Interview with the participating artists: Donna Ong

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E-mail interviews were conducted with the ten artists featured in the exhibition Home Again—10 Artists Who Have Experienced Japan.

Donna Ong, who did her residency in 2008, incorporated Japanese dolls in a video installation that expresses the artist’s unique take on their historical background. She returned to Japan in 2009for a residential art project at the Koganecho Bazaar.

These interviews were conducted by Arts Initiative Tokyo (AIT).

DONNA ONG Singapore, b. 1978 Based in Singapore, Ong studied at Goldsmith’s College in London. She draws on various narrative sources for her installations and video art, ranging from mythology, religion and art history. During her residency in 2008, Ong created an installation consisting of dollhouse tableware and furniture painted black, gray and silver. Her work has appeared at the Singapore Biennale (2006) and Moscow Biennale (2007). This exhibition features a video work inspired by the friendship dolls that were exchanged between Japan and America in 1927 as symbols of friendship between the two nations.

Q1: Your work often takes intimate, small settings/ scenarios as a starting point. The Tokyo works were small models of fantastic furniture. How did you come to making these works?

Q2: Do you begin to make works with a narrative or story in mind? Are the various elements in the work connected in your mind within a fiction?

The Tokyo works came from looking around stores in Japan and being fascinated with the wide range of doll furniture and accessories available in some of the stores. Also, having to stay in a small apartment where one lived and in my case, also worked, made me think more about scale. In the past, my installations were often huge pieces, but the size of rooms in Tokyo and also how cleverly they transformed and altered things to fit their reduced living and working spaces, made me question if my work always had to be so big, and could I achieve the same effect with a smaller scale. So I decided to make a series of works that followed on from my previous work – the theme being the gap between people’s dreams and their reality, and how they chose to close that gap. In this case, I felt that playing with dolls, or toys, especially by adults, was some sort of wish fulfillment or escapism. This play fulfilled some part of their life that in reality remained unfulfilled, or it enabled them to play out scenarios and dreams they hoped would take place. My work with the toy furniture was just a little further than someone would normally go – an adult playing a child’s game much too seriously – thus becoming almost uncanny and even a little bit disquieting.

Q3: The newer video works came from the story of a doll exchange in the 1920s I think? How did you come across this story and what attracted you to it?

Q4: The video uses light and shadow, and is almost a series of stills – it reminds me of the wonderful film version of Alice in Wonderland by Jan Svankmajer.

The newer works came from my research on Japanese traditional dolls, the Ichimatsu dolls, in particular. I found out that they were influenced by the creation of the dolls made for the “friendship doll project” which then led me to investigate what that was. What I learnt inspired me to make a work that would bring attention to this poignant project by these children. I was touched by their efforts to build ties of peace between the two countries, and even more so by their innocent belief that their efforts could avert war. I wanted to commemorate their efforts and perhaps inspire others to follow what they have done, though their efforts did not quite achieve the results they had hoped for, others following on can perhaps succeed where they had not (i.e. in achieving peace between two contrary groups of people).

I started collecting dolls in Japan during my residency at AIT, but didn’t have enough time to develop or finish the work then. I went to antique markets and fairs where I bought small dolls from the period of World War II. I also bought some Japanese and Western doll houses as well. Over the next year, I continued going to antique markets and fairs in Europe, where I built up a collection of dolls from Japan and Western dolls. My work combined the two, one Japanese doll meeting one Western doll in either a Japanese doll house interior, or a Western doll house interior. The dolls don’t move and only the light changes, moving from left to right to symbolize the passing of time, and also to give the illusion of movement. However, it moves so slowly, one almost thinks it is the trick of the eye, or that something strange is going on.