[Issue Editor, Interviewer]
A Beautiful Tension
Photographer Nguan, on the artistry and ideas behind his otherworldly images.
The worlds in photographer Nguan’s images are as equally surreal as they are poignantly familiar and real. In it, the subjects, bathed in a dreamy wash of muted colours, haunt the viewer with their wistful gazes that appear to penetrate the frame. As Nguan reveals, this duality, or tension, is a perennial obsession, alongside “big city yearning, ordinary fantasies and emotional globalisation”—themes that his photographs take on.
Nguan’s work has amassed a keen following online, and several of his photographs reside in the permanent collection of the Singapore Art Museum. Yet, he chooses to remain illusively private and unphotographed, prefering that his images be the the centre of attention. Having travelled around the world for his art, he has, for the past three years, turned his medium film format camera’s focus homeward. Over 200 photographs under the ‘Singapore’ series resulted.
In 2013, a selection of these images was published in a photobook in 2013 titled ‘How Loneliness Goes’. The book was called “a master colour portrait of quiet urban lives in one of the world’s densest cities” by American Photo, and its first run rapidly sold out. The second print run, currently on sale, is designed by local design consultancy Hjgher and published by Math Paper Press. From 14 to 25 January 2015, a solo exhibition of this series was held at ION Art as part of the M1 Singapore Fringe Festival, where we caught up with Nguan to find out from him the meaning of his art.
Hi Nguan, tell me about your personal journey with the medium of photography and how it has developed over the years since you picked up the camera. How did it come to be your medium of expression even though it was film and video production that you studied at Illinois’ Northwestern University?
I moved to New York after graduating from college. I didn’t know anybody there and used to take really long walks on my own in the city. I bought a small camera and started taking pictures of people and things I saw, as a way of making notes for screenplays that I intended to write. I never wrote those scripts though. Instead, I realized that the isolated fragments of time that I gleaned for my photographs were interesting in their own right, and these snatches from life’s flow were possibly richer and truer than stories with contrived beginnings and endings. I often say that each of my photographs is the middle of a story, where the befores and afters are left entirely to the viewer’s imagination.
Most of your photographs are made in heavily populated urban areas. What draws you to cities?
I love cities; they’re all I’ve ever known. Just being amidst a crowd on a public street can be comforting, and helpful in affirming one’s place as a component of the living. Yet the bombardment of stimuli that you get in a place like New York also pushes you inward in self-defence. I’ve found this odd tension so conducive to contemplation and creativity; I don’t feel like myself when I don’t have it.
You don’t take commercial photographs, so photography is purely an art form for you?
Yes. It’s interesting that my earliest supporters were the design community. Design blogs such as HOW Magazine’s and It’s Nice That were the first to pick up my work, possibly because they could discern the formal construction behind my images, which may not be as apparent to people who are less visually inclined.
Do you doctor your photographs?
I toy around with my colours, much as a painter might. I’m not preoccupied with providing a direct representation of the world. However, I realise that photography loses its unique charge when stripped of its semblance to reality.
‘How Loneliness Goes’ was conceived as a book first, then an exhibition. How did you set about transposing the work?
I thought of the show as a different beast from the book, with its own needs and narrative. I worked carefully with the irregularity of the space, matched its idiosyncrasies with the arrangement of the pictures, and used the gallery’s many corners and jutting angles to create what I hope was immersive experience for the visitor.
There is a growing tendency in exhibitions to augment photographs with multimedia or staging, as if pictures on their own were somehow not sufficient. I was determined to buck this trend. In an encounter with a painting or a print, my preference is to be permitted the peace for the artwork to interact with my imagination, and my imagination alone. Give me the hushed darkness of the white wall.
In your photographs, I find there is a palpable tension between many things—between movement and stillness, between beauty and fallibility, between familiarity and loss, between poetry and reality—that gives them a very beguiling quality. Would you say this ‘tension’ is deliberate?
Yes. In fact I think about the idea of tension all the time—it’s so important in my work. Even the irregular manner in which the frames were hung at my exhibition was in opposition with the strict formality of the images themselves. Also, the tone of my photographs is subdued and tender, but my methods while working on the street are necessarily aggressive.
