A term coined by me in my PhD dissertation, “Clement Space” denotes a mental and physical ‘space’ for sensory equilibrium, an oasis in the midst of raging, parched desert sands. Like empathy, Clement Space is not some beauteous space that comes from a wave of the magician’s wand. It needs to be designed, crafted and maintained. Calm and serenity actually require a great deal of active energy in order to create and achieve. It also needs guarding against antagonistic elements from within and without, i.e. from inside our own tempests as well as from people (other) who may encroach upon our carefully built peace, whether intentionally or not. Unlike teacakes on a platter in a fancy restaurant, Clement Space isn’t at all about waiting passively for others to provide, but an action – sometimes even quite vigorous – towards that much-needed state of rest and restoration.
Once arrived at, Clement Space should be treated with gentle respect, even if somewhat playful and whimsical, because this is how we ought to approach our own mental and physical wellbeing. We ought never to run rough-shot over such a fragile yet fundamentally important thing. Take a look at the following photographs that show how Lucy and her friends – some human, some canine – approached Clement Space. (The concept of gentle, respectful respite was inspired by Lucy, after all.)
[General description of photo cluster 1 – below: Lucy, a black Greyhound dog is seen in restful states, lying down, sleeping, or gently exploring a room full of white and off-white rugs, tents, organza curtains, pompoms, tactile objects and cushions. Humans and dogs are sharing the space in calm, serene postures. A pair of feet in socks stick out from a long cocoon tent, in which a person is lying down. Another black Greyhound wearing a mindDog assistance dog vest and a long-haired female lie serenely together. A person in dark trousers, white shirt and hat lies on the rugs between two tents. Lucy is down in a relaxed ‘sphinx’ position next to the person. Another large male Greyhound politely explores the space with Lucy. A brown dog lies on his owner’s hat and at his owners feet. All photos exude calm and tranquility.]
[General description of photo cluster 2 – below: three photos of different iterations of white and off-white themed Clement Space. First photo is a montage of four, Lucy in various positions around a wobbly cocoon tent, lying on her mat, gently walking around the tent and lying inside the tent. Location: UNSW Art & Design, Sydney. Second photo is a montage of two, a black bustier dress with puffy beige skirt hangs suspended from above over a small narrow space with textured ground and tactile objects around. A lady with long hair in dark coloured clothing stoops at the entrance, looking up, admiring the space. Location: An art gallery in Hong Kong. Third photo shows sunlight streaming in through a bay window with old wooden frames. It is shielded by a soft netting curtain embellished with pompoms. There are cushions and a soft thin mattress for visitors to sit or lie on. Location: Customs House public library, Sydney.]
[General description of photo cluster 3 – below: Snoosphere is a multi-sensory immersive installation that was part of the large BIG Anxiety Festival 2017 in Sydney. The lighting is dimmed and the room is enveloped in purple and dark pink hues. People are lying quietly in large bean bags under giant puffy clouds, a child and an adult are activating a water vibration feature, and someone is interacting with a hanging installation. The atmosphere is peaceful, visitors in this space are interacting and engaging respectfully and gently.
What about “art for all”?, some may ask. As an artist whose focus is on creating immersive experiences through multi sensory and multi disciplinary art, I staunchly believe that art is indeed for everyone. Art spaces, especially those open to the general public, ought to be as accessible as possible to everyone and anyone, embracing diversity is crucial to art being dynamic and cogent. Yet, providing access and inclusion does not mean that everyone should be given free license to treat the art and anything else in art spaces and public places with contempt and disrespect.
I have created immersive spaces in the UK, Australia, Hong Kong, and now Singapore. Children are welcome guests in all my installations. To me, a child has as much right to enjoy and experience art as an adult does. By the same principle, children have as much responsibility as adults to learn how to approach their environment and all that is within with the right amount of respect, art or not – for what constitutes ‘art’ is a hotly debated subject in any case.
Clement Space at the National Gallery Singapore is now officially open. The National Gallery has demonstrated sincerity in their vision to embrace diversity, to provide access and inclusion to everyone. This is especially meaningful to people with disabilities, most of whom have been previously left out of the conversations in and around art spaces. I am thus thrilled and honoured to have been commissioned by the National Gallery to create this latest iteration of Clement Space, which is a personal and more intimate expression of restfulness as inspired by my other work, “Scheherazade’s Sea”.
