Making something out of nothing

TNH_180421_2178.jpgWhere do I start? Where did I start?

I have always been an outsider. A good friend of mine once said that it is not so much that I am anti-social, but it is because my own internal world is so rich that I appear distant to other people. I guess that is true, I have this imagination that keeps me occupied.

Maybe I should start in my teenage years with my friend Peter Yu. He had this game whose aim was to get several tokens from one end of a maze to the other end. The first one to get all his tokens to the other end wins. I was not interested in winning, I was interested in obstructing Peter’s tokens in their movement. Also In Anglo-Chinese Secondary School, Secondary four students get the privilege of wearing long trousers if they wanted to. All the students in my year rushed to wear long trousers in Secondary 4 and I stayed with shorts. It had nothing to do with fashion sense, it was just that Singapore is hot and shorts are cooler. To me it was practical.

In junior college, I like many other people fell in love with Michael Jackson and his dance videos like thriller. There was no dance club in Hwa Chong Junior College in my year, there was only aerobics. So I joined aerobics, not because I like exercising, but because it was the closest thing to dance class I could find. I was like one out of two guys who took aerobics in HCJC.

In university, while studying electrical and electronic engineering, I joined the dance society. I took ballet, jazz and contemporary dance classes. There were a few guys in that society, dominated by women, but it never stopped me. Some of the women had professional dance training, it did not stop me. I had fallen in love with dance. I was watching dance performances once a week and my classmates in engineering were asking me how I could afford that. Well, I did not smoke a packet of cigarettes a day and get drunk on beer every night in the student union. After completing a doctorate in engineering, I spent a year at the London Contemporary Dance School. I did not make it to become a professional dancer, but it was one of the best years in my life.

When I returned to Singapore, I did not get an engineering job. I worked at The Esplanade as a programmer and took photos for The Arts Magazine. From there, I became a photographer for the arts, especially dance. I was a dance photographer in Singapore even before such a thing was known. A colleague in The Esplanade once gave me some friendly advice to get a real job in engineering instead of wasting my time with the arts. Suffice to say, dance photography was the furthest thing away from a ‘real’ job one could get. Today, loads of photographers in Singapore are enjoying dance photography. I am happy that other people have found the joy in dance photography.

I had been practicing photography for eighteen years when I joined the Master of Arts in Fine Arts at LASALLE College of the Arts in 2017. Although I appreciate good photography still, I am jaded by my own practice. I found that a couple of installations (Stealing breath, Stopping Time 2014 and Fade… 2015) that I had done engaged the audience way better than my photographs on the wall. I was intrigued by how immersive, multi-sensorial work can engage audience in a deeper dialogue than my photography. Partly I think the instagram and social media age has devalued photography. It is so abundant that people rarely pay much attention to photography anymore like they did in the past. In January 2017, just as I started my Masters, I had a jointly created installation at The Substation with Lim Chin Huat called Soil. It was our tribute to the fertile ground of The Substation and it was a plant and video installation. It was the first time that Chin Huat and I had worked with plants in an installation and the first time we did a video with shadow puppetry. We had a blast with the project. We wished we had a better venue than the substation box office, as people could only peek at the installation from the outside due to space constraints. But it was a wild ride for us.

So in my masters, I was researching how to create artwork using different sensory stimulation. For my work in process show last year, I created Plastic Sea, an immersive installation of hanging plastic bags that commented on plastic pollution. And for the work I presented in my final show, it is called Wind Song, and it is a work of tactile moving wind. It is not visually obvious as I designed it to blend into the gallery. Many people simply walk under it and do not even know it is there. But those people who realize that the caressing wind at the door of the gallery was actually my art work, could also look up and see the 80 computer fans controlled by electronics. This is as far away from the visual a photographer can get. This is as contrarian as I could be in a journey to find new horizons. Well, I would like to get even further and completely hide the fans and electronics, but maybe I will get another chance in the future.

The thing is, I am not a hater. I still love photography when it is done well and thoughtfull. My journey has not been about being contrary for the sake of being contrary. I was in London when the punk movement was still strong. All those people jazzing up the hair and wearing nose rings and leather with studs. So many people became punks that it became a mainstream movement. It was no longer a rebellion. I just realized that in this age of conformity and boxes for people to easily slot other people in, the true rebel is the person who remains true to himself or herself. At the end of the day, my art is just about these things that I am curious about, from my own inner world.

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