Singapore based artist Tan Zi Xi (also known by her moniker MessyMsxi) experiments with a variety of mediums. Zi Xi got a degree in Graphic Design (Illustration Major) from Central Saint Martins in London, UK. After staying in the UK for about six months post her graduation, she moved back to Singapore to start her life as an independent artist. Apart from her commercial work for brands, Zi Xi has collaborated with graphic designers, fashion labels and museums for various projects including public art.
Zi Xi was in Mumbai recently for St+art India’s Mumbai edition, for which she created a much talked about and appreciated installation called ‘Plastic Ocean’ at Sassoon Docks. This was a version of the installation she had originally created for the Singapore Art Museum.
We met Zi Xi over breakfast at Cafe Mondegar in Colaba to know more about her work and life.
Tell us about your growing up years in Singapore.
My father is a painter, so my family has never been restrictive about my career choice. However, I never had the ambition to be an illustrator. I wanted to go down the academic road because my brother is very academically driven, and I thought it would be nice to compete with him. Eventually though, I ended up studying visual communications at a polytechnic. This is where I discovered that I enjoy illustration as a form of communication to shed light on issues and to tell stories. I really resonated with it.
Did you father influence your career in arts in any way?
Yes, my dad did influence me in his attitude towards work. He treated his work with a lot of passion and commitment. He never had it easy because while he wanted to be an artist, he also had to be the breadwinner of the family. When we were growing up, I saw him working from morning to night on his business, and then coming home to paint and have his quiet time. Even now he spends his days drawing and painting.
My greatest influence in life though was when I went to London on a government grant to study. London was very liberal and a completely different environment from Singapore, which was very refreshing for me. Singapore can be very orderly, restrictive, and has a shielded environment. We don’t get to hear much about drugs, crimes and other such stuff here. In London, everything was very new to me. The people I met, the things I read about, the news I watched – it all informed me in a very different way. It got me intrigued and hooked on to find out more about the world. When I moved to London, I also started watching documentaries on some really dark subjects and got into the habit of digging hard into a subject I was interested in.
How was your experience at Central Saint Martins?
The people I met at CSM were so diverse. I got to meet people from international backgrounds who think about things in a very different way. Everyone was inspiring and interesting for me.
Did you end up staying back after graduation?
After finishing my graduation in 2009, I did stay back but the economy was in a really bad shape at that time and it was hard to find a job. I remember London being a very depressing place back then. I stayed around for six months but then moved back to Singapore.
It was a good time to come back to Singapore actually. The art scene was just picking up, and there were more creative funding, festivals, exhibitions, etc. It was quite vibrant. When I came back, I did an exhibition at a gallery as the gallery space was sponsored, and I put the whole thing together myself.
What was the exhibition about?
It was about failure. These are the kind of topics I like to touch on – failure, disorder, environmental issues. They can be dark to some extent. I am quite a compassionate person and my own experiences and encounters are related to these subjects in a lot of ways, which is why they attract me I think.
So I was trying to do a series on Chinese acrobats as I was always fascinated by them. After two months of work on the series though, I realized that it wasn’t going anywhere. I had the exhibition deadline over my head and I felt like I was experiencing failure.
Also, a lot of my friends would ask me to hang out with them around this time and it was hard for me to explain to them that while this project wasn’t commercial, it was really important to me. I felt like nobody understood what was going on with me behind closed doors. So I applied this feeling to acrobats, as we only see them on the stage with their perfect performance. We never look at them behind the stage with their bruises, broken arms, etc. So that’s how the series came about.
These are the kind of topics I like to touch on – failure, disorder, environmental issues. They can be dark to some extent. I am quite a compassionate person and my own experiences and encounters are related to these subjects in a lot of ways, which is why they attract me I think.
What kind of work did you after that?
I did commercial illustrations after that. I also got help from a few design companies that knew my work. It was quite a tough start though. I did a lot of pro-bono work. And I am the kind of person who believes in making every project worthwhile, no matter how small it might be, so I worked hard on everything.
Also, since I went to college on scholarship, I didn’t really have a choice but to perform. I had to ensure all my projects at school were really good, and that’s how I ended up graduating with a substantial amount of work in my portfolio. That helped a lot. Eventually, things just started rolling. I got more jobs and collaborations. I was constantly trying to do interesting work.
In all of this, did you ever feel you had a breakthrough moment at work?
I think after doing commercial work for about five years, I felt a bit dry and uninspired. During this, I was helping a gallery with some illustration work, and since they didn’t have a budget to pay me, they offered me their gallery space for an exhibit and kept the theme open-ended. I wasn’t doing any personal work at that time so I started thinking about what I could put up.
I started creating some work but I wasn’t sure about it. So I contacted this friend in Hong Kong, who is a curator, to take a look at it since she really understands my work, and she said that she didn’t understand what I was trying to communicate. I instantly knew that I had to scrap the whole thing and start from scratch. Then I started thinking about doing a sculpture to fill the huge space in the gallery. I really like doing new things so I was excited about the sculpture idea. My friend warned me that I would be heavily critiqued if I entered the art world as a sculptor, but I went ahead with it.
I had an illustration that I wanted to convert into a 3D artwork, so I ended up creating this 143 metre long piece. From a distance, it looked like a pair of dangling arms, but on closer inspection, one could see pieces from my diaries that communicated my feelings. They were about my years in London which were quite troubled for various reasons (which brings me back to why I started communicating about eating disorder and other such issues). To communicate the idea that our personal thoughts are invisible, the sewing of texts and textures were in nude colored threads. Only those who are curious to see the sculpture closely would find my thoughts sewn all over and discover that I have a lot going on.
