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Objects of Mass Distraction, Interview with Charlene Kuah, with Jasmine Baetz

Updated: Jul 29, 2022

The following is a conversation between Charlene Kuah and Jasmine Baetz in February 2022, about Charlene’s work under the name Objects of Mass Distraction, with particular emphasis on her Punk Rocks collection.

OOMD is a multidisciplinary project born out of an aesthetic and poetic impulse, as well as a fascination with materiality. It seeks to celebrate and elevate the often plentiful and overlooked natural materials around us—stones that litter our paths, empty shells studded along beaches and coasts, or a fallen leaf or branch.

Jasmine Baetz: Who are you? Where are you? What work are you doing that is most important to you right now?

Charlene Kuah: I'm Charlene, and I am based in Singapore. I left my full-time job just before the pandemic, and since then, I have been exploring new paths, trying out various things which lie within my interests: art, expression, working with kids, a course in the social sciences, and even tarot. My background is in copywriting, and I used to work in advertising. I still do copywriting, but on a freelance basis, so that's the bread-and-butter stuff.

What’s important to me right now is self-knowledge. I consider that work too and have been thinking about the notion of “work.” And using self-knowledge to direct my interests or strengths in a meaningful way. To be honest, I am still exploring and discovering, and the process can be quite daunting. The question of breadth (exploring as far and as wide as possible) versus depth is something I have been thinking about lately. And how to strike a balance between both. As I discover more about myself, I realize I have vastly conflicting desires within me that need to find a middle ground. I am still working through that.

JB: Tell me about your educational experiences, and how they've informed your art practice. Did you study art in school?

CK: Calling it an art practice feels a bit foreign to me, because I don’t really consider myself an artist at this point. I think art, or at least good art, needs to tap into a well, whether that well contains personal experiences or very specific subject matters. Something you feel that you, and only you, can say, need to say, and want to say. My work has some way to go.

I went to art school, but I did fashion communication, because back then I wanted to work for fashion magazines. One of the first magazines I was really interested in was Teen Vogue. After graduating, I realized I wasn't interested specifically in fashion, but expression, and fashion happens to be a very immediate way of expressing something. I got into writing and content after, and that's how I got to advertising.

JB: Tell me about OOMD.

CK: I came up with the name Objects of Mass Distraction, like probably six years ago. The name came first, and the work came after. I liked that it alluded to “weapons of mass destruction” but takes on a totally different meaning. My initial idea was for it to be a platform to showcase craft objects particular to different countries in Southeast Asia. But I didn’t really pursue that idea, and somehow it has taken the current form it is now. I had amassed a collection of stones and shells from my travels and I thought I could do something with them. I was tinkering with them and one thing led to another.

A collection made up of fragments of oyster shells found along East Coast Beach, Singapore. To play up their weathered patina, kaleidoscopic colours, and organic shapes, various ways of composing and combining them were explored. The shells’ delicate make-up lends a fragility to each piece—as layers peel, splinter off, pulverise, and disintegrate with time.

JB: Where did the Punk Rocks collection begin? Is it similar to your other work, or different?

CK: A lot of my work is about elevating and re-contextualizing things that people may not immediately find beautiful or even worth a second look. Punk Rocks is an extension of that but taken a step further. I liked the idea of spoofing “high jewelry,” and I thought engagement rings and wedding bands were a good starting point.

JB: I'm curious how it went with your collaborators? How did those partnerships begin?

CK: I was looking around for people to work with, so I searched on Instagram (for all its ills, I am a strong proponent of technology and social media being an essentially good and useful tool!). And I came across this girl who's also Singaporean and who’s a gemologist in training. So I got in touch with her to seek some technical advice about my work, because I had no background in jewelry making. And when I had the idea for the Punk Rocks collection, I shared the idea with her and she really liked it. So she was essentially the middle person who help me see the project through, via this bespoke jewelry company she was working at. The process was very smooth and enjoyable because she completely got the idea and is very knowledgeable in the area. We probably only met once or twice, and a lot of our communication was through WhatsApp and email.

JB: In your posts about the collection, you contextualized each ring, and you explain the ways that you're using and subverting hegemonic ring types. You also wrote about how Myanmar supplies many of the world's rubies, sapphire, and jade and other gemstones and discussed the unsafe working conditions and spread of disease among workers in those extractive industries. I think about where materials come from, and about mining practices, but I hadn't thought seriously about gemstones. My grandmother really loved rubies, and I have jewelry with rubies from her, and reading about your decision not to use these materials triggered my interest in my family's jewelry and what's been passed down. When did you first start thinking about the social and political implications of materials, and the human cost and environmental cost? I'm curious about how far back this goes.

