Artist Focus: Genevieve Leong
Thing Books [TB]: Hi Genevieve! Let’s start off this conversation by having you introduce yourself and your practice.
Genevieve Leong [GL]: Hi, my name is Genevieve, I’m a visual artist and a lot of the works that I do are site-specific installations. I use a lot of found and made objects, and put them together to form sculptural assemblages. At the moment I’m trying to work more with audience interaction. I’ve done that in some of my previous work and it’s something that I want to see happening more in future works. It’s a way for me to delegate decisions to someone else to make for me because I work in a way where I don’t like to make a lot of decisions. The materials I select inform my decisions, and that sort of narrows down a lot of pathways for me to work in the way that the materials tell me to, rather than me implementing my ideas onto them.
Intricacies of Support , Genevieve Leong at Kunstmuseum St Gallen [Images by Aramis Navarro]
TB: How did you come to be introduced to and study art?
GL: After secondary school I really wanted to study graphic design but my mom said I had to go through the Junior College route so that it trains my mind. The agreement I had with her was that after that I could study whatever I wanted in University. I knew I wanted to go to the School of Art, Design and Media (ADM) in Nanyang Technological University (NTU) to study Visual Communication. After the first foundational year at ADM, depending on your results, you get to select the first three specialisations that you’re interested to do. My first choice was Visual Communication, second was Product Design, and third was Film.
It happened that my results were not high enough to get into Visual Communication, and all the slots were already filled up in both Product Design and Film. I was then called up by the dean to be informed that I was one of the few that didn’t get any of their 3 choices, and he told me I had to choose between Photography, Interactive Media, or Animation. He was trying to push me towards the direction of Interactive Media, saying that it is the future of game design and app development. As disappointed as I was, I thought: Ultimately, it’s just a degree. If I wanted to further my studies in the future, I could still do something different, or take a course on the side.
That evening I wrote ‘Interactive Media’ as my choice. The next morning, I went to his office with the envelope and felt like my whole future is in this piece of paper. Just before I went into his office, I felt like something wasn’t quite right – I then opened up the envelope, cancelled ‘Interactive Media’, wrote ‘Photography’ and submitted it. And that’s how I ended up studying Photography – which was such a blessing in disguise because I only came to know later that out of the six specialisations in ADM, Photography was the only fine-art oriented one.
At the start I was very unmotivated but over time I realised that it was not commercial photography that was being taught there, and I would actually say that this was how I got into art. I think for me it all started because of a particular module where we were asked to make an artist book that would represent our practice. It was at that point that I knew I wanted to be an artist.
our breaths are short, this breeze untameable, Genevieve Leong
TB: And how did you get from studying photography as an artistic practice to making sculptural assemblages?
GL: In the three years that I was studying Photography, even though the projects I was working on were all image-based, I was never really interested in specific subjects like landscape or portraiture. The images I created were never about the objects themselves, it was always about creating a feeling or an emotion within the image. Like say I make an image of a cup, it’s not an image of the cup, it’s more of the atmosphere that I am trying to capture or encapsulate. I started to feel like my ideas didn’t need to be isolated in photography. My final year project was called Intersections and it was about the idea of daydreaming and the images reflected the sensations of being in a daydream. The images themselves were not so concrete and they weren’t really familiar objects or settings; what I wanted to visualise was the intangible.
I think the main problem I had with my work was not being able to justify it – not that we have to justify our work, but more like I felt my ideas were very airy or dreamy and I didn’t necessarily like that. I didn’t want it to be just about me creating photos based on how I feel or what looks nice. I wanted my work to be substantiated in a stronger way because I did see value in it but I didn’t want to talk about it so cheaply or aesthetically, in a way.
So I decided to do my Masters in Contemporary Art Practice majoring in Critical Practice, which is basically a very research driven programme that helps you build your ideas from something that has a research basis. It was difficult because a lot of my peers were very intellectual because of the nature of the programme, whereas I was more intuitive. But the whole process led me to a lot of practising artists and tutors that I really resonated with. I was deliberately trying to move away from photography, but because I didn’t have any other skills – I couldn’t paint, and I couldn’t make – when I deliberately took away the camera, the next natural thing I could do was to collect objects. It was the only way to collect visual elements that could then be fed into something else. I started collecting text as well, which has always been a very foundational and fundamental element in my practice even when I was doing photography. That was how I transitioned from photography into found objects. What I realised later on was that even when I was arranging things together, in order for it to work for me, it always has to exist as a successful image. That’s how my background in photography continues to inform my practice even if it may not be my primary medium today.
