BUILDING A VIEW
Chua Chye Teck in conversation with Silke Schmickl
Silke Schmickl: The publication of Beyond Wilderness gives us the opportunity to talk about your latest series of photographs, as well as your practice as an artist and photographer. How did you come to art?Chua Chye Teck: There have been a few times in my life when making art gave me the attention that I needed as a human being. I had a hard time during my school days but always enjoyed crafting objects, which can be partly explained by my family background, as I grew up in a family of carpenters. At the age of 10, I asked my mother to buy me a camera so that I could take pictures of the environment we lived in — a wish that she fulfilled a few years later. After graduating from school I heard about two art institutions in Singapore, Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts and LASALLE College of the Arts. I decided to study Fine Arts with a major in Sculpture at LASALLE and graduated in 1996. At the same time I continued my personal exploration of photography and invested in some equipment.
SS: What triggered your interest in photography and what were your first experiences with the medium? CCT: When I got my first camera at the age of 17, an analogue Nikon FM2 with a 55mm micro lens, I aimed to take beautiful scenery pictures — well exposed, sharp close-ups of plants and animals. I gained my initial experiences in a community centre where I took some basic photography classes. The early stage of photography in Singapore and also the class I took was very much influenced by salon photography which focuses on light and composition. I then registered for various courses at the YMCA, where I acquired more technical skills, black and white processing amongst other things. However, my contact with photography was minimal during the three years in LASALLE where I specialised in Sculpture. It was only in 2001 that I decided to concentrate on photography.
SS: So what brought about this momentous decision? CCT: Well, that was when I had just graduated from a year of degree studies in Fine Arts at LASALLE. I was in the Army doing my National Service for two years just before, so for more than five years I did not have much opportunity to use all the photography equipment I had acquired earlier. The overall cost of its acquisition, coupled with the fact that I wanted to challenge myself to learn how to master everything I had on hand, were the main trigger points. At the same time, I was also increasingly interested in objects and situations in the streets that I came across during my daily commutes, and photographing them was the only way I knew to involve them in my art practice then. I feel it was at this point that my role changed from a creator into a re-interpreter.
SS: What were your influences and inspirations? CCT: As a student who wanted to use photography as a fine art material I hardly came across any art photography. I had very little information about other artists who used photography as a medium; this was before the age of the Internet and my knowledge was limited to books that I had at my disposal. There were certain photographic styles that inspired me, in particular the sensuality of Japanese photography and the simple and straightforward approach used by the Düsseldorf photographers. In Singapore, only performance artists used photography for art, but as a form of documentation. Instead, I developed my own practice poetically and intimately, although at that time I did not yet know how to use these ideas in my art and did not want to incorporate them directly in my work.
SS: What would you consider the first serious photography series in your body of work? CCT: Dear let me do the cleaning, a set of five images put together in 2001. It was the first work in which I managed to express an idea through the photographic medium and present my interest in seriality and pairing. Yet I was still intimidated by the directness and power of the medium, and concentrated on small groups of images rather than a single one to express an idea. This set of images was selected the same year for an exhibition sponsored by Nokia, Nokia 2001. I had submitted it for the open call, but the curators Ahmad Mashadi and Lindy Poh showed it in a curated section. They were probably the first ones who discovered my photography.
SS: Dear let me do the cleaning defines the beginning of your photographic style and testifies to a unique, personal and precise point of view. How did you decide on the title, which reflects a certain irony and humour that is perceptible in the images? CCT: The title stems from my daily life; I always told my girlfriend at that time, “Dear, let me do the cleaning.” Beyond this personal anecdote, I was trying to tell the authorities that we needed some rubbish around, because Singapore had this predominant concept of “clean and green”. Since art school days, my work has been a social commentary.
SS: You were encouraged by the school to develop such a critical mind? CCT: Yes, it even became pure anger! We had open-minded lecturers such as Vincent Leow and Milenko Prvacki, who were considered important contemporary artists in Singapore and who encouraged us to think without boundaries. At the same time, the Australian dean of the school was conservative and tended to suppress certain things that we were trying to push. We were exposed to different dynamics, and the sculpture students were always known as the rebellious students.