CK: Actually, not very far. I think it started with my interest in jade. Jade in Chinese culture is usually very traditional and handed down from an older generation, and not a lot of young people wear it. I wanted to think about how to express it in a new way. When I did research on jade, which is primarily from Myanmar, I found out about the extraction process, as well as the politics and human rights issues that are tangled up with the industry. Furthermore, I am uncomfortable with the fetishization or glorification of precious minerals, and consequently things that are rare or highly priced. So, I dropped the idea of using jade.

But in discovering those truths, I felt like there was something important and interesting that I wanted to express. So with this collection, I thought it was apt to surface these realities. Of course, there were challenges. Even though the companion stones I used are not expensive precious stones, it is difficult to trace their origins. I spoke about this at length with my collaborator to get her views on this, because I was very certain that I didn't want certain stones (like diamonds or rubies). So the best we could do was to use the less controversial stones that are lower in demand.

Sourced from Trapani, a city on Sicily’s western coast, these rocks are remnants of the Paleozoic Era, and are at least 200 million years old. Considering their weight and size, they make suitable paperweights. Spray painted in metallic silver.

JB: How you did you research the mines and conditions in the mines? In ceramics, we use a lot of "raw materials" that magically show up from a supplier. We don't know where they came from. But when you start trying to learn about the places of extraction, it gets really complicated, and it's under-documented. So that makes sense, you and your collaborator made a calculation about materials based on the best information you had about the conditions of extraction.

CK: It's a big topic and I can't say I have much knowledge on it. But when it comes to ethical extraction, my collaborator was telling me how there are so many factors and possibilities that depend on the scale of extraction. The deeper I tried to go, the more questions I had, that would probably take a thesis paper or something to explore. So, on my part, what felt within my ability to do then was to simply put forth the realities of the industry. I think most people who follow me don't seem as excited about this particular collection as they are about my usual stuff. But that’s okay. That's the direction I want to take, to create more of these smaller, conceptual collections that explore certain issues or ideas.

JB: Do you think that issues of extraction seem like a natural theme that you'll continue to investigate? Are there any other future directions that you're thinking about?

CK: I am not sure about extraction per se. But I think a recurring theme would definitely be around questioning what people deem valuable or beautiful. I feel like there's still something with jade that I could explore. In Chinese culture, if you break your jade, that means the jade protected you from something bad. I've broken several, and if it's broken, you don't wear them anymore. I’ve thought about mending, taking the broken pieces, challenging the finality of it being broken, and infusing it with something else. I am also thinking a lot about cockles these days and how they are becoming rarer and more expensive. I have the idea but haven’t gotten around to how it would manifest physically.

JB: Maybe your mending material is an antidote to the brokenness? If it's out of fashion, then it sounds like you could rework used jade since engaging with the challenges of mining new jade are not of interest to you. Finally, to conclude, I wonder you could share how you think about your social and physical location in relation to your work and research.

CK: Yeah, that is probably the best way to go about it. It’s interesting that you are asking because I have thought about this before, and I think I am still trying to clarify that. The idea I always return to, is about exploring the notions of beauty and value. The studio work - the pieces I put out on a regular basis - do not have any location or culture-specific meanings attached to them. However, for the smaller collections I put out (Punk Rocks being the only one so far), I am interested in underpinning the work with relevant social, environmental, or human rights issues and commentary, with Singapore and Southeast Asia being natural points of departure, and because I think there is so much richness and beauty in this area, but also urgent problems that can be raised. For instance, the cockle idea I am working on raises the issue of the decline in supply of cockles in Malaysia due to pollution and smuggling.

JB: I look forward to seeing how that work develops! Thanks, Charlene, for sharing more about your practice with me.

Jasmine Baetz (she/her) is an artist who lives and teaches on the lands of the Tongva people (Claremont, California). She builds with clay and “waste” materials, studies monuments, historical memory, and student activism, and is interested in art and thought that interrogates and reimagines the world. She is part of the founding team and current team member at Aruna. Read more about her here.

All images are courtesy of OOMD. You can contact OOMD here.

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