With several award-winning artworks under her belt, Pamela Tan is an artist-architect who creates large-scale public art installations you have perhaps walked past unknowingly. For instance, if you commute to work, you might have noticed the palm tree-lookalike skeletal artwork hovering above the stairway at Pasar Seni MRT station.
The mastermind behind her eponymous Poh Shin Studio, Pamela turned up on the day of the interview in a vibrant yellow dress, matching the colour of her work “Sunnyside Up”. While she walked me through the art installation, she pulled out a sachet of wet wipes from her bag. “I saw this in someone’s video the other day, so I came prepared with wipes,” she explains, as she wiped off the black stains on the sign attached to her installations.
She gestured to show me how the sunrays would travel through the sunroof, and reflects on the yellow installation, casting kaleidoscopic lights on the floor. “It’s not sunny today, unfortunately,” she commented, pursing her lips. The dismay didn’t last long enough for me to react before she proceeded to gush, “In this case, the Sunnyside Up shines more brightly in the gloom.” Despite the brief time spent with each other, I can almost feel Pamela’s oozing warmth, beaming like “Sunnyside Up” suggests.
Given your architectural background, would you describe your work as architectural art?
You can say that because they involve site, public users and understanding spacious experience. There are indeed some architectural influences on my work.
For your latest artwork, ‘Sunnyside Up’ located in Pasar Seni MRT station, how would you introduce it?
It’s a public art installation, it’s temporary, immersive, and spaciously driven. It might sound complicated but the idea behind it is simply to encourage people to take the stairs. The place is quite stressful – when I first visited the site, the station was crowded with people rushing from point A to point B. Also, they tend to rush onto the elevators and the stairway in the middle seems rather redundant.
At the same time, it’s a tunnel-like stairway, so I thought I can add something that sparks joy, creating an immersive experience for the stairway users. I thought something bright will work, something yellow. This is how I started. Picking the colour, getting a translucent material so that the sunlight penetrates and radiates, making it looks more inviting. I guess this is where the architectural disciplines come in, in terms of the user experiences – what’s lacking in this space and what are the simple add-ons that can elevate the public experience?
The ‘Sunnyside Up’ has a unique structure. What’s the inspiration behind it?
There are quite some limitations when it comes to building and connecting the work to the space. We weren’t allowed to drill so we only had the railings to rely on, and since it is not permanent, the installation must be detachable yet safe at the same time. So, I thought maybe I can create something that branches out like palm tree fronds or a willow, draping and hovering around, creating arches like an entrance to a garden, radiating in yellow.
Some of your works are very vibrant in colour. Is that intentional?
It really depends on the subject and context I’m working on. For example, for the one I did at Kwai Chai Hong to celebrate the Lantern Festivals, I will go for something more cheerful and celebratory, cultural preferences as well, Chinese are superstitious with colours – no black and white. Part of it was also because of the rich and colourful culture in Malaysia. However, I do also have projects that I focus more on the raw outlook of the material. My recent one, for instance, it’s an artwork that uses soil. My previous works, for example, are mostly white. So, the decision on colours depends heavily on the context, subject and narratives of a project.
Do you have a constant theme you address through your artwork?
I wouldn’t say it’s a theme but it’s a design language I realised that I’m more inclined towards. Most of my works are skeletal and intricate. I like to express an idea at its very foundation level, a way that is more delicate, for example, the bone structure or the inner mechanism. I like how it’s about simplicity, yet it connects points, so my work often highlights how simple lines create complex patterns and strength.
Where do you normally get the inspiration from?
It often starts off with an idea. For example, “Sunnyside Up” started because the space is hectic, and I found it rather sad looking at all the tired and exhausting faces. The idea developed into Let’s create something that sparks joy! Something trivial will do, joy doesn’t always have to be major. The idea started rolling, I started looking into the feasibility and you know how the story went. The same goes for Kwai Chai Hong, it’s for the Lantern Festival and the theme is doors and windows. We brainstormed and linked it to how doors and windows open to opportunities. Then I proceed to work on creating floating lanterns that look like doors above the bridge, and I named it the “Endless Frames”.
Your artwork often incorporates many aspects, materials, architecture, lights, interaction with the public and space designs. What usually comes first?
For me, public interaction comes first. I spent time observing how people react to a space. From their response, I get to know what the space means to people and if I’m placing an art installation here, what added value my artwork offers to the space itself and the users. I don’t want to end up creating things that are not cohesive or correlating to the site. I want to explore how this new touch I contributed means to the existing context.
Observing, field notes and interviewing people seem to be the crucial part of your creating process.