That installation was kind of like a breakthrough for me. I wanted to explore something tactile. I needed to challenge myself to step out of my comfort zone, even if I was scared.
Does creating public art scare you – mainly in the context of getting people’s judgments and opinions on your work without any filter?
I am not afraid of judgments at this point. I have always wanted to put out work that communicates something that’s a bit urgent and sheds light on some issue. From my point of view, I try to keep my work quite open-ended so it’s interesting to know what people think. Also, I think being critiqued can be a good thing. It’s nice to hear what others have to say about how I can make my work better.
If someone is giving me criticism, then I know they have thought deeply about my work. For example, when some people saw my ‘Plastic Ocean’ installation in Mumbai, they wrote to me on Instagram saying that ‘there is so much waste out there on the shores, why did you buy more plastic?’. They completely missed the point that I bought the plastic from Dharavi’s recycle market. It wasn’t about generating new waste; it was about re-purposing the old waste. So these are the kind of questions I can answer. And if somebody sends me a question that I get stuck on, it would be interesting for me to think about it.
How did your association with St+art India happen?
St+art India is working with Singapore Tourism Board this year. And STB has this new campaign called ‘Passion Made Possible’ which is being launched in different places including Mumbai. As part of this, they wanted a few Singapore artists to participate in this year’s St+art festival.
I met Giulia Ambrogi and Akshat Nauriyal, co-founders and curators of the festival, in Singapore. I had already done ‘Plastic Ocean’ installation for the Singapore Art Museum, and they thought it would be really relevant for the exhibition at Sassoon Docks. I was very excited when our plans formalized as I wanted to work outside Singapore for a short period of time, and this was the perfect chance.
Could you tell us about the making of ‘Plastic Ocean’ installation in Mumbai?
In Singapore, I had to collect all the waste material from my friends and family. In Mumbai, the team purchased the materials from Dharavi’s recycle market. Before I came to Mumbai, I had given very specific instructions about the room set-up, lights, and stringing of the material. Some of the stuff was offtrack when I came here initially, but I understood that there was no way for them to know how I envisioned the installation.
So when I came to Mumbai, we bought more materials including colored bottles to have more contrast in the room. I thought if everything was transparent and white, it would look quite flat. Then the Koli ladies at the dock helped us wash the material. Only when we actually moved into the space, I did an exact measuring and got a clear idea of how the material should be hung.
Also, I had to visualize how the installation should be put together, because this was quite different from the one I created in Singapore. The room was five times bigger in Singapore, for example. However, here we had mirrors so that expanded the entire installation. Also, in essence, I knew that the installation in Mumbai shouldn’t be exactly like the one in Singapore. It was interesting for me to have this different experience with the space.
Finally, we started separating the material by length, stringing it together, and editing. It was all a mad rush as I just had two and half weeks to complete this installation, as compared to the three months I took in Singapore just for stringing the material.
If someone is giving me criticism, then I know they have thought deeply about my work.
What are the things that really inspire you?
I am a documentary junkie. I watch a lot of documentaries about drugs, crime, poverty – really dark topics basically. I am always intrigued to learn about the less fortunate and why people do things the way they do. Growing up in Singapore is quite surreal. There is too much I don’t know and sometimes that makes me feel naive, and I don’t want to be naive. Watching these documentaries informs me.
And now that I travel, I can talk to people easily because I know about their culture. In India, for example, I wasn’t surprised to see poverty, class system, caste system, etc. Of course, I want to know more about the reality from the locals.
You mentioned before that you want to travel outside Singapore and work. Do you have any plans for that?
Yes. I want to try doing ‘Plastic Ocean’ elsewhere. I want to understand how it can be displayed differently, and how it can communicate the same message in a different space. I want to make my work less repetitive and more interesting. I also want to think about new things to talk about.
In terms of my travel wishlist, I want to attend this festival in Japan called the Setouchi Triennale which happens around the islands. These islands inhabit an ageing population, and the idea behind starting this festival was to revitalize the island. So they brought in design buildings, museums, etc. and people started going there to see the art and then the locals started getting jobs. I want to do an exhibition there or at least put up an artwork. It’s part of my bucket list. Moreover, I really respect the craft in Japan, and I love how everything there is so polished.
What’s on your mind currently?
The one month that I spent in Mumbai has been so refreshing. So I have been thinking about how I can take more time out like this to work out of different places.
When I was in London, I felt so different. And then when I went back to Singapore, I realized that I slowly started conforming to the culture. I became somebody I didn’t want to be. And coming to Mumbai has been a great break from that life. It has renewed my desire to work in a different city once in a while, to have more clarity to do what I really enjoy and not get stuck in a rat race.
Lastly, are there any particular advantages of being an artist in Singapore?
I think we have a lot of opportunities in Singapore. The government is doing a lot to help – providing grants, promoting local art and design scene, hosting festivals, etc. Also, there is a big advantage to being supported by a government which has a good budget. And since Singapore is a small country, you are competing with a smaller pool of artists, so there is a lot of room to grow.
I am a documentary junkie. I watch a lot of documentaries about drugs, crime, poverty – really dark topics basically. I am always intrigued to learn about the less fortunate and why people do things the way they do.