Singaporean photographer Nguan constructs a tale of melancholy and urban isolation with his fly-on-the-wall style of photogrphy in his first commercial solo exhibition 'How Loneliness Goes'. His iconic style of muted pastel hues and a sense of dystopianism in Singapore's urban life, speaks to our own dichotomic relationship between hyper connectivity through rapid developments in technology and the ironic impossibility of connection and presentness in modern life. Interestingly, Nguan himself elludes identity and prefers anonymity, despite having a strong social media following, which perhaps speaks also to his own penchant for loneliness and the ability to capture these amazing moments backgrounded by Singapore’s distinct vernacular architecture. In light of the opening of this exhibition, we speak to Nguan about his thoughts on photogrpahy as document and his upcoming plans.
Your photographs have an iconic pink-ish hue to them and the images are often washed out, giving the subjects a pastel colour palette – how did you come to develop this signature characteristic in your work?
With regard to the pastels, I wanted to replicate the look of illustrated fairy tales – the kind in which children wander in forests alone, and nothing is ever quite what it seems. As for the alleged pink hue, my process of shooting and scanning creates a reddish colour cast, which I usually try to tame. Occasionally I do deliberately leave in a touch of pink. Because some types of meat taste better with a little bit of blood.
Your exhibition ‘How Loneliness Goes’ is your first exhibition at FOST Gallery and although you have always maintained some form of anonymity, you have accumulated over 70,000 followers and have been invited to take over the New York Times Instagram page. What spurred you to decide to do the show and how did you select the works that you featured in the show?
I first met Stephanie Fong of FOST Gallery in 2014, when she wanted to nominate me for a now defunct photography award. I politely declined, but I was impressed. When Stephanie got back in touch a few months ago about the possibility of collaborating on a show, I said yes. We spoke about a brand new show, but then I realized FOST’s idiosyncratic space and its surprising cul-de-sacs would be perfect for “How Loneliness Goes”, an exhibition about disorientation and dislocation that I’d first presented at ION Art as part of the M1 Singapore Fringe Festival. So we decided to adapt and revive the show, and I did think of it in theatrical parlance - plays and musicals regularly mount revivals, so why shouldn’t art exhibitions do the same?
Loneliness is something you focus on, both in your show at FOST and in your general practice, which has a surrealist effect on your works. I think this is particularly interesting because your images are like historical artefacts – a record of loss through the record of what William Fox Talbot calls “the injuries of time”, yet you openly talk about deliberately romanticising your photographs. Do you think that this play between fact and fiction is necessary in expressing certain time periods in Singapore’s history, perhaps even more so than ‘truthful’ documentary photography?
My “Singapore” series is an effort to create a fantastical version of the country using largely documentary methods. The images do function, on the surface, as historical records. In a photograph there is this inherent sense of “I was here, and this was there". An unmistakable bridge to reality exists in photography that is not as distinct in other art forms. Some photographers have attempted to complicate or challenge this link, but if it weren’t present in the first place, then their work wouldn’t make sense. At the same time, I’d admit that mine is a highly selective vision of Singapore – I have “cast” my locations very carefully, so the city looks like a memory I have of her, which may or may not have been a hallucination. I always release my shutter at the moment when the truth begins to resemble a lie.
Although you don’t believe in commercial success and you are clearly more passionate about the process of creating and capturing the world around you, how do you feel about the fact that photography has often been perceived as a less valued art form compared to other mediums such as painting and sculpture?
I’d agree that the reproducibility of the photographic print works against it in terms of its perceived collectability. But I’d argue – as of course I would - that photography is the most dominant visual language of its time, as painting used to be. It is also our most emotionally relevant art form, because so many speak its language. And because so many are so fluent in this language, the practitioners who somehow rise above the din must possess a notable way of speaking about the world.
What other projects do you have lined up for the year?
I may do a new book or a new show towards the end of the year. I rarely create work with a specific end in mind though. I’m always making new pictures anyway, regardless of my plans – it’s how I modulate my days. When it’s time for a project, I’ll assemble these tiny slivers of life and experience in a way that hopefully feels cohesive, which I suppose is very much like what a biographer does.
'How Loneliness Goes' is on show at FOST Gallery at 1 Lock Road #01-02, Gillman Barracks Singapore 108932 from 28th February to 12th April 2017. For more information, click here.
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