ThisConnect.today: Breaking Records & Breaking Stigma with 500-Mask Mental Health Art Exhibition

Who are you beyond your job? What does it mean to die a fulfilling death? Why have you decided to click on this post? Local mental health and arts advocacy group, ThisConnect.today is asking all the hard questions in their latest exhibition ‘What Am I, If I Am Not?’. The highly experiential exhibition boasts a record-breaking 572 masks from their Masks of Singapore project, as well as other tactile and thought-provoking pieces. Ignite speaks to ThisConnect’s founder, Ming Kwang, to find out more.

By Carman Chew

For most people, only 1 per cent of their actions are made consciously, says Ming Kwang, founder of ThisConnect.today. Yet, it is our actions that will determine the consequences of our lives.

Something drew you to this article, and local mental health and arts advocacy group ThisConnect.today is determined for you to find out what. 

‘What Am I, If I Am Not’, is a multi-disciplinary fine arts exhibition that examines the different and intimate dimensions of our relationship with ourselves from our physical, emotional and mental bodies. Running from Sep 23 to Oct 31, the exhibition will feature five works, namely Masks of Singapore, No Mud No Lotus, How Much Enough is Enough, What is My Truest Self, and Trauma Expression Series.

Masks of Singapore, a collection of 572 masks made by workshop participants. Each mask was created as a representation of participants’ ideal selves.

A record-breaking 572 masks were created across the last six months as part of the mental health art workshops held by the advocacy group. During the three-hour program, participants created representations of their ideal selves and later were photographed interacting with these masks, expressing themselves as their ideal selves. Participants included members from the Singapore Cancer Society, Singapore Children’s Society and the dementia-Alzheimer community, and their ages ranged from five to 86.

I talk to Ming Kwang to find out more.

To start us off, why did you start ThisConnect.today?

I’m an artist as well as a public advocate for mental health and suicide prevention. I’m also a life coach; I’ve been doing transformational work with youth and trauma since I was 18, which was where I found the answers to what matters to me and who am I. Then, I started creating a lot of humanitarian campaigns when I was a student in university, trying to figure out how to combine consciousness in spaces like this. 

Long story short, two years ago, when I was representing Singapore in a cultural showcase, I got a call that my friend actually passed away from suicide. So, all those plans I had involving mental health, advocacy and art, I felt really had to happen like now.

ThisConnect.today has been running for around two and a half years, with exhibitions even during the Covid-19 period. In the first week, we saw a thousand people, and five thousand within six weeks, which is honestly rare for an art exhibition. But I think it lays testament to how important such conversations are at this time.

Visitors interacting with No Mud, No Lotus, a piece inviting visitors to find out what keeps them in their toughest times.

What was the inspiration behind this exhibition?

The whole basis of the exhibition itself is to bring people to an awareness of who they really are instead of who they are beyond their jobs or the masks that they wear. That deep down inside of them, there’s also something rich about their lives that they have yet to awaken.

The name of the exhibition is called What Am I, If I Am Not?. The first time you read it, it might not make a lot of sense to you because why is it not who am I? 

At networking events, people often introduce themselves as what they work as, as though their job is their ultimate identity, but is that really true? We have to recognize that our job titles are merely an extension of one part of our lives and there are actually other parts of our lives that we don’t consciously put in the energy to make work.

If you’re in a job that you don’t really love for say eight hours a day, that’s one-third of your daily life force on the job. In those eight hours, you’re going to be tired, feel lost, feel empty, because all your energy gets sucked up — you put it in a place that doesn’t come back. Another eight hours are spent sleeping. So, technically, you only have the first part of your waking hours that you consciously live, and if you spend all that time on your job, guess what? Your job becomes the only ultimate truth. And so that’s why people do whatever they can to procure that position, as though they can bring that job title to their grave. 

But we’re seeing now with Covid-19, when people can no longer work, people are questioning who they are. Once we recognize that we are more than just our jobs, that we are actually multiple personalities, that those voices in our heads that tell us that we’re stupid are not actually from us, they’re just part of our sub-personalities psychologically speaking — it begs the question of what. And when you ask such a question, usually people will go through some kind of elimination process to start figuring out what they are. 

Therefore, what am I, if I am not?

What is My Truest Self features the peeling away at various objects.
The work seeks to question who we are underneath.

I noticed the exhibition has a lot of auditory and tactile elements. What were the reasons for this?

