reclaim that for myself, and I think it’s become an empowering symbol for me.
Gold is a colour that illuminates, and has a long tradition in connoting religious piety or opulent grandeur. Tell us more about how you came to work with gold in such an intimate and sustained manner.
It all started when I was in my last year of school at Lasalle College of the Arts. At that time, I found out that my forefathers were goldsmiths. Goldsmithing in India is a rather patriarchal trade, and it is often passed on from father to son. Within the context of my family, the practice ended with my grandfather. I wanted to lean into that heritage, whilst dismantling its patriarchal construct at the same time. Within Asian and Hindu cultures, gold is also venerated as a precious material as well. The use of gold is symbolic of power, purity and sacredness.
I was also influenced by how Eva Hesse and Heidi Bucher worked with latex. I wanted to combine the use of both latex and gold in my artworks. I was invigorated by the tactility of latex — from its smoothness, its elasticity to how it conforms to contours and pressure. By constructing latex sheets, I wanted to capture the negative imprint of these architectural structures from within. As a material, latex has a rather skin-like quality. I think of the human skin as a sheathing — permeable and delicate. Our skin connects the exterior to the interior, and is analogous to a building’s concrete walls.
I wanted to balance that with an attention to the spiritual connection we share with our living spaces. This transformed my perspective, and I started seeing the home as a sacred place. I layer gold foil in attempts to preserve traces of a space that oscillates between the sacred and the secular. Over time, this gold foil disintegrates in a process that suggests a similar ephemerality about our beliefs.
The slippage between private and public space is a topic that many artists touch on, in one way or another, through their works. Your work, The Golden Staircase, came under particular public scrutiny in 2017 for its exploration of similar themes. Why do you think this particular work resonated with so many people, or generated as much response as it did?
Firstly, I think a lot of people were focused on whether I had a licence to put up these works. There, of course, were so many other questions that the work raised as well. It asked what a public space was. It also asked what agency we have within the public space. People were really engaging with the work. People would try to scratch it off, take photographs of themselves walking on the work, or sit on the staircase. I think the work really resonated with people because it reaches into a deeper communal memory or instinct.
Deeper to that, gold has a very deep significance to the various communities here in Singapore. Historically, communities such as the Indian or the Chinese have always venerated gold. It is sacred and it is highly valued. With The Golden Staircase, a precious material such as gold was juxtaposed against the banality of an everyday space. It creates a very striking contrast. Most people don’t expect to find a staircase covered in layers of gold foil, and I think it took many people by surprise.
Having said that, there were some really malicious undertones to some of the criticism I received. Some of it was also overtly gendered. I touched on this a little earlier when I talked about how people would call me a snake. On top of that, I was also getting rape threats from people online. It took me by surprise that that was something I had to deal with here in Singapore, and it really opened my eyes up to just how patriarchal our society still is.
Coming back to the work itself, I looked at the work after finishing it and I was in awe. It almost seemed like the everyday space of a staircase was now a shrine. It really felt like a sacred space. The work was meant to comment on this tension between the private and the public, but looking back now, I realise that the work also comments on the tension between visibility and invisibility. As I mentioned earlier, though my physical body was never included in most documentations of the artwork, it was always an assured or implied presence.
It is interesting you say that the work looked like a shrine, because I think it functioned like one whilst it was there. People would come to a housing complex just to see the work, and it would feel almost like a pilgrimage. I think this work evoked that response from audiences because it found a sweet spot between tackling a complex concept and visualising that concept simply. This balancing act is something that many artists grapple with at some point or other in their practice. Personally, do you find yourself navigating that sort of territory quite often with the work you make?
I had to do a lot of research before being able to execute The Golden Staircase. I was reading books about the public space and spatio-tempotality. I even looked into the history of public housing in Singapore. I had to explain all of these things to my Mum before executing the work, and only then did she begin to see where I was coming from with this. I think it is often difficult for audiences to fully comprehend the amount of preparation that artists do before creating an installation because most of this work is invisible and cannot be visualised.
Many questioned if gilding a staircase gold could be considered art. Often, audiences expect art to constitute something that is very technically advanced. When you distill a work into a simple action, not everyone is going to see that action as art. This is something that, obviously, we as artists have to continue working on and getting better at.
Letʼs talk about another work of yours, Absent — Present. This work was later taken down because some purported that the work resembled kimzua (Chinese joss paper) and was in poor taste. On top of this, you were involved in Discipline The City, a project which looks at the interaction between cities and its people. Tell us more about how your art interacts with the city, and its people and authorities.
With Absent — Present, it was a power play of sorts. By draping golden flags over every floor, I wanted to create this impression of ownership over this particular block of flats. During National Day, we put up flags to celebrate the nation’s independence. In a similar way, I wanted to celebrate the block of flats that I had been living in for twenty seven years. The entire block was absent, or it blended into its surroundings, until I hung those series of flags over the ledge of every floor. That made the block of flats present, and it became a talking point. The work involved ideas of permissibility, licensing, the use of gold, and even my own identity as an artist. There are so many layers to hanging a bunch of gold flags on every floor of a housing block, and this all contributes to how audiences perceive the work. My art exists within concrete walls in public housing estates. It creates an interesting juxtaposition, because we’re used to seeing most art exist within the four walls of a gallery space.
I found the criticism of my work rather Chinese-centric as well. I never knew my work looked like Chinese joss paper until a Chinese person told me. It was the members of the town council who purported that the work bore resemblance to joss paper. In actual fact, gold mylar flags are actually used by refugees during humanitarian crises. However in the context of Singapore, its meaning completely changes and I was quite surprised by this. When I talk about power play, I’m also referring to the relationship an artist shares with the authorities as well. I wouldn’t say that its a conflict-ridden relationship, but there’s definitely tension. The town council never addressed me directly. I only found out about their comments through the press and when the work was taken down. I expected that the work would be taken down, but I found it interested that they trashed the work. Especially given the work’s supposed resemblance to joss paper, it would be rather inauspicious to just trash the work.
Your work often interacts with spaces that are particularly public — from The Golden Staircase and Absent — Present in the Jalan Besar HDB, to Ruang at The Yellow Cage. In doing so, the works touch on ideas of provocation, of transforming a space into one which provokes. How are these ideas carried over to a comparatively private setting, such as with Golden Flags I at Art Porters Gallery?
It was about changing the narrative of the work so that it could transition from the public to the private space. I drew upon this idea of how public housing estates undergo upgrading programmes, and I wanted to upgrade these flags for their new setting. There were twenty five flags in Golden Flags I, and each of them bear a word. These words were selected from the sort of feedback and criticism I got from the public, and were the words that resonated with me most. I used a bold, red text against the gold mylar flags to create a stark contrast. Where gold was previously seen as lucky in the context of something like The Golden Staircase, it had now morphed into an inauspicious symbol with Absent — Present. As a whole, the twenty five flags narrate the entire story of Absent — Present.
In a gallery setting, the work obviously doesn’t speak much as to how it would have related to the public housing estate. This is something that had to be gleaned through the interactions I had with audiences who came through the gallery. I spoke to members of the public about what I went through with this work, and how this work is a continuation. I wouldn’t say that it was my responsibility to help audiences understand the context behind the work, but I wanted to get them thinking about how making public art in Singapore is like. Some of the people I spoke to expressed disbelief when I said that I hadn’t gotten into trouble with the police. It’s actually only vandalism if it’s still there. I removed The Golden Staircase myself, but Absent — Present was taken down by the authorities.
We’ve seen you including your body into the fold with more recent works. You spoke about this in passing earlier, but could you please elaborate on how you came to realise that was the direction you wanted to take with your practice?
There was so much misogyny oozing out of these online forums. I felt that it was important to address these patriarchal structures. It wasn’t even just about the space anymore, it was about the body and how the body relates to that space. I started working with my body in a performance at The Yellow Cage titled Ruang. I covered my body in the same gold foil that I used for The Golden Staircase in a durational performance. It was a very different experience because now I was the subject of objectification and observation, and not the staircase. Obviously the attention comes as a result of the fact that this was a performance and I was covered in gold, but I was acutely aware of the male gaze throughout the performance. It really cemented my resolve to address these issues more moving forward.
After Ruang, I embarked on the Birth series. In what was almost a romanticisation of an abandoned public housing estate, I wanted to showcase my body and its vulnerabilities. It was also my first time doing a nude photoshoot, so I was touching on topics such as my relationship with my mother and the internalised misogyny that coloured our relationship. When I saw myself in the mirror completely nude but covered in gold, my first reaction was to think that I looked like a god. It almost seemed divine, but at the same time, I felt incredibly helpless. My tits were out, my ass was out — but these are some of the things that make me a woman, and I wanted to embrace it in this series. I cried during that photoshoot, but after it was over, I felt so empowered. When I look back at those photographs, I don’t see myself in them at all. I see the divine feminine.
