Last Saturday, at the 12th Benesse Prize Award Ceremony held at the National Gallery Singapore, local artist Amanda Heng was announced as the winner, making her the first Singaporean artist to have been conferred the award.
Chosen from among fellow nominees and Singapore Biennale 2019 participants Dusadee Huntrakul (Thailand), Haifa Subay (Yemen), Hera Büyüktaşçıyan (Turkey) and Robert Zhao Renhui (Singapore), as the winner of the prize, Heng was awarded a cash prize of JPY 3 million, and a commission to create an artwork to be exhibited at Benesse Art Site Naoshima, Japan, or the opportunity to have their works collected at the Site.
On winning the prize, Heng comments: “It’s been a tough year for me, facing physical and psychological challenges that come with ageing. I often asked myself how I would continue my artistic practice despite this ageing body of mine. Over the course of the year, I had to rediscover how our body draws strength from within, for adaptation and sustainability and renewal, allowing me to continue my ‘Walks’. This gave me a sense of hope, of perseverance and continuity in life.”
“With worsening issues in humanity and society, climate disruption and mental health, we must all act as individuals in our respective fields, and I fields, look forward to learning and creating new works to better our lives for all. Thank you for the nine artists who helped me on this project, to my mother, for giving me the best of what you have, becoming the principles for my practice and my life, and for my siblings and their families, for being there for me.”
This 2020 Award marks the second time since 2016 that the Benesse Prize has been the official award of the Singapore Biennale, presented in collaboration with Singapore Art Museum. Says Tamotsu Adachi, President, CEO & Representative Director at Benesse Holdings, Inc: “When I became CEO 4 years ago, we were struggling with fiscal difficulties, lost a lot of customers, and were in a fragile state with a damaged corporate brand. But working together, we inspired our employees to work hard to turn things around for the company. Now, we’ve turned it all around, and decided to contribute back to society for the long term, and champion five major themes: to promote lifelong learning, to provide the needs and support for for society, to share knowledge with society for its well-being, to encourage co-creation with communities. and to position artistic activities in accordance with our corporate vision.”
“Naoshima is a small island in Japan, and by bringing this award to Singapore in 2016, we hoped it was something that would echo with the Singaporean community, Asia, and eventually, the wider world,” Adachi continues. “The Benesse Prize then, reflects on our company’s corporate philosophy of ‘Well-Being’. We want to support people’s lifelong aspirations, and aim to become an indispensable group to serve customer, society and community.”
The Benesse Prize was established in 1995 when Fukutake Publishing Co., Ltd. changed its corporate name to Benesse Corporation, and it was first awarded at the Venice Biennale in the same year to recognize the artistic endeavours of outstanding artists. Past winners include Cai Guo-Qiang in 1995, Olafur Eliasson in 1999, (Iceland, Denmark), and most recently, Pannaphan Yodmanee at the 11th Benesse Prize in 2016, along with Singaporean artist Zulkiflie Mahmod, who was awarded the special Soichiro Fukutake Prize by Soichiro Fukutake, Founder and President, Benesse Art Site Naoshima. Pannaphan Yodmanee will be exhibiting a work at Naoshima in 2020.
Says Hideaki Fukutake, Director of Benesse Holdings, Inc: “Naoshima is a very small island, and it’s not the most convenient location to visit. But it was also recently selected as both New York Times’ and National Geographic’s best place to visit. And with National Geographic saying Antarctica was the second best place to visit, well, I imagine it’s easier to get to Naoshima. The Naoshima project came in the form of repurposing houses and buildings into galleries, and incorporating art into existing places. Harnessing the natural energy resources while still respecting nature, we’ve created something new out of something pre-existing.”
Returning to Heng, her momentous win stems from the work she exhibited at the 2019 Singapore Biennale (themed Every Step In The Right Direction). With a commission titled Every Step Counts (2019), Heng’s multi-disciplinary project invites participation and encourages intimate conversation by revisiting her seminal ‘Let’s Walk’ series that was first performed in 1999. Drawing upon the act of walking, the artist moves forward, looks back, turns inward and ventures outward with others. In so doing, she generates reflections and perspectives, as well as comes to terms with the limits and stamina of the aging body. Heng was previously conferred the prestigious Cultural Medallion for Visual Arts in 2010, and has exhibited widely, including a retrospective, ‘Speak To Me, Walk With Me’ at Singapore Art Museum (2012).
Says Dr Eugene Tan, Director of the Singapore Art Museum, National Gallery Singapore and member of the Jury for the 12th Benesse Prize: “The Singapore Biennale is a way for us to position Singapore’s art scene on the world map, and hopes to recognise the experimental artists of Asia and the world by showcasing all these exciting works. I’m also looking forward to visiting Naoshima at some point and viewing Pannaphan Yodmanee’s new work, and Amanda Heng’s exhibition eventually. It was not an easy decision to select one winner out of the many strong works displayed this year, and I believe Heng’s win will find resonance, and is a strong representative of the Singapore Biennale.”
“The most important thing as an artist is to start by figuring out why you decided to make art, and stick to that philosophy no matter what happens, and your source of strength to carry on,” says Heng. “There can be that constant worry about ‘oh what’s next, how can I bring my life and work to the next stage.’ But there’s no point worrying about it, because I chose to go down this path, it’s all I know how to do, so I know that I’ll find my own creative ways to deal with it.”
“As a performance artist, the body is so important to me, and over the years, I’ve had so many opportunities to learn how to deal with the reality of the ageing body, and be aware of how I can move my life and practice into the next stage, and think about what new things I can look out for in my life,” she concludes. “It’s been a great opportunity in the Biennale to confront that head-on, and now, the Walk has become more reflective, as I think about inner strength, and how to rejuvenate and renew myself. I’m so excited that it’s a great opportunity to bring the Walk to a new stage in Naoshima, and a chance for me to go on a deeper search into my own life and how we as human beings can find new ways to find our peace.”
Singapore Biennale 2019: Every Step in the Right Direction runs from 22nd November 2019 to 22nd March 2020 across 11 venues in Singapore. Visit singaporebiennale.org for more information.