The point of it is to get people connected in the moment, to be able to be present with their feelings, mental and physical state. It can penetrate on a deeper level so they can better understand who they are as a person. Sometimes people watch the videos and they start crying but they don’t understand why — that’s the 99 per cent that’s not conscious, that inner self that understands even when the mind doesn’t. Instead of telling people what mental health is and what mental health is not, we let people experience the work itself and use their inner experiences to make sense of it.

Were there any particularly challenging points in the creation of these works?

For No Mud, No Lotus, we actually had to lug all the mud up by ourselves up the stairs (the exhibition is on level two). And the mud is not pure mud. There are stones, so it’s as if there are spikes sticking into your feet. We cleared all the rocks already, so that’s why the mud you step on now are the finer ones, but when we were creating the mud that we walked on was the hard rocks. Imagine standing still for five days on top of that.

What were some of the responses you got from visitors or participants?

People came up to tell me that they wanted to commit suicide, but the works actually stopped them from doing so. Or they knew people who committed suicide a while ago and that they’re now attending the workshop to find healing. If we can stop even one person from taking their life, I think we’ve done a good job.

No Mud, No Lotus is a performative piece held over five days about suffering and resilience.
It is said that lotus flowers only grow in the dirtiest mud.

Moving forward, what’s next for ThisConnect.today?

After this exhibition ends, we’ll be shifting Masks of Singapore to Funan from Nov 1 to Nov 21. Then from Nov 15 all the way to Mar 31 next year, we’re going to be showcasing selected works at the Mint Museum of Toys. 

We’re also publishing two books. The first book is the Masks of Singapore book. The book is not just pure masks anymore, it’s every single one of the mask’s creators expressing themselves, their stories behind the masks. The other one is Threading Worlds: Conversations about Mental Health. It’s about my conversations with 72 other individuals, including politicians, ministers, psychotherapists, doctors, counsellors, social workers… so that we can look at mental health from different perspectives. We look at it from an individual level, from a group level, from a partner, community, national and even worldly level.

I wanted to set up a charity around the sales of the books. So, there are three uses for the money: first, we are trying to set up a system whereby people can actually use the book as a support to go for mental health treatment; second, we will be using the money to fund future exhibitions; and third is to reprint the book in different languages so that we circulate this in Indonesia, Philippines, Thailand, Korea and Japan where suicide rates are very high.

And lastly, any final questions you would like to leave visitors with?

A lot of exhibitions are expressions of trauma, rehashing so people will be better able to identify mental illness, but it doesn’t deal with the trauma. If you express that somebody commits suicide, how does it solve the problem? Is it going to prevent other people from doing so or is it going to normalize it?

Ultimately the question we want to ask is not “what is mental health?” because mental health involves everybody, but what’s more important is your awareness of your emotional, mental and physical state. It’s not just about diagnosing the mental health condition, but really taking ownership. You are the cause of your own demons. 

Every moment of suicide takes a million moments leading up to it. I’m interested in the first moment when things really started piling up. Can we do things in order to prevent that from happening? That comes from a certain level of ownership that we must have as individuals over our physical, emotional and mental state.

In both the mask-making and mudball workshops, coaching principles were integrated to get participants to connect more with themselves.

The whole idea of all these mental health issues is that people have a misalignment. We want to get people aligned to who they are and not who they perceive to be. Because if you know who you are, no matter how big the shit is that crushes you, you can’t be crushed because you have a ground to stand on. To know your place in this world, you have to answer the questions: Who am I? What I am here for? What really matters to me? We wouldn’t even talk about mental health issues anymore because you are living your life to the fullest.

The equation I’m trying to get people to piece together is “what does it mean to live a fulfilling life?” Because if we can answer that, then we can answer the question of “what is a fulfilling death?”.

Exhibition details

Venue: 39A Duxton Hill, Level 2, S089617
23 Sep 2021 – 31 Oct 2021
Open 12pm – 9pm Daily
Free admission

Book your slots @ http://bit.ly/tctexhibit21

Note: 2 other satellite venues where Masks of Singapore Photo Presentation and selected works will be showcased in Singapore include: 
1. Mint Museum of Toys (3 October 2021 to 31 March 2022), 
2. FUNAN Basement (1 November 2021 to 21 November 2021).

Should you feel distressed, please know that there are hotlines and resources available to help you:

Samaritans of Singapore
1800-221 444 (24 hours)

Institute of Mental Health
6389-2222 (24 hours)

Singapore Association for Mental Health
1800 283-7019 (Mon to Fri, 9am to 6pm)

1800 377-2252 (Mon to Fri, 9am to 6pm)

Brahm Centre Assistline
6655-0000 (Mon to Fri, 9am to 6pm)

After hours
8823-0000 (WhatsApp available)