Library / Project Journal

To the Horizon Between Life and Death

Library / Project Journal

To the Horizon Between Life and Death

By Salty Xi Jie Ng

17 November 2023

This post is part of a series on our Both Sides, Now project at Wellness Kampung @ 765 Nee Soon Central (2023-24). This year-long project aims to develop supportive communities for living well, and leaving well.

Artswok Both Sides, Now Yishun Seniors Conversations with artist Salty Xie facing a group of seniors sitting around at void desk
Senior collaborators with Salty Xi Jie Ng. Photo by Stacy Huang.

And so the ship sails on in the ocean of this shared endeavour. The waves carry us forward toward a non-destination; to be together having conversations on living and leaving is what matters most. There is a public showcase like an island we’re moving towards with intentional verve, and while that weighs significantly on how our time together is planned, I remind myself to find a presence in the quiet sky around us. We’ve sailed quite a bit now. As conversations deepen, going into light and dark places, waves of memories hit — some hurt; other splashes delight; while others are a propulsion toward saying something one has never said before.

Each a jewel, a jewel from each

Artswok Both Sides, Now Yishun Seniors Project Planning with artist talking to a senior in her house
Project assistant Stacy Huang (left) chats with Magdalene Yap (right) on a visit to Magdalene’s home to discuss her creative project, while the latter’s mother observes. Photo by Salty Xi Jie Ng.

Working with women of the older generation is to, at times, battle ingrained societal scripts around the intelligence, capabilities and strength of women. I see each of the senior collaborators as a precious jewel in her own right, with something to say. In trying to find what each person’s creative project is to be, I try to locate with each woman what truly matters to them. This is a process of getting to know someone that takes time, authentic connection, trust, and the best communication both sides can offer.

As a result, we are witnessing the nascent beginnings of a spectrum of potential expressions, from a collaborative short film to be made at the pool next door, on learning to swim in old age, freedom in water, and reflections on life and death; to an ethereal booth sharing a multitude of existential questions, where one can have conversations with a cosmic philosopher; to a mixed media installation of umbilical cord sculptures reflecting on birth and end-of-life conversations. These will be accompanied by tours, talks and readings at the public showcase in March 2024, where Wellness Kampung @ 765 Nee Soon Central is a living site existing between art and life.

Talking about it

Artswok Both Sides, Now Yishun Seniors Conversations with artist Salty Xie whispering into the ear of a senior lady laughing with her eyes closed
Koh Tong Cheng (left) and Chia Yim Fong (right) practice end-of-life conversation while Salty Xi Jie Ng facilitates. Photo by Stacy Huang.

We’ve also started discussing what it means to have end-of-life conversations — which don’t just happen at the end of life, but can happen anytime. A Regional Connector (Yishun Health staff who help identify and develop strengths and assets of residents, as well as problem-solve) who joined one of our sessions shared that in a casual family setting, she would comment on death-related news she was reading, and that would be a natural way for her children to learn about her preferences and wishes over time.

Together, we identified topics within the umbrella of end-of-life conversations. There are practical affairs such as: finances, funeral arrangements, organ donation, medical care, numerous legal documents such as one’s will, Advanced Medical Directive, Lasting Power of Attorney, as well as the non-legal Advance Care Planning. But there are also a suite of less tangible and equally important things to talk about, such as: life reflections, final wishes in life, objects to pass down, fears of death and illness, religion and the afterlife, regrets, and gratitude.

We started coming up with situations for these conversations, like an elderly parent announcing her terminal illness to her adult child, or a depressed and ill single senior being visited in hospital by a friend. The seniors threw themselves into roleplay very naturally, inciting laughter, empathy, further reflection and problem-solving, as we find ourselves in a rare setting practising these conversations. Of course, there are doubts — “not everyone will want to have such conversations”, or, “I don’t think I will talk about this with my friends”. It is my hope that we can digest and respond together in time.

Realities, alchemies

This project is only possible because of the network of people that sustain it, including Mary, the Centre Coordinator of Wellness Kampung @ 765 Nee Soon Central, our on-the-ground touchpoint who knows well the seniors at her centre; Cassandra, the Regional Connector of Yishun Health tagged to our project, who has been instrumental in getting approvals, making connections and organising meetings; the ArtsWok team handling, among many things, the many marketing deadlines necessary for Both Sides, Now to reach its outcomes.

I bring up the meetings and marketing because I’m in a process of considering how time with the seniors —our group and individual sessions, where we unpack living and leaving, and engage in an artmaking process— how this essence of the project interfaces with the bureaucratic and administrative network around it. Projects like these require large amounts of funding, which need bigger partnerships to be procured. This means more levels of approvals for the project to start, and regular check-ins with all involved.

Artswok Both Sides, Now Yishun stakeholders' conversations with Salty Xie talking to two other people in a room
Researcher Jacky Wong (left), Shirley Wong (middle) and Salty Xi Jie Ng (right) discuss end-of-life conversations. Photo by Stacy Huang.

While the seniors’ projects are just beginning—each at their own speed and flavour— the public-facing bell is ringing, and different types of marketing text are needed — they need translation, the designers need to work their magic, there are levels of people to pass. How can the artist hold an authentic process while attending to the infrastructural needs of a funded project with a timeline? Who would fund a process so open you don’t know what anyone might end up doing? Asset-based community development purists advocate for meeting community members and asking what they care about, before conceptualising any project. (see the first project journal post where I quote Cormac Russell: “you’re funding a process, not a product”)

Here we have begun with subject matter, a public showcase and a rough plan in mind. We are not wrong; we are just the hybrid reality of making such work happen. The proposal has to satisfy all levels of bureaucracy within partner organisations, and our main partner is already more enlightened than most. Since in our current world it is nigh impossible to be purist, should we be satisfied with the limits of what “community-led” means, as long as we do no harm? This process is complex, it might be messy at times, people will feel emotional, frustrated, confused, rewarded, surprised, wondrous, amazed, disappointed (at which point you work through expectations together, always putting participants/collaborators first) — after years of this work, I think this is how it goes. This is how it is to step into the vulnerability of collaboration and cooperation, hopefully with a collective sense that sings, “this is meaningful and worth it.” It is a kind of alchemy which births us over and over again.

About Salty Xi Jie Ng

Salty Xi Jie Ng is the lead artist of Both Sides, Now 2023-24 at Wellness Kampung @ 765 Nee Soon Central. She is an artist and educator working intimately with people and their lives in relation with the other-than-human. The Grandma Reporter, her collaborative publication project about senior women’s culture across the earth, has explored style, intimacy and eroticism. She was commissioned by T:>Works Festival of Women N.O.W. to make Not Grey: Intimacy, Ageing and Being with elder Singaporean women.