The 69-Year-Old Performance Artist Who Defied Singapore’s Rigid Social Conventions

On a balmy Thursday afternoon in July, Amanda Heng was sitting by her work desk in her studio. She was studiously going through her archives and taking notes. Stacks of ring binders brimming with research documents and photographs framed her desk. Her workshop is nestled in a breezy ground floor corner space at Telok Kurau Studios, an arts housing project housed in an unassuming building at a residential street in Joo Chiat. A former primary school, the building was part of a derelict compound that the National Arts Council took over in 1996 and turned into a funded haven for burgeoning artists of the time.

Heng, whose name was then already synonymous with her multidisciplinary art practice that confronted point-blank the politics of the body, gender, identity and society, was among one of the artists to be given a dedicated space at the studio. She moved in in 1997 and has occupied the same room since.

Amanda Heng, photographed at her studio on July 9, 2020.
Amanda Heng, photographed at her studio on July 9, 2020.

When I knocked on her door, which had been left ajar, Heng rose from her seat and invited me to sit on a plastic chair painted in a camouflage motif. A memento of a past installation, she sheepishly remarks. The 69-year-old recently chopped off her trademark pigtails. Her short grey hair was now swept to the side, held down by a clip in a practical fashion.

“I’ve been looking into ageing problems lately,” she says. Her mother — who was once adamantly against Heng’s career switch from a civil tax officer to a full-time artist at the age of 37, before eventually becoming Heng’s frequent art collaborator — has dementia. “I was looking into how it affects the body. Of course, for me, our bodies are very immediate because I do performance work.”

Kuroda RaijiHeng’s “Let's Walk” performance in 1999.
Heng’s “Let's Walk” performance in 1999.

[Performing ‘S/He’ in 1994] was the first time I was able to define myself as a woman. I created my own language.

Close to 20 years after the first performance, Heng performed “Let’s Walk” at the M1 Singapore Fringe Festival in 2018.Courtesy of Amanda Heng
Close to 20 years after the first performance, Heng performed “Let’s Walk” at the M1 Singapore Fringe Festival in 2018.

As part of Heng’s last public performance for the “Every Step Counts” series in late March, right before Singapore’s partial lockdown kicked in, the artist invited her audience to join her walk of meditation. Barefoot, Heng walked for three hours, from Singapore Art Museum to the Esplanade, coming to terms with the limitations of her aged physique.

Those familiar with the artist’s repertoire would notice the jarring contrast between this recent work and that of “Let’s Walk” (1999), which was perhaps Heng’s most internationally recognised work to date. The latter involved Heng and a handful of art students walking backwards, with high-heeled shoes in their mouths and handheld mirrors as their visual guide. The piece was Heng’s silent riposte to the 1997 Asian financial crisis, when female employees were the first to be fired from companies.

“Now, for these performances, I have to plan ahead,” she remarks. “I need to prepare myself bodily.” Heng sees her body as her primary medium. The artist, who initially began her artistic trajectory as a printmaker, famously said that it had occurred to her that her body was the cheapest material she could use.

Collection of Singapore Art Museum. Courtesy of Amanda HengA self-portrait of Heng and her mother in “Another Woman” (1996-1997).
A self-portrait of Heng and her mother in “Another Woman” (1996-1997).
Courtesy of Amanda Heng20 years later, a recreation of the portrait. “Twenty Years Later” (2014) was shot as part of Curating Lab by NUS Museum.
20 years later, a recreation of the portrait. “Twenty Years Later” (2014) was shot as part of Curating Lab by NUS Museum.

The ’90s was when Heng actively performed in public spaces. Her debut as an artist was merely a few years after she abruptly left her white-collar job. At the time, issues of identity and gender roles dominated the conversation. Post-independence, Singapore’s transformation, structurally and culturally, was rapid. Things deemed irrelevant to the projected national narrative — buildings, peripheral kampongs, ethnic languages — were swiftly demolished to make way for “clean” and “modern” developments and the English language. But the people, Heng reminisces, struggled to find or fit into their roles in society.

The artist strongly resonated with this particular issue, having grown up in a strict, traditional Teochew family. Heng’s father, a stoic man who tyrannised Heng’s soft-spoken mother, was a subscriber of patriarchal beliefs. As a rebellious teenager, Heng eventually mustered the courage to stand up against him, increasingly defying him and what she took as society’s expectations of her as a young woman. 

Heng’s very first performance art, “S/He” (1994) could perhaps be seen as the culminating apex of her resistance. Despite approaching it from an utterly personal point of view, the show rang relevant. The act saw her putting on theatrical makeup by a dressing table, mixing flour and water — ingredients typically found in the kitchen or the proverbial place that some backward thinkers would only deem fit for women — before finally regurgitating the mixture and throwing it to the audience. 

Since 1998, the artist’s studio has occupied the same corner space on the ground floor of Telok Kurau Studios.
Since 1998, the artist’s studio has occupied the same corner space on the ground floor of Telok Kurau Studios.

“It was the first time I was able to define myself as a woman,” she says, explaining that eloquence was never her forte. “I created my own language.”

In 1994, the then-burgeoning local performance art scene suddenly screeched to a halt. Josef Ng, a performance artist, controversially snipped his pubic hair in public, leading Singapore’s strait-laced government to stop funding performance art indefinitely. (The funding freeze lasted for a decade). Heng, however, was undeterred. She began forming alliances with fellow women artists, hosting surreptitious meetings in her studio at Telok Kurau. (Heng was the only female artist given a space at the arts house project). In 1999, Heng became a co-founder of the first artist-run women collective in Singapore, Women in the Arts.

To Heng, and most performing artists, the tangible existence of a tight-knit creative community is pivotal. In these current dissociated times, she is thinking of ways to continue communicating with her audience. About a month ago, she had a public Zoom call. When she was asked what she plans to do now that access to public spaces are restricted and gatherings limited, she had no answer. “I’m still thinking of a way to navigate around this,” she admits. “But one thing I know is that this is nature’s way of telling us to stop, so we better jolly well stop and reflect.”

Photographs by Rosalynn Tay