Dragons' blood, turmeric and light: Tiffany Singh's healing art

From Here Now, 3:35 pm on 26 February 2018

If they weren’t hanging from the ceiling in Te Papa, the ingredients Tiffany Singh is placing in the 328 vials that make up Indra’s Bow would make a terrific bath bomb. Rose petals, geranium and turmeric are being carefully placed in glass balls hung by threads in long, colourful rows.

The Indian-Samoan artist is up a scissor lift installing one of her massive and ground-breaking installations, designed to use the arts as a vehicle for health and empowerment among the most vulnerable communities across New Zealand.

But that’s not the work we’ve come to see. Once Tiffany has finished this job, she will give Voices a sneak peek of her new creation – a second installation – due to open to the public in March.

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This first piece – Indra’s Bow – uses traditional, organic and healing ingredients, such as those rose petals or dragons blood, a resin used by renaissance painters. Tiffany won't fumigate these materials either, so as not to destroy their healing properties.

Normally a conservation nightmare for museum conservators, it’s a challenge that the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa has embraced and delighted in, with one staff member even benefiting from Tiffany’s unexpected home-made bath-bomb gift.

“Hopefully the work becomes a bit of a game for people of different cultures,” says Tiffany, “There’s a connection for different people through the use of different materials, whether that be culinary or traditional.”

The new, second, piece though doesn’t impose the same environmental risks for the gallery; it’s all about light. But it’s also all under wraps.

It too is being put together in Toi Art, Te Papa’s new art gallery opening on 17 March this year. The art is being built at the same time as the building. So to view the art I have to don a safety helmet and fluro jacket. To actually interview Tiffany means getting right up there with her on that scissor lift, suspended 40ft up among the rafters.

Up on our perch, Tiffany shares the ‘how and the why’ she uses art to benefit the community as she works on her installations for the opening of Toi Art’s upcoming exhibition, Kaleidoscope: Abstract Aotearoa.

“Social practice art is about engaging the community; the work is informed by you, it’s about you. We can’t make it without you.”

Toi Art will include leading contemporary New Zealand artists, immersive art experiences and iconic works from the national art collection. Voices is the only media allowed in for an advanced look at Tiffany’s brand new commission Total Internal Reflection.

“Tiffany was somebody we were really keen to work with,” says Sarah Farrar, Senior Art Curator at Te Papa. “The Kaleidoscope: Abstract Aotearoa exhibition is an exhibition that considers what we mean by ‘abstract art’ here in Aotearoa and the Pacific. It’s full of work by contemporary New Zealand artists.”

Engaging on many levels – science, social practice and light are integral parts of Tiffany’s major new commission with Te Papa.

“Total Internal Reflection [is] actively inviting the audience into a space where they will be a part of the artwork.” Says Sarah. “That’s crucial for Tiffany, she describes herself as a ‘social practice artist’ the way in which the arts can influence wellbeing, health and education.”

Tiffany has instigated large-scale, grass-roots, national and international projects across New Zealand, India and the USA. Around 15,000 children from low decile schools across New Zealand expressed their hopes and dreams for the future, in her 2013 project Fly Me Up To Where You Are

In 2017 Tiffany created The Journey of A Million Miles – an equal partnership project between former refugee communities, humanising the politicisation of immigration within our country – by using abandoned boats and the voices of well-known broadcasters including RNZ’s Lynn Freeman and Jesse Mulligan.

Tiffany was awarded the prestigious $35,000 New Generation Award at the 2017 Art Laureates, a helpful gift for this social practice artist and mother of two. Like all multi-tasking working mothers Tiffany can talk about her upbringing, while suspended on a scissor lift installing hundreds of fragile containers.

Tiffany grew up with her mum in Auckland, not really knowing her Indian-Samoan father or her heritage until she was in her late teens. Following her passion for art she attended Elam School of Fine Arts at the University of Auckland.

It was her mentor Max Gimblett, a visiting artist, who inspired Tiffany to ‘find Buddhism’ and return to her cultural and spiritual roots in India.

A visit to India for three months in 2005 turned into a soul-searching sojourn for three years. Tiffany traversed the continent in search of spiritual guidance but her real learning came from the grass roots experience of working in the volunteer sector, with the poorest and the displaced.

“It taught me that the empowerment of marginalised communities was more important than the outcomes of projects.”

Tiffany Singh installing Indra's Bow in Toi Art, Wellington

Tiffany Singh installing Indra's Bow in Toi Art, Wellington Photo: Kate Whitley, © Te Papa

Time to enter the site of her new work Total Internal Reflection: But sadly it comes with a condition. I’m not allowed to describe it in detail before the exhibition opens. But what I can say is that it uses the seven healing colours of the chakra, (spoilers: a big space, meticulously selected coloured light and audience participation).

It needs people to work. Lots and lots of them. Over an 18 month period, people’s individual and collective responses to the light will become part of an open-sourced data collection for any researcher or educational institute, or even musician, to use. It’s for the people.

“You can’t describe it,” says Tiffany playfully, “But you can tell me how it makes you feel?”

I have a silly grin on my face, Total Internal Reflection makes me happy. It’s strangely healing.

“It will be an immersive sensory experience, where people can interact with, and inform the artwork,” says Tiffany, “It will become reflective of our wellbeing at a particular moment in time.”