End of INSTINC Artist-in-residence exhibition
“Suspended Flux: Multiculturalism in Singapore”
22nd June 2012 – The opening night of Heidi Celeghin’s solo exhibition “Suspended Flux”, a celebration or commentary on “Multiculturalism in Singapore”, turns out to be as the artist had envisioned. As I walk towards SOHO unit #04-163 at around 7.30 pm in the evening, the long corridor is filled with the merry sounds of multiple conversations, spilling out from the main door. INSTINC at SOHO, a small but cosy gallery space, is crowded with numerous friends and visitors, and Heidi sparkles in her little black dress, glowingly radiant as she talks to various guests surrounding her.
Fuelled by a desire to paint “portraits of people in Singapore, and not just people who are Singaporean… but also people who came to Singapore and made Singapore their home”, Heidi felt that “the show wouldn’t be complete until everybody’s here at the opening and they’re all talking to each other about the artwork that they’re seeing. For me that’s part of the show... and maybe that’s the most important part of the show… If two people who wouldn’t necessarily talk to each other on the street, can have a moment when they both look at this painting and they’re both like “what do you think about this painting?” … At that moment, even if it’s really brief, they’ve had an exchange, they’ve had a conversation, and it opens up an opportunity for them. If they want to, they can get to know that person better… and so that was my main concern, this third culture thing… it’s like an experiment…”
A Latino American unlike any other, Heidi who is of Italian descent was born and raised in Brazil for the first eight years of her life, and she still considers Brazil her home even though she has spent most of her life in the States. Eloquent, highly intelligent and educated, Heidi conveys a frank and positive awareness of the world, even while having faced a number of disappointments from the blind assumptions or thoughtless behaviour of those who remain insensitive to cultural diversity.
Intriguingly, her story is very similar in some ways to that of Amy Lin’s, who had left shortly before Heidi arrived as the next INSTINC Artist-in-Residence. In other ways, naturally, their stories are also radically different.
As Heidi patiently explains, “being a Latina in the U.S. has certain connotations – because there’s a big Latino population in the U.S. and people want to place you within that stereotype… ‘You’re from Brazil, you’re Latino, so then you’re like this…’ But I’m not, actually. I don’t fit into the category… Socio-economically, most Latinos come from Hispanic America, a lot of them are illegal immigrants, a lot of them don’t really have a high education level. So there’s a problem trying to fit me into that stereotype… there are so many Latino illegal immigrants there in the U.S. that when people meet me they automatically have all these assumptions about the sort of person I am, based off of the Latinos they’ve encountered on a daily basis…
“I [have] encountered people frequently, who think I have no education, or who treat me like I’m a maid… and usually I’m more highly educated than they are and I most certainly speak more languages than they do, so it’s really embarrassing… for them. [Usually] they are people I’ve met at events, where I have to meet people because my paintings are there…”
What made it more of a culture shock for Heidi was “growing up in an international school, [where] those questions [about being between cultures, being a third culture individual] weren’t as relevant… for me… It didn’t even occur to me that someone wouldn’t be exposed to another culture, or wouldn’t accept being exposed to another culture and embrace that as a unique experience, and so when I got into university I had my first non-international-school-moment… [and] that’s when those questions started becoming really important to me, like, what is a third culture individual? When they go out into the real world what are these problems that occur, that they all sort of face? And so I got in touch with a lot of third culture people through social networking, just to find out, ‘Do you guys have the same problems in your respective countries? Where you’ve moved?’
“[Having grown up] in an environment where people were just all really international… I was used to a space where everyone’s used to encountering different cultures and being really accepting. But if you’re encountering people who… haven’t grown up in an international environment, then everything that you have that’s not of that culture, they think it’s really weird and instead of embracing it, or instead of just not saying anything, they’d make [it] a point to highlight it to you, that you’re different and you should change.”
Personal experiences such as these eventually led to Heidi’s “Suspended Flux: Multiculturalism in Singapore”. While implicitly addressing issues and concerns of identity, this exhibition is also an expression of her appreciation for the “international”, a celebration of the diversity of nationalities (and “hybrid” nationalities) that are able to co-exist in the same geographical space with an accepting or even welcoming attitude towards cultural differences.
The exhibition comprises four digital paintings of local cityscapes printed on Sihl archival paper and presented on walls, as well as a series of portraits painted digitally and in oil on canvases, hung in rows from thin cables and suspended in the air like national banner flags. The artworks reveal Heidi’s proficiency in delineating intricate architecture, as well as her ability to realistically capture the three dimensional quality and subtle hues of human skin and flesh. “John”, “Rosana”, and “Henry” in particular, gaze at me in a manner that makes it difficult to look away.