SS: I did not know beforehand that you studied under these political artists, and I see parallels with the art history in Europe where students of your generation had a similar desire to distinguish themselves from their teachers’ practice. I imagine that the generation of your teachers needed to be loud to be heard and to establish the foundations of a contemporary art scene, while artists of your age could focus more on poetic and personal work as there was already an existing scene. Was your choice to focus on photography an unusual choice for your generation? CCT: Artists such as Tang Da Wu, Amanda Heng, Lee Wen or Vincent Leow were extremely critical in those days and their artworks were socially driven. As students, we were inspired and influenced by them, and almost had no chance to be poetic or personal in our works. When I had my first solo photography exhibition at The Substation gallery in 2001, it was so poetic and intimate that I was asked, almost with disappointment, why my work had become so soft. I showed a selection of about 20 images. The exhibition was called Love Story and was influenced by pictorial elements such as tone, light and colour. I showed personal images and an image of Lee Kuan Yew—not precisely him, but a poster of him in a window display with his book From Third World to First. During those days it was rare to see his image in public, but because of this new publication, Borders, a bookstore, accorded an entire window to market this title, and the overall effect resembled an altar. My choice to focus on photography actually closed many doors. A lot of artists called themselves multidisciplinary artists and so they had multiple disciplines and opportunities, whereas I had fewer chances as we hardly had—and still do not have—many curators who knew how to curate photography. Curators here know how to deal with artists who use the concept of photography, but there are still only a few who know how to talk about photography when it comes to pure image making.
SS: The recognition of photography as an independent art form has been challenging in other parts of the world too. When I think of Germany, and notably Düsseldorf, in the second half of the 20th century it was the combination of several actors, artists like Bernd and Hilla Becher and Gerhard Richter (back then professors at the renowned Academy of Fine Arts), critics, collectors, gallery owners and art historians who built the foundation of the Düsseldorfer Photoschule and contributed to the emancipation of the medium. Maybe this moment has not happened in Singapore yet? CCT: Only a few artists in Singapore push the boundaries of photography as an art form. Robert Zhao would be a good example of someone who makes a singular and original use of the medium. Most of the photography exhibitions here present a type of photography that focuses on recording events or places. This is very different from an artist like Gerhard Richter who saw the potential of certain photographic images and situations, which he then decided to reproduce in his paintings, or from Bernd and Hilla Becher’s fascinating typologies of ancient industrial buildings, which over time became an exceptional archive of a disappearing era in Germany.
SS: This central reflection on memory and transformation through a comparative and typological approach can be also found in your own body of work. CCT: I have a constant interest in nature and the spaces that we lost when we were developing from a rural kampong island to an urbanised city state. And the question of memory, or how things get lost, which is what people are talking about so extensively now. When I was preoccupied with this question 15 years ago, I was considered nostalgic, as if I was too romantic to be an artist who, in the perception of that time, needed to be strong and loud. Only recently are there more activists who have started to pay attention to threatened places such as Bukit Brown cemetery, Chek Jawa in Pulau Ubin, and other areas that were not considered important in the past.
SS: Beyond Wilderness captures a disappearing natural wilderness in Singapore. When and how did you come up with the idea? CCT: I had the idea for this series after my return from a residency at Künstlerhaus Bethanien, Berlin in 2010. I was inspired back then by Daidō Moriyama’s street photography and thought that I might transpose a similar approach to the forests of Singapore, an idea that I discarded later. The subject matter relates to my previous series and my constant interest in supposedly unimportant and unwanted objects. The tracing of a disappearing past has been a recurrent theme in my work for the past 15 years. In Wonderland (2008), I focused on unwanted personal objects; in Paradise (2006-2014), on ephemeral personal structures in public spaces; in Memories (2015), I explore memory through found pieces of wire; and in Nature (ongoing from 2014), fragments of concrete which are re-interpreted with fi crafted wooden bases. In Beyond Wilderness, I focus on the forests that will be lost as speculative construction projects spring out like mushrooms all over Singapore. The subject matter and artistic approach may vary from one series to another, yet my interest in what is left behind is perceptible in all of them.
