A couple of years ago, Singapore held its first ever Biennale - a big exhibition of international contemporary art, full of weirdness and wonderfulness. I managed to get interviews with three openly gay male artists participating last year while also grumbling about that no lesbian and bisexual female artists were represented.
Now, with the opening of the Singapore Biennale 2008, I'm pleased to announce that one of the headliners for the festival is Sydney-based feminist, queer activist and artist Deborah Kelly. (To be precise though, Kelly doesn't identify specifically with being lesbian, bisexual or queer - "I identify primarily as a human being," she says.)
The Singapore Biennale will be running from 11 September to 16 November 2008, featuring art with the theme of "Wonder". There will be 66 artists from 37 countries represented, mostly from Asia, showing their bizarre mist sculptures, soap installations and mutant melon labs mostly in spots along the Singapore River.
We managed to get through to Kelly for a phone interview, to talk about her life in activism and art.
æ: Age, sex, location?
Deborah: I'm 46, female and in Sydney.
æ: How old were you when you knew you wanted to be an artist?
Deborah: Always. Well, maybe four. I strongly remember my first drawing - you know how little kids draw; I had been looking at people when I went around and I realised their eyes weren't round; they were the shape of leaves. So I did a picture of people with leaf-shaped eyes and I thought, oh my god, that is so great, I love that picture. I wanted to keep having that feeling.
Then I went to a very strict religious school and I really strongly remember having to stand outside in the rain crying because they said I wasn't a good artist - it was just God working through me.
æ: Could you tell us about your work in queer activism?
Deborah: My biggest queer project is called "Hey, Hetero!" which is about heterosexual privileges, aimed at articulating or interrogating power while also being quite kitsch. It was a collaboration with the wonderful photographer Tina Fiveash, and I'm still really proud of it.
We won the Mardi Gras Artwork award, and it was shown throughout the subways in Glasgow; in Sydney it was at bus stops and in all the newspapers - but that's because it was reported on a lot, because it was making people have arguments in the streets. It's been written about in a lot of universities now but not in art departments, more in sociology.
When I was 21 I also helped design the first gay and lesbian magazine in Australia, called Outrage, where I was a cartoonist as well. That was in 1983.
æ: I know you've done other activist work too, right?
Deborah: You know, I think maybe that most exciting thing I did was in 1997. Our Prime Minister - John Howard at that time - refused to say sorry to the Aboriginal people for historically stealing their children, land and languages. So my friend said, "I want to show my grief," and I said, "I'll bloody well help you."
We made a black armband to indicate respect, sorrow and regret for Aboriginal dispossession. We convinced the Body Shop to sell them for us, and they sold 25,000. Everywhere you went you could see people wearing these black armbands - and it was awe-inspiring to see them, giving the Prime Minister a slap in the face, standing against the forgetting that was mandated by the government. It was absolutely heart-stopping.
That was the thing that really changed my mind about what art can be and what I do - to see the work participate in the public landscape. It was truly remarkable to see people take that up.
My friend who conceived the armbands is Dr Liz Conor, a cultural historian, who is ALSO, by incredible coincidence, the female star of Hey Hetero!
æ: Wow. Any other big projects you're proud of?
Deborah: The next really big thing that happened was in 2001 - you know Australia used to keep refugees and asylum seekers and lock them up for years? Some of them, a whole group of refugees, escaped from one of the detention centres, and there was a big national manhunt for them.
Then I heard this great anthropologist, Dr Ghassan Hage, talk about how he wanted to put a little sign in front of his house, saying they could hide at his place, and I thought everyone should have that sign. So I designed, a sign, and I sent to everyone I'd ever met and they sent it to everyone they'd ever met, and in a few days, it was in everyone's front window, all across the country.
I made it as a PDF file, easy to e-mail, because I think it's such a wonderful way to distribute something - art for free.
æ: Tell us about "Beware of the God". How did you get the idea for that?
Deborah: When I was really, really little I had a kind of waking dream where I saw words in the clouds in the sky. In fact, I was so little that I still wanted to be a nun - I must have been six or seven. I asked God a question and when I looked out of the window, I saw the answer in the clouds.
It's taken me 40 years to get the technology to make it happen. I was asking for a long, long time if anyone had invented a projector that could project a kilometer away, and everyone said no.
Then in 2005, I got a telephone call from a fairy godmother at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney, who asked me, "What are you working on and how can we help you?" I started asking around again and someone told me a guy had invented a projector in Paris.
So I thought, "Paris, wow, that's a really long way away from Sydney." Then I found out he had fallen in love with a woman in Sydney and had actually just moved to Bondi Beach, which was just 1 km from my house.
I found him and said, "I'm hiring you to do this big experiment." And I became a kind of weathervane for the next ten weeks - I would be hanging out of the window of the museum looking for clouds, because you can't project if there are no clouds and Sydney is famous for being a sunny city.
But the first time it worked, the clouds came lower and lower - just about the right height - and then we turned on the projector, and there you could read the words. I'll tell you, I nearly fell off the roof - I was so excited, I didn't know if it would work because it was an experiment, so I took a lot of photos, and they're all kind of blurred because I couldn't stop screaming. And other people were falling around, screaming as well, because words were appearing in the sky.
I met someone who was actually in Circular Quay at that time, and he fell to his knees when he saw it - so to me, it's not an artwork that makes you go, "I'm beholding an artwork." It makes you go, "I'm beholding a miracle." It's really a dream come true for me.
æ: Do you feel you've ever been discriminated against as an artist because of your orientation?
Deborah: I think I'm very, very lucky to be living at a time and in a country where, for a lot of organisations, I represent diversity. So I think I get some opportunities because of being queer, rather than in spite.
But the world is still is very much run by rich, straight white men in their own interests; even the art world. People and businesses have refused to work with me, but not often - because it's illegal to discriminate, it takes a hard-core bigot to do it!
Of course I have been abused in the streets, and once I was attacked physically and thrown into a polluted river.
æ: How do you feel about coming to Singapore this time round?
Deborah: Actually I'm fascinated by Singapore, and I can't wait to come back. I hope there'll be interesting queer events.
æ: Any last words for Asian queer community?
Deborah: Be bold and be brave, and support each other.
The Singapore Biennale 2008 will be on from Sept 11 to Nov 16 at various locations. Tickets at $10 for adults and $8 for students and senior citizens. More information at www.singaporebiennale.org. Kelly's work, "Beware of the God", will be publicly visible (conditions permitting) between 7:30 and 11pm on the Sept 9-10 and 12-14. For more images of Kelly's works, visit the related links below.
I love the concept of Beware of the God and Hey Hetero.
Intelligent, cheeky and definitely true.