They look like slivers of half-used, candy-coloured soap bars – vacuum-sealed in sets of six along with a printed zine that could pass off as the product pamphlet of the next big Gen Z beauty company. “Stranger(‘s) Touch,” reads the zine cover. “Handmade soaps moulded into the shape of used soap bars.”
It might all seem like a satirical artwork. Behind it is the emerging artist Daniel Chong who describes the kits – made available for sale online and displayed at the Arab Street branch of lifestyle-slash-co-working space Crane in March – as “an art project hiding under the guise of a beauty brand”. The pop-up presentation was organised by Chong and freelance art director Pixie Tan to explore the sense of touch and its place in human relationships and the everyday, with other tactility-intrigued artists on show.
Possibly esoteric stuff – except that said soap bits are new, clean and can be used. It’s your call whether to treat them as art or incorporate them into your daily shower ritual. “(The project) felt too commercial to be in a traditional art space yet too weird to be in Orchard Road,” says Chong. “My soaps could shine in the environment we had chosen due only to everyone understanding this in-between space that my work occupies.”
As part of Stranger(’s) Touch – an art project playfully disguised as a “beauty brand” showcased in March – artist Daniel Chong created colourful soap slivers intended to look like used soap bars. Every piece is new, clean and usable – whether you do or not is your call.
Welcome to the nebulous world where art and industrial – or utility-backed – design (architecture, fashion, bath supplies, you name it) intersect and meld together, resulting in objects that don’t fit neatly into either category.
The artist-turned-maker movement has had a long if informal history. Cue the sculptor Isamu Noguchi, whose modernist furniture – borne mid-career out of a collaboration with Herman Miller in the ’40s – remains a grail for collectors. Ditto Donald Judd and his pared-back, geometric chairs, bed frames and tables, which can be said to be a continuation of his Minimalist art practice in a different medium.
Over the past year or so in Singapore, though, a growing number of artists have been obfuscating the famous design principle of “form follows function” even further. As with Daniel Chong and his “should I or shouldn’t I” sud experiment, their work can be as conceptual as it is lifestyle-friendly.
Take artist Catherine Hu’s jewellery that adopts a similarly creative approach as her sculptures: Metal rings and pendants are decorated with shrunken-down versions of mundane objects ranging from candles to a lime juicer.
The surreal baubles by artist Catherine Hu are part sculpture, part jewellery and part gizmos with the miniatures of mundane objects that decorate them fully functional. These span from candelabrum to lime juicers and even a holder for lip balm.
She had started doing so for fun in 2020 as gifts for friends, thinking that her usual works could be on the intrusive side as small as they might be (the park benches that she had created for the Singapore Art Week show Bad Imitation this year, for example, measured 60 by 25 by 30cm each).
While the pieces can be worn and the objects attached to them are functional, Hu points out that with jewellery being foremost decorative, utility and comfort take second place. “I have the luxury of not having to consider these factors because I can hide behind the pretence of them being an art project,” she says.
Over at Niiil – a furniture collection launched by the artists Luke Heng and Nicholas Lim this January – what’s produced is dependent on the materials that the duo comes across. Their first collection consists of just five made-to-order designs: a chair, stool, table, armchair and bench, all crafted from anodised aluminium and stainless steel, explaining their hyper-industrial aesthetic.
Despite its sleek, industrial aesthetic, the Niiil furniture line – started by artists Luke Heng and Nicolas Lim this January – reflects its founders’ fine arts background. The duo start the design process by experimenting with a chosen material and letting that material and its inherent qualities dictate how their designs take shape.
“Instead of thinking about the end product, we thought that it might be more fun to let the material reveal its potential to us,” says Heng. “I suppose that we lean on our formal training as artists and are accustomed to the process of play to find the right elements for our furniture. We want to think that it’s an opportunity for us to further understand ourselves in the context of making functional objects.”
While it might seem intuitive or natural for such creatives to venture into product design, the pandemic has motivated more of them to do so. For the visual artist Dawn Ng, the desire to “cradle something soft yet concrete” to soothe the anxiety brought on by the first wave of lockdowns led to her first foray into design. Last February, she debuted Small Things, an ongoing series of delicate, handmade vessels created by kneading pigments into mulched paper and shaping them into plate and bowl-like objects.