SS: Your interest in residues can be considered an almost political statement or at least a subversive attitude with regards to the Singaporean governance where chaos and disorder are vehemently suppressed by the authorities. The way you look at subjects that are not obviously political, yet charged with a latent political potential is, in my opinion, one of the strengths of your photography and a subtle resistance against the constant organising and cleaning of the environment and ultimately, society. CCT: As a small and ambitious country, the way Singapore develops gives little room to the weak ones or for alternative ways of living. This also rubs off on the art scene in which artists become tools of a certain market that the state intends to build. The Singaporean approach to art is nowadays very straightforward, competitive and profit-oriented. In my early practice, I pointed more directly at the system to denounce certain aspects but now I am interested more in poetry than politics. I also challenge myself to soften the work while still talking about the issue that I am concerned about.
SS: The pictures of Beyond Wilderness are so abstract that it is almost impossible for the viewer to know that they were shot in Singapore. Yet it is Singapore’s particular land situation that triggered your interest in this subject. Your project is certainly an eye opener for the viewer to discover the unique nature that still exists, and also an original attempt to map the island. CCT: When I told a Japanese gallery about Beyond Wilderness, they asked me: “Is there such a thing in Singapore?” Singapore has a tendency to present itself as a Garden City and show its inhabitants and visitors a certain type of controlled nature, like family-friendly parks or attractions such as Gardens by the Bay. We hardly have off-tracks or open lands anymore. Emotionally, I am very attached to this place. The pictures might not literally indicate to the viewers that this is Singapore, but when they look through the images they might recognise that this is our forest and I like that surprise. The elaboration of the series allowed me to more accurately map the terrain explored. When I walk through the forest I understand the land of Singapore, which is never really exposed. I can walk from MacRitchie to Bukit Timah, from Bukit Timah to Dairy Farm and then to Mandai; it is quite amazing.
SS: How can I imagine your act of photographing? You go to areas where you will presumably fi what you are looking for, with different cameras, and then what happens? CCT: When I go on a forest walk, I take one or two range finder cameras with me. Sometimes I take pictures, sometimes not; hiking can be part of the process, even without any picture making. I might pass the same road several times before being drawn to capture a scene I would have just walked by previously. I prefer to compose my images in a natural manner, and the camera is usually handheld. I only use a tripod if I go into a darker forest for technical reasons, to ensure a longer exposure and a better depth of field. I take some time to put myself in a meditative state and explore different structures in the forest—the way they come together and their potential in terms of composition. Sometimes it is one single line or a light situation that enables me to make a picture. The linear structure of branches and vines—what might seem to be natural mess at first glance—could actually be a complex organic organisation. I am interested in two different types of images. On one hand, the silhouette of a secondary forest with its broad leaves and dense top layers that filter diffused light, and on the other hand, images taken in land areas with sparse forest vegetation and strong light. A monoculture of casuarina nut trees with crawling vine and crippled branches characterise this landscape in contrast with the first category, where the thick forest covers the image in an all-over manner. Both groups have qualities that I am looking for; different types of energies become perceptible and confer a manifold rhythm to the series.
SS: What motivated your choice to work in black and white? CCT: I was intrigued by the idea to work with analogue black and white photography again, a medium that I had used in my early photography days, which is very different from digital photography. The choice was also partly motivated by a certain disappointment with the laboratories in Singapore as most of them went commercial or had to close down due to a lack of profitability. With black and white photography I have everything under control as I process the film myself. One roll is processed at a time and scanned later. I always use more or less the same film, a 400ASA Fuji Neopan, which is now sold out. Fortunately I managed to get my last batch from Berlin. Apart from the technical independence, I appreciate the formal and aesthetic qualities of black and white photography. It allows me to focus on structures, lines, light and shadow, and to present an almost abstract vision of reality. I overexpose my images slightly and under-develop them later in order to obtain a graphic effect that recalls impressions of charcoal or pencil drawings. When I look at this series I don’t see myself documenting a forest of Singapore. It is not about recording a landscape in order to make it recognisable to the viewer. I see abstraction in these images, an abstraction that I feel in this environment, and the medium helps me to realise my vision.
