Encrypted with secrets is the gaze in Nguan’s images, yet we wish we’ll never find the key
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.
The Decisive Glance
Catherine Lutz and Jane Collins once described a photograph as the site where multiple lines of gazes intersect, illuminating a broader social context and constructing a platform where viewers negotiate identities for themselves and the subject matter. John Berger on the other hand, in his book “Ways of Seeing”, takes on a gender-oriented reading of the gaze, defining it as one belonging to a white male and pointing out how it directs distinctively different representations of female and male subject matter. Drawing from the tradition of painting, he proposes that images of women are designed to flatter a male spectator, and that the female subject is aware of his presence and consciously portrays herself as an object for visual consumption.
The subject of the gaze has attracted a fair amount of scholarly research, and it is a vital point of interest in “Singapore”. A woman is absorbed in her meal at a large table of food set with cutlery, her solitary presence accentuated by the rim of red, unoccupied chairs encircling her. A group of men perch with their backs toward the camera, by the edges of pavement besieged by murky water. A girl seated with badminton rackets, her slippers askew, engages the eye of the viewer. A man in a middle of an outdoor shaving salon looks up, his eyes enquiring. In these images, the meeting of eyes or aversion of gazes, the act of looking into the distance or at nothing at all, provokes thoughts about the constant negotiation of positions of power between spectacle and spectator – be it the manifestation of presence or the dynamics of rejection and acceptance. The very act of documentation, the capturing of likeness, and the ability to immortalize time confer a position of power for the photographer, yet his act of surveillance and observation is always reliant on a certain level of complicity from his subject. When the works are presented for a wider audience eg. in an exhibition, they serve as avenues where audiences project their psychic pleasures, while opening up new discourses framed within existing ideological frameworks.
While each of Nguan’s images seems like a bounded microcosm of solitary existence, when read collectively the series is a revealing photographic typology of a nation at the cusp of dramatic social transformation – be it the influx of new settlers or an ageing population. The series resembles August Sander’s series of portraits “Faces of Our Time” (1929), documenting German society between the two world wars, though social classification in “Singapore” is not as overt or conscious. Given that the act of seeing is never innocent, as audiences unconsciously sieve through visual hints embedded in pictures, they are effectively evaluating their definitions of the Self and the Other. The work also raises the aspect of social codes about looking, and how the camera is able to serve as our substitute in subverting these rules. From the safe distance of a spectator, we are voyeuristically able to pause, stare, and meditate over uncanny sightings that are ordinarily deemed inappropriate to gaze upon in reality.
What then does the act of looking entail for Nguan? “I project my own fantasies onto people. They are blank slates while the camera is a medium to satisfy my curiosity about human beings which I’m unable to in ordinary settings, “he says. Yet his gaze is never prying or invasive. Straddling between staged narratives and spontaneous street photography, his images are almost always ripe with an element of fleeting poignancy. It is a tendency he attributes to “the decisive glance”, in reference to Henri Cartier Bresson’s “the decisive moment”.
Yet he maintains a level of control, almost directorial, in these happenings of chance. “I feel that it’s not enough for a photographer to merely be a witness; every aspect of the formal organization of a picture must be considered,” he explains. The tension and drama also results from how each picture is always “the middle of the story, never the beginning or the end”. He extends this method of portraiture to inanimate objects; for instance, the image of a flower pot tied and bound to resist pressure from the growth of its host is framed tightly and positioned at eye level almost like a facial portrait. “I try to re-imagine the world through organisation and attentiveness,” he explains.
It was perhaps the wanderer in Nguan that fed his constant curiosity towards his environment. After being schooled in film studies at Northwestern University in the U.S., he spent close to ten years more abroad, working on movie sets and toying with the idea of forming a repertory film company. He eventually ventured into photography in 2002, aggregating bodies of works that represented his observations and sentimentalities to places he travelled to and settled in. “Somewhere along the way I lost interest in filmmaking. The need to invent a beginning and an ending in a film seems contrived and unfaithful to the fragmentary way in which we experience life.” says Nguan. Transiting through series such as his Los Angeles’ work City of Dreams (2006-2007, 2011), Shibuya (2008-2010), Coney Island (2009-2011), Tiananmen during the Olympics (2008) and then finally homecoming in 2011, a developing artistic sensibility and style becomes increasingly apparent, but not one story is identical. For instance, social engagement in the LA and Coney Island series was crucial, but in Shibuya, boundaries between observer and the observed are more starkly drawn.
In many ways, Nguan’s pictures resemble a gentle dissection of the Singapore mindscape. In clean, methodical fashion, he peels down the layers of a well-manicured social façade to unveil a complex terrain of emotional landscapes. He gives an example explaining the dualities he observes in people: “I’m intrigued by children who look like they are bearing the weight of the world, or children taking care of children.” Heterotopias, the Foucauldian concept of human geography on spaces of otherness that exhibit parallel natures or dimensions, manifest in his images of spaces under construction. Not only are they suspended between ruination and creation, they are also where past and future trajectories of time collide.
However, unlike traditional landscape photographers like Eugene Atget, whose melancholic images of Parisian night life doubled up as canvases of his dreams and nightmares, or Alfred Stiglitz, whose depictions of New York City in the 1890s burst forth with his idealism of seeking a dynamic and modern American culture, there is always a distance in Nguan’s pictures – be it physical or emotional. This doesn’t translate to disengagement – for his pictures are always sensory and perceptive-, but stems more from a prevailing consciousness of his status as “outsider” and a desire to maintain that boundary. After an almost nomadic photographic practice, identity remains an ambivalent entity to him. “I don’t feel different elsewhere than I feel here (Singapore). I feel equally strange away or at home.”
And perhaps it is this sense of foreignness, this feeling of being out of one’s skin that drives his unceasing visual exploration of the city – he is our pair of eyes, lingering on the horizon of fleeting encounters, memories and intersections before they slip into oblivion.
Catch more of Nguan’s work as part of 2902 gallery’s exhibition “Zoological”, happening now till May 19, 2013 at 222 Queen Street.