Similarly, the multi-disciplinary Rifqi Amirul Rosli launched Viride – a range of retail-ready items including vessels, cups and incense holders – this January after the pandemic got him rethinking how people experience art. Every piece in the collection possesses a distinctly primordial, rough-hewn edge – Viride is intended to be Rifqi’s “sculptural playground” to explore not just materials, but also emotions through the art form.
Viride is a new range of functional and non-functional objects – vases, cups, incense holders and more – started by the artist Rifqi Amirul Rosli as a way for him to experiment with materials, sensations and emotions through sculpture. Fascinated with the rawness of clay, he crafted works inspired by natural elements such as tree barks and rocks.
Injecting both practicality and play into usually cerebral creations has other upsides. As Kim Tay, director of the online contemporary art and design gallery The Artling, points out, works designed to have a functional quality tend to be priced more accessibly than classic artworks.
Take how a photographic print from Ng’s Into Air series, which documents the lifespan of a frozen block of pigments as it was exposed to the elements and took three years to complete, is tagged at US$8,800 (S$12,000) on the site. Meanwhile, a “dish” from Small Things goes for between US$500 (S$683) and US$880 (S$1200) – a more palatable way for a young or novice collector to own a piece by one of Singapore’s buzziest artists.
That such works also tend to be handier in size is another draw for aspiring collectors. Independent curator Tan Siuli snapped up one of Daniel Chong’s soap kits at his Crane showcase. “This series is petite and portable, which means that I don’t need much space or special facilities to store it,” she says.
“I can live with the artwork and look at it every day in my home. Stranger(’s) Touch indicates how artists these days are looking for ways to present and conceive their work outside of the conventional museum and commercial gallery settings. I like how it made art accessible to a much wider demographic than those who would conventionally go to art exhibitions.”
Artist Tricia Lim who leads the ceramic studio Pinch, crafted a series of cups titled Ban Mian for the Stranger(‘s) Touch showcase. It features prominent “bite” marks from the artist herself. “For this limited series I wanted to explore how clay has the ability to pick up textures; to record the memory of surfaces and translate them into an experience within our hands,” says Lim. “I would like people to wake up in the morning and hold something that would stimulate their senses.”
Practically speaking, making functional objects represent an additional source of income in a period riddled with uncertainties, concurs the artist Michael Lee.
That’s not to say more accessible prices translate to compromises in artistic sensibilities; Lee recently made a series of fully functional beanbags titled Supernua meant to poke fun at the stiff decorum expected of art exhibition visitors – as well as how society generally frowns upon nua-ing (a colloquial term for lazing around).
Artful objects for everyday living can also possess a sense of humour, as evidenced here in artist Michael Lee’s beanbag titled Supernua. “Why are exhibition visitors expected to be attentive (to the exhibits) and respectful (when they arrive at an exhibition?) Two, why does nua-ing (idling, lazing around) have a bad name outside of the private realm of the home?” questions Lee. “Three, how might we rethink the making of sculptures in light of community participation? My answers to these questions came in Supernua, a beanbag that offers a place to rest, that acknowledges exhibition fatigue, and that reframes nua-ing as a process of sculpture-making: When resting on a beanbag, the exhibition visitors’ bodies are engulfed by this soft ‘sculpting material’ in ways reflecting individuals’ body type and resting style.”
“For me, thoughtfulness and light humour are important considerations in everything I do, including Supernua. Depending on how one sees it, an edition of Supernua at 500 bucks is either a slightly pricey beanbag, or a bargain for a work of art!”
Form need not always follow function, but when artists take to the axiom, the results can be uplifting. “I think many people today enjoy collecting aesthetically pleasing things to decorate their living space; to be enjoyed by their friends who visit; to simply have something to adore,” says the artist Rifqi.
“The long periods of idleness during the pandemic have made many people think about making their homes more livable, and slow down and appreciate the finer things in life.”
A version of this article first appeared in the May 2022 Taste Edition of FEMALE