SS: You look almost obsessively at the same object again and again in order to depict the prefigurative image that you carry in you. In this repeated action, photography becomes a tool of understanding of image making itself. Time is undoubtedly a crucial factor in this process, even if for the spectator time remains an abstract figure. However the subtlety, precision and poetry of your work adumbrate your time consuming dedication. CCT: Beyond Wilderness began with numerous forest explorations, snapshots, trying out and improvisation in order to build an aesthetic. It is important for me to prolong this working experience over a long period of time in order to add depth and consistency to the examined object. When I started this series the subject was new to me and therefore represented a challenge that I wanted to resolve by understanding its structure. We often forget that time changes things. All the challenges that I had to face during the long creation process became my tools. I did not just solve these issues; they actually became my partner and I grew with them. My knowledge is gained by experimentations. We are losing this approach in our society in Singapore, but I personally can’t let go of this attachment I have towards my way of working. That is why my work also illustrates a sort of struggle that I have with my environment.
SS: Despite the systematic and rigorous character of Beyond Wilderness, the series presents a gamut of emotions. Some images articulate the idea of the unknown and impenetrable, even a certain hostility. Others evoke an atmosphere that suggests a “before” and an “after”, and the possibility of a human presence. In contrast with those are meditative and spiritual images that arose from the virginity of the landscape. CCT: I certainly want to use the forest structure to express emotions. The idea of emotional layers was already visible in earlier projects, such as Love Story, where I employed the use of layers in various forms: it could be a misty window pane, or a piece of cloth. In Beyond Wilderness, parts of the forest take the form of a natural curtain, the quality of which is enhanced through the photographic process. When I put the images side by side, I have the feeling that I am in the forest. The images themselves have a quality that evokes the sensation that I have when I am in the forest and this is good enough for me. I am now more into exploring the unknown, which becomes my artistic material. It takes time and is less about an idea and more about realising the emotion in the image. The subject is clear, but how to treat it as an image is unknown; each shot is a new discovery. Photographing in the forest is characterised by mixed feelings: the excitement of creating something and the fear of not knowing what to expect as the forest is not necessarily a safe place.
SS: If I would ask you to define what the forest means to you in a very simple way, what would it be? CCT: First and foremost, the forest is a place where I enjoy going and where I can isolate myself from society. Being alone in the forest produces a strange sensation; it makes me more sensitive towards lightning conditions and sounds, and enables a real encounter with nature. My sense of observation becomes sharp, and I enjoy the subtle beauty of Singapore’s nature and little things that happen on my way such as eagles flying off or wild boars passing by. When I walk in the forest I experience the duality of comfort and discomfort. In a broader sense, the forest is also a metaphor of life: obstacles might pave our way, yet different trails lead into one another and new perspectives open up. The approach of life is like that; things are uncertain but you have to move on.
SS: If the forest is a metaphor of life, Beyond Wilderness can be seen as an allegory of not only your artistic journey but also your spiritual one; a journey that progressively unveils the essence of a pre existing vision and inner reality, with all its sensorial shades. CCT: With Beyond Wilderness I want to build a view through a collection of similar objects. It is not about a camera view but an overall view; each individual object looks similar and only deploys its full potential in association with the others. With this series I aspire to present this particular view of my subconscious, and the typological approach expresses this effort. I am also strongly influenced by Taoism and the philosophy of recognising the positive and negative sides to everything. And by Chinese calligraphy and paintings, where the ink and stroke are always stripped down to the basics and only bare structures are kept. I see a relationship between this pictorial tradition and what I see in the forest. Chinese aesthetics are determined by the Taoist and Buddhist understanding of nature as the universe, in contrast with Western aesthetics where the concept of beauty originated from the Greek standard of perfection in human form. I do not focus on the visible body but on the environment, which becomes part of the emotional and sensual human being, and use this philosophy to express what I am looking for.
Silke Schmickl is the Co-founder of Lowave and Curator/Manager (Programmes) at the Institute of Contemporary Arts Singapore, LASALLE College of the Arts