Art What! Arts National Gallery Singapore Visual Art

Art What!: ‘Living Pictures – Photography in Southeast Asia’ at National Gallery Singapore

What’s in a photo? When taking a photo, how conscious are we of the way that we pose, of the way the lighting hits our face, or of how much we include or exclude from the frame? When we upload a picture to social media, how are we curating our feed, and what exactly are we trying to subtly hint or imply with that post to our followers?

Those are questions that may lie in the contemporary consciousness, but in fact, have been a concern since the emergence of photography itself. And that is precisely what will be explored in National Gallery Singapore’s latest exhibition, Living Pictures: Photography in Southeast Asia, the first-ever comprehensive look at photography in the region across 150 years, as it traces how the art form has evolved over time, particularly with regards to the relationship between the photographer, subject and audience.

Miti Ruangkritya. Detail of Thai Politics no. 2, vol. 1. 2010. Found photograph. Collection of the artist.

Running at the Singtel Special Exhibition Galleries for 9 months, from 2nd December 2022 to 20th August 2023, over 300 works from the mid-19th century until the present will be on display, representing a variety of photographers and artists from across the region. Structured chronologically, the exhibition traces how photography first came to Southeast Asia, and the evolving functions and influences of the form as its role shifts and shapes our historical narratives and perspectives.

“The Gallery is proud to be presenting the groundbreaking exhibition which delves into the history of photography in the region, to prompt greater contemplation of our histories, narratives, and identity,” says Dr. Eugene Tan, Director of National Gallery Singapore. “Living Pictures is a pivotal exhibition, not just for the Gallery as a museum dedicated to modern Southeast Asian art, but also for greater scholarship on our region. We hope this exhibition intrigues visitors to view the exhibition, surprises with unexpected displays of photography and presents fresh perspectives of photography as a visual storytelling medium.”

Sectioned into five thematic spaces at Singtel Special Exhibition Gallery and on Instagram, Living Pictures features a rich selection of works, from colonial images, studio portraits and documentary photography to photo albums, photos meant for social media and works with modern interventions.

G.R. Lambert & Co. Harbour View. Late 1890s. Albumen print on paper, 21 × 27 cm. Collection of National Museum of Singapore, National Heritage Board, Singapore.

The exhibition begins with photography’s early arrival in Southeast Asia, starting with a series of European photographers’ depictions of Southeast Asia, and taking on a clear colonial slant. Many of these images were circulated in books and as postcards and were also used to promote tourism and investment, often putting Southeast Asia in a positive light that showcased its rich natural resources and avoiding the less savoury elements. In addition to physical photos, visitors to the exhibition may swipe across interactive screens to “flip” through digital versions of photo albums on display, while also listening to oral histories of each piece.

 As cameras became more accessible worldwide, photographic production shifted from Europeans to photographic studios run by Southeast Asian, Chinese, Japanese, South Asian and other photographers. This led to an increased number of locals taking photos, with the rise of commissioned photographs used to mark special occasions.

Lee Brothers Studio. Group Photograph of a Chinese Man and Women Taken at a Studio. c. 1910. Gelatin silver print on paper, 12 × 16.5 cm. Lee Brothers Studio Collection, courtesy of National Archives of Singapore.

One example of this is Lee Brothers Studio, set up by a large Cantonese family, was a popular choice for studio portraits amongst a diverse client demographic in Southeast Asia. Studios would offer a wide range of options for props and set-ups, allowing clients to direct and create portraits according to their preferences. This would be an event that was primarily relegated to the middle class families and above, and allowed them to chart their identities through photography. Lee Brothers Studio was so successful, they even expanded their business into Indonesia! Visitors themselves can also take photos in a vintage style at Level 3 of the City Hall Foyer, with a photo backdrop and props provided for visitors to create their own images.

Woodbury & Page. Ratu Kencana, Principal Consort of Hamengkubuwono VI of Yogyakarta. c. 1858. Ambrotype, 46 × 40 × 2.5 cm. Collection of Mr and Mrs Lee Kip Lee. Image courtesy of Asian Civilisations Museum, National Heritage Board, Singapore

Elsewhere, visitors will also witness depictions of important figures, such as royal consorts of Thailand and Indonesia. Much like how the Europeans of the past used photography for political and economic purposes, so did the Southeast Asian photographers of the time, whose subjects often took on more Western styles of posing and were performed to resemble depictions of Western ideals, to show how they too could conform and align with their values.

