Blog written by Patricia Zimmermann, Shaw Foundation Professor, Nanyang Technological University and codirector, Finger Lakes Environmental Film Festival
Jesvin and the Doll
When I met Jesvin for lunch at the sushi place on the NTU campus, she handed me her name card.
Well, it wasn’t exactly the typical flat white card with her name, rank and university logo. Namecards are ubiquitous here in Southeast Asia, a social ritual where, upon meeting someone, you offer your name card with two hands, accept the other person's name card with two hands, and spend time admiring and analyzing the card.
Jesvin handed me something entirely different: a small plastic doll about 3 inches high in an elegantly designed little brown box with curlicues.
The doll was an avatar of Jesvin and Singapore’s multicultural heritage, with colors representing the different ethnic groups here: black hair for Chinese, purple dress for Indian, green jacket for Malay. She emphasized “it’s not Japanese design, it’s Singaporean.”
Jesvin is a designer who shape-shifts effortlessly between the international commercial and art worlds. Her doll calling card, which fits one’s hand perfectly like an oversized chess piece, emblematizes the kind of epistemological surprises the emerge from the mixing of cultures, ideas and shapes in her art work.
Jesvin was born in Singapore and is currently in the School of Art, Design and Media at Nanyang Technological University.
Jesvin has worked in the creative industry as an art director and brand consultant for ten years in Singapore and the UK. She has experience working for multinational advertising agencies such as the Publicis Group, Young & Rubicam Inc, Ogilvy, and others. As a designer, she’s fascinated by conceptual thinking, branding strategy, identity system, and package structuring. She researched and discovered Street Theatre Advertising, an advertising method that she introduced to London in 2003 and was later adopted by Nokia.
As a researcher on semantics of Asian cultural identity and knowledge visualization, Jesvin has published her findings and presented her works at several international conferences. She also exhibits her creative works internationally. After you read my interview with her below, you can see more of her work here: http://www.jesvinyeo.com/
Patricia Zimmermann: What drew you to working in design in the first place?
Jesvin Yeo: It’s embarrassing to answer this question. I was always good in drawing and have a good sense of aesthetics. However, I had never though I could have an career in the arts until I met my first boyfriend. He was a person that didn’t do well academically, but could draw skillfully. When he couldn’t get admitted to any junior college or polytechnic after O level, he convinced me to join him in a design school. So I quit my junior college studies for graphic design—at that time, an area that was utterly unknown to me. Somehow I knew that graphic design suited me better than the study of economics.
PZ: You are a unique artist in that you have worked commercially and also in the art world. What do you see as the advantages of this shape-shifting between these two worlds? How does your migration between the two influence your work?
JV: Because I worked as an art director for a decade, I have a tendency to question anything that is illogical or too self expressive. But like any other artist, my work also conveys a message—but I try to insure that my work has a clear single message that is not open to multiple interpretations by viewers. This strategy references the commercial world of design: one means one and two means two. The visual appearance of my work is simple and straightforward as well. My commercial background gives me several advantages as a fine artist: I have more tools to work with, I have full control over the design of my exhibition catalogues and promotional kits, and I am also the designer of these materials.
PZ: What do you see as the major conceptual/visual concerns of your art practice? What are you exploring?
JV: My art practice has two directions. One is to promote or revisit what Singapore has. The other one is to create interesting learning experiences. My motto: inspired by the past, stimulated by the future
PZ: Your series of exquisite and provocative images Singapore Pangram, which make sort of poster art/high art around the linguistic practice of Singlish, exhibit an exciting mix, for me, of graphic design, handicraft, experimental imaging techniques, pop culture, and image density. They work a fine line between the experimental and the accessible, with bright colors. Can you explain the genesis of this idea, and some of your formal and sociological concerns in these works?
JV: In Singapore, there are many debates on whether or not to do away with Singlish. I felt that Singlish has evolved from many years of mixing languages---it truly shows Singapore's development as a multicultural nation. Doing away with Singlish is like erasing a huge chunk of Singapore's history. I believe that Singlish is a culture in Singapore, an infusion of east and west. Through Singapore Pangram, I aim to re-present Singlish in an interesting way to reconnect with fellow Singaporeans.
The experience of viewing the art pieces actually signifies the position of Singlish in our society. Singlish is always in the darkness, something Singapore is not proud of. You have to interact with Singlish in order to understand what it means. Singlish is like a shadow, not prominent, but it is always there and it cannot be disposed or dispensed with.
But of course, to be clear, the important part of Singapore Pangram is not to promote Singlish. Instead, the series hopes to influence or change how students and fellow Singaporeans look at our own culture, especially our cultural heritage in the context of this era of globalization.
PZ: Can you share with us the techniques you use to make the Singapore Pangram images? Is there anything in the images that would identify them as "Singaporean" beyond the Singlish? Why are you attracted to exploring Singlish in a visual way?
JV: The media used to make Singapore Pangram is colour markers on canvas, a very unconventional combination. It is a mix of the commercial and art worlds. Canvas belongs to the art world, while colour markers are commonly used as commercial tools. In order to give the pieces an unrefined feel like Singlish, the production process is hand-made, computerized and hand-made again.
Actually, all the people or objects in the images are what we have here in Singapore. However, everything we have here is basically imported, so there is no distinctively Singaporean style. I think the yellow top black taxi might be the only cultural icon that can identify itself as “Singaporean”. It was the very first official taxi in Singapore.
I am a visual person. I am into visual research, visualization, visual as knowledge---so it is just natural that I will explore everything in a visual way.
PZ: What are you working on now? What are some of the questions your work is exploring at the moment?
JV: I am working on a few things now: a book on tattoo and superstitious in Singapore Chinatown, interactive movies with RFID on experimental typography for my solo exhibitions in 2011. Beyond these specific projects, I’m continually thinking about the exploration, methodologies and theories of visual research, how material culture serves as an inspirational tool for designer, the value of the material culture of Singapore, and the time and place of the material culture.