Tell me about the process of taking these photographs–the ritual, the state of mind, the technical procedures you go through.
I work in the late afternoons because the light is softer. I usually know where to I want to start and where I want to end, which is usually back in my car. In between, I follow my instincts and walk, mostly in a meandering fashion, but always in a state of heightened attention.
Is there a voyeuristic element to your work?
Yes and no. You could say that both the practice and consumption of photography are inherently voyeuristic acts. But my methods are fairly confrontational. I use a large, obtrusive camera that fires as loudly as a small gun. The camera does not have a zoom lens, and I do not hide behind trees or shrubbery. A lot of my work is about making transient connections with strangers and documenting what I call “the decisive glance”, so ideally I’d want them to gaze directly into my camera. True voyeurs aim to escape notice; my preference is to be caught in the act of looking.
The loneliness of being in the city that you portray in your photographs— “about sadness and detachment” —as mentioned in another interview, takes on a pessimistic undertone. Is there no hope and optimism in your ‘city’?
Well, here we have to go back to the issue of tension [we talked about earlier]. The ideas of ‘How Loneliness Goes’ may be dark and disquieting, but the colours that I use are so pretty. In my artist statement I wrote that the photographs in the series “affirm the tenuous margins that divide maturity or worldliness from a sort of brokenness, and melancholy from a kind of peace”. It’s all about walking a thin line. My vision is not as bleak as my themes might suggest, nor as sanguine as my surfaces. I really like the possibility of saying different things to different people. It’s up to the viewer to decide if the work is beautiful, sad, or both.
So the ‘loneliness’ you talk about has layered meanings.
Right. Even the title ‘How Loneliness Goes’ is layered: it could refer to how loneliness goes, i.e. how it is, or how it goes away, which for me is via the habit and process of art.
What’s the next project you’re working on?
I’ve made a lot of photographs over the years, and I need to organize them into books and exhibitions. I would like to make a book of portraits later in the year. I’d also like ‘How Loneliness Goes’ to travel to different cities.
I’ve heard that you have a fine collection of photography books, in fact so much so that they’ve taken over your bedroom and you sleep in the living room.
Right. I’ve been collecting art and photography books for ten years and I always collected magazines. I’m a visual culture freak. As an artist I feel it’s important to build a sensibility, and to continuously feed that sensibility.
The art books that you collect, name a few that inspire you most.
Some books that I’m looking at right at this minute include: ‘Photographs 1989-2006’ by the late Norwegian photographer Tom Sandberg, ‘Cathy’, a collection of pictures of the singer Kate Bush made and self-published by her brother, an Urban Outfitters lookbook shot by Stephen Shore, and ‘Quatorze Juillet’ by Johan van der Keuken.
What attracts you to some of these books?
Sandberg is one of my favourite photographers, and so underrated. I find John Carder Bush’s ‘Cathy’ to be wonderfully touching, although I don’t know if the book was released with the blessing of its subject. It’s always fascinating to see commercial work by Shore, whose “American Surfaces” series was a precursor to the snapshot content of Instagram feeds (which makes his actual Instagram all the more disappointing). ‘Quatorze Juillet’ is an intriguing collection of outtakes shot on the same occasion as a famous photograph; it was released by Willem van Zoetendaal, a photobook publisher and designer that I really love.
Were you creative as a child?
I drew constantly. I was always sketching—especially in class! My brother and I made comic books for each other to entertain ourselves. Being able to draw was a huge source of self-esteem for me as a kid; I remember that my classmates would often crowd around to watch as I sketched.
Do you still draw?
I suppose I remain susceptible to occasional bouts of doodling.
So what attracted you to film school?
Oh, laziness. I just thought it would be fun to watch movies [all the time]. But seeing a film can seem like a chore these days.
Because you analyse them too technically after studying film?
Probably, and as I’ve grown older I’ve found that I’ve lost the need for fiction. I’ve lost all use for it. The real world is distracting enough.
Do you think melancholy is essential to create good art?
No, but tension is.