Do you need to be “strong” to support someone who is going through a rough patch?
Supporting someone emotionally always seemed like a one-way street to me.
I always picture the resilient and self-sacrificial caregiver, highly tolerant and understanding towards the person receiving their care. The beneficiary can always count on them, because they are high on the caregiver’s priority list.
But what if the so-called caregiver, the “strong silent friend”, needs help too?
“Be present for them”; “listen, don’t make it about yourself” – we’ve all heard that advice before, but how exactly does one go about being present and listening?
I wanted to find a way to have a mutually supportive mental wellness relationship where either party encourages each other, without feeling like a victim or a reluctant counsellor.
Which is why I was interested to hear about an exhibition called ThisConnect: Threading Worlds at the former Jinrikisha Station in Tanjong Pagar – with its emphasis on a joint healing journey, where there is mutual support in sharing each other’s mental burdens.
It features seven works where everyday Singaporeans come together to hear each other out. The exhibition was inspired by social isolation during Covid-19 and aims to help people deal with mental wellness issues by facilitating genuine conversations.
Covid-19 and its resultant stressors have brought issues such as mental health, suicide and domestic violence to the spotlight, ThisConnect invites visitors to interact with the space to explore such issues with personal anecdotes.
This exhibition also showcases selected works at three other venues: Temasek Shophouse (till 17 Jan), Orchard Library (till 8 Feb) and Tzu Chi Humanistic Youth Centre (till 8 Feb).
Stepping into another world
The flight of stairs up to the third floor of the exhibition is deceivingly narrow. It was my first experience of an exhibition on mental health – by artist duo Hun Ming Kwang and Quinn Lum, better known as Hunny & Lummy. Walking through a corridor next to the staircase landing, I pause in front of an open door – and step into another world.
The space is dimly lit by projections and TV screens. I have to take off my shoes so it feels like home. Voiceovers and sound effects from the videos reverberate off the walls. Rugs, mats and cushions litter the floor. Cards that read “Are you present?” rest on them.
Ming Kwang, 28, tells me that he chose this location with the aim of creating introspective spaces. Mentored by world-renowned architects in his university days, he is intrigued by the way built environments and spaces influence human behaviours, dynamics, and consciousness.
For this exhibition, he wanted to create a space that invites participants to reflect on their emotions and meditate on their feelings the moment they step in.
He shares: “I once experienced such a space, Teshima Art Museum, created by an artist-architect duo. I saw a group of people chatting in their own world – but the moment they stepped into that space, there was silence and it was as though they knew what they had to do – to be alone with themselves.”
Teshima Art Museum allows visitors to experience the quiet, harmonious blending of nature and architecture. It creates a conscious space for one to be self-aware and reconnect with themselves. Ming Kwang was not the only one deeply touched by the experience.
“You could hear a pin drop. Two of the people started weeping, and they were not able to comprehend why,” he says.
Ming Kwang met Quinn, a photographer and artist, in 2018 when Quinn participated in one of his art projects. Since then, the two have created various projects that combine fine arts with healing and humanitarian causes that allow people to gain greater clarity of who they truly are deep down, and what matters to them.
A volunteer, Megan, 22, introduces the seven films. She attended the preview for ThisConnect at DECK in Prinsep Street last September, which saw more than 825 visitors and was featured in The Straits Times and TODAY.
Moved by the previous exhibition and having greatly benefited from it, she offered to support the artists while on her university break. “There’s nothing more I’d rather be doing this holiday,” she tells me.
The videos created by the duo include those inspired by their own personal transformational journeys.
Contrary to popular belief, time does not heal all wounds. Emotional scars may very well still lurk underneath the layers of defences that we have created.
One of the works, titled I Feel You, gets its participants to speak of their own personal truths for 10 minutes each in pairs. While one person is sharing, the other can only respond with “I feel you”.
While each of the participants’ experience is unique, their stories were relatable and familiar at the same time. Stories of losses, pain, angst, existential questions towards life kept coming up amongst the participants who participated in the artwork.
Another work that was showcased consist of the artists’ personal confrontation towards their traumas.
For Ming Kwang, it was a childhood prank gone wrong. When he was 10, his younger brother pranked him by putting a hard-boiled egg to his nose while he was sleeping. Its pungent smell had clogged up his nostrils, which resulted in a psychosomatic reaction. Till the work was created, he had a strong rejection towards eggs for a long time.
In this video, he lays out a carton of eggs, slowly and methodically smashing them one by one. He appears queasy in the video but still carries on. “Part of what healing is about is confronting what we spend most of our lives running away from,” he tells me.
In Quinn’s work, he had a friend hit his outstretched hand with a cane for ten minutes straight. Another work has him doing frog jumps in a green bodysuit in various locations under the hot Singapore sun.
“Just because you confront your trauma, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you will be healed from it,” Quinn adds. “But it creates another opportunity to relook it and regain new insights, perspectives and understandings that may answer some questions which can facilitate healing to begin.”
With this work, the artists hope to inspire others with more courage and self-love to confront their own personal histories by reopening chapters of their life again; and as a result, finding possible reconciliations in a safe space where healing can be facilitated.
