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A filmmaker with an eye for the surreal, at just 32, Ling Ang is also one of Australia’s youngest arts patrons—and she’s channelling her resources to craft a brave new world of digital storytelling.

By Rosamund Brennan

Whether she’s drawing inspiration from her own dreams, constructing them for others through her art, or making dreams into reality through philanthropy, Ling Ang spends a lot of time working in parallel dimensions.

Locally, Ang rose to recognition for her contribution to The Capitol theatre restoration in Melbourne’s CBD, but that is only one clip on her highlights reel. As an artist and filmmaker, Ang’s work explores contemporary issues through film, documentary and XR (extended reality), and has been shown across the US, UK, Europe, Asia and Australia.

In 2021, Ang unveiled an installation called Souvenirs of Sleep. Over the course of this three-year project, Ang—a lucid dreamer—wrote down the imagery and experiences that came to her at night, from murky waters to teeth falling out or her body free falling through the air.

These poetic accounts were transposed over digitally altered photo re-enactments in immersive virtual reality experiences in Melbourne and London, and published in a hardcover book.

“Many artists have looked towards their dreams as sources of inspiration, but lucid dreaming takes a lot of practice,” Ang says. “At the peak of it, it could feel like I’d been in there for an entire week. I’ve always been drawn to those genres of sci-fi and fantasy in my work, playing between what is reality and what is fiction.”

Much like in her dreams, in waking life, Ang is an explorer. She has a knack for orchestrating the world around her, shifting seamlessly between artist, donor and agent of change, charting her personal and professional love of film into new worlds, and learning how to exist in them along the way.

Ang was a university student the first time she laid eyes on The Capitol. She was attending a lecture at RMIT and was struck by its grand geometric ceiling, flickering with thousands of tiny incandescent lamps.

Less than a decade later, in 2018, Ang helmed an effort to save the iconic 1920s building from crumbling into ruin with a $500,000 donation. She was 27 years old. The theatre had been closed to the public for five years, but the ambitious project saw it transformed.

“The Capitol is not just a building,” Ang says. “It’s a symbol of the potential of art, of conversation, of ideas and inspiration. It’s a really important place for students, industry and the wider public to be circulating ideas together.”

While Ang was already involved in philanthropy before The Capitol, working with organisations including the Asia Society Australia and funding a scholarship for her alma mater at RMIT, it kick started her screen arts patronage and offered her greater visibility within the sector.

Of all the questions Ang gets asked about her extraordinary role as a young philanthropist, two compete for the title of most common: “Why do you want to give?” is the first, closely followed by “how are you in a position to give?”. The answers to both are deeply rooted in her family history.

Ang’s Chinese-born grandparents were early pioneers of the rice trade in Singapore and co-founders of the Shangri-La Group; testament to an industriousness and vision that has clearly been passed down.

While not philanthropists themselves, Ang’s grandparents built an empire that enabled generations of giving, firstly with Ang’s mother, who started giving in her 40s, and then with Ang in her 20s; an early take-up that mirrors statistics demonstrating Australians are passing on generational wealth younger than ever before.

“My mum did lots of charity work in the 90s with the Buddha’s Light International Association and various medical research groups,” Ang recalls. “It was normal for us to spend Saturdays at the Buddhist temple, and we’d often miss school holidays to go to The Philippines and Papua New Guinea for charity work.”

One of Ang’s first memories is of her mum placing the potty in front of the TV, and a fascination with the screen persisted throughout her childhood.

Growing up on the Gold Coast, tennis and film were her most fervent obsessions; after her daily hit, she’d plonk herself down in the loungeroom and watch music videos, pop on a VHS or play video games.

“There was maybe one other Asian kid in my class in primary school and I was quite shy, so I spent a lot of time watching films,” Ang says. “It was the best way to escape into a world of fantasy and imagination.”

After a brief detour studying business management, Ang built a career conjuring worlds of fantasy and imagination on film. Far beyond her loungeroom on the Gold Coast, it has taken her to New York to shoot music documentaries, to India for a feature film and to London, where she made fashion documentaries, developed scripts and experimented with XR through gaming, installations and film.

Prompted by the imminent closing of the Australian border and an impassioned plea from her tight-knit family, Ang returned to Melbourne in February 2020 after five years bouncing between the UK and Australia.

The return to her roots coupled with the artistic limitations of the pandemic created the perfect conditions for Ang to refocus her philanthropic and career ambitions.

After witnessing the possibilities of screen arts in London, she brought home with her a desire to help advance the local industry and offer opportunities for filmmakers to employ emerging technologies.

That year, she was connected with Brad Macdonald, head of philanthropy at the Melbourne International Film Festival (MIFF)—an encounter she describes as “a meeting of minds”. The resulting collaboration was the MIFF XR Commission, a program designed to encourage artists to create immersive, extended reality artworks that ‘celebrate, interrogate and illuminate Melbourne’.

“Our minds just sparked. We were on the same page about how we wanted to reignite MIFF,” Ang says. “It was good timing, because Melbourne went into lockdown and filmmakers had to find different ways of telling stories.”

Ang’s $80,000 XR Commission grant was awarded to collaborators Isobel Knowles and Van Sowerwine for their work Night Creatures, a series of extended reality experiences that introduce audiences to animated cinema goers who take the form of fruit bats—Melbourne’s beloved creatures of the night.

“I hear it all the time from my peers that there is no space for this kind of work in Australia and that they have to move overseas,” Ang says. “The commission was born of a desire to build the infrastructure here, within Australian film culture, to make XR production more financially accessible and to provide a step-by-step education component as well.”

Straddling the roles of both artist and philanthropist is both a rarity and a delicate balancing act, laden with conflicts of interest.

But Ang has aplomb: “I’m in the lucky position of not having to make art to please anyone,” Ang says. And yet, she continues to help other artists who don’t have the same luxury.

“I get the most joy out of inspiring and helping people,” she says. “When you meet the people you are helping, and they have no idea that someone as young as me could be behind it; it’s a beautiful thing.”

Bringing the vision and idealism of an artist to her philanthropic pursuits, Ang is now focused on addressing the bigger picture of philanthropy in Australia, working alongside peak bodies to tackle structural challenges and empowering other young people to give.

“I want to change this idea of what a philanthropist could be, or what they could look like,” Ang says. “I meet people who are interested in offering support but may not feel like they have the chance or voice or potential knowledge.”

“I’m constantly learning about the different ways one can support individuals or bring together new communities. How can I help not just for a day, but for the next couple of years, the next decade, the next generation? That’s what drives me.