1. How did you get 15,000 Kiwi kids involved in your flag project?
We've been going into decile one and two primary schools in Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch since 2012. We asked the kids to write down their hopes and dreams for themselves, their communities and the world. Heaps of kids had never been asked that before. They were like, "What's a hope, Miss?" We got them thinking about their futures and identifying pathways to help them realise that. It took time to convince the kids it was a safe place to be honest. We then did a lesson on how to translate their ideas into visual language so they could paint them on to their prayer flags.
2. Did you see any common themes emerge?
Yes, unfortunately a lot of it was very basic needs stuff: kids wanting to be safe and warm with food on the table and less stress. There was a lot about domestic violence, alcohol, drugs and gangs. We stitched 5000 flags from around Auckland together and hung them in Aotea Square for the Auckland Arts Festival 2013.
It's empowering for kids to see they're part of a whole and to realise their thinking informs the future of our country. Half the kids we brought in from South Auckland had never been to the CBD before. I realised how polarised we are when I overheard two white collar workers ask what developing country the flags had come from.
3. You then gathered 5000 flags in Christchurch and 5000 in Wellington. They will all hang together for the first time at the NZ Festival next month. Were there similarities between cities?
Christchurch was done just after the earthquake so there were a lot of conversations about housing and loss, but we had similar concerns from Porirua and South Auckland. The more you put them together, the harder it is to ignore. That's the power of the work - it's the kids' words and they're repeated en masse.
4. What next for the work?
I'm taking the flags back to India to install them in the Himalayan region where my grandfather's from. I have an artist's residency there and plan to make a film about the flags to bring back and show the Kiwi kids how they've been part of an international exchange.
5. Are you from India?
No, I had a middle-class upbringing in Auckland with my Mum, who is Pakeha and possibly Maori. My Dad's half Indian, half Samoan. Reclaiming his surname has opened up the contemporary Asian art world to me to a surprising degree.
6. How did you get into Eastern art?
I'd worked as a graphic designer but it didn't feel right to be using creative purpose to sell product. So I went to Elam School of Fine Arts and studied painting. I had no idea what I wanted to say until I did a two-week course with Max Gimblett. He and I just clicked. He's Buddhist and spoke a lot about the spiritual in his work. That was the first time I'd been able to have those conversations. They weren't seen as academic enough. Max encouraged me to leave Elam and go to India.
7. What was it like going to India for the first time?
Terrifying. I was 24 and on my own with no local contacts, no language, no cultural understanding. For the first week I stayed in the same hotel and walked round the same block because I was too scared to cross the road. Looking part Indian, I couldn't do the same things as other Western travellers. What was okay for them wasn't okay for me. I started wearing Indian clothes, which was a good move because then I was left alone. I was meant to be there for three months but fell in love and stayed three years doing voluntary work in creative arts and fair trade. The experience was life-changing. It altered my understanding of life, death, happiness and success. I realised I'd always come from an Eastern philosophical position, I just hadn't been able to place it.
8. When did you decide the process of making art is more important than the end result?
In the slums in India I spent ages creating a detailed mural for the kids to paint on the wall with donated paint but that all went out the window when they got hold of the paint. They just wanted to play with it. The result was this amazing mass of colour. I realised it was actually about empowering them to reclaim their own space.
9. Are you a full-time artist?
Yes, I have been for three years now. I was working nights in hospitality and had visions of doing my own stuff in the day, but the reality was I didn't have enough energy for both. I've been able to support myself through commissioned works and artist residencies. I've just spent four months in Albuquerque on a Food Justice residency and then installed a show called Shrine at Corban Estate Arts Centre in Henderson and another at the Buddhist temple in Howick.
10. What was your largest commissioned work?
My installation for the Sydney Biennale 2012 had 2,000 wind chimes each strung on a 5m long rainbow ribbon across two sites, including the whole pier. We asked people to take a wind chime away, decorate it at home and then reinstall it at Cockatoo Island. People did actually return those ones. I've done similar ones using bells in Melbourne and California that haven't worked. The idea was for people to reinstall the bells somewhere sacred to them and send me a photo which I'd put on a map. The idea is to show how everywhere is sacred and has different meanings for everyone but I just can't get it there.
11. You've recently become a mother to 3-month-old Sequoia. How are you finding motherhood?
It's amazing. I did find it hard to get her immunised recently. It feels counterintuitive. I had to ring a doctor friend and say, "Tell me again why I'm doing this?" But I'm glad I did it. It's important to see immunisation is a privilege. If you saw anyone suffering from these diseases like they do in other countries you wouldn't hesitate.
12. Do you get a lot of flak for having a spiritual element to your work?
Totally. We're proud of being a secular country and my work is anti-secular in a way. It's taken a while to get accepted. I'm not pushing any particular agenda. I try to work with materials that have cultural crossover like bells, chimes, flowers and incense. A lot of art these days is very minimal and cool. I try to make works that are really beautiful and magical by using scent and sounds that change the way a space feels. People can just walk in, take a deep breath, unplug from the craziness of the modern Western world and hopefully become more in tune with themselves and others.
• Tiffany Singh's Fly me up to where you are New Zealand is in Wellington from Feb 27 to Mar 19 as part of the NZ Festival. Go to www.festival.co.nz