For an artist, it is immensely delightful to see large crowds eager to view our work. Clement Space was bustling when I visited it in the late afternoon on the opening day of the Light to Night Festival, 11 January 2020. By the evening, there was a long queue of visitors waiting to enter. Inside, it was at almost bursting point, and teeming with activity. The bean bags had been rearranged into a haptic mess, the doggy bed originally placed in the centre lay in a crumpled heap and the plushie replica of Lucy engulfed beneath. The sofa-bed lay naked at an awkward angle, its luscious blue velvet cover with coloured pompoms at the edges had been unceremoniously ripped off and tossed across the room – I found it buried deep under a pile of blankets, cushions and a displaced bean bag.
A friend, who is a music therapist, remarked to me how ironic the situation was, because this unexpected surge and overflow had unwittingly transformed the space into quite the opposite of its original intent. As the artist behind the work, I must admit I was a little taken aback – I had not previously encountered this phenomenon in my exhibitions outside of Singapore. People from all situations and walks of life have perused and inhabited my immersive spaces, including energetic teenagers, young children with and without disabilities, teachers, parents, the elderly, corporate types wearing suits, and even the homeless, as well as pet dogs – I create immersive spaces that are meant to be accessible and inclusive – but never has there been such a reaction of unbridled abandon of this extent and nature to any of my immersive spaces before. I was stunned speechless, when I witnessed people throwing my work at each other and all over the space. All I could do was tidy up after them as fast as I could, even though it seemed like a hapless mission.
As a researcher, however, I am curious and rather excited to study this phenomenon, learn how to get around it, and how I may help bring some level of reform and learning that would be beneficial to all, from eclectic perspectives. My material practice has always emerged from my research, and in turn these utterances feed back into my research in a seamless, symbiotic interplay of connectivity.
I am not at all offended, daunted or discouraged – in fact, I am inspired and quite thrilled by this experience. For me, it is all part of the amazing beauty of journeying, an inexorable pursuit of art as its own autonomous entity, which presents more to learn, more to discover, more to share. The best part of the journey is being led by the artwork into its own unique process of growing and becoming.
Here is a quote from my PhD dissertation:
Process, to the Autist, is as crucial as the final outcome. In some cases, process is paramount and finality is an incomplete oxymoronic concept in itself. The intense detail-focused mind of an autist is not necessarily unable to paint sweeping landscapes, it merely delights in the vibrant and dynamic energy of pursuit: a quest to discover vast universes within minutiae, chasing an idea through meandering tunnels with no fixed thought about the shape and form of an expected end.
Process, thus, becomes to the autist the Endeavour, an embodied resonance that “embraces the entirety of existence, where the cerebral is in persistent, active sympathy with dynamic material.” Every endeavour possesses its own vibrant personification, and for the autist, Endeavour is not theoretical excursion but rather the embedded visionary and resonant sentience of all effort.– Dawn-joy Leong, “Scheherazade’s Sea: autism, parallel embodiment and elemental empathy,” Introduction.
What lies beneath this kind of behaviour in a public space among total strangers?
When otherwise well-meaning people behave in loud, destructive and callous ways, they may be merely expressing a complexity of ignorance. There is also that element of breaking loose from the strong arm of repression – from draconian rules and harsh punishments for the slightest aberrant behaviours – at being suddenly told they may feel free to touch and feel and engage with the elements inside a space as sensorially rich and luscious as this one. The abrupt shift in dynamics, the power to Be suddenly bestowed, might be the trigger to tip all the pent up frustrations – “Do not touch!”, “Do not move!”, “Do not go too near!” etc – over the edge. Whatever it was – and it would be somewhat different for each individual – that made people respond in such an unquieted and unruly way inside what is categorically stated as a “calm space”, I am now enthusiastic about developing ways to understand and apply this understanding in ways meaningful and beneficial to everyone – individual and communal.
