Reflecting on Space and Environment in the Art Practice – Chloë Manasseh

Interview, 2017

Chloë Manasseh is a London-born artist based in Singapore. Her art practice involves working between observation and found imagery. Informed by intricate patterns and natural landscapes, her work reflects and imagines how we inhabit and establish connections to physical spaces. Deconstructing memories and direct experiences, she observes the relationship between natural and forged identities within past and new spaces.

Hi Chloë, allow me to begin on this note — What are some of the greatest flaws of art making?

Personally, I  think one of the greatest flaws is self-deprecation and not trusting your vision as an artist . Once you start to doubt yourself, it can be really challenging to work through it, to self-motivate and continue creating. I have to make sure that I paint or draw at least once a day. It may not necessarily be on a huge canvas – perhaps a small watercolour painting or sketch just to keep me grounded. It’s also a great way to work through ideas or get out of creative ruts. In a sense, making art is fairly egocentric and often incredibly personal. I think it can be a struggle for some artists to share their creations for this reason.

Back in my studio in London, I had the habit of turning works around once I had finished them, only coming back to them weeks later. It’s a simple mechanism which helps to create a degree of separation and allows me to take a fresh look later on. Now, with my role as Artist in Residence at The Winstedt School (TWS), it’s important for the kids to see that I take pride in my work and studio, so all my works are facing forward and ready for the students when they decide to visit.

Initially, it posed a challenge having to work like this as I often struggle with new works and need time to digest them as they are. This process also means that I have to confront my work every day, which has been a good experience so far.

How do you feel about making your works public?

I try not to overthink it but it is often a huge mix of emotions! Excitement, gratification, terror… Art is so subjective and there is always that nagging anxiety that people won’t like it or understand the narrative behind the work. It’s important not take everything personally and to allow mental separation between myself and my art!

Social media has become an interesting tool for artists. You can keep everyone up to date with your every move – in the studio, about upcoming projects, exhibitions, new works. At the same time, you are constantly bombarded by how prolific and productive all your peers are. It’s a wonder to me and this adds motivation to get my work out there into a physical space. Of course, it becomes moot if the artist’s work exists solely within the digital sphere.

What about nature speaks to you? How do these observations inform your paintings and installations?

The significance of nature for me is multifaceted and my focus within it is constantly shifting. There is an interest in the sublime power of the natural landscape, alongside notions that perhaps true wilderness can no longer exist for many people against the backdrop of the modern landscape and in the digital era.

My current focus looks at perceptions of identity and rootedness within landscape. I ponder a lot about the impact of collective 'familial’ memory, and the move that both my maternal and paternal family had to go through across countries and cultures. I’m of dual British and Israeli nationality, and have often struggled with which country (and climate!) I identify with more. Whilst London has been my primary base, I find that a sense of ‘home’ sometimes eludes me – having family all around the world shifts one’s concept of ‘home’.

My mother was born in Morocco and her family is now spread over three continents, with many settled in Israel, Canada and the US. My dad’s family has Baghdadi roots, and originally settled between Calcutta (India) and Singapore. My paternal grandmother’s family had roots in Portugal. Both my parents are currently based in Singapore, so when the opportunity came up for an artist residency here I was very curious to see how my familial and Jewish cultural connections alongside my own experience and perceptions of Singapore and living in Asia, would inform my artwork. As it stands today, Singapore feels as much like home as London or Israel.

What interests me about nature in this context is the trend for people to bring plants indoors, into their ‘homestead’ as an exotic escape of sorts. The plants are displaced from their natural environment, much like people in transit, expats, foreign workers and so on. Both locals and guests of a country construct an identity and reinvent their sense of self within their domestic base – often with sentimental items, patterned furnishings and nature all interspersed.

My approach of working brances out to my concerns for nature and the landscape. While I work with video, fabrics, sculpture and photography, my paintings are my most candid artworks and use a reduced visual language – often inspired by a single image I have seen, poems or books that I have read. I am a little obsessed with Matsuo Basho’s Haiku, and have read translations of them tirelessly. The Desire For Elsewhere by Agnes Chew has also really resonated with me recently and I often refer to certain chapters during moments of detachment.

My installation and video work feel like a reinvention of my personal space. I have often been told that I have an innate talent to be anywhere for a day and make it look like I have lived there for years. This can definitely be said of my studio at TWS –where I disperse ceramic ornamental fish in my art. They are a tangible reflection of my paintings, domestic thoughts, and my direct experience of the type of nature around me.

My current video work is filmed around Singapore in an attempt to navigate and orientate myself in a new environment. With videography, I often combine digital footage and painting on a Super 8 films and while they come across as fairly abstract, they speak directly of my experiences within new landscapes. They often possess absurd undertones with indefinable moments, almost mimicking my haphazard navigation skills.

Do you see yourself working with other elements?

My practice is constantly evolving and while I can’t see myself ever stopping to explore nature within my art, I can say with some certainty that other elements will continue to weave their way in. A few months ago, I rediscovered a childhood book of mine on Indian folklore. Since then, I’ve been making paintings based on the characters from the tales, which was quite unexpected to me! I have also been experimenting more with different media which I think inherently expands both the ‘canvas’ and the elements you engage with.

How do you navigate emotional responses towards your work, especially when nature is accessed differently across individuals and communities?

I think what often triggers an emotional response in my work isn’t just the imagery but the space, texture and palette. The work I make is very much linked to my emotional state and I do tend to repeat imagery and motifs – sometimes a little excessively! Psychoanalysis suggests that the nature of repeating something is very much linked to one trying to master an emotion, trauma or mind state, which is something I find fascinating but try not to overthink in reference to my own work.

