Cover Story
Hidden Messages
Brigitte Rozario 
Poesy Liang and Nice the dog at the Art Stage 2018.
advertisement[x]

She is as quirky as her art, sometimes brave and strong; at other times, funny and kooky.

On that particular January day, sitting in the Marina Bay Sands Expo & Convention Centre, Poesy Liang exhibited none of these traits. She was teary-eyed and a rollercoaster of emotions. She had spent the last few months preparing for her empathy-themed art installation for Art Stage 2018, and it felt like everything was falling apart.

There was the stress of managing her team, including a dog named Nice (pronounced “niece”); she had almost exhausted her budget and she still needed to pay a contractor to dismantle the curtains at her booth. To top it all off, she was accused of abusing Nice. A good cry was what she needed.

Liang is a firm believer in random acts of kindness, so it wasn’t long before she was back on her feet, wiping her tears away and looking for people to help.

She found them in the booths around her. One was a wood sculptor from Johor and the other was an online art portal proprietor from South Korea. Like a matchmaker, she introduced the two parties, knowing that they would be able to work together. The portal would be able to help the artist sell his art, while the artist would need the Korean company to handle the logistics of shipping his large artworks to collectors.

Liang was pleased she had introduced them and walked away contented, her own worries relegated to the back of her mind. But, kindness sometimes has a wonderful way of coming full circle.

After the exhibition ended, Liang and her team struggled to dismantle their booth and the curtains. She could barely afford to rent a ladder. Touched that her team – her guides are all blind – offered to climb the ladder if she would rent it, Liang nonetheless knew it was too risky. On hearing her plight, the contractors brought the ladder and went up to unhook the curtains. All at no charge. Next came the task of removing the highly sticky double-sided tape – all 168 pieces – from the floor. Everyone pitched in, even the Johor artist and his wife. The exhibition may have ended, but the empathy lesson continued.

 

Instilling empathy

Liang lives the messages that she tries to convey through her exhibitions – empathy, kindness and compassion. These have been her ongoing themes for the past seven years. At the Art Stage exhibition, her installation was titled Poesy Empathy – Hidden Messages, and it highlighted what the blind experience daily.

“This project came about because I wanted to turn the tables around to make able-bodied people feel disabled for once. I had wanted to work with an artist in the UK on a similar idea. We were supposed to do it together but she was not ready. So, when an opportunity came to work with the blind here, I decided to do it,” explained the inter-disciplinary artist who has her finger in almost all manner of creative arts. Painting, writing, singing and playing music are just some of her creative pursuits.

At her booth in Singapore, Liang dressed up Nice the guide dog and sat her at the entrance to attract an audience. This is what caused a few visitors to get upset, claiming it was too hot for Nice. Both Liang and Nice’s blind “parent” deny it, saying they were there to ensure the dog was comfortable.

Inside Liang’s booth, it was pitch dark and there were guides to help visitors. Anyone walking in was given headphones and they would hear a voice narrating Liang’s life story. It is a story of true grit and determination which involves a tumour, three spinal surgeries and two battles with paralysis.

As visitors were led through the dark booth, they experienced the installation through their other senses. Only towards the end of the visit did the guides, who were all blind, introduce themselves and briefly share their story.

Poesy Empathy – Hidden Messages booth at ArtStage 2018 in Singapore

Moving experience

“The visitors were stripped of their ability to see and they had to rely on someone else to give them directions. Everyone reacted differently to the experience. Some came out crying, others tried to remember what the taste or scent was. In some ways, my life story triggered their own memories,” informed Liang.

With all her health issues, Liang now walks awkwardly and for longer distances, she relies on her motorised wheelchair. She feels that she is sometimes treated unfairly because her limitations and physical challenges are not always obvious.

“I’ve been through a lot of challenges and hardships, like bullying and just not fitting in socially, and this exhibition gave me a chance to highlight this message,” said Liang.

 

A bit of whimsy

While her art installations and empathy project are important, it is her visual arts and merchandise that pay the bills. “Painting gives me a lot of satisfaction and so does selling my art. When I create whimsical work, I have a really good time because I’m having a humorous moment in my head. I have a huge crazy party going on up there,” said the porcelain-complexioned artist who was wearing a cream-coloured tutu on the day of the interview.

Her art personifies her – thought-provoking, refreshing, whimsical, interesting and different. You never know what she will say.

“I was just joking with a friend recently, ‘If I were a rock star, I would be a mix of Ai Weiwei and Marina Abramović.’ He’s an out-there activist and she is the glam queen of performance art nobody understands. I’d be somewhere in between,” she added with a big grin.

At age 42, she is now at the point where she wants her work to be recognised by the public. Her purpose is to mobilise her messages – empathy, kindness, compassion and even random acts of kindness.

Liang has been exhibiting in Europe and the US every year for the last 10 years. This year, she is hoping to move from Kuala Lumpur to Dallas as it will give her easy access to the west and east coast of the US, where she is often invited for events. Dallas is not new to her as she has exhibited there before and even has collectors who live in that city. It also makes economic sense as it will give her a bigger space than Los Angeles or New York would for the same rental fee.

 

Upcoming projects

Not one to sit still for long, Liang has already lined up three shows for the next five years: A room-sized paper installation on filial piety; a pavilion installation titled Pirate’s Daughter; and an immersive walkthrough installation called International Bank of Kindness/Bank of Empathy/Currency of Kindness.

All three projects are in various stages of completion. These exhibitions will likely be held in Warsaw (Poland), Dallas and Hong Kong. There are no plans to host them in Malaysia because of the sheer cost and the lack of a sizeable art audience here.

In addition, she is putting the final touches to Poesy Anime, a short autobiographical animated film. She has already created books, music and art merchandise to go with the film.

As part of her kindness and empathy work, Liang is the founder of Tuesday Art Angels (previously known as ChowKids Art Angels), which nurtures young artists among stateless children under the care of Yayasan Chow Kit in Kuala Lumpur. The art they paint is curated, and some are sold to individuals and corporations.

As if all that doesn’t already fill up her schedule, Liang also dabbles in jewellery-making and public speaking. She is the principal/designer of POEZ Jewellers and she receives invitations to give motivational speeches locally and regionally.

“In the big picture, all my projects share the same objectives. I’m experimenting with everything to find solutions for practical activities and abstract movements, while trying to innovate and collaborate as I trundle along,” she added.

She admits she is no saint, but Liang does try to help others who cross her path. “I think if I set my intentions on what I want to do, go with that and let it lead the way, it would be good. Letting providence take care of me is the best way to do it. If I didn’t have this intention to help and provide for a bunch of people, I wouldn’t be here today. If it’s just me, me, me, there’s always going to be a ceiling to what I can do. But if I want to be of service to others, then it’s usually smooth sailing although it might not be as profitable,” said Liang whose goal this year is to grow as a corporate darling so she can influence change in a positive way.

With her steely determination, nobody should doubt her ability to realise anything she sets her mind to.



This article first appeared in Focus Malaysia Issue 277.