saltyinterviewed by roz crews
june 3, 2019
north portland, oregon
This conversation took place on the morning of June 3, 2019 between artists Roz Crews and Xi Jie Ng (Salty) in the studio apartment of Ng in North Portland, Oregon. They discuss the many ways a home manifests an artist’s practice, and how an artist’s practice is manifested in the home.
Roz: A few weeks ago when I was on my way to your house for the first time, I ran into our mutual friend Roshani Thakore. She said, “Oh wow, Roz, you're going to love it there." I asked, "Why?" And she said, "It's like Salty's brain is living outside of her body." Then I got here and I thought, "Oh yes, it kind of is like that." Then I just kept thinking about it, and I remembered that the latest issue of the Corner Office publication is all about home, which seemed like the perfect container for a conversation you and I might have about our lives. My first question for you is, will you introduce yourself?
Salty: I am Salty or Xi Jie, and I'm from Singapore. I have a magical room in Singapore, too. I used to think of it as my HQ, headquarters, and this studio apartment as a branch of that. Now that I think of this place more like home, they're like sister magic caves rather than being defined as “an HQ with a branch.”
Roz: Like twin caves?
Salty: Yes. They're different— they hold different precious objects and memories and have slightly different atmospheres about them.
Roz: Is the one in Singapore still untouched, like exactly how you left it?
Roz: It's a whole different set of things?
Salty: It's quite similar in some ways. Wherever I stay there's always going to be these coat racks that stand with a ton of things draped on it and clothes hanging in many places. I was just thinking that the clothes have become part of this domestic landscape. It's as if they are mountains or hills or plains, something like that. That place [in Singapore] has all my childhood objects and it's my family's home. I've lived there since I was born. Since we renovated when I was 18, that room has been my room. It holds a lot of memories and sometimes it's almost too much to be in it because it has all the things from my life, and so it's a real effort to try and carve out some clear space there to get work done. I find it hard to get work done in my own room wherever the room is, but it is also one of the few places I can actually work. I do not like going out to work. I'm always working at home.
Roz: Do you agree with Roshani that this house is like a representation of your brain living outside of your body?
Salty: To an extent I do, and I never thought of it that way really. I see it as a magic cave that supports me, but I never thought of it as my brain came out and melted itself into the space. It's an interesting way to think about it. I'm very cluttered but in an organized way. There's clusters of clutter and there's a lot of whimsy in the house, but I think the way the house feels is more whimsical and magical than dark. I do think there's a darker side of my mind that is not coming through.
Roz: Where does that part come through?
Salty: I think it stays in the mind as cycles of anxious thought.
Roz: I recently have been exploring that part of myself because I think a lot of times people see me as this bubbly or excitable kind of person, even naive or unaware of the darker parts of life. That's obviously not true. Maybe it's not obvious, but it's not true. I think that I've been wondering where that part manifests or how it manifests. It's funny to think about that because I ask myself, “Why would you want that part of yourself to manifest? Why would I want the evil, or sad, or angry, or mischievous parts of myself to manifest? I’ve been concentrating on that for about three and a half years, since I went to Mexico City with the Art & Social Practice MFA Program. We had a conversation with Pedro Reyes about each of our practices as art students. He gave feedback about different projects. I was talking about a project I was working on with the Portland Art Museum’s education department and the residence halls [at Portland State University] where students were basically making performances of different historical events related to paintings at the museum. I explained that and he was like, "So it seems like you're missing a touch of evil." I was like, "Oh yes." It was a big reckoning for me. I realized I needed to consider what he meant and figure out how to add that to my work, and I didn’t know how.
Salty: I think by making objects and intentionally channeling the energy, you could get it out of your system or process it. I think people's rooms are very intimate things. They are an expression of your inner world and you can tell so much about someone from the way that they live or move around their space.
Roz: Like you said, there's also a lot of things you can't tell from someone’s space. It's like an intentional spilling of the brain. You choose what's in here based on what you want to be surrounded by every day, but not necessarily to form a complete portrait of yourself.
