Naima Morelli

THE SINGAPORE SERIES — CHAPTER 15

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Sarah Choo Jing

I love the work of Sarah Choo Jing. It is elegant and she clearly shares a passion for my favourite director, Hong Kar Wai. The artist herself gives me the impression of living in her own imaginary, which is something I can highly empathise with. At the 2017 Venice Biennale show, she was elegant as ever, wearing a blue cheongsam with a pair of silver shoes which looked as if they were right from Grace Kelly’s wardrobe. Her attire made her look like a noble Chinese woman on a visit to the West. Being in Venice, another celebrated city port, this looked like the possible start of a story.

When I interviewed her in Singapore at the end of 2015, she carved out a time to meet me amid the shots of the production of her new video piece called “Four Days”, set in a prestigious hotel near Chinatown. Actually, it was unclear to me if it was the lack of time to dictate the conditions for this meeting, or if it was rather a wise choice to allow me to participate in the production process and get some juice for the story. At one point the artist admitted that the circumstances were quite fortuitous.

“The gist of this film, if I have to sum it up in once sentences, is that it is about two individuals who are in the same place in the same hotel, l but they would be shot side by side and they never meet. It seems that they are meeting all the time, but they don’t. They are separated by the frame.”

The film was meant to be presented on a two frame video and shown as an installation piece. The project started from a collaboration between a music group in London, and then Sarah created a narrative around what the music suggests to you. “When I listen to the music, I had this idea for a story which is very suggestive, a bit seductive. It seems it is trying to tell me something but you hold back. ‘Four days’ is about a relationship, is about communication, the miscommunication, the point when you almost get somewhere but then you don’t.”

This young artist is a strange mix of inspirational quotes, fast-talking and action-oriented, which somewhat contrasts with her work which is conversely about waiting, silence and isolation, and conjures up the image of an individual all secluded in themselves and ridden with doubts. In my view, these two aspects can be compatible within the same person, and her professional attitude actually shoes the healthiness of the subject who is able to give breadth to both aspects of her personality at the right time. I feel she speaks a language which is very close to my own self and those of my generation, when she speaks about summarising her work in one sentence or sticking to a routine. We probably read the same article, listened to the same podcast and looked at the same Instagram posts. So I can’t help but get her and admire her for walking the walk and talking the talk, and still producing work which is highly poetic. Sarah looks to me like a subject who is able to stay sane and wear her entrepreneurial hat as the system prises her for doing so. She is the perfect example of a Queen Elizabeth.

For the interview, we sat on a chair and I started asking her about her artistic upbringing. She told me that as a kid she was very bad at art and her teacher used to show her paintings as an example of how not to paint. “But I find art was a way to express how I felt, it was a way to kind of convey. A lot of my works I find are like journal entries. But they are coded. It’s not straightforward. I’m trying to tell you my story, but I’d use something else to say it. So if you’re close enough and you know me, you understand and so I find that it’s like a language.”

She then decided to really go into it and invest time into it: “I am someone who doesn’t believe that you either can do it or can’t. I always believe that if you want something enough, you will just go out and get it.” And she definitely had the grit, deciding that even if she wasn’t good at painting, she was going to learn it. She started painting every day, without fail, for a minimum of three hours.”

So you started a strict routine.

Yeah, I think routine is important. I think in art contrary to popular belief, routine and discipline are very key in art. Sometimes people think that making art or making films is an easy job, but it’s not true. We have to follow a schedule or we have to make sure that we are on time. We have to make sure that you set a set time to do something. And I think discipline also in terms of the setup. You set yourself up as an artist, you respect your medium, you position your paper properly, you put your paint brushes where they need to be, you set your paints out. You work like a professional. You have to treat your work with respect and I think then it will show through.

It comes out through the work. Working with different mediums, do you follow a process?