If one is to carefully examine with a critical eye, certain small details of some of the portraits do hover in a somewhat uncomfortable limbo; inclined towards realism, but still not quite there – slight giveaways to the fact of their illusory nature, though this is certainly excusable when considering the limited time frame in which these works were executed, combined with the artist’s layered approach to oil painting. If the aim of this talented artist is to become an exceptional maestro at realistic representational painting, this may still only come about through an enduring and progressive practice towards the perfection of her technique.
With regard to concepts, the artist Heidi is more than fully capable of becoming self-aware and self-understanding of the ideas that she is interested in exploring or communicating, as well as being able to fluently express her ideas through the secondary medium of language. From an engaging conversation with the artist over more than two hours, Heidi spoke about her passion for animal conservation efforts and art, shared anecdotes about her early life in Brazil during a politically and economically unstable climate, and articulated compelling thoughts about the purpose of her art and her role as an artist.
Language and intellect, however, can be a double-edged sword when it comes to visual art, both a blessing and a hindrance. The actual power of a piece of art that is able to move its viewer to laughter or tears, remains as such and neither grows nor diminishes, existing beyond the words which are used to describe it.
Somewhat ironically, the use of terms such as “Decadent” or “Neo-Decadent aesthetic” to describe Heidi’s work might have an alienating effect on viewers unacquainted with these words, their meaning and significance. When these terms are used to describe everything that they mean to convey, it feels as though a brick wall has effectively been built which obstructs the open viewing of the sights beyond that wall… Sometimes we build tall structures in linguistics in an effort to better analyse, dissect and categorise our experiences, but on occasion we might go too far, and build instead structures that were never really needed in the first place.
Terms such as these may in fact be more limiting than the knowledge that they attempt to impart. The majestic lion of truth that runs freely in the wild, has now been trapped in a cage too small for its size. I am reminded of the somewhat poignant anecdote about a certain local community garden project, labeled as relational aesthetics in an attempt to justify its existence in that particular location, when the sweet and simple truth is that a resident in the surrounding neighbourhood had kindly decided to freely invest time, care and effort into beautifying a communal area with a variety of plants. To which a friend comments with keen insight, “It doesn’t matter what it’s called, I shall just enjoy the flowers!”
And so, regardless of what this writer has said, for the viewers who went to the opening of “Suspended Flux: Multiculturalism in Singapore” on that fateful night of 22nd June 2012 and who enjoyed themselves at INSTINC, Heidi’s show remains, most certainly, a success.
Excerpts from the interview with Heidi Celeghin
We’re not letting you apply to an art college
L: What were their concerns [that stopped them from even letting you apply to an art college]? I mean, I wouldn’t say it’s a Singaporean thing because no matter what nationality you are it seems to be a parental concern… they’re worried about your future… the main concern is usually economic…
H: Yeah... that’s what it was, because as immigrants to the U.S. that’s something that’s really important… My parents had sacrificed so much to get us to the U.S. … because no one wants immigrants honestly, the U.S. is really welcoming but at the end of the day it’s really hard to get a green card… So I think that’s why I went along with it for so many years because I felt guilty disappointing them… I knew that pursuing a fine arts career would ultimately disappoint them because they had sacrificed so much and the only thing that I give back to them is the uncertainty of a fine arts degree...
Moving from Brazil to America
L: …They sacrificed so much to get to the States…
H: Yeah… it’s a lot of money, and you leave behind your whole family… we didn’t go back to Brazil for seven years after we moved… You’re removed from your entire social context… [And] the cost of immigrating to a new country is just so high, travelling at all was just not an option.
