Curatorial essay for “Vignettes: Between Light and Dark”, a black and white photography exhibition of nine visual artists from Asia – July 25 to August 8, 2013

Vignettes exhibition (jpeg 4)

Born from the womb of the daguerreotype in the early 1800s, photography’s earliest and only vision of the universe was in monochrome. Black and white photography notably bore witness to the unfolding of American history under Roy Stryker’s Farm Security Administration, hence serving as the cradle for humanist and social reportage. Black and white. Authoritative. Unyielding. Unchallenged. It was only with the advent of colour photography in 1935, mass production of colour film, complete transition of press photography to colour in the 1980s and digital revolution in the 1990s did we start to turn our gazes towards the aesthetic that once mirrored our world. Is the practice of black and white photography now merely an archaic premise of nostalgia? Where is its place in the contemporary? How can traditional aspects of photography still play a role in informing current artistic processes?

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Youth Code – An exhibition review

With new born eyes, the fourth Daegu Photo Biennale peers beyond its industrial cloisters of labour and machinery into re-imagined landscapes of youth and vitality.

With new born eyes, the fourth Daegu Photo Biennale peers beyond its industrial cloisters of labour and machinery into re-imagined landscapes of youth and vitality. Photo credit:


A seven-hour international  flight, one inter-city train and an subway ride later, I arrived at Daegu at nightfall. It took almost an hour of navigating on foot until I found accommodation – a miniscule hostel located three floors above a massage parlour run by Chinese migrants. Whimsically named “Peterpan Guesthouse”, the modest three-room apartment looks out into one of the glitziest, most expensive hotels in downtown – Novotel. In a city where contrasts align so starkly side by side, “Neverland” was truly at my doorstep.

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Come, walk with me. Observe, don’t just see. Look, always look again.

Using two cameras triggered in-synchronicity to capture one moment as a stereoscopic image, Twilight Dreams of a Papilio Demoleus delves into themes of personal identity, existence, and the twilight terrain they dwell in.

Using two cameras triggered in-synchronicity to capture one moment as a stereoscopic image, “Twilight Dreams of a Papilio Demoleus” delves into themes of personal identity, existence, and the twilight terrain they dwell in.

Twilight Dreams of a Papilio Demoleus” beckons you like a child with a faint smile. Enchanted, you wander in her trail. Deserted train stations, open squares, back alleys, ribbons of asphalt clogged with traffic snaking through the city– places you thought you have seen enough, but in a blink of an eye, they seemed new again. But when did they transform? How? Why? Beautifully surreal, the work teases you with these questions as it unfolds in various nooks and crannies in New York City, where Singaporean artist John Clang is based in. Beyond its rich layers, lies what is possibly an intimate portrait of Clang’s innermost thoughts and emotions.

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Encrypted with secrets is the gaze in Nguan’s images, yet we wish we’ll never find the key

The absence or presence of eye contact render Nguan's pictures as tableaus of tantalizing mystery

The absence or presence of eye contact render Nguan’s pictures as tableaus of tantalizing mystery

Political philosopher Noam Chomsky once said that silence is often more eloquent than loud clamour. “Singapore” (2011-13), a series of images by local photographer Nguan, bears testimony to that.

In one of the densest city states in Asia, bombarded by political rhetoric of re-invention and renewal, and where boundaries between public and private are rapidly disintegrating with technology, silence seems like anathema. A malady much feared, it carries with it the cold draught of loneliness and void that seems to multiply exponentially with material possessions we consume. Many a time, we describe an artwork in terms of whether it “speaks” to us, but Nguan’s pictures pose as open quotation marks awaiting conversations to fill the space.

The tranquility speaks volumes, as do the meticulous pacing of engagement and disengagement with the gazes of his subjects that underscores his dual position as story teller and audience at the same time. “I want to explore the darker undertones beneath the quiet hum of ordinary life. Singapore is a nation in flux, like a teenager with growing pains,” says the 39-year-old.  Cast in warm, gentle light, it seems as though his characters exist in a floating world abound with mystery. One where cruel tropical heat is absent, where destruction and annihilation of spaces look almost bucolic, and where even vice coyly makes peace with national identity with an innocent and nondescript exterior.

