In this month’s Cakap-Cakap (chit-chat), ArtsEquator speaks with artist Salty Xi Jie Ng, whose most recent project, Not Grey: Intimacy, Ageing & Being, excavated what intimacy means for older Singapore women (hint: it’s not all about sex!). The digital experience, comprised of video vignettes, interactive performances and writing, was presented by T:>Works as part of the Festival of Women N.O.W 2021. Xi Jie shares with ArtsEquator her reflections from Not Grey, as well as her other projects, including a residency at the Singapore Art Museum, and thoughts about a non-binary future.
AE: In whatever way you like, can you please introduce yourself in your own words, as well as your practice?
I am a being of the cosmos who loves all things water—showers, baths, washing dishes, the sea, clouds, crying. I am a grandma who carries hot tea wherever she goes, a non-binary elf existing in mutual support with a community of magical creatures, a melancholic Pierrot clown, a naughty boy pranking his neighbours with glee, a solitary uncle living in a desert under the stars, a crass and bossy auntie who loves sex. I am all of my past lives and present selves.
As for my practice, it’s easier to quote from my put-together bio which is a stable yet mysterious reference point that I always return to: “I co-create semi-fictional paradigms for the real and imagined lives of humans within the poetics of the intimate vernacular.”
AE: How are you doing at the moment? Could you describe your current state of mind?
I’m slowly crawling out of a pit of deep burnout that I made for myself over years of non-stop work. But there is also so very much abundance from all the work and everyone I met. In the coming months, I’m recalibrating everything, which means resting, harvesting, researching, experimenting. Something is dying, something is ripening, and something is emerging.
AE: You’ve worked with seniors before, on the topic of intimacy and style, in the US. And you’ve just finished working on Not Grey. What interests you when it comes to ageing, and how did you get to wanting to work with seniors in particular?
It’s my Cancer sun and half-Capricorn rising. Cancers are sentimental creatures who relate deeply to older people and times. Capricorns are about legacy and they have the tenacity to see their investigations through (read earlier answer on burnout). I’ve always been very close to my grandparents and gravitated towards older people. Sitting with them brings me a sense of comfort. I’m curious about lineage and obsessed with anecdotes of the past. We tend to be inundated with images of ageing that are infantilising, patronising or one-dimensional. I want to make seniors feel seen and heard in their own ways. Perhaps I’m preparing for my own older age, like how artist/producer/punk Shaiful Risan talks about creating an elderly home for misfits.
AE: How has it been like working with older Singapore women on this project?
Working with older Singaporean women collaborators has given me new models of womanhood, personhood and ageing. In some way, Singapore is a classic example of depressive ageing in a super made-over, hyper-modern society where seniors may face some level of cultural and linguistic exile (a term I learnt from the Wild Rice production Grandmother Tongue). Within that context, these women dug into themselves to be publicly vulnerable about their experience of ageing. I felt privileged to sit with them to hear about their varied lives and be a midwife to what they wanted to express. I held that as a responsibility. While I knew that being part of this was challenging for many of them, I didn’t fully understand how much it meant to them, or how they revealed things/sides of themselves they hadn’t told/shown anyone—until our sporadic reflection sessions. I really honour their courage to do so and their ability to hold public feedback about our production.
AE: What have been some of your greatest moments of joy and moments of learning when it comes to Not Grey?
The happiest moments were sharing a laugh with the collaborators, like when Evelyn Fernandez wondered whether I was talking to a ghost when she couldn’t see Noorlinah Mohamed was texting me in our virtual system while I verbally replied her, or texting with Zubee Ali about tarot cards I pulled for opening night, or learning from Koh Lian Hiok about her daily exercises to prevent sagging breasts.
I learnt how much it takes to hold space for 15 women in one-on-one and group formats. I learnt about scaling a project for capacity, time, and resources, and about building in more reflection and check-in space for collaborators, especially since the process invites them to be so vulnerable. I learnt to process feedback while realising that each audience member brings their own projections and personal relationship to the discomforting subjects of intimacy, ageing and being a woman. I learnt to own the original intention of the project while giving it space to shift with the energies of the collaborators and team.
AE: How has working on Not Grey affected/shaped/changed what you think about when it comes to women, ageing and intimacy?