Salty: True that. I'm now looking at this whole space with slightly fresher eyes because of our conversation and kind of psychoanalyzing myself. Why did I put that picture there— my sister and my cousin in a bathtub when they were little? Or that Pierrot frame that I got from eBay. I noticed that I don't really frame all the things I put up—mostly they're all pieces of paper with Blu Tack. There's something about that being very scrappy that I wonder about.
Roz: Well, it's kind of like an impermanent thing.
Salty: Yes. It's very childish in a way. Like a child just putting up a drawing that they did, with Blu Tack. My room in Singapore has things that have been up with Blu Tack for ten years.
Roz: I like the idea of thinking about an environment as part of your brain, outside in your life. Maybe for a more traditional artist who makes objects, that process is about creating a landscape or an environment, which represents your brain outside of your body. I think in your case, it's slightly different. Your artistic practice isn’t object based. It's funny to hear you talk about the coat rack as a mountain in the landscape of your life. Do you think of your art practice as your brain living outside of your body in a more intangible way?
Salty: Yeah, I think of my practice as being a way to live and be with other people. It is a pretty direct manifestation of my interest in people and the way that I relate to them. For example, I'm working on The Grandma Reporter, a publication I started about senior women’s culture. For the second issue on intimacy, I created a senior women's erotica club. I found myself going regularly to the senior center to be with the senior women participating in the project and talking about sexual frustrations and things like that and then finding myself sitting in bed for hours writing a piece of senior erotica. I was so struck by the fact that I had created this way for myself to live in these conversations and tasks. My curiosity about Chinese people in America led me to do a different project with Portland’s oldest Chinese American restaurant. There's a way of the work being a kind of path that is formed from curiosities and obsessions in the brain.
Roz: Yeah, and then they come out through these relationships. Another part of what I want to talk to you about is this idea of “art in everyday life,” which is really common—almost like a trend. A trend that’s been happening since the '70s, I guess. There has been a lot of “art in everyday life” kinds of projects. It's one of my most favorite things about your practice.
Salty: And mine of yours.
Roz: Thank you. I just love the way that you incorporate your interests, relationships, and experiences from everyday life into the work you do as an artist. I think that's what all artists are doing all the time, but there is something about the way that you do it that feels really poignant and really smart and really, I don't know, natural. I was wondering if you could just talk more about that.
Salty: I am sometimes surprised when people say that because it's not intentional, but maybe that's why you view it as being really organic and natural. I think that working collaboratively out in the world, that's where life is. That's where relationships are, that's where the everyday moments are, and that's why it is alive to me and speaks to me. I'm always wondering what my next project will be. I'm just so obsessed with things that fascinate me in everyday life that sometimes I can't help but turn them into more formal inquiries that become projects. bunion2bunion came from my obsession with curing my bunions and the wealth of knowledge I ended up accumulating from researching and trying many ways to do that. As I prepare for my graduate lecture, I've been thinking about the way I make projects. I realize there is a way that I create these deliberately scatter-brained constellational worlds that stem from one thing like ‘bunions’ or ‘senior women and intimacy.’ Then it branches out into a whole universe of explorations and projects, creating many ways to approach or experience that center or root. I've been told that there is rigor in that approach, which elicits a whole spectrum of emotional responses from people. I think that's how my brain works. It's fleeting from something that's poignant to very grotesque and uncomfortable to sweet and whimsical, and just observing all that in the things that I see around me. It’s almost dizzying, like how sometimes I feel like I cannot breathe if I think of the enormities and specifics of things and I want to feel them all.
Roz: To me, part of the rigor in what you're doing is your thoroughness. You are a thorough researcher to the extent in which your brain lets you be thorough. I like how you create a point of entry or a point in which you're expanding off of, and then you just research each aspect of it using different kinds of methods. Your methods include just hanging out with people like getting to know the senior women through spending time with them, but then, also, trying to answer pointed questions like, “What does it take to make a senior erotica text?”
Salty: Reading a ton of erotica. Asking myself, "Does this turn me on?" Taking notes.
Roz: That sounds like such a rigorous process.
Salty: It's funny because I never would have thought of it as rigorous until maybe in the last year. It gives me hope in my life partly because I don't really know any other way to live. It gives me hope that I can say this is my job. It makes me feel affirmed as a person with the things I struggle with to live my life in a mentally healthy way.