L: So your parents made the decision to move because of the political climate…
H: Yeah… it was unstable, it was dangerous… [In addition to hyperinflation and the incident where people’s bank accounts were zeroed out overnight by the president of the time, kidnapping was a common occurrence and there was also the episode where] my father was driving his car… and what they do is throw rocks over passes to kill the driver... so over a bridge people would drop rocks down to the cars passing underneath, to kill the driver so that they can rob everything that’s in the car… They tried to do that with my dad but he was lucky and he survived, so he was able to drive himself home and my mum sent him to the hospital… and my dad was in intensive care for a month… So it was a stressful time for everyone in the family and after my dad got better he was like “I can’t raise a family in this country because it’s really dangerous and it’s unstable”… so he was just like “We’re moving.” And then they made that decision… so we moved…
Passion Makes a Difference
H: Today’s markets are competitive, and the minute I graduate, even if the grade looks really good on paper, when I go into the interview, there’d be someone who would look just as good on paper, but they’d be really passionate about the subject and the company would always hire that person… because you can tell if someone’s really passionate about the subject, and in computer science in Cornell I met people who love computer science, like that’s what they were really passionate about, and they’d be like “Why aren’t you programming for fun?” You know? [both laugh]
L: …“Why are you painting for fun?”…
H: Yeah, exactly! So I knew that when push came to shove, even if I finished four years and got the degree, I knew that I would just never be as good a computer scientist as someone who actually cared about the subject…
The Power and Purpose of Art
H: The reason why I create art is ultimately selfish, right? I create art because it’s for me. I feel happy when I’m making artwork – if I didn’t feel happy when I was making artwork I wouldn’t do it. And so I think that I have an obligation to give back… [Otherwise] I won’t feel complete, I would feel like I’ve failed, as a person, as an educated person, and I think that artworks are at its most powerful when it can cause a change… The art’s an illusion, right, it’s a lie… but it’s a lie that reveals the truth, like if you totally get that piece then suddenly it’s real; if it’s made a change beyond the canvas, then it’s very much a real thing, and I think that it’s a metamorphosis that is really magical…
When people look at my chimpanzee painting and they’re like, “I get it. This chimpanzee, he’s real. He has a consciousness... and he’s self-aware...” And when someone gets that and they’re willing to act on that, then the painting is not just a painting anymore. And I think that that’s also really important for me… it’s like, I spend so many hours… I paint representational painting when I could just really easily do something that takes much less time, but I decided to spend hours and hours and hours painting something that looks like an object. And I think part of the reason is for me, when I’m engaged in that process of creating something that once it’s shown, once it’s on the wall, I sign it, varnish it… it’s separate, it’s its own entity…
Rothko said about his paintings, he’d create them, they were like his children, and he’s tried to prepare them in his studio for the world, which is really, a harsh world, like the art critics are always ready to tear your piece apart… and you’ve given it all this love and attention, like “I really hope you can make it”… and Rothko said that if someone understands the piece, and accepts it, then that’s the biggest triumph. For me if someone understands the piece and they’re changed by it… they realise that the piece is not just a painting, it’s not just a picture… It’s something so much more… and it’s something that exists beyond time, something that’s not going to age, and it’s something really powerful…
Why do I create artwork that I know will last hundreds and hundreds of years without having to be restored at all? It’s because I want people to realise that I’m sending them a message in a bottle and I’m hoping that out of hundreds of messages I’m throwing into the ocean, someone will find it. It’s going to land on a deserted island that’s not deserted and the person who’s been there will open up the bottle and understand the message…
Otherwise, I’m just wasting my time, right? Otherwise I should have been a doctor or a civil engineer, like if I’m not creating change, if I’m not creating something that’s real, then I’m wasting my time… I’m wasting everyone’s time…
I read “The Picture of Dorian Gray” while I was eleven years old for fun, and I did my college thesis on it, my thesis was on “The Picture of Dorian Gray” because the book has haunted me ever since I first read it… When I read that book it was like, someone else got it, someone else understands what I feel, when I first touched a pencil. That’s how I felt… like Oscar Wilde got it. And so I think when I read that book, it spoke to me so powerfully, it’s not just a book filled with words anymore, it’s not just fiction, because I’ve changed, because of it. So if I’ve changed because of it, how can it be fake? Because it’s affected something in the real world, and so I think that’s maybe the trigger… like when someone listens to a piece of music, and for some reason they don’t know why, they just start crying, it’s because it’s so emotionally powerful, it’s touched some part of them that they didn’t even know existed… In some way, as an artist, whether it’s writing or visual [or] performing arts that’s what you’re looking for – you’re looking for that person who understands what you’re saying. Not just the words, but also the medium… the message and the medium...
ABOUT THE ARTIST
Heidi Celeghin is a Brazilian artist currently teaching at the Glassell Junior School of Art, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. She divides her time between Houston and Manhattan, primarily working in oil, graphite, and ink. Her artwork has been shown twice in Houston’s Reliant Center, twice in Ithaca’s Johnson Museum of Art, the Norma R. Ory Gallery of the MFAH, and other notable locations. Her artwork is in private collections in Houston, Manhattan, and Barcelona. She studied in Cornell University and pursued additional artistic studies in The School of Visual Arts (New York) and the Angel Academy of Art in Florence.
Artist-in-Residence at INSTINC April – June 2012
Exhibition period 22 – 24 June 2012
ABOUT THE EXHIBITION
As a Brazilian who grew up in an international environment, now living in the United States, and who travels around the world, artist Heidi Celeghin is constantly experiencing new cultures and exploring new definitions of identity. She is fascinated with both how people assimilate and how they remain connected to their roots. It is challenging to grow up between cultures but it also provides one with a wonderful opportunity to bridge gaps and begin dialogues. Multiculturalism is powerful – it can dissolve barriers and destroy fears of the unknown Other. Her show explores Singapore’s internationalism through a combination of new media portraiture and installation. Heidi Celeghin is simultaneously capturing the diverse people who live in Singapore and the architectural structure alternately surrounding / defining / uniting them.