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
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?
On a broader level, these are food for thought we hope to leave viewers with.
Zooming in, we also hope to examine associative meanings of the colours of black and white. Dark-light, evil-good, impure-clean -what seems like an unconscious process categorizing black and white as dichotomous pairs may in fact be driven by conscious cultural influences. Western culture tends to perceive light as an irreconcilable opposite to darkness (Pfeifer, 2009), in contrast to eastern philosophy which views both entities as complementary forces. Japanese writer Jun’ichir ō Tanizaki illustrates how this leads to differences in aesthetic approaches in his ephemeral book “In Praise of Shadows”, “westerners attempt to expose every speck of grime and eradicate it, while we (orientals) carefully preserve and even idealize it… we find beauty not in the object itself, but in the patterns of shadows, the light and darkness, that one thing against another creates.” (1977, pg. 20)
Hence, this is an exhibition not in direct pursuit of colour or the absence of it, but a visual conversation between various extremes in daily life, a contemplation of dualism, and re-imagination of reality as relativity. It is a starting point where nine visual artists depart and embark on separate journeys seeking to uncover the many dualities embedded in daily life, converging eventually on a common narrative – one of how seemingly opposing forces are interconnected and interdependent in nature, affirm and give rise to each other. Navigating the many shades of grey literally and metaphorically, this photographic showcase examines possibilities in seemingly antagonistic relationships, such as the mingling between man and nature, past and present, tradition and modernity, art and science.
Launching the visual dialogue is a climatic standoff between man and nature unfolding in Guo Yao’s work “DUAL”. Inspired by Timothy H. O’Sullivan’s photographs of the America Civil War, “Field Where General Reynolds Fell” and “Confederate dead on the battlefield of Gettysburg”, his series of staged self-portraits re-enact a personal struggle towards two seemingly irreconcilable aspects -continuing an urban lifestyle while sustaining the environment. Can photography mediate these differences without a need for either party to succumb? Guo Yao pairs the approach of socially concerned photography with contemporary image making.
The imminent dissociation between man and his environment takes on an emotive resonance in the wistful frames of Chinese photographer Muge’s series “Going Home”. The Chongqing native was struck with a sense of loss witnessing the dramatic transformations and upheavals caused by the controversial Three Gorges Dam project, some of which included the displacement of homes, traditional livelihoods and memories. His images, documenting his return journey to his hometown along the Yangtze river, speak of a stirring melancholy towards a home hurtling at breakneck speed into an uncertain future – one that he can never fully embrace or identify with.
Extending this dualism of science and technology and its simultaneous ability to destroy and recreate, is “The Moon” by Japanese photographer Shigeru Takato. Territorial displacement takes on a sense of the fantastical and surreal as he examines man’s fascination with the cosmos and universe beyond. Recalling 19th century American landscape photography which portrays wilderness as an untainted Eden of freedom, opportunity and mystery, the surreal and somewhat illusory images of a constructed moonscape provoke thought on representation and how we draw connections with spaces. In actual fact, Takato created his images around the “El Teide” mountain on Tenerife in the Canary Islands, an extraordinary landscape shaped by volcanic activities and unique climate. Aside from awakening wonderment and curiosity in us – sensations long numbed by a world driven by rationality and routine – embedded in the work are also darker undertones hinting at man’s impulse to exploit and tame nature.
A sense of the whimsical and occult manifests in a dramatically different landscape in the frames of Japanese photographer Yuki Onodera, this time in various cities across the world and its denizens. Playful and experimental, “Eleventh Finger” involves the superimposition of a detailed handmade paper cutting onto photographs which the artist takes surreptitiously of people on the streets in their most spontaneous moments. The cuttings, which vary according to the composition and setting of each image, resemble masks or thought bubbles hinting at the personas and thought patterns of strangers. The placement of equal importance on both the photographic process and concept, as well as the investigation of reality and truth in photography, are common threads running through and linking Yuki’s rich oeuvre of works.
