Naima Morelli

THE SINGAPORE SERIES – CHAPTER 31

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Geraldine Kang

Earlier we have introduced the work of Singaporean artist and photographer Geraldine Kang. When I first came to Singapore for a month-long immersion of interviews and visits to art spaces, she was the first one among the artists I had planned to speak with. The intuition was good. Alongside allowing me to deepen my knowledge of her work, she also gave a good insight into the working conditions of the younger generation of Singaporean artists, their peculiar outlook and their experience in the art world. Geraldine was also teaching at LaSalle — we indeed meet in the school café — so she gave me a first hint of awareness of the conditions of the still-students, the yet-to-become-artists.

They say that to have a say on society, one has to first know oneself. Only in that way can you avoid projecting your own biases and fear onto the outside environment and people, and rather take a more reasonable stance. And in this case, if you decide to project your feelings on the outside world, at least you do it with a certain degree of awareness. And this is precisely what Geraldine has been doing. Back in 2015, when we had this conversation, she had just started moving the focus of her camera lens from her personal life, to the public life of Singapore.

She did not yet find works like “Aesthetic Screening” to be important. Aesthetic Screening is a series of photographs depicting bin centres around Singapore and responding to the legal and financial precariousness of migrant workers. She hadn’t even published Left-Right (L-R) yet, the publication co-edited by Geraldine Kang and Kenneth Tay, bringing together artists, curators and writers and featuring responses to selected lens-based images produced in or of Singapore. Or as her website would put it “a record of our complicities and anxieties surrounding Singapore’s image factory.”

However, the seed for this evolution was already there. For example, her photographic book “As Quietly as Rhythms go” was concerned with the rehabilitation and earthworks at landfill site off Tampines Road and the romantic sadness of seeing the ground of one’s youth disappearing in the name of progress. At the time, she had also just concluded a beautiful, intimate, delicate works like “Of Two Bedrooms”, a series of photographs telling a story of how death indelibly alters a long-standing, shared domestic space. There is no doubt about it: Geraldine’s work exemplifies beautifully how intimacy modifies space, and how public space can be the stage of the private dimension of humans.

“I think I have always been interested in art, but I never really knew what it was, because I never studied it very seriously when younger,” she told me when I asked her about the “origin story” of her practice. “I drew a lot as a kid, but that was about it. The art education that I received in school was very general and there was no theory, no art history.”

But when she turned 19, Geraldine was adamant about not wanting to go into finance or the typical studies expected of a Singaporean young person. She fell back on this old interest for art, and in 2007 she enrolled in the School of Art, Design and Media in NTU. “I basically jumped in. The only thing that I knew how to use was the camera, so I decided to use photography as my initial point in my formal art study. I realised that I was actually taking nice pictures of my friends, and I was constantly fascinated by what I saw in them in a photo, versus the real life. I noticed that between the image and real life, there was a dialogue going on. I started asking my friends to pose for me: I was like ‘oh guys, this looks really good, can you do that?’”

Indeed, in the first series that you did, your friends were the protagonists and you decided to photograph them in their bedroom. What inspired that first work?

The subjects in that series were mostly my age, or just slightly older than me, they were my schoolmates. I think portrait photography was really a way for me to try to reach out to people. I was really socially awkward as a teenager, so I just wanted to use the camera as a device to explore the identities of other people, but also myself. It taught me a lot. And actually, when I first started the series, I was so captured with the idea that you could illustrate the essence of someone in one single image. And then after going through so many rounds, so many different people, I realised it is always an exchange between two identities.

One of your most popular series is called “In The Raw”, which comprises staged fictional episodes loosely based on photographs and memories that you shared with both immediate and extended family. How did your family interact in the whole process?

It was quite some time ago, 2010–2011, but if I could place an inspiration it would be photographer Sally Mann. I think she uses the naked body in a way that was quite uncomfortable, because of this proximity of nudity. It’s not a novelty for people to bare their bodies in front of the families, but that happens up to a certain age limit. And I think that idea really struck me. We all come into the world naked, but then for some reason the nude body becomes something else. Society makes it into something else, and puts many layers upon it. I was really fascinated by that idea, and I just wanted to transplant it into my own family for several reasons. Firstly, nudity is kind of a taboo thing to do, especially here in Singapore. It’s a big thing for my family, who are Chinese and Catholic, and that influences their world view. They were quite concerned about me going to art school, and I wanted to introduce them to what I was doing by shocking them. I mean, it was an exercise of acceptance really, on both sides. I saw the series as a sort of compromise between me and my family, like: “hey, this is what I’m doing as an artist, let’s see how far are you willing to go with me.”

Did you end up finding that acceptance?

Yes, I think I gained a new understanding of my family from the series and I was really touched by it. The realisation is that my family supports me or wants to support me, but they need time to try to understand what I’m doing, and they need to be sure that I can survive doing this. Throughout the years, I’ve been constantly trying to better my practice. I think it’s sort of giving my parents an assurance that I know what I’m doing, what will my life will be, and that I’m not going to starve. So gradually, it has become a very nice, supportive relationship. They bring people to my shows, they help me with my work even, my dad especially. A lot of people ask me how I got my family to take off their clothes, and they are surprised when I tell them that actually it didn’t take that much convincing. I just went “ok, you do this”, and they would be uncomfortable, but they would do it anyway. It was my father who convinced my grandmother, who was the one with most resistance because of her age.