One of the most sobering sections of the exhibition showcases compelling images of documentary photography, including images from the Second Indochina War. Former Associated Press photographer Nick Ut’s world-renowned The Terror of War (1972) will be on display alongside photographs by Vietnamese photographer Võ An Khánh and late Singaporean photojournalist Terence Khoo. These include famous photos such as Eddie Adams’ photo of a suspected Viet Cong receiving an execution, and Nick Ut’s ‘The Terror of War’, depicting the burned ‘Napalm girl’ screaming and fleeing from the war.

Yet this is juxtaposed alongside depictions of life in North Vietnam amidst the jungle camps, showcasing South Vietnamese leading relatively normal daily lives, learning and growing and doing chores, in stark contrast to the violence depicted in the set of photos beside it. As we ponder on these images, visitors will also be prompted to imagine the stories and implications highlighted by the contrasting realities from different perspectives – where does the truth really lie?

Among these photos, you’ll also find the work of Singaporean photographer Tan Lip Seng, among which is a prominent series of four coloured photographs from the 1960s. These were created in an era before the ease of Photoshop or digital manipulation, making it particularly impressive how he used a colour derivation technique using autofilm and dizochrome film to create semi-abstract and brightly coloured landscapes of Singapore. In their original form, they were projected as 35mm slides, but now appear in the form of actual prints.

As visitors journey towards the present, artists began challenging the conventional roles and status of photography as a neutral documentary medium and shifted towards conceptualism and institutional critique. Artists explored and experimented with new methods of image creation, often turning the camera towards themselves as they contemplated the imaginative space of the image, marking new subjectivity and critical self-reflexivity on the medium. You may find, for example, Johnny Manahan’s Self-Portrait with Lens Cap On, which deliberately leaves the lens cap on the camera when the artist took a photograph of himself, questioning whether it is the final image, or the process and intent by which it is derived that really matters.

Chua Chye Teck. Wonderland. 2007-2008. Chromogenic prints on paper, set of 500 photographs, 17.8 x 12.7 cm each. Collection of Singapore Art Museum.

In this section, you will also be privy to large scale prints of moments captured in performance art, going against the temporal nature of the genre to immortalise them forever, such as Amanda Heng’s Another Woman, or Melati Suryodarmo’s Exegie – Butter Dance. Eventually, you’ll also come across Chua Chye Teck’s Wonderland, where he captures 500 whimsical ‘portraits’ of discarded items, often considered junk. Collected either as gifts from friends or from flea markets, each individual portrait allows the inner beauty and textures of the objects to emerge, a constellation of pieces that are fascinating individually but also overwhelming in terms of sheer quantity. To this end, there is an act of rebirth, as each object has been cleaned and posed, and given a new lease of life, the mundane becoming special – and even turned into buyable merchandise again, with the availability of pins and badges inspired by Wonderland available at the gift shop.

Shifting into more contemporary work, visitors will see how photography can be used as a force for political commentary and observation, such as Darren Soh’s Political Landscapes series. Taken during the Singapore General Elections in 2011, these massive, hi-res composite images show the scale of participation at the rallies, and marked how social media was used for the first time to garner an unprecedented wave of support.

Dinh Q Lê. Crossing the Farther Shore. 2014. Found photographs, cotton thread, linen tape, steel rods, dimensions variable. Collection of National Gallery Singapore. Image Credit: Joseph Nair, Memphis West Pictures

Visitors can also step into Dinh Q Lê’s impressive 3D installation – titled Crossing the Farther Shore (2014), where they will be surrounded by an immersive weaved structure comprising over 5,000 found photographs mostly from pre-1975 South Vietnam. Looking closer, there are individual messages written behind each postcard, and becomes a collage of emotions and reflection on history.

Considering the rise of the digital front, technology has also revolutionised photographic practices. New tools provided avenues for deliberate storytelling through elaborate yet seamless interventions to modify images. The exhibition also comes full circle as visitors are presented with various activations of photographs to re-imagine history and society today. For example, Thai Politics no. 2, vol. 1. (2010) by Miti Ruangkritya features a series of Photoshopped images collected from the “Thaksin where are you?” Facebook group. Meme culture is reflected in this series of photos as public users edited images of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra in a wide variety of humorous scenes that satirised the unknown whereabouts of the former Thai leader.

Fyerool Dama, Pietics of Pantun/Pantoum (featuring b*ntangLV786, berukera, jaleejalee, Lee Khee San, ToNewEntities, @sgmuseummemes and moyanz from Autaspace), 2022. Collection of the artist. Commissioned by National Gallery Singapore.

In addition, new digital spaces for circulation and consumption have also come into play, elevating photography to become the dominant visual medium of this generation. Propagating a strong visual culture, social media has shaped the way people view the world and engage with each other on current topics. Fyerool Darma’s Poietics of Pantun/Pantoum for example, was originally a montage work distributed via WhatsApp, and now takes on a new form at the exhibition. Comprising images and photos found in online settings from archives to advertisements, alongside computer-generated simulations, they come together to take on a life of their own, a kind of ‘remix’ orchestrated to tell a new story inspired by the Malay pantun form, and even has an extended life online, on his website and Instagram.

In Wei Leng Tay’s between leaving and arriving, the artist photographed, enlarged and distributed a 35mm photographic slide across a grid of 88 A3 paper printouts, depicting an aerial photograph taken by her parents in the early 1970s while in search of better life opportunities. Collected from a bag of slides found in the kitchen, Tay thinks about her own parents’ journeys from their origins in Malaysia, to when they met as students in Australia, to finally arriving to work in Singapore, and considers the rise of globalisation, migration and displacement, and how the materiality of such a photo evokes and generates emotions and memories.

In Robert Zhao’s The Bizarre Honour (2017), the multi-disciplinary artist curates a mini-exhibition of his own, crafting a compendium of curios and photographs to form a natural history museum, juxtaposing animal traps, souvenirs, taxidermy and books sourced from flea markets and eBay. Without explanation, we are left to form our own opinions and conclusions of what story and history these objects weave, allowing the work to speak for itself.

Finally, the entire exhibition ends off with Heman Chong’s God Bless Diana (2004), a distributive installation which takes the form of postcard shop which visitors may enter to purchase and bring home a piece of the exhibition and think about the value of photographs in today’s digital age. Comprising 550 images drawn from over 6,000 photos the artist took during his travels over a period of four years, the images were captured using an ordinary 35 mm compact camera with film, and depict friends, daily lives, urbanity and observances. These index a time in Heman’s life, each individual image a moment in and of itself, but rendered with different meaning depending on the viewer, as we consider our own reaction and perception of each piece. Each postcard goes at just $1, with all proceeds going to National Gallery Singapore.

Reflecting this extension into the digital, the Gallery continues its exhibition online, and has invited four notable photographers to present a selection of their works on its Instagram page, @nationalgallerysingapore. The photographers are Singapore-based photographer Nguan; Burmese artist Shwe Wutt Hmon; Veejay Villafranca from the Philippines; and Indonesian Agan Harahap – all of whom have some elements of their photography practices mirrored in the physical exhibition galleries and may attribute aspects of their popularity to social media.

As Susan Sontag writes in On Photography, “The painter constructs, the photographer discloses.” In examining the history and perspectives and changes that photography as a medium has undergone, one charts the evolution of the form and its continued importance in depicting and reflecting the concerns and intents of cultures, people, countries and artists. This theme of reflection holds true throughout the exhibition – you might notice several mirrors strategically placed throughout, and catch yourself snapping a selfie or two, and know that the genre continues strong into the present day, each one of us contributing to the body of photography, as we shape it, and it in turn shapes us.

Living Pictures: Photography in Southeast Asia will be housed in National Gallery Singapore’s Singtel Special Exhibition Gallery from 2nd December 2022 to 20th August 2023. More information available here

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