Painting palms, flora, koi and other favoured imagery, I think, makes the work accessible and allows people to assign their own imaginative values and emotions to it. My paintings rarely have a horizon line or point of gravity. While they are contained within the inherent border of the canvas, they have no grounding that forces the viewer into confronting the reduced, recognisable imagery to locate something else—something personal—within the painting. The power of our imagination allows us to see things from more than one perspective.

Recent observations shared from the staff and students at TWS are that my paintings make them feel calm and spacious. This has been very satisfying to hear because for the past six months, ‘space’ (within the painting) has become an intrinsic part of all my work. One student told me that my Palm Umbrellas painting looked like dogs on pogo sticks and said it made him feel bouncy.

How did you begin working in the arts?

I grew up in an incredibly creative environment. My parents are both film makers, and my brother and I were lucky enough to grow up surrounded by creatives from various industries. My grandpa, Leonard Manasseh OBE RA, was a renowned architect and painter who motivated me to express myself through painting. My love of bright colours and flora came from him.

I think, however, the tipping point really came after I did a semester abroad at Bezalel Academy of Art and Design in Jerusalem during the second year of obtaining my BFA. I had two wonderful lecturers who both, in different ways, helped shape my career path. I did painting classes with an artist Jossef Krispell, who really helped me create my own visual language and develop as a painter.

I also met Eitan Ben Moshe, a multimedia artist who ran a class that discussed creating public artwork. It was my second week and we were tasked with creating a maquette for an artwork that had an egg in it. I felt mine was a complete disaster and having to present it to a bunch of people I didn’t know felt strange. He just laughed (in a nice way) but the experience helped me see the bigger picture and find the artistic potential in things. It’s a lesson I refer back to a lot. After that semester, I came back to the London energised, very focused and determined to forge my own path.

What gratification do you get from art-making?

Working as a teacher at TWS while developing my own practice as an artist in residence has definitely made me more aware of the need to have a certain form of energy in order create and help other people do so. I find myself feeding off the students’ dynamism and creativity when making my own work, as much as I am sure they are feeding off mine. There is this unending potential in each student to be decisive, bold and fearless with every artwork they make, and I have found myself trying out different ideas at a faster frequency than usual—in part due to this wonderful school environment I have been fortunate to be a part of.

It is incredibly affirming when students are enthused about a certain project or artwork they have made and when you hear someone saying that they want to grow up to be an artist, it can be quite restorative. TWS is a school that caters for children with learning differences and the significance of art as an emotional and communicative outlet for children (and adults) is clear.

You are also drawn to textiles, which is adopted in some of your works.

I have always been drawn to luxurious and natural fabrics such as silk and linen, and love the way my painting works translate onto fabric. For the past few years I have been collaborating with a British menswear designer, Elizabeth Vale on Iza Vale Studios – an art-design collaboration that creates a dialogue between the masculine, the feminine, the object and the artwork. The collaboration stemmed from several discussions about materiality; the relationship between art and design; man and woman. Our first edition of silk flight jackets are hand-made and hand-painted, and function both as a soft sculpture and wearable art.

There’s a symbiotic relationship between fashion, textile, culture and art. I am drawn to the idea that the art travels and yearns to and be lived in rather than lived with. In the same breath, textiles and clothing are some of the most evocative and often immediately recognisable elements across different countries and cultures.

I am always looking for people to collaborate with on projects involving textiles, be it for fashion or interiors, as I think cross collaboration and creative input from multiple viewpoints generate the most interesting work and discussions. I would really love to work with Italian fashion house, Missoni, one day.

Which artists do you consider influential for artists of our generation?

I am not sure I can speak for our generation but personally, I admire Tacita Dean and Maragaret Neve. My grandparents had a few of her works and I have always found them captivating. Also, Pina Bausch and her beautiful set designs by Peter Pabst and Rolf Borzic.

A few years ago, I caught her piece Ahnenat Sadler's Wells Theatre in London. A nonsensible stage filled with cacti – one of the most captivating sets I have ever seen. I’ve made a few paintings inspired by that set.

Tell us about your upcoming installations and exhibitions.

I have a few things coming up in both Singapore and London!

In London I have collaborated with Atelier Ji Fine Art Printmakers on a series of new prints for The Woolwich Contemporary Print Fair 17.  In Singapore, I am exhibiting a painting installation in The Working Capitol building as part of the Urban Ventures Street Festival along Keong Saik Road.

I have a solo exhibition, Palm Umbrellas, at NPE Art Residency and Gallery coming up from 10th November till 31st December. At the same time, I was also invited by the Affordable Art Fair Singapore to create a multi-media installation that will include a live music and video performance (as part of my ongoing international 100 Sounds project) and a sculptural installation—happening from 16th to 19th November.  I also have an upcoming artist residency at The Vagabond Hotel in Singapore where I will be setting up a video and artwork installation for a weekend of visual sound performances.

Chloë Manasseh (b. 1990) completed her Master’s Degree from The Slade School of Fine Art in 2014, having received the Euan Uglow Memorial Scholarship. She completed her Bachelors in Fine Art Painting, 2012, from The University of Brighton with First Class Honors. She is currently studying for a Masters in Art Psychotherapy at Lasalle College of the Arts and is a recipient of the Lasalle Scholarship for MA Studies.

Her work has been exhibited internationally with exhibitions in USA, UK, Italy, Israel and Singapore. She has collaborated extensively with artists, musicians, clothing and interior designers on various projects around the world. 

© 2017 sand magazine and the author