TB: In a lot of your works, I noticed there is very commonly this element of a third party – be it a human being, air, wind, or water. For example, in Evaporation Studies, that was exhibited at so-da space in Zürich, then again at OTA Fine Arts Singapore, substances are left to evaporate; it’s almost like the atmosphere is participating in your work. And in Take a piece of my insignificant thoughts, visitors are invited to tear off a page of your artwork to keep for themselves. Why has this idea become important for you?
GL: I think it stems from my interest in works being impermanent. I change things around a lot and I like to reuse my objects. I don’t like to say that this object exists in this body of work but not in another. I find it difficult to categorise my works because they kind of naturally bleed into each other in certain ways, so I enjoy this feeling of objects breathing or objects being temporary or unstable in their current state. I would say that’s why I like to incorporate the audience, be it someone consciously doing it or the environment, to give it one more layer of possibility.
TB: I read in another interview where you said that for you, there’s this process of unlearning, redefining, and transforming objects. What would you say is your relationship with this process?
GL: A lot of artists who work with found objects work with the connotations and definitions of the objects. For me, I enjoy stripping objects of their definitions. I want them to come in at a neutral state, which I don’t think is entirely possible, but I try to identify them in that state as much as I can because that’s the only point in time where they can create new relationships with other objects that are in that same state. If you take an object with all its loaded information, it becomes heavy and no longer abstract. I like the abstraction because it’s the only way that a third party who comes in can make their own perceptions of it.
TB: When you encounter an object, how long does it take for you to realise it into a work and what is that process like?
GL: Very long. Usually I collect them and put them at the side of the room. Depending on what else comes in, I might then see a connection between some of them. Sometimes they just sit there for a long time before going back to their original place which could be the kitchen or the bedroom. Which is also why I like to have my studio space in the place that I’m living because for example if I want to take a break, I would go to the kitchen to have a coffee and might then see something else in that space which could work with whatever I’m thinking about. I would bring it in, and if it doesn’t work then it goes back to the kitchen.
That’s how I work with objects in the sense that they are, again, not permanent. I don’t say, “Now you are an art object, or now you are an utensil.” It can even be that I take a spoon for this exhibition but after the exhibition it goes back into the kitchen. Which goes back to what I mentioned earlier – I don’t like that objects have a defined purpose or meaning. It can change, and it can change back.
TB: Your works have a kind of gentility and fragility which is quite difficult to achieve especially with hard and solid objects. Is this something you think about intentionally?
GL: Yes, I would say so. It has to feel almost like you want to approach it gently. That’s also why I like the audience to react to and interact with my work. By incorporating elements of fragility and precarity, it then becomes their responsibility to care for the work. It’s quite important for me because ultimately, I like my visitors to have a personal relationship with the objects that I display. There’s something quite nice about holding an object in your hands and not fully understanding how heavy it is until it is in your hands because they appear unfamiliar.
Borrowed phrases , Genevieve Leong at Page Break [Image by Marvin Tang]
TB: How do you know when you’re finished with a work or is it a constant state of change?
GL: When it happens you will know, but you’ll never know when it’s coming. For me, I have a few benchmarks. Benchmarks not being a list of things, but more of a selected group of existing works that I compare my other works against. It usually happens when I cannot take away or add any more elements. When a work is done, I never have to go back to it again and I know that this will not be changed even in future works. As much as I enjoy impermanence, I do strive to find that final form for the work because that’s the only way that my work feels, in a way, legitimate.
TB: You studied in London for two years before moving to Switzerland for four years. How do you think both experiences have informed the way you think about your practice?
GL: In London, I had a lot of direction coming from the tutors. There was a lot of critique and feedback about my work, which was quite difficult to take sometimes. But it gave me that foundation to be a bit more strict with the work that I make.
In Switzerland, I didn’t think that I would be getting opportunities, but the softness of my work somehow worked with the people there. Whereas in London, the works that were sort of doing well were a lot louder or more politically driven, and I never felt like my work was in that realm. Because I was working quite isolatedly from my studio in Switzerland, it was free play. Just based on the exhibitions I was getting and the different installations I was creating, it encouraged me to continue in that direction and not be so worried about not being very precise or research-driven. That said, what I had in London was very essential in order for me to work as freely as I did in Switzerland. Even though the two periods in my life were quite different, one would not have existed without the other.