Hands-on experimentation with the photographic medium also takes center stage in the triptychs of Singaporean photographer Kee Ya Ting. “Inquisitive Investigations” is a rich visual translation of scientific formulas and principals thought to govern the machinery of everyday life. While the work is conceived from a seamless pairing of analogue and digital photography, it is the traditional darkroom that served as a vital springboard for Kee’s creative pursuits. Innovations such as scratching and poking holes into the film negative and spraying water onto photographic paper as it is being exposed, tether on the fine balance between aspects of control and unpredictability in photography’s alchemical magic. The series is hence a personal attempt to bridge the worlds of art and science through a medium which also bears such dualism.
Chinese photographer Di Jinjun paints a more melancholic picture in “Wet Sea” as he contemplates the relevancy of traditional practices in contemporary photography. Inspired by history, philosophy and nature, Di’s phenomenal images revive one of the earliest photographic techniques invented in 1851, the wet plate collodion process. The method, which involves exposing a black glass plate coated with light sensitive chemicals in camera, derives a unique image – one without a negative from which to print multiples. Standing against the tides of digitalization, his works constitute a poetic protest against a culture enamoured with mass production, mass consumption and instant gratification.
On the contrary, Japanese photographer Norihisa Hosaka’s “Burning Chrome” is a celebration of feverish speed, futurism and Man’s mechanical geniuses – in particular, the commercial lights illuminating the bustling metropolis of modern day Tokyo. Shot using the High Dynamic Range Imaging (HDRI) technique, the visceral images, as though seen through an optic nerve, represent the artist’s vision of “cyberpunk” Japan, an age of cybernetics and technological wizardry portrayed in sci-fi films such as the Blade Runner and the Matrix trilogy. Yet, the March 11, 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Fukushima which triggered a nuclear crisis, threatens to derail this utopian vision as it brings home a grave reminder of how nature is ultimately the overlords of our fates.
“2020” by Malaysian photographer Wilfred Lim extends an imaginative eye into a macabre future of dire consequences, where marine creatures have undergone genetic mutations due to environmental pollution. Pictured in a clinical manner, they resemble typological records of specimens in a lab, their grotesque deformities mirroring a scientific experiment gone awry.
Last but not least, a calming space for reflection and introspection materializes in “Portraits of Time” by Koo Bohnchang. One of the pioneers of contemporary photography in South Korea, Koo draws inspiration from the imprints of human presence that constantly go unnoticed. His photographs depicting the weathering of a wall and evidences of the passage of time, such as peeling paint and cracks, are a nuanced expression towards life being in constant flux and the impermanence of worldly existence. Resembling miniature landscapes, the work is a painterly rendition of a stanza in English poet William Blake’s “Auguries of Innocence”:” To see a world in a grain of sand, and a heaven in a wild flower. Hold infinity in the palm of your hand, and eternity in an hour.”
This selective highlight of contemporary black and white photographic works sums up the statement we hope to make, that tradition should not be offered as a sacrifice on the altar of the new. The sheer diversity and multifaceted nature of the works are testimony of how a classical medium can serve as a reservoir of ideas, vast and inexhaustible, for the creation of new forms of expression. Black and white photography does not merely belong to the past. It has taken on a modern incarnation, seeking fresh methods of articulation and engagement with contemporary visual culture, and quite certainly, has booked its place in the future.
Beyond visual and intellectual stimulation, this showcase is also an invitation to step back and immerse in a sensory experience – one devoid of distractions of colour and one which connects with the innermost layer of spiritual life.
“Within light there is darkness, but do not try to understand that darkness. Within darkness there is light, but do not look for that light. Light and darkness are a pair, like the foot before and the foot behind in walking. Each thing has its own intrinsic value and is related to everything else in function and position. Ordinary life fits the absolute like a box and its lid. The absolute works together with the relative, like two arrows meeting in mid-air.” - 石头《参同契》(Shihtou’s “Identity of Relative and Absolute”, a Zen Buddhism poem)
Photo credit: Guo Yao
Pfeifer, Theresa H. (2009) Deconstructing Cartesian Dualisms of Western Radicalised Systems: A Study in the Colours of Black and White. Journal of Black Studies, Vol. 39, No. 4 (Mar. 2009) pp 528- 547. Sage.
Tanizaki, Jun’ichir ō. (1977). In Praise of Shadows. First edition. USA: Leete’s Island Books.