As we move into a more non-binary future, working on Not Grey has me thinking that even in that future, the role and archetype of woman is still very important, not least for those who identify as such. (I personally found it hard to identify as a woman, and although I mostly do now, I feel myself at heart to be a non-binary elf.) Perhaps it is a future with space for more identities, including this time-honoured one, while recognising that many have experienced trauma as a result of violence inflicted onto women and expectations of what it means to be a woman. It is said that women have for millennia come together in circles to be with each other through talking and forms of making (such as cooking, sewing, crafting). I’d like to think that people have for millennia come together in circles.
Not Grey made space for women-identifying people to come together, especially those of particular generations for whom the pressures of being a woman were stronger and more defined. I think women go through a lot and ageing can be a very alienating and difficult process. We were not trying to put graceful ageing on a pedestal or create a feel-good show, and I hope audiences didn’t walk away with that. I hope they felt the complexities of ageing, or ageing as women. While I was moved by the collaborators, this project had me confronting my own ageing (although they will scoff at me for still being so young). But never mind—when I feel challenged at 60, I’ll just re-watch all the videos from Not Grey and have a laugh/cry, hopefully with my friends so we can process it together, which was part of the point of Not Grey.
AE: You’ve been a resident artist for a number of institutions, from Buangkok Square, to University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, New Bedford Whaling National Historical Park and now the Singapore Art Museum. How have these shaped your practice and trajectory as a growing artist?
I’m lucky to have been on a variety of residencies, each of which felt karmically ordained. I’ve met other artists and people who are lifelong friends, engaged in subjects I wouldn’t have otherwise in the same way. One of my most special residency experiences—in rural Rajasthan, India—had me learning Hindi back in Singapore so I could communicate with my friends on future visits.
Together all these experiences have me pondering what different artists need, how artists get together in mutually beneficial ways, privilege, context for art making, and how collaboration can be facilitated. I want to say that artists can create their own residencies without waiting to be invited or accepted. We need to challenge existing power dynamics, and it can be done in fun, trickster ways. You can be a self-proclaimed artist-in-residence at your neighbourhood corner store if the owners are open to collaboration. And if you’re in an “official” residency, especially one run by a big institution, then you have some sort of responsibility to help them hold a mirror up to themselves. Regardless of their response, a little seed is planted.
AE: What are you up to next? How does it add to and deepen your practice and interests?
The presentation for my residency at the Singapore Art Museum is again postponed and on the horizon. While on that residency, I’ve started some long-term research into Chinese ancestor worship, rituals and grief as a result of my paternal grandmother’s recent passing. I’ll be deepening that strand through a possible collaboration with a longstanding Chinese religious goods merchant. Quite fascinatingly, I also (safely, might I add) grew some mould from what I imagine to be my grandmother’s cells (energetically or literally) left on her belongings, and I’m experimenting with creating fabric prints for various uses.
I also just finished Street Found, a book of busker/performance artist Roy Payamal’s writing and images, with an accompanying event on the last night of The Substation’s operations. I’m not done processing that project which meant the world to me, and setting up a platform to sell the book some more, which is the next phase.
Most importantly, deepening my practice means having space for it to grow. It’s been way too full! I can’t wait to be bored, take walks, write, cook and listen to music.
AE: Who is a Singapore artist or creative whose work you enjoy, and why?
Aki Hassan, whose tender, gentle, introspective work holds space for queer/trans perspectives. We both attended a scholarship ceremony before going overseas to study; the most fun bit was hearing from their dad his strategy for booking the cheapest airline tickets using four laptops. Before I left, Aki gave me a drawing of a rocket with magical wishes, and it felt like we were both going on our own cosmic learning trajectories. I treasure connections like that.
AE: Complete this sentence: 2021 is a year of….
Wondering when I can sit at a slow-speed Ang Mo Kio kopitiam again with a dear loved one over our favourite Hokkien Mee and kek huay zui sio (hot chrysanthemum tea).
Read more about Not Grey in The Grandma Reporter, a companion publication filled with writing and documentation of the work done by Salty Ng Xi Jie and her 15 collaborators. You can also order a copy of Street Found here.
About the author(s)
Nabilah Said is an award-winning playwright, editor and cultural commentator. She is also an artist who works with text across various artforms and formats. Her plays have been staged in Singapore and London, including ANGKAT, which won Best Original Script at the 2020 Life Theatre Awards. Nabilah is the former editor of ArtsEquator.