Frühstück , Genevieve Leong at MOKKA-RUBIN [Olten, Switzerland]
TB: How would you say that differs from the settings in Singapore?
GL: I’m not sure yet as I’m still trying to adjust back to Singapore. Here, people have a need to understand, and many have told me that they have difficulty understanding my work. Whereas in Switzerland, I thought I might have that same issue because I’m so used to people asking me about the meaning of my work, but I never had to answer a question like that. No one has ever asked me, “What does your work mean?” Rather, what they would do is share with me how the work makes them feel, which is really nice. I think it’s because the history of art goes a long way back in their culture and they are used to seeing artworks since they were young. I feel that in Singapore, unfortunately, we don’t quite have that kind of foundation of art appreciation yet.
Through a lot of these interactions, I note what is interesting to viewers, and I then try to feed these ideas into my future works. The feedback helps me refine and recalibrate as well, with the understanding of how people react to the work. Furthermore, in order to further help viewers better relate to my work without me over-explaining, I created a pocket dictionary of non-understanding. I wanted to reiterate that it’s not about understanding, but rather, about being comfortable in non-understanding.
a pocket dictionary of non-understanding, Genevieve Leong
TB: This seems like a good segue to start talking about your books. Very often the text only appears in your artist books, and seldom in your physical installations. Is there a reason for that?
GL: When I was in London, I started out making installations with text either on the walls or somewhere else. One of my tutors then said that I had to stop relying on text because it’s easy to encounter an installation where there’s text. It’s the easiest way to understand something and sometimes if you can read something, you don’t put in the effort to look around. That’s how I started to think a bit harder about how text should be incorporated into my work. I knew I didn’t want to fully remove it because of its fundamental importance in my practice, hence the book became quite a nice way to embody text while also enabling the work in the space to exist without it. For me, the publication became a very practical way for me to use text without being too didactic.
TB: How would you say you approach the book-making process as opposed to the exhibition-making process? In what ways are they similar/different?
GL: The similarity is this action of collecting: collecting words, colours, colours in written forms, conjunctions. The collection grows over time based on my daily life – similar to the way I collect found objects – it’s not something I just sit down and list. In that way, whatever I encounter is not deliberate, it’s always quite accidental. The difference is that the object-oriented exhibition-making process is not so linear, whereas when you create a book you have to work in a linear way in order to make sense, or you would have to think about pace – how to build up and then build back down.
TB: The pocket dictionary series started with a pocket dictionary of non-understanding. How did it develop into the second and third books?
GL: I really enjoyed the format of a pocket dictionary, not just as an output but also for myself to re-understand my own work. For me it’s a research material that I created and which I also use, so if one day I have no more ideas I can just go back here and pick any word and it can develop into a new work. The beauty about the selection of the words is that they fit into a lot of my interests and into different bodies of work that I’ve already done or that I know I will do. It’s almost like it feeds back into the process, just like how I would use and reuse my objects.
Legsicon, Laure Prouvost
This work was largely inspired by Legsicon by Laure Provoust. Before I created this, I saw Prouvost’s exhibition in Antwerp and I was so touched by it on so many levels despite her work being vastly different from mine – she’s very direct, loud and fast, whereas my work is quite the opposite. Legsicon is basically a catalogue that’s been organised into key words, so her whole practice is based on this book or can be categorised into the chapters that she wrote. Despite the different tones in our practices, when I saw this book I immediately knew I had to make one for myself to start building up my lexicon, like she has, such that eventually I would have a lexicon of words that inform myself as well as the viewers about what my practice really is.
TB: What is it about the medium of the book that you feel drawn to?
GL: The linearity is definitely important, but I also enjoy the book as an extension of an installation. I like that with a publication, it’s not just about the exhibition that happened. The physical exhibition can be the starting point, it can be the reason you create a book, but it has to have a longevity to it. So even though a pocket dictionary of non-understanding was created for my work, Configurations, it doesn’t just die with the work. In my earlier publications, it was always about the content of a particular body of work, but in the recent ones, they are more all-encompassing of my practice.