I use to think not, but I realised that I actually do. Because with all of my work I think that the planning is key and I always have things similar to this (she points at mood boards) in my room. My studio is just plastered with them. I would write things from people that would be poetry, that would be quotes and hotels, what these places means to me. It’s almost like sign case in a lab, you are being a kind of a specimen, that’s the way I work. With photography, before I photograph I always plan the shots. I would draw out where I want objects and people to be and we will film them there. I always plan before doing the work.

When you are planning, do you collect references from movies?

Yes, I always do. Because my work is so personal I always borrow aesthetics from things around me. Sometimes they are direct experiences, like when I’m working on the streets. When I was in London I always took night walks. I lived there for two years and almost every other night I would walk from 12 midnight till 4 am on the streets, and that inspired me. The night is so spectacular. In Paris I’d work down at Pigalle and then I’d spend the whole night just watching. Maybe I’d have a drink and watch people. And that inspires me. And then I watch movies, filmed by Wong Kar War.

That’s a very clear inspiration of yours…

Yes. And the photographs of Gregory Crewdson. But I always borrow little aspects. There will be always something about the work that I’m not very comfortable with maybe.

Of course you let everything be filtered by your own sensitivity.

Exactly, and music as well. Music is inspiring. And fashion. Looking at window displays, I think it’s so fascinating. Yeah. So I think everything actually inspires me. It’s about paying attention to the little things in life. Things that people don’t notice, but you notice. I think that is inspiration.

As you said your work is very personal, some even feature members of your family. When you represent them in photographs, do you try do be faithful to the person, or do you stage a version of the person you have in your mind?

Sometimes it shows a hidden dimension. I told them to be natural, to be themselves. I don’t really set them up, unless I use a model. But again I’d choose people that are close to what I want to represent. So there is this division right, how true is it, how false is it? Where do the boundaries blur?

How do you cast your models?

Most of them I know personally, but for this shooting here it is the first time actually that I work with a team casting people. I usually rely on my instinct, I look at the models, I talk with them, I ask them what they do, I ask them about their background.

You completed an MFA in London. Did you move there for the school, or was it always a dream of yours?

I always wanted to go to London. I thought it was a good place and I applied for the school. Those two years in London were crucial. By living alone, you start getting so much time by yourself. You get so much time alone, so I started reflecting on a lot of things I was doing. I think it really changed my practice.

Have you relocated here in Singapore?

For now, yeah. I’m comfortable here, because I know people. I have resources, I know where to get things done, and it’s just about making work and then travelling wherever the shows take me.

Do you get support?

There are few artists that get funding from the National Art Council. I think for me what’s most important is to make the art practice sustainable. You should be able to sustain as an artist and not always rely on grants from the government. I think it’s great that it’s there. But if you can do it, why not? So yes, we have a tight community, which is very helpful. But at the same time it can be limiting to some as well. It’s good to me, but I think there are pros and cons. For two years it’s great, but sometimes it’s too tight and then it’s “What else, what more is there?” I’m always curious, “What if, what if, what if?” So I also look sometimes beyond the local community. I’m always wondering what’s beyond. I think my overall aim is to one day represent Singapore on an international platform. A world renowned artist representing Singapore. But not just for me, I want people in the world to see Singapore for something more. So I try to collaborate a lot within the local community here. And when we bring this film overseas, I don’t know what is going to happen. With waiting for the elevator for example, I made it here in a Singaporean context, so many people when they saw the film were surprised to know that you regulate the races in the apartment buildings. So that’s the kind of thing I want people to realise and reflect upon. There is this thing going on in Singapore and it’s quite interesting.

Do you feel connected to the older generation of Singaporean artists?

I think I’m kind of stuck between the old and the new. To be honest I’m a person that is very extreme, so I really like traditional art and the emphasis on the technique. Technique is so important. But I also think the concept is important, so I’m always between both, and I try not to put myself in that situation where I favour one over the other. Also because I always find myself being in a zone, not here not there, maybe a little bit here, a little bit there. I think that’s something common to a lot of people of our generation. It’s about identity. Even being Singaporean. I don’t see myself as being just Chinese or just Singaporean. I see a little bit of the Western influences in me, so maybe a mish-mash of influences.