TwentyFifteen Interview 09/20: John Clang speaks to Leonard Goh


You seem very obsessed with the whole notion of home, what’s here in Singapore that you cannot find in New York City?

It used to be just a sense of personal history, but that has developed over time. Singapore still owns my childhood and my first kiss. Basically it’s a place I can still dearly call home.

Have you entertained the idea of ‘coming home’ for good, like setting up a permanent practice here?

I have always been doing that in various forms, such as engaging with communities and youngsters back in Singapore. Locality doesn’t make much a difference these days. What is most important is what can I offer to the people I encounter. Setting up my practice in Singapore may not be something I consider ‘useful’ or ‘purposeful’ for myself and others.

Humour us for a moment: imagine you’d never left Singapore, what might you be doing today?

Probably a hybrid of Tay Kay Chin and Darren Soh, with a splash of Heman Chong. Most likely as an educator and an active member in the Singapore art scene, but I would also definitely have a taxi license or a real estate license.

Are you a different Clang when doing commercial work and when pursuing personal work? If yes, how many other different Clangs are there?

There is only one Clang. I know when I do my commissioned work, the purpose is to finance my art projects and support my family. Having a purpose makes things easier and clearer.

What inspires you?

The Desires in Living.

Are you a typical Singaporean male who dreams about dating SQ stewardesses?

By the time I noticed these girls, I was already married. It doesn’t help that Elin always travels with me, haha …

Do you think you will be getting ‘special treatment’ from Singapore Airlines after this book?

Errrr … I sure hope not. This project says how important Singapore Airlines has been as a part of our lives.

It’s hard to talk about John Clang without talking about your wife Elin. Is it true she is a very harsh critic of yours?

We tend to have very intense discussions and to outsiders, it’s hard to believe we are still married. I constantly have to defend my new ideas in front of her, before I even photograph them. That’s why I’m pretty slow in production.

RSAF fighter pilots used Singlish to ‘smoke’ and outsmart their US counterparts in a recent dogfight exercise. Do Elin and you deploy the same trick to pass secret messages to each other?

This is easy. I just talk the way I do. No one understands except Elin.

This series of photos revolves primarily around the Singapore Girl, an icon (or some would say, a representative) of Singapore. Will you be tackling any other Singapore icons in the near future?

Not exactly, unless it serves a meaningful purpose. The “Singapore Girl” is just a disguise, an invitation to see more than just the surface.

Of all the Singapore icons, which do you think represents us the best?

The Singaporean. If you travel a lot, you will realise we are truly unique. This icon loves to talk about food, bitch about politics and complain about CPF, while the Merlion only vomits.

Some captions for the photos in this series seem rather morbid, such as “I don’t want to die. Help me.” Is this supposed to be tongue-in-cheek, or is there an underlying message I didn’t get?

This was a conversation I had with my uncle when he had terminal cancer. All the writings are conversations or events lingering in my memory.

One of your photos has this caption “No, Singapore is not China”. Did you get asked that a lot when you were in the US?

Yes, I got asked it a lot in the early 2000s. All I had to do is to mention “Michael Fay”. Right now, I just mention “the most expensive country in the world.”

When you were shooting this series, were you ever asked if you are shooting a new Singapore Airlines campaign? If so, what was your response?

People are very nice towards us when they think we are doing the campaign. It’s obvious that they can relate to it and are proud of this icon. We just tell them it is an art project, but they are probably too amused by what they see to understand what art means.

Is there one shot in this series that you wanted to make, but couldn’t (or wouldn’t)? If so, tell us what it is.

It’s very unlike me to not do it because I couldn’t, and if I wouldn’t, it must be tacky. For example, no MBS [Marina Bay Sands] in the background. That is currently the impression of what Singapore looks like in some foreigners’ eyes. I’d rather they remember Merlion.

You are mentoring a lot of Singapore-based photographers – is this your way of giving back?

I never think of it in such a way. I have also mentored non Singapore-based artists. I just think it will be very useful for the youngsters to have someone they can talk to, with regards to their practice and their daily concerns. I often wish I’d had that someone when I was younger.

Would you rather be famous or creative?

Creative is overrated and being famous is overhyped. I would rather be Clang, it is more balanced and I can focus on simply honing or crafting my vision.

You are already so established in the art world but still came back to Singapore to complete a master’s degree. You’re still a very kiasu Singaporean hor?

Next will be a doctorate degree. Dr Clang sounds right, no? I simply want to be immersed in the academic world so that my approach and belief in education can be more rounded. What I absorb will be useful to my students or mentees.

I am sure people in high places value your opinions about art and culture. Will you consider being a Nominated MP?

Yes, if it truly serves a purpose and if I can actually make a difference.

The portrait of John Clang was drawn by Flee Circus; and Leonard Goh, who will anchor all the interviews in this series, is a co-founder of Platform.

To purchase a copy of The Land of My Heart by John Clang, please visit: