Dawn Ng’s works have always been tinged with a sense of wistfulness. Their alluring color palettes and artful compositions belie a poignant sense of loss, and a desire to remember – and memorialize – that which will soon be gone forever. Throughout her practice, an acute sense of time and its passing informs the making of Ng’s works; her art is, in many ways, an acknowledgment of the inexorable passage of time as well as an attempt to arrest or suspend it. Into Air coalesces and articulates these themes – along with other related strands of Ng’s practice, discussed below – in three distinct bodies of work.
Into Air is precisely a record and remnant of vessels (of time and colour) as they vanish ‘into air’. Created over a span of three years, the body of work in Into Air continues Ng’s preoccupation with time and her attempts to capture and convey its emotional tenor and elasticity, as opposed to the cold and factual progression of numerals commonly used to tell and record time.
In three distinct bodies of work, Ng explores how time can be documented and manipulated. Clocks is a series of photographs of giant blocks of frozen pigment, each image capturing the changing face of each ice block as it slowly melts. These lodestones of color replace the sterile faces of conventional clocks, and seek to express a more poetic means of telling – and holding – time: what, for instance, does the ‘face’ of four o’clock look like? Time Lost Falling In Love comprises time-lapse videos that record the complete disintegration of each block of frozen pigment. The laborious capture of up to 20 hours for each ice block is condensed into a video of 20 minutes, effectively ‘bending time’, the strangely hypnotic and cathartic cascade of melting pigment serving as a visual metaphor for the flow of time. Ash, the final body of work in Into Air, is a series of what the artist terms ‘residue paintings’, created by blanketing the liquid remains of each melted colored block with large sheets of paper. Left to rest in a vat over weeks until all the liquid has evaporated, the sheets are slowly stained and marbled with tributaries and pools of pigment, a process that Ng has likened to ‘sieving time’.
Into Air then is a complete ‘cycle’, charting the lifespan of a block of frozen pigment as it is exposed to the elements, melts, and then returns to air. The works are all traces and residues of each block’s existence, and record the movement of its states from solid to liquid, and eventually to air: from weight to lightness, monumentality to nothingness. If some of Ng’s works suggest a progressive desire to memorialize, to pin down the abstract or evanescent in a more durable or lasting form, then this body of work cycles in reverse, surrendering to the inevitable dissolution of matter and form.
Arguably this is also the first time Ng has ‘surrendered’ her artistic agency, in allowing time and the elements to be the co-creators of her residue paintings. Her previous works, informed by her design sensibilities, have always been meticulously planned and calibrated, from the careful arrangement of objects in boxes, to the precise gradation of hues and calculated placement of objects within a space. Every single nuance has been planned. This time, however, Ng relinquished control over the eventual outcome of her work, working instead as a collaborator with agents of time and change, and intervening only at the end of each process. For instance, some of the evocative scapes in her Ash paintings were created by the artist peeling away layers of the fraying paper surface to reveal a lighter patina underneath.
Into Air captures the in-between moments, the transitions in the life cycle of pigment blocks. Given this, Cavan Road was the perfect exhibition venue for this body of work, the space itself a time capsule, suspended between its former life as a ship repair workshop and residence, and its future incarnation as a boutique development. Its walls, washed with the patina of time, are a poetic backdrop for the fluid scapes of Ng’s Ash paintings, while the dated domestic interiors of the residences upstairs lend a poignancy to the idea of lives lived and the accumulation of time.
In mapping her works to the space, Ng once again departed from her modus operandi of meticulous placement, choosing to respond more intuitively to the nuances of the site. The works that one first encounters within the space evoke a spring and summer-like palette. Pastel hues give way to more vibrant swathes of color, in tandem with the openness of the space, and suggestive of the first flush of youth and its subsequent full bloom. Upstairs, in the more intimate residential spaces, a corresponding change in scale and palette can be observed, with autumnal and wintry hues evoking the later seasons of life. The movement of the exhibition hence approximates the rhythm of a life cycle, the flow of artworks punctuated by traces of lives lived; the detours into smaller rooms, small surprises in unexpected spaces, and closed doors a metaphor for the journey.
The intimacy of the encounter, so keenly felt in relational works like Sixteen and 11, is key to the experience of Into Air at Cavan Road. Framing the fluid abstracts of the residue paintings or the photographs of melting ‘clocks’, and exhibiting them in a conventional ‘white cube’ gallery space would have hemmed in and blanched these evocative images of their emotional palette. Displayed ‘bare’ on the unadorned and distressed walls of Cavan Road, the works are allowed to ‘breathe’ and come into their own, as lyrical odes to time, transience, and dissolution. For a brief moment, during the span of the exhibition, they are held there in suspension, poised for an intimate encounter. After which, this corpus of work and the contours of the space as it is now, will also disappear, into air.