Most recently you worked on another photographic series called “Of Two Bedrooms”, centred around the figure of your grandmother. What’s the connection with “In the Raw”?

I have observed that my grandmother is the most prominent in all the works about family. Her presence was always of the biggest impact to me, because she’s old and it was very obvious that she would have to leave one day. Her death was always something that haunted me ever since I was young. Of Two Bedrooms was made before and after she passed away. In that sense, art was for me a way to process that. I think photography has always been largely introspective for me. Only in recent years am I actually trying to engage in larger discourses. I guess art-making was a way for me to get myself out of my head. To look at something in real life, to have a dialogue with myself and with the work. And also to engage in a dialogue with other people.

At what point did you start to embrace the city and your environment in the intimate relationship you have with art?

It was after the “Black as Waves, Half as Light” project where I explored my anxiety, I was tired of talking about myself, so then I just “ok, what’s next that’s around me?” I was hearing a lot of conversations about population, property and housing in Singapore. At the age of 25, you start to become aware of these things, because eventually you need to find a house, you’re starting to realise that your original home is too small, you’re starting to feel all these constraints about the space that are just weighing down on you. That compelled me to realise works around Singapore, and just trying to find personal quiet in so much clutter that’s around me, spending a lot of time outside my house, around the city, trying to see it differently. Photography in a way is the way to keep on engaging with my surroundings and not get bored, and also a way of creating a final, private space, in an image that exists in an image.

Did this affect your conception of art, compared to processing the personal that you were talking about earlier?

Yes, a meaningful way of making art, as well as a meaningful way of living, became for me about trying to engage a bigger structure within oneself, or to serve a bigger structure within yourself. That was how I got to thinking a bit more seriously about my photography. It’s not just about articulating personal pain or trying to create a nice image anymore. For better or for worse, I started questioning the role of images. Why the image exists, how it affects people and how technology affects the image etc. etc. This is the phase I’m in, and I’m even starting to question exhibition in itself. Why do you need work? What does it mean to you? What does the institution mean to you? What does the audience mean to you? Who is the audience? Is there a better way of getting art out to people, or ideas out to people? So in a sense, that art is starting to become a substance of bigger a world and I’m starting to realise: ok, there are so many other fields that you can go into and impact, and that you can bring the relation to art, or to each other, so it affects the society.

I can see you researched all of these topics individually. How was art education when you were at art school?

When I was a student in 2007, most of my teachers were educated in, or came from, the United States, so everything I was introduced to about photography and art in general was very American-centric. We didn’t have any module that would teach us about Singapore art history. It was Western art history in the first semester, and then Asian art history that seemed to focused on “artefacts” and religious sites, but not contemporary Southeast Asian art. And then we had one module about Chinese contemporary art, issues in modern contemporary art, but there was nothing that really talked about the idea of contemporary Southeast Asian art in relation to contemporary politics of Asia. And also nothing about Singapore, which I find really strange. We have such a rich history that was not being taught. Another thing I find hard to do as a young artist is connecting with previous generations of Singaporean artists and thinkers. Now and then I try to go back and find out who these people are that did amazing work and what discourses they were engaged with.

What do you think are the major issues today for young artists in Singapore?

I would like to answer this question from this moment in 2018, because I really feel that the answer I gave you back then is no longer sufficient. The first fundamental concern for most people who go through art school is whether a career in art is truly viable. In Singapore the financial realities hit you pretty quickly and if you cannot make money from the sales of your work (not everyone can or wants to) then you have to really weigh what you need to sacrifice or take on in order to maintain this space for yourself. Many end up doing something totally outside of art immediately upon graduating. Sadly, this is a reality all over the world. The next obvious challenge is in deciding how to maintain a practice — i.e. balancing time and energy between making money and making work. It can be difficult if part-time employment is the only thing that you can secure in order to have time for your own practice. Since space is so expensive, many young artists share studios or work entirely from home. On a separate note, I feel like an increasing number of younger artists do have a desire to probe difficult topics like queer identities, sexuality, ethnicity, religion and plural histories. This is totally commendable and a welcomed momentum.

Another problem is the size of spaces, especially the more independent ones. Can you please talk about that?

We have so few independent or artist-run spaces, non-profit spaces that really encourage the experimentation with ideas, and the ones that do exist are really small. One just closed down last year, Post Museum, that was a real shame. They just couldn’t afford it. I guess what we need is that, but in a much bigger format. I think that because artists live in spaces which are very small, and our costs of production are relatively high. Our works therefore tend to be modular, or just not as big as works that you might see from places like Indonesia or China. Incidentally, 2018 has seen a sudden spurt of independent spaces and ad-hoc programs in less conventional areas. Spaces like Coda Culture by Seelan Palay, Supernormal by Ong Kian Peng and the collective soft/wall/studs are examples of physical spaces. Opening Day by Selene Yap and Jia Yun and ISLANDS by Tan Pey Chuan are examples of experiments within shopping malls. Exactly Foundation by Li Li Chung (slightly older, I think established in 2015) is a photography residency program that engages with the history of places and socio-political issues in Singapore. Another thing that I find encouraging is how artists within the region have more opportunities to visit each other and exchange ideas whether informally or through residencies.

As an artist, do you have some sort of routine for working on your projects?

Aside from part-time teaching and freelance assignments, I try to ensure that I think about my work at least a little bit every day, and then also be disciplined about taking time off my work so that my ideas have room to breathe and evolve intuitively.