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For two months earlier this year, a Frenchwoman dressed in a hot pink boilersuit manned a fruit shop in Lengkok Bahru. Amidst bunches of hanging bananas and rows of melons, children from the neighbourhood were learning how to fashion pinhole cameras out of recycled drink cans. These cameras are one of Isabelle Desjeux’s tools of the trade – once, someone mistook her camera for a homemade explosive device, though the misunderstanding was soon cleared up – and the fruit shop was part of a residency she did with local arts group 3Pumpkins.

Isabelle is the kind of artist who plays with and around the boundaries of neat boxes. Trained in molecular biology, she left the lab life on 1 January 2000 and started teaching children how to draw, while teaching herself to become an artist. She identifies as being an “l'artiste-chercheur”, a French term which translates broadly as artist-researcher or artist-scientist. “I like the ambiguity, because a lot of my art is based on artistic research, and I confuse artistic research and scientific research. Everything is intertwined – it all comes down to curiosity,” she shares.

Everything she does tends towards the encouragement of developing a natural curiosity. In her drawing classes for example, she rejoices whenever children end up with different drawings of the same flower. “That’s the connection between art and science. Observation helps you understand the world,” says Isabelle. “When you start to look at things more carefully, it empowers you to look at the world differently.”

Continuing the theme of observation, since 2017 Isabelle has been based in a residency space attached to Blue House Nursery & International Preschool which she named l'Observatoire. She opens it up to Singapore-based artists, such as Ezzam Rahman and Michelle Lim and Tamaryn, to take up short residencies all year long. The only rule of the no-frills residency is that the artists have to interact and engage with the students of the school.

Part of her work is also about challenging the norms of an increasingly results-driven society. In 2017, she presented a work at the ArtScience Museum called Learn To Fail with activities for visitors that are deliberately set up for failure. For example, taking a photo with a pinhole camera that will likely end up being over- or underexposed. Says Isabelle: “Intrinsically, we don’t like it, but failure is good for you. We should learn how to fail. Just forget about talking about success. Enjoy the moment of doing.”

To learn more about Isabelle’s work, visit

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