I get quite sentimental deinstalling a work because it’s so site-specific. For example, with my exhibition Configurations at Supernormal in 2019, it still remains to date my favourite iteration of that work because of how special the place was and how the work really responded to the site. I make books so that exhibitions can continue to live, in a way. Even though I made the catalogue mainly for the show, I still sometimes read back on the foreword that Berny Tan wrote, or the short text that a friend of mine contributed to it, and still get a lot of inspiration from them. On some days when I forget what my work is about, I read this and it reminds me of what I should focus on, how I work, and how I always have worked. That is truly quite comforting for me.
TB: I like the way you talk about Supernormal, as if it’s a space that also becomes an object that’s part of you work, like it’s one of the elements together with the book as opposed to just having a work in a space. That’s quite special.
Was a pocket dictionary of things misunderstood also made on the occasion of an exhibition?
GL: No, this was made as a standalone book which then became an exhibition later on. I would say non-understanding was really about concepts that I was interested in, and things misunderstood was me trying to explain or justify to myself why I am interested in the objects I collect. Sometimes it’s not so easy to explain why I select an object, and I don’t like to say I don’t know, or that I simply like it, or I was just drawn to it. In things misunderstood I attempt to point out characteristics in objects that I am drawn to, in order that people might also develop new perspectives on the objects.
TB: And what about the third book in the pocket dictionary series?
GL: This was inspired by my time in Switzerland where I was learning the German language. I kept confusing words, and my Swiss friends would also confuse English words, so I started to collect these similar words and I thought it would be quite a nice gift to my time in Switzerland for when I was leaving.
a pocket dictionary of word slips (english/german special edition), Genevieve Leong
TB: How long have you been making books?
GL: The first book I made was in 2014, titled Secrets. During my first year as a photography student, our lecturer Ang Song Nian asked us to make an artist book that represents our practice. Another important starting point of my book-making practice was Come Home, a book that I made during the Noise Mentorship Programme in 2014 with Pann Lim as my mentor. It is very different from what I do now, but it’s a very personal project about my grandparents. They are separated and they don’t live together, and over the years they would always badmouth each other to me. My grandfather fell quite sick towards the end of his life, and I noticed that my grandmother still cared a lot about him, so I made Come Home, where I was trying to put them back in the same plane through a book.
It starts with me photographing them in their space, and if I didn’t share whatever I just did with you, you would think they are living in the same home when you flip through the book. It then slowly transits into the objects that they have, because I found it harder and harder to photograph them for the sake of a project, so I decided to photograph their objects instead, which is also where the paper changes. I really love that with books you can play a lot, very subtly, in the way that you communicate a story.
TB: Can you share about the other two books you picked out?
GL: The catalogue made on occasion of Fernanda Gomes’ solo exhibition at Pinacoteca de São Paolo came quite immediately to mind. As I was sharing with you earlier, I really enjoy publications that are an extension of an exhibition or installation, so I’m always very drawn to catalogues that make sense to me.
Fernanda Gomes 
This was done in a way that isn’t just about the exhibition, she did this whole thing where she tried to categorise her entire practice. For Fernanda Gomes, she spent 21 days in the exhibition space and treated it like her studio. She was working onsite for the show and the images you see are not catalogue images, nor are they documentations of the show, they are possibilities. It was her making photos while she was working – putting it in a certain arrangement, taking a photo; changing it, taking a photo; taking something here into the other room, taking a photo.
Fernanda Gomes at Pinacoteca de São Paolo
There’s this sense of impermanence in the way she works which I really resonate with. I like that through photographs, it expands the possibility of a single object because an object can appear in ten photos, but in real life it can only be in one room. I like that you don’t know how the installation looked like in the end because all the photos are of her working in the space rather than the actual installation itself. I thought that was a really cool way of doing a catalogue, not as a form of documentary but as a form of process.
The third book, Will Happiness Find Me? by Peter Fischli and David Weiss, has always been with me throughout me being an artist, and I hold it dear because it’s funny, touching and comforting all at the same time. It always reminds me that the starting point of a work can be anything, really. One of the rhetorical questions in the book is, “Is my stupidity a warm coat?” It’s somehow just very human, and so simple. It’s very poignant and it reminds me of characteristics I want my work to have as well. It has a kind of futility but also a hopefulness; a ridiculousness but also a certain type of sincerity – I can’t quite explain it.
We keep going around in circles and we never know why until we break them all
7 – 22 Oct 2023 at Supperhouse