Roz: Do you remember the first thing that influenced your artistic practice that was a thing from your everyday life, whether it's a curiosity or a family member or an event that happened?
Salty: I was always trying to organize family entertainment. I would make family trees. I wanted to make a family newsletter. Until now, sometimes when we have special events like Chinese New Year or someone's birthday or Christmas, I will make a slide show of all the cute pictures of the grandchildren when we were young. I made this video where I impersonated my grandma and had all these skits. I think seeing myself as the person who created the magic family entertainment encouraged me in that role of being the scrappy, eccentric, ringmaster or something of my circus. [chuckles] I never thought of it that way. Doing that takes some kind of blind faith that I can be the one to do this, and also takes bossiness, which I have sometimes. Also, willingness to be the clown. It plays with power or lack thereof in different ways, I think, in an interesting way.
Roz: When was the first time you did that? Were you six when you were thinking about making a family tree or were you in your teens?
Salty: Maybe in elementary school. I was always curious about relatives. I can remember all the names and the details of my relatives. Even distant relatives. When I was 12, I memorized all the phone numbers of all 40 people in my elementary school class.
Roz: Wow. [chuckles] Did you call them all?
Salty: I would call them when I organized epic parties. I used to do that.
Roz: What did you do at the parties?
Salty: I would boss people around and have a whole sequence of events and make people play games and play water bombs.
Roz: What's that?
Salty: You fill a balloon with water and throw it at each other.
Roz: If you think about that and you think about all the projects you've done as an artist that you formalized as a work of art, what would you say the project is that most seamlessly combines your art and your life?
Salty: There can be so many answers to this question, but the one I'm going to go with is Singapore Minstrel which is a feature-length film that I made about my ex-partner. It was almost like a birthing experience where I was the person giving birth and I was the baby at the same time. It was like a rite of passage for myself and my creative practice.
I believed so much in what my partner, Roy Payamal did as one Singapore's first buskers that I wholeheartedly had this vision of showing the world what he did. I believed in it so bad that I spent two years making this film about him on a DSLR and edited it on my laptop at home and had this vision of it going international. It achieved a little success. I did that with not a lot of experience in film, mostly believing in the idea of a fantasy-documentary that blended reality with fiction in ways that are really profound and interesting to me, that surpass what a film that's purely fiction or purely reality could ever do. I'm primarily interested in making films that play with the tension of fantasy and reality. He had so many struggles that I lived through with him as we made the film, that the film could not even begin to capture, but that were part of the larger truth of the film. It was a really moving thing for me, and to also face my family's rejection of him that whole time was difficult. Finally finishing that film meant the world to me.
I have carried on that approach in my art practice. I see creating collective experiences for and with others as creating semi-fictional worlds that birth new truths and new ways of living. I say to myself, “my work begins as imagined, and is then manifested and experienced as somewhere between real and fictional — that is to say it is both at the same time.”
Roz: This is my final question for you. What would be your ideal fictional world, new way of living? Who would live there?
Salty: It's funny because when you said that, I was like, "Maybe if I can have it, then it's not that interesting." Right? I think I will give some anecdotes of what glimpses of that world might look like in a satisfying way. Plastic bags that people get when they go to the wet market in Singapore to buy fish or meat or whatever, is high fashion. It's like a high fashion tote bag. It's my plastic bag with my wet vegetables in it. People can pick food from their gardens and share it with their neighbors. I think of Mammalian Diving Reflex’s “Haircuts with Children,” where children can give adults haircuts. People would not work in jobs that were boring to them or soul-crushing. People have time to look at the clouds and find shapes in them and invent new ways of eating avocado or talk about their bowel movements or make costumes for themselves every day because I think dressing up everyday is a ritual and an art. They can make costumes for themselves every day by stapling and gluing things like post-it notes or crinkly sweet wrappers on their bodies and things like that. It's like a world where there's infinite possibilities of finding magic in your everyday life.
Roz: That sounds so beautiful.
This interview has been edited and abridged for the website. The rest of the interview will be published in issue 02: home. Additionally, you can email email@example.com if you’d like a PDF of the full interview.