What makes the same people who walk the hallways of art ever so obediently, adhering to the rules and regulations, standing a few feet away, behind metal barriers, admiring the sacred hangings on the hallowed walls, then behave with wild, destructive abandon upon entering a friendly, welcoming space within that larger space of controlled respect? What makes the people in charge of maintaining good behaviour everywhere else, guarding over the other art pieces with gravity and polite firmness, suddenly unsure how to manage unruly behaviour in this art space explicitly dedicated to respite and quietude? Is it the perceived monetary ‘value’ of the art on display? Is it their concept of what ‘art’ is and isn’t? Is it the permissive atmosphere of Clement Space, the lack of what is seen as “strict” control from the outside that has unleashed inner repression? Perhaps all is needed is gentle sharing of understanding, because understanding is empowerment.
So, what does one do in Clement Space? Serenity requires action. Imagine that this is your personal place of refuge. Imagine that you are the one who has created this rich yet comforting environment, for the sake of your mental wellbeing. For children, I usually tell them to imagine this being their resting dreamland, where they can be gentle and loving without being teased for being ‘weak’, where every single thing in the room is alive with kindly wordless interactivity with them. What does it mean in action?
Clement Space is a place of empowered gentleness.
Touch, feel, smell and play softly, tenderly.
Rest if you feel tired. Do not be afraid of restfulness.
There is no shame in quietness. When you are quiet, you will hear better and more amazing sounds that will captivate and fire your imagination.
Clement Space is a forgiving space, a peaceful hideaway, a balm for the weary in the midst of the fierce and harsh competitive jostling of life in the city.
Listen intently to the sounds you are making as you squeeze, shake and stroke each item that attracts your attention. Slowly. Absorb all the information that your fingertips, hands, nose, eyes, feet, entire body, are bringing to you.
And connect with respect to all the elements, because respect is empowering and never demeaning.
For those whose duty it is to guard and maintain the space, perhaps the best way to do this is to think of this space not just in terms of monetary value, or visual impact as a ‘work of art’ (though I do think that it is) but the preciousness of what Clement Space represents, and the benefits that everyone may reap from its respectful use, i.e. respite, restoration, better mental wellbeing, as well as the awareness of the wholeness of each person. The objects inside Clement Space are mundane, innocuous components of everyday life. They may not be expensive art pieces that have great value and standing in society, but you are actually guarding a sacred and essential human way of living and wellbeing. Just as you would never allow anyone to munch on a hamburger in front of the beautiful oil paintings that reside in other rooms, nor would you let young children play ‘Tarzan and Jane’ games, swinging from the rafters of the rooms that house the historical artefacts. It is possible to be brave custodians of Clement Space, as soon as you understand what this space stands for and why its message needs to be heard and embraced by all.
What about me? What will I do? Well, I am right this moment struggling to recover from overwhelming overload and physical punishment, nursing a high fever and exhaustion in every fibre of my body. But as soon as I recover, I shall spend some time inside Clement Space in the coming weeks to observe and learn, and hopefully discover many new aspects of clemency that I may share with all.
I am thankful to the National Gallery Singapore for going out on a limb – ahead of most others – to truly walk the talk and talk the walk in this currently swirling and churning conversation around the arts, disability, diversity, access and inclusion. Great things do not come about without risk, especially where differences in embodiment and entrenched social stigma are concerned. There needs to be trust built across the divide that separates the mainstream and the disabled fringe. Thank you, National Gallery, for taking that step when many others have cautiously held back. We are heralding a new era, forging onwards towards a better way to Be. It is my hope that our joint efforts will move others to follow suit. To dare to walk onwards towards positive and enriching change. Just we, the disabled, like to say, “Nothing about us without us,” I’d also like to add that the ‘us’ (disabled) also appreciate that nothing about us can be achieved without everyone – disabled or not – forging onwards in synchronous effort.
Postscript: A few recent comments from people known to me who have visited Clement Space in the last four days (from Monday 13 January) have mostly been positive. There have been no boisterous interruptions to their enjoyment of the intended tranquility of the space. They have also given me their opinions on how I may improve this space. I sincerely thank the Front of House folks for their peacekeeping efforts, and my ever patient and long-suffering programmes manager who has walked alongside every step of the way, helping in deed and spirit, as we seek to make this space and what it stands for better and better for all. I believe we are in this amazing growing journey together, and everyone matters, and all experiences contribute to the process in powerful ways.
If you visit, please do let me know your thoughts either in person, if I happen to be there, or via email: firstname.lastname@example.org
You may also submit your comments via the National Gallery’s official feedback portal.