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Visual Arts

Insights: Mary Bernadette Lee

On interpersonal relationships and material processes


Published: 16 Apr 2021

Time taken : ~10mins

Drawn from Mary Bernadette Lee's recent personal experiences, Change is Constant visually encapsulates her long-standing interests in interpersonal relationships and their trajectories. In this interview, she reflects upon the ideas that undergird the installation and the material processes behind this work.

"Change is Constant" was driven by your ongoing interest in the cyclical nature of relationship patterns and habitual human behaviour, represented through the intersections and divergences of repeated abstracted lines and circular forms. Could you share how the ideas behind the work came into genesis? Were there any circumstances that triggered or motivated these sentiments?

I have always been fascinated by the ways I come into an acquaintanceship and connect with people, some more than others. I am also interested in how some long-term friendships dissipate while other kindred connections increase over time and space. Two years ago, I decided to close a chapter on a friendship with someone I had known for years. It was a difficult decision to make, but I had analysed that we were both growing apart and that our values no longer aligned. It was as if we were two parallel lines moving together for years, but we grew apart  over time, and that is alright.

With the conclusion of a friendship came the birth of a brand new association with someone under unlikely circumstances. Despite knowing each other recently, our bond is one of the deepest I have experienced; how and when did our lines intersect? Was it by choice, circumstantial or a combination of both? I believe that every action and choice we make is consequential. The place we are at today in relation to ourselves and others is an accumulation of conscious and unconscious decisions. If we delineate our pathways, they might look similar to meandering lines, ever-expanding concentric circles, or interspersed singular dots, each momentarily connecting.

Changes are integral because it allows us to grow as a person. I realise that such interpersonal shifts have made me more aware of what I value in a friendship. I now choose wisely and intently on who I want to be surrounded by.

I have also observed through my experiences that adopting the same habits, routines and interests between two people or more does not result in identicality or uniformity. On the contrary, it is the steadiness in practising such modes and manners that begets growth in a relationship. 

In this work, acts of drawing lines repeatedly visualise that repetition does not equal sameness. Conversely, consistency generates new outcomes and directions, physically, mentally and spiritually. 

Installation view (detail) of Change is Constant

Installation view (detail) of <i>Change is Constant</i>

The materiality of the work—for example, the use of natural dyes that cause the fabrics to gradually fade when exposed to sunlight—becomes an active agent in embodying the ideas of impermanence and change. How did you arrive at working with these elements and techniques?

The nature of my practice revolves around the organic and letting the medium or material run its course to come alive in the work and its meaning. It was natural for me to gravitate towards such organic and natural materials. It was paramount that I let the work speak for itself. I am merely an enabler bringing collective meaning into a communal space.

In every relationship, certain natural constant conditions alter its path. For this work, light is symbolic of that constancy. Having it displayed at the Theatre Street Cones, where it receives daily direct sunlight, was an opportunity to harness nature’s gift to orchestrate change, transitions and impermanence.

I also intended for the work to be tender, soft and fluid. It appears to be floating and has an ethereal quality. I think that change is a necessary beauty. It is a necessity for growth and is also beautiful because as uncomfortable as change can be, there is always a silver lining to it. At the end of the day, change develops us and brings us to new spaces and people. It prepares us for what is to come so that we can be all the better and stronger for it.

I would also like to add that batik painting is a technique I have periodically dabbled in since I was 14 years old, and used for Change is Constant. I am drawn to the method because of how the various elements— wax and water (in the form of dye)—resist yet complement each other, creating patterns and narratives in the process.  

You collaborated with Gwen Chan, a natural dyer, for the work. Could you further elaborate on the process of collaboration?

I roped Gwen into the project to materialise the work. There was a lot of science, methodological planning and coordination involved. Time was of the essence to create the fabrics due to a variety of factors. Getting the correct tonal variations of the persimmon dye was contingent on duration. Wax was also an integral element in the process. The longer the wax boils, the higher its tendency to lighten the colour of the dye, which might also run the risk of irregular tonalities across the textile. In batik painting, the longer I left the brush in wax, the cooler and harder it became, making it impossible to apply the wax onto the cloth. It was also important to catch the sunlight to dry the textiles. Nonetheless, leaving the fabrics under the sun impacted the intensity of their colour.

As Gwen trained and worked in Japan for some years, she had a wealth of knowledge about dyes, textiles, and wax-resist painting (batik painting) to share. She gave me a new perspective regarding the types of tools that I could use in place of canting. She also advised on the types of brushes as well as cloth to get the right consistency and softness of the fabric.

Gwen is incredibly talented, skilled and possesses a keen sensitivity to the nature of the work. Her practice is process-based, and someone like her can fully understand the time taken and attention to create Change is Constant

"Change is Constant" was initially scheduled to be exhibited last year. Due to the pandemic, however, the presentation was postponed by a year. Has the work gained a different significance with time?

I would not say that the work gained a different significance but that it now serves as a microscopic perspective to what is happening presently. The work's importance remains the same, but the relevance to the times has become even stronger. 

Check out Change is Constant at the Theatre Street Cones from 1 Apr to 23 May 2021.

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