The Birth series came from an incredibly personal place, and also marked a turning point within your own practice. How was it like then exhibiting a work that touches on such tender and raw parts of yourself, and putting it up for the public eye? Was it daunting in any way?
I felt exposed, but I didn’t feel ashamed. In using my body to create works, the personal becomes public. This is my body, and there is so much power contained within. It becomes a vehicle to address these patriarchal structures here in Singapore. I’ve received so many hateful and misogynistic comments, and these were things I never expected from Singaporean men. Following that, to then become a body with so much embodied power — I never thought I would see myself like that.
You’ve touched on notions of vulnerability and shared spaces within a collaborative context as well. For contemplation/reclamation: JIWA, you worked with eight other artists to create a performative work at DECK. Gold paint features prominently in this performance, and this is something that audiences have come to associate with your personal practice. How was it like working collaboratively on this performance, particularly with something like gold, which has come to be seen as synonymous with your work?
This performance was done in response to Norah Lea’s work, Jiwa. In her work, gold features prominently as she addresses issues of identity. To come together with eight other brown artists — Atiq, Chand, Div, Divaagar, ila, Norah, Vimal and Zeha — there was a real sense of collectiveness. We titled this performance contemplation/reclamation, and everyone brought something to the table. When I use gold, I reference the divine self. I wanted to use that in a collective sense for this performance, and to share that vulnerability. The performance saw me painting myself in gold, and towards the end of the performance, I’d paint everyone else gold as well. We all became one. It was an emotional experience to see that divine power manifest within brown bodies. We all felt emotional at the end of it, but empowered as well.
The air was charged throughout the performance. For those watching, it almost seemed as if they had stumbled onto a religious or spiritual affair.
It was definitely ritualistic in many ways. We used flowers and chanted throughout the performance. When I stood on the pedestal, covered in gold, I would have looked like an idol surrounded by the pious. I’ve always been applying gold to myself. Applying gold onto other people was a way in which I could share that process of healing. It goes beyond just having the Midas touch.
You work with your body in a very distinct manner, and this is something we see across other female artists known for working performatively with their body as well. Yoko Ono, for example, was known for performances such as Cut Piece. In this performance, Ono sat inert as audiences were invited to cut off parts of her clothing. That doesn’t seem like how you’ve approached working with your own body as a medium. Are there particular philosophies that underlie how you approach working with your body, or particular boundaries you’ve set in place?
Working with the body is very much about being comfortable when nude, and it touches on body image issues as well. I’ve always been contained within this body, and it has been a shell of protection for me all these years. For the longest time, I wasn’t thinking about making such decisions about my body. Allowing someone to then break that barrier for me is something I still need to learn as an artist. It’s definitely going to be a gradual process that starts with the female nude and leads towards a project that involves an engaged audience.
I’ll probably work on performances that allow audiences to decide what they’d like to do with my body, but this will only happen in the future. It seems quite daunting to me right now. For now, I’m interested in the self-obsessed female nude. I spoke about seeing the body through the lens of the divine earlier, and that’s a quality I hope to emphasise as well.
When you were awarded the IMPART Artist Award earlier this year, you spoke about your interest in goldsmithing practices and wanting to take a trip to India to learn more about these processes. Have you managed to go on that trip yet?
I haven’t been able to take that trip yet. Right now, I feel like I want to work with the female body more. Goldsmithing is something that I’d really love to dive into. In India, it has never been seen as something that a woman would do. That’s something I would love to address at some point in my practice, but right now, I’m working with the body and addressing issues around the female nude in public spaces. That’s something that’s really important to me right now.
Although this isn’t something you see yourself embarking on anytime soon, how do you think a crafts-centred approach will shift your understanding of working with gold as a medium?
I’m interested in the performative way in which the tools of the trade are used. I’ve been thinking about how you mould or hammer gold, and I was hoping to one day incorporate them into a performance with the female body. These tools are very masculine, and I want to address that. It’s something I’ll probably address later on in my practice. I’d love to do an goldsmithing apprenticeship to really gain knowledge about the material and how working with it is like. It’d be interesting to see how this could be transposed into the context of a performance.