Inspiration for exhibition
The pair tells me that the idea for the exhibition had always been on their minds. But they decided to act immediately when Ming Kwang received a call that a mutual acquaintance had passed on by suicide. Ming Kwang and Quinn flew from Kuala Lumpur, where they were representing Singapore for the Triennial Malaysia-Singapore Cultural Showcase, back to Singapore. All the while, the duo were busy pulling the exhibition together.
“We knew that it was a sign that we had to come back to Singapore to do something on a larger scale for the people who were seeking answers but didn’t find any, and didn’t know who or where else to turn to,” says Ming Kwang.
Since young, Ming Kwang has found himself looking beyond the mundane. He tells me that he was naturally oriented and inclined to help others to dig deep within to find themselves, to live a fulfilling and powerful life on their own terms, and to place greater value in their relationships.
His life had always been about chasing after results. Only when he turned 18, did he realise that none of those achievements actually meant anything to him. He began to search for a deeper meaning to life, which led him to read profound books and have multiple life-changing encounters with different gurus.
Through that, he remembered his original dream of wanting to make a difference to people in whatever capacity he can, from a physical, emotional, and spiritual level. In 2016, he co-founded a nationwide coaching campaign that gained the support of the Prime Minister, National Youth Council, and supporting organisations like Youth Corps and The Hidden Good.
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“When I started out at an architecture & design firm, there was a point where I was working from 8.30 am to 4.30 am every single day,” he says. “By the time I got home, It would be about time to have to go to work again.”
“One day, I was sitting at my desk in the mundane of clearing work when it struck me – Yes, I love my work, but do I truly want to be here in front of this computer working for someone else’s dreams when deep down, I already know what matters to me? That there was so much more I would like to contribute to the world?”
“And just like that, I left and never looked back.”
Ming Kwang puts in a high level of commitment in seeing his projects through.
Referring to a video collage where a boy sits in a massage chair in various everyday Singapore scenes, silently blowing up balloons until they burst, while puzzled pedestrians walk past him, he says: “This work, Tipping Point, cost me so much sleep. The process was complex, especially because this work was supposed to tap into a person’s experiences in their lives to interpret the film.”
His determination to pull off this exhibition is obvious. “There is no right or wrong or correct way to interpret it. However anyone interprets this work is unique to their background and is theirs to reflect upon their lives, so that they can do something different and move forward.”
Determined to pull off the exhibition, he had to learn filmmaking and editing from scratch. “I just grabbed a camera from Quinn and pressed record and that was that. There was not really a lot of time, especially not for any crash course. Every moment is unique in its own way. Once it passes, it is never coming back,” he says.
“You get a vision, and then you do whatever it takes to achieve it.”
Coming from a traditional Asian family, his parents remain supportive. “They don’t really get what I’m doing, so I leave the explanations to the newspapers,” he jokes.
It wasn’t easy at first. Ming Kwang recalls being turned away when he took the idea of an exhibition on mental wellness to different organisations. Undeterred by the sceptical feedback, he and Quinn pushed forward.
“This is necessary,” he says, “You have to connect people emotionally to open and heal emotional wounds. Doing pushups doesn’t necessarily address the root issue of mental health. At the end of the day, if what is being pushed out by the people in power is not congruent with reality on the ground, progress is hardly made.”
“What’s more important is the necessity to destigmatise the stigma around mental health and suicide prevention.”
And the results proved him right.
“When positive feedback started streaming in, more and more sponsors started knocking on our door,” he says. One sponsor, Buddhist organisation Tzu Chi Singapore, even offered to set up a satellite exhibition at its premises.
Since its opening, the exhibition has been a starting point for genuine conversations. “I took an acquaintance to the preview in September, at DECK,” says Megan, “and we ended up talking till 2am.”
She’s not the only one who has been deeply moved by the exhibition. Ming Kwang points out an artwork on the wall at the entrance to the exhibition: A visitor had made it specially for them after viewing the films.
The aim of ThisConnect is to raise awareness of mental health, emotional wellness, suicide prevention cause through art and conscious conversations. The artists intend to give people the space to re-examine what it means to be a human being and reconnect with their truths, so they can heal and move forward.
“The goal of a healer is to facilitate a space for healing, and I want this space to be one that wakes us up from shuffling about like zombies trying to survive,” says Ming Kwang.
He admits that it takes a lot of openness, clarity and courage to be vulnerable to commit to healing. “We are the ones who create our own demons, nightmares, and fears. Sometimes, we are our worst critics,” he adds.
This exhibition is more of a space for others to take the first step towards healing, even if it’s simply acknowledging what we don’t want to confront within ourselves.
Despite wishing that he could help as many people as he can to free themselves from their trauma, Ming Kwang recognises that it cannot happen if the other party is unwilling to recognise his problems. He elaborates: “Initially, I’d feel bad for those who take comfort in misery. Then I realise that if I were to try and help them, it would be at the expense of my own sanity.”
So whether you’re a caregiver or beneficiary, tuning in to your inner emotions is the key to gauge your emotional tolerance and draw healthy boundaries. It’s okay if you can’t help someone as much as they need.
“Through this exhibition, I hope people see that we are the masters of our own fate,” he says.