New Castle is a collection of twelve images taken in the North Shields of England in late 2006, during a photography residency commissioned by the International Photographers and Researchers Network (IPRN). The collection features predominantly buildings and/with green spaces such as fields or parks.
The focus on habitation, physical and psychological spaces continue to be explored by Chua Chye Teck in this body of work, only this time taken in a different country. In vein with many of his past images, which examine memory through present or absent dwelling spaces, New Castle invites the viewer to contemplate upon each image, drawing on one’s own memory bank for comparisons.
In this series, we look at buildings which are devoid of human presence and wonder about their inhabitants. Each image hints at desolation, an emptiness coupled sometimes with a touch of the macabre, but always with a sense of prohibition. We are faced with obstacles that are either added — barbed wire, brick wall, boards (on windows), grills, bollards; or present by their own imposed strength — the forbidding sides of buildings, a blue gate; or supplemented in the form of decoys — melted plastic dumpster, a large hedge.
In comparison, his last solo exhibition entitled Eternity portrayed interior spaces, a documentary of the empty rooms in two conservation shophouses before they were transformed from run-down brothels into a working and exhibition space-cum-café. There were no obstacles then, only fragments of the past left behind as hints of what may have been.
In New Castle, the obstacles create a sense of helplessness: one wants to go forward, but is dissuaded. Can we read this as Chye Teck’s own feeling of helplessness as he himself grapples with futile loss in his home country? Loss driven by the age of progress as it razes through history and sentiment? Progress which led to the destruction of housing estates and the rise of a new urban landscape — an economic decision which no-one could prevent from happening. For New Castle, the artist had a choice of going forward and photographing an element face-on, but chose instead to explore compositions featuring either a psychological barrier, or shot from a distance that included a physical obstruction.
Each photograph seems to call out to the viewer: “Keep out!”; “Do not enter!”; “We are closed”; “No trespassing!”. In all of them, we hear a voice preventing us from stepping forward. All except for the sea which softly invites us to enter; only this time, its vast beauty overwhelms us, and we too, step back naturally rather than go forward.
In “Slowness”, Milan Kundera wrote, “There is a secret bond between slowness and memory, between speed and forgetting”. New Castle, being filled with untitled images, has the ease to slip into one’s memory invoking thoughts such as “this reminds me of…” or “this looks like…”. They have no specific identity apart from being just what they are: houses, hedges, walls, buildings.... The starkness allows us to look for clues, to differentiate or draw parallels with our own experience or knowledge. If we linger on to reflect, some memories may surface. And if we walk on, going quickly from image to image, we may simply forget what we have just seen.