If I were to be strict, how do I control the audience? You don’t know the public, why control? We are already living in a controlled society. What I’m trying to do is to break out from our state of mind, that we are used to. By using our body in different ways, and look at things in different ways.

A: For this conversation, I’d like to focus more on the participatory and collaborative aspects of your practice. Could we start by talking about your experience when you first encountered “Art Beyond Sight” Conference in New York? I heard about your experience and how it inspired you during your recent talk at STPI. How did you find out about the conference and what was it about that conference that really stood out for you?

P: My works have become more interactive, [requiring] more participation from the audience since 2000. I was building larger installations. In the past they were more static, not moving intentionally. But I do hang a lot of my works, so there would naturally be some kind of movement. I’m interested in these subtle details, and gradually I became interested in sensory perceptions, and wanted to see how the audience would react; apart from the visual, from just looking. I started with touch, with my work Noon- Nom, where people could have physical contact with the pillows and fabric.

Some of my works come from my experience and what I’m inspired by. Some of them come from certain invitations and themes that others invite me to participate in. For example, the project that you mentioned, “Art Beyond Sight”, a curator who was based in New York at that time contacted me and shared that the MET had been conducting this conference for some time now and it was mostly for art educators and teachers. But he wanted to invite contemporary artists, to place contemporary art within this conference. It was about art for the visually-impaired and he felt that it could be beyond just a mockup that the visually-impaired visitor would touch. I was working on a series of works called “Breasts and Clouds” and had the chance to go and do some glass works in Murano, Italy.

By that time, I was already involving sound and movement in my work “Temporary Insanity”. I wanted to explore more using music and sound. I thought of this piece where I imagined it all made of glass. I wanted to place the audience underneath a very fragile environment. It puts pressure on you even though you can’t touch it. Your movement activates the sound from the artwork. But I couldn’t realize this glass work in Murano. We just could not securely hang them and it was also super expensive to make.

I had the idea at the back of my mind for a few years. Until I was able to release the “Flying Cubes”, these origami cubes with wings. I use the word release because I was folding these cubes for a number of years now, without knowing how to use it my own way. Finally, it took form as scarecrows in the rice field, and then I incorporated them into the hanging sound installation “Anything Can Break”. It just all came together well. The paper material was good for the acoustics too. The installation is about 70 to 100 square metres large. The audience are able to walk under the work and activate the sounds. You can just discover and listen to the sounds. When no one moves, it’s just quiet.

A: What kinds of sounds did you use for this work?

P: There were two kinds of sounds. For the first set, I worked with a group of Americans, Jeffrey Calman, Avi Sills and Amir Efrat. The tracks are more classically based with vocals and percussions. The second set I worked with an Australian media artist Tim Gruchy. This collaboration was after I set it up in Sydney in 2012. The two set of sounds are quite different. Tim’s is more like soundscapes. I hope that I can invite more composers to interpret the work into sounds. The two sets of sounds are set to change every ten minutes so that the audience can have a different experience each them they walk through the work.

With “Anything Can Break”, there were a lot more collaborators, such as the people who worked on the glass. I eventually found someone in Bangkok. Thailand does not have a tradition for glassmaking but this man used to work for the Ministry of Science or something like that, and he had a passion for glass-blowing. The way he does it is not the same way like how they do it in Murano. He uses flame work around the glass tube and blows it into shapes. He was self-taught, but together we were able to find a way to securely hang the works. We have hung this work five times now, and sometimes glass breaks, but well, it is glass after all.

A: I want to return to the conference for a bit. When the curator approached you and mentioned that he wanted to place contemporary art within this conference which usually attracted art educators, what was your response? What did you hear at the conference? I imagine that the language used at the conference must have been quite different.

P: I didn’t actually participate in the end because we couldn’t finish the work in time for the conference. But it was an idea that affected me, and I wanted to realise the work eventually. In Bangkok, I planned the exhibition in multiple venues to exhibit “Flying Cubes” and “Anything Can Break” simultaneously so that we could work with the School of the Blind in Bangkok.

A: When you were working in Thailand with the School of the Blind, what was the collaboration like? Were you the first contemporary artist working with them?

P: I think there might have been others… I’m not completely sure. They do have art classes and they have an art teacher. The school system is very different from other “normal” schools in Thailand. For example, if you are twelve, it doesn’t necessarily mean you are in the sixth grade. We got permission to bring the students out from the school for this project. We brought them to a house which was turned into a gallery, so it was an intimate space to experience. I invited a friend who is very experienced in conducting art activities for children to lead the workshop. He was very engaging. We had discussions together about what we are going to do. He brought in balloons in a plastic bag and placed the flying cube sculptures above them to introduce a sense of flight, floating in the air. I gave some inputs, but I trusted him to do the activities.

We brought the children to the house gallery where the rattan flying cube sculptures were, and then moved to another venue to experience “Anything Can Break”. We had a mockup of the actual artwork for them to touch as well. Afterwards, they created their own works with materials which we prepared. We discussed what materials would be good and offer different textures. There were two students who were not completely blind. Some of them were not blind from birth too.

A: Did you find it challenging to work with these children who have different degrees of blindness?

P: It was not challenging. It was fascinating. It’s was a 100 square metre piece and there were about 10 to 12 students. When they walked and went under the installation, they just navigated the installation on their own, and it was fascinating to watch.

For the rattan flying cubes, the rattan material is very strong so that the students can handle them. I also made the wings in a way that it can move a bit.

A: Did you hear any unexpected responses from the students when they encountered your work for the first time?

P: After they created their own work, and they explained their ideas and share ideas about sleep, dreams and flight.  They were between 10 to 15 years of age.

A: In my recent research for the Singapore Art Museum‘s inaugural Touch Art Collection, I found an interesting writing by Professor Kojiro Hirose in Japan who advocates the establishment of a pedagogy of touch in museums. He feels that most audiences do not know how to touch, and feels that they need to be guided.

P: Yes, because we have been told for so long that we can’t touch in museums.

A: Yes, that’s right. Essentially, he broke down this pedagogy quite simply, by describing three ways of touch. One is where you touch widely with your hands outstretched; second, to touch closely with your fingertips concentrating on one small point, and finally to touch with your whole body. When I read that, I thought about your work because people can feel free when they encounter your work. Not just children living with blindness but anyone can be free too. I was wondering if you have your own reflections about how to touch too?

P: People touch my work in all of those ways which you have just described to me. I don’t divide. I think when we touch, we don’t think. It’s a natural reaction and intuition. How you want to approach, how you want to touch another person. So I don’t give guidelines. For example, my work “The House is Crumbling”, whether you want to just stack the pillows up, lie on the pillows, tie the pillows together, or throw them, and kids were indeed throwing them. It’s really up to you. I like my work to be very open. Open to possibilities.

Because  if I were to be strict, how do I control the audience? You don’t know the public, why control? We are already living in a controlled society. What I’m trying to do is to break out from our state of mind, that we are used to. By using our body in different ways, and look at things in different ways.

Photo credit: Pinaree Sanpitak