It depends. I did this social housing community project in which they initially proposed to do a wall mural. I visited the site and I found two abandoned badminton courts. Children were playing in the space but there were many motorcycles parked around as well. So, I talked to the residents, asking them if this is a parking lot or a space for leisure activities. They told me they would play in the courts, sepak takraw sometimes.
I thought instead of a wall mural, why don’t we do something to the badminton courts, highlighting the fact that this is a leisure space for the children so that no motorcycles will take up the courts? The housing community has a very retro bright orange outlook, so I decided to get Nippon Paint to sponsor and also invited the residents to join the project, re-painting the courts. I proposed my idea to the head of the residence, and they thought it was feasible. Ever since then, the motorcyclists felt bad taking the space up (laughs) and so children got to use the space. So, I think maybe in this case, observations and talking to people help me in creating artworks that did some actual changes, acting like a catalyst in improving the experience of public usage. This is also where my architecture training comes in, to identify the problem, understand the need of the space, and do practical and functional changes, through art.
Your artwork lies between commercial and artistic, and I find that impressive. What is your thought on balancing between commercial, making ends meet from your work yet being creative?
I think of it as an opportunity to be the bridge between commercial and arts. I understand where most corporates and businesses come from, and optimally they too, understand where our creative thoughts lie so that both parties will meet in the middle. At the end of the day, we just want to be valued and appreciated. I make sure that I listen to their stories, and I would also share my takeaways.
What is your favourite project among all that you’ve done?
I would say EDEN is my favourite because that’s my very first public artwork. I also like the work I did for Immersio, there’s no brief or criteria to fulfil so I have full control over the creative direction. That happened during the election, and I want to remind the public that we are the same, not much different even though we are a community made up of various races and backgrounds.
What is your favourite part of your artistic process?
It has to be the experimentation stage, testing the viability with prototypes. It goes from 2D, the sketch to 3D, the prototype, back and forth until it finally works. That’s my favourite part of the process.
Which project went through the longest test-and-trials stage then?
I think it’s a project that I have yet to reveal. The material used for that project is soil and the nature of the soil is rather ‘experimental’ itself, mixing it with glue and soil binder makes it worse – lots of trials and errors. That project has the longest process.
Is soil a new material to you?
It’s not! In fact, I did a project “Soil City” back when I was doing my Master’s in London. I explored the extinction of soil and how the world reacts to this matter. So I pictured in my head that what if soil becomes a precious ingredient, we have to come up with different inventions to respond to the issue and I thought compost could be an answer. I imagine a city where people would celebrate the rain festival, only that it’s raining soil instead. (laughs) This is how I started experimenting with soil. Fast forward to last year, I revisited the material again when a gallery invited me to create a sculpture. And there are no requirements or briefs for the project, I decided why don’t I just go back to soil.
As a female artist, do you think your gender, positively and negatively, affects your journey?
In arts, I’m not feeling much about it so far; whereas in architecture, yes. I went through a fair bit of mistreatment and sexual harassment. This is a rather male-dominated industry, and they hardly take women seriously, making jokes that they might perceive as harmless. As a female artist, however, I feel like I do get more respect, especially when I’m meeting with representatives from corporates. Working with my fabricators too, even though they are mostly men, they treat me as ‘an artist’. I worried a lot especially when my female assistant has to work on-site or visit manufacturers alone, I will check on them regularly. I do get wary too, when I go around scouting for new manufacturers, it does get quite uncomfortable getting stares thrown at you because there are mostly male workers in factories.
Do you prefer to go by ‘an artist’ or ‘a female artist’? Do you think it’s better to omit the emphasis on gender in your title?
I’m alright with having my gender stated in my title, really. In fact, there’s a lack of female artists in the local scene now. My peers and I look out for each other. I think it’s an unspoken language that as a female artist, it is challenging. The understanding is mutual, so I think the support is incredibly precious. I remember one of my artist friends Anniketyni, she’d share tips and advice with me, and I appreciate that. I come from the architecture world, but she has a fine arts background, so she has been in the scene much longer than I do. I didn’t realise how there’s a lack of female artists in the local industry until she mentioned it.
My situation is rather vague because I stand between art and architecture, and in Malaysia, we draw the line so clearly that sometimes it does cast a gloom on me when I feel like I don’t get support from either side, so I’m utterly thankful that the general public enjoys my work.
What do you have on your plate now that we can look forward to?
There are several international works coming up. One in mid-March, bringing EDEN to an exhibition in Beijing and another in April, for The Jim Thompson Art Center in Bangkok. I received a decent number of international enquiries, and the idea of bringing my work out of Malaysia is exciting. Local-wise, there are some private commissions too, here and there.