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Thoughts about Rinko Kawauchi’s exhibition in Daegu Photo Biennale

I take my chance of a little breather this weekend from the Singapore International Photography Festival, to reflect on my experience at the 4th Daegu Photo Biennale, which ended its month-long run recently on October 28, 2012.

My recount would unfold in 3 parts: first by casting a broad perspective of the main exhibitions against the backdrop of South Korean contemporary photography, second by zooming in onto Japanese photographer Rinko Kawauchi’s solo showcase, and then ending off with a personal observation comparing emerging artists featured in DPB and SIPF. Ideally the writings should be published and read in that order but I chose to turn against that rational sequence. Forgive me – the anxiety and impulse to capture Rinko’s iridescent and effervescent images in words is far too hard to quell. I’m just afraid if I leave them to later, they might disappear.

In my sleep. Lost between the worlds of the conscious and unconscious.
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Then, Here and Now

I apologize for this long period of absence away from blogging. This baby of mine, planning a student education programme for the Singapore International Photography Festival, has taken up so much of my time and energy. I got on board the festival committee around December last year, and things started to pick up after June. Go behind the scenes with us through this visual timeline.

Emailer designed by Erika showing details for the first ever student education programme for SIPF. For enquiries or registration, please email

I would also like to share some good news (long overdue)! A photo book “The Epiphany of States” which I contributed my maiden foreword and essay, was selected for exhibition at the C Photobook Show in Brighton from August 17 – 19 August and the D Photobook Show at Helsinki from August 31 August – September 2, 2012. The artist Liana Yang and I couldn’t make it down to see our book on display, but it seemed like there were lots of great stuff to browse around! More details on the show are available here.

It’s our first foray into self publishing photo books and we were really overjoyed and humbled for being so fortunate.

The Epiphany of States, a self published photo book by Singaporean photographer Liana Yang, with a foreword and essay written by Kong Yen Lin (2012). The work was exhibited at the 2012 Arles Photography Open Salon. The book was also featured in the The Invisible Photographer Asia’s Singapore Photo Books Day on October 13. – Picture Credit: IPA

Here is an extract from the essay of  “The Epiphany of States”:

“The Epiphany of States was born from Liana’s fascination with life’s oscillation between emotional extremities and the ambiguities in human expressions. Bringing realms of mass media and pornography into her work, she surveys with a somewhat ironic and distanced eye, anonymous young men of various ethnic backgrounds caught on camera while engaged in acts of passion. At the core of her art is an investigation into the profound relationship between pain and pleasure and how such boundaries blur between these seemingly contrasting emotions.”

More information about the artist can be found at her website.

The “Epiphany of States” is also available for purchase at $25 each, for 200 limited edition autographed copies. For more enquiries, please email 

Thoughts, Musings and Inspirations

An esteemed art writer once said: “The difference between commercial and conceptual photography is that one ends with a full stop, and the other, with a question mark”. The divide between art and commercial photography may have become increasingly blurred in recent times, but this distinction forms the basis of diverse approaches to photographic education. A skill-based approach involves science, physics and engineering- what we take to be empirical truths. A concept based approach however, derives itself from the humanities – semiotics, history, anthropology, politics, geography.

This question has been on my mind for a long time, but it only took on a personal resonance when I started designing a student education programme for the 2012 Singapore International Photography Festival.

“The Guilty” by South Korean artist Kwon Ji-hyun, exhibited at the national library. The site uses containers to hold exhibits, a reference to Singapore’s history as a shipping hub. Currently in its third edition, the Singapore International Photography Festival features works by 50 artists selected from an open call submission. The festival runs from Oct 5 to Nov 17 in various parts of Singapore.

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