Dawn Ng is a Singaporean multidisciplinary artist whose practice deals with time, memory, and the ephemeral. For her recent body of work Into Air, Ng has crafted nearly 150 large sculptural blocks of frozen pigment and documented their dissolution in the form of photographs, film, and residue paintings. A poetic visual meditation on time and its passing, Into Air captures the metamorphosis of colored ice from solid to liquid to air, physicalizing transience. Presented by Sullivan+Strumpf, it premiered at a derelict ship factory in Singapore in January 2021 and from there traveled to Seoul, London, and Sydney. See the six-minute documentary below for more on the process and meaning behind the work.
Ng started working on Into Air in 2018, and it’s ongoing. The project encompasses three distinct series:
- Time Lost Falling in Love
Clocks is the name Ng gives to the photo portraits of her colored glacier blocks at various stages of disintegration. Weighing about 132 pounds each, the blocks were constructed from acrylic paints, dyes, and inks that she froze together in her studio. After removing each block from the freezer, she and her team photographed it from ten different angles every four hours until it entirely eroded. “Like kaleidoscopic lodestones, the portraits visualize the shape, colour and texture that time inhabits in an ephemeral form,” Ng writes.
Time Lost Falling in Love is the collective title of the time-lapse videos Ng filmed of the thawing blocks. The collapse of each block into a puddle of liquid took fifteen to twenty hours, a process compressed into twenty to thirty minutes for each film. Ng says she wants to portray the fluidity of time—time as a “riot of colors” that swell and ebb, that form rivers and pools. By speeding up the frame rate of the film, Ng manipulates time, fast-tracking the dissolution of the blocks while simultaneously providing a calming evocation of a waterfall in slow motion. Time melting on. Here’s Avalanche II:
The third and final component of the Into Air project is Ash, a series of paintings created by blanketing the liquid remains of each melted pigment block with a large sheet of canvas-like paper. Ng leaves the paper there for weeks until all the liquid evaporates through it, creating marbled textures and thick buildups that she then peels away. Ng describes Ash as her attempt to “sieve time.”
Many of the photographs and residue paintings take their titles from song lyrics—by the Beatles, Genesis, the White Stripes, Death Cab for Cutie, Sufjan Stevens, and others.
As much as Into Air is about time, it is also about death. In an interview with Nicholas Stephens for CoBo Social, Ng said,
There is an inescapable relationship between beauty and death. Death gives meaning to all of time. I don’t necessarily see death as something tragic, sad or final. It is that structure that gives true worth and true value to what comes before it. In Asia, especially as a Chinese Asian, we don’t like to talk about death. We feel it is bad luck. But in the paintings, I see death as something beautiful. Even in that last transition to nothingness, the pigments explode. They have a way of clinging on, they try to form tributaries, they flood a space. There is something very beautiful about that last gasp. It is not meek. It can be as strong as fireworks.
I would actually not use the word “nothingness” to describe the blocks’ final state. There’s definitely a “somethingness” still there after the melt! Behold the Ash paintings, which have a glory of their own. Although death is an end of sorts, it’s also a passing from this to that. Ng acknowledges as much. She even describes how “the melted pigments receive a form of resurrection through their incarnation as painterly formulae” in the Ash series. Resurrection!
From July 7 to 23, 2022, Into Air was exhibited, under the curation of Jenn Ellis, at St Cyprian’s, Clarence Gate, a historic church in London’s Marylebone district. The midcentury pews, pulpit, and altar inside the Gothic revival interior inspired Ng to design, in collaboration with EBBA architects, new wooden box structures to house the works, some of which stand vertically, and others which lay parallel to the floor.
By displaying these works inside a sacred space, their spiritual implications become even more pronounced.
Impermanence is a theme that shows up in the sacred texts of all major religions, not least in the Bible, where we humans are reminded again and again of our mortality. Our days are like grass, which sprouts up and then withers (Isa. 40:6–7; Ps. 103:15–16; 1 Pet. 1:24). Our lives, but a sigh (Ps. 90:9–10), a shadow (Ps. 102:11), a mist (James 4:14), a breath (Ps. 39:5; Job 7:7; 7:16). We are made of dust and return to dust (Eccles. 3:20).
And not only are we finite; so is the present order of things. Even heaven and earth will pass away, Jesus says (Matt. 24:35; Mark 13:31; Luke 21:33; cf. Heb. 1:10–12). But, crucially, God and God’s word stand forever (Isa. 40:8; Matt. 7:24–27). True stability and unchangingness can be found only in God, Christians believe. God is a Rock that does not crumble, a strong foundation on which to stand, in life and in death.
The brevity of life may sound like a fearsome reality, but actually, it can serve to make our moments here on earth more precious and purposeful. Because our lives are but a short span, we must make the most of them while we can. Christians believe that everyone will one day have to give an account of what we did with the time God gifted to us. Did we share it freely with others, or keep it all for ourselves? Did we use it to cultivate virtue or to pursue vice?
The exhibition at St Cyprian’s also involved the premiere of a site-specific choral work by the London-based Welsh composer Alex Mills. A direct response to Ng’s art, his composition is also called Into Air and lasts about twenty-five minutes, the length of Ng’s Waterfall VII.
“In the piece,” Mills writes,
five singers undergo a musical meditation where each moves through the music to the rhythm of their own breaths, one bar of music for every exhale. Musical structures slowly build and disintegrate, evolve and transform, melt and evaporate. Textures, harmonies and colours – some delicate, others more pronounced – appear, disappear and re-emerge. Combing different singers’ breathing patterns gives the piece an indeterminate quality: the piece will never be the same twice and may even be radically different from one performance to the next. As such, the piece is not a fixed musical object that can be ‘performed’. Instead, it is a transient, ephemeral and elusive moment in time to be experienced.
The debut performance featured singers Jess Dandy, Rebecca Hardwick, Feargal Mostyn-Williams, James Robinson, and Ben Rowarth. It was recorded and turned into a gorgeous film by Bobby Williams, embedded above.*
The first singer stands at a kneeler. The second, at a pulpit. They establish the solemn mood. Two male singers sing from the organ loft, and another stands behind the rood screen with his arms crossed over his chest, as if in prayer. Haunting and mesmerizing, the five voices reflect off the stone architecture and meld together, sometimes harmoniously, sometimes in dissonance.
To everything there is a season. Starting at around 10:35, Mills incorporates keywords from Ecclesiastes 3:1–8, a biblical passage made especially famous by the Byrds: “gather,” “scatter,” “heal,” “kill,” “dance,” “mourn.” The author of Ecclesiastes is describing the tide of events that make up a life.
Periodically throughout the performance, a metal singing bowl resounds—a tool commonly used to deepen meditation. It is struck alternately by Ng and Mills, who are seated cross-legged at the front side of the church.
Mills’s Into Air received a second performance just last week on February 8 at the launch of Music & Being, an initiative he founded with Jess Dandy. Music & Being is an open laboratory space in London exploring the intersection of art, music, psychology, spirituality, ecology, and movement.
As we near Ash Wednesday, the start of Lent, Ng’s and Mills’s works remind us of how time slips and slides and ultimately ceases, at least time as we know it. What will we do with our fleeting lives? As they dissipate, what will remain? When our breath stops, will a resonance linger?
* Additional video credits: Special thanks to Apsara Studio, Rose Lejeune, Performance Exchange, Ursula Sullivan, and Sullivan+Strumpf.