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As Singapore has developed over the last few decades, it has experienced a tireless ‘renewal’ that never ceases. Indeed, whenever someone purchases a property here, especially a residence, it seems almost unthinkable that it will not go through a state of transformation. The question is not “Will it change? Will it be renovated?” but how much renewal the space will have to go through. At any given time today, in any residential area, there is bound to be at least one house, flat or shop space being skilfully demolished, built or rebuilt by construction workers. It has become a very normal scene – nothing surprising.

Amid the haste of going through this change, there are many occasions when portions of the old buildings are left behind. Some may have been intentionally left to be integrated with the new structure, but in most cases, the remnant appears to just have been forgotten. It is like an old scar that is trying to blend with the new skin, hoping to be healed yet remaining precariously obvious. Many of these remnants look awkward and stick out and dominate where they remain, although some have been hidden after many years of being left alone, either overgrown by plants or shrouded by other impermanent structures.

These are what I call senseless spaces – spaces that are utterly meaningless in terms of their utilitarian purpose or design. Most of these have been left behind or forgotten, perhaps some with the hope that no one would notice that they actually belong to an old part of the building. Most of these ‘senseless spaces’ can be traced to previous structures or dated to a certain moment in the history of that space. Many of these spaces are quite idiosyncratic and leave one wondering whether the original intention was for it to be left behind.

Whatever the reasons may be, the fact is that the ‘senseless space’ has been left in an unsettled manner. Perhaps it is this uncertainty that has drawn me to capture its surreal environment. I think I call these places ‘senseless’ as they probably leave one feeling bewildered and perplexed, trying to figure out “Why was this left here?” Even if one explores the space for an answer, as I have, in most cases there are no answers to be found.

Most of the areas shown here are places that are currently inhabited or operational. Since these venues are in use, the non-functionality or absurdity of the space provokes a feeling of puzzlement. Very dreamlike in nature, they appeared withdrawn and incoherent from the rest of the setting.

To purchase a copy of Senseless Spaces by Chow Chee Yong, please visit:
http://twentyfifteen.myshopify.com/collections/photographers-folios/products/senseless-spaces-by-chow-chee-yong

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The Land of My Heart by John Clang

  

We meet in a sky where nobody can stay

Postcards addressed to memory

“One of the most basic human requirements is the need to dwell, and one of the most central human acts is the act of inhabiting, of connecting ourselves with a place on the planet which belongs to us and to which we belong“ – Thomas J. Harper, afterword to “In Praise of Shadows” by Jun’ichirō Tanizaki.

“All around the world, you’re a great way to fly” – this slogan is emblazoned in cursive script on an advertisement postcard for Singapore Airlines (SIA). A pair of statuesque flight attendants, wearing the iconic SIA sarong kebaya uniform, are posed daintily along a street bustling with pigeons, passers-by and vendors peddling their wares in front of an Indian-style courtyard house. Illuminated by the golden rays of twilight, the scene mysteriously melts into the Golden Gate Bridge in the background, complete with a white couple enjoying a picnic by San Francisco Bay.

In this scene, the Singapore Girl is as much a spectacle as her surroundings; in fact they complement each other with their blend of Asian exoticism and Western modernity. She is there to sell charm and sensuality during the ephemeral pockets of time when travellers are suspended between departing and arriving. The destination is secondary in this context, the voyage is primary. Likewise, John Clang’s series “The Land of My Heart” deploys former Singapore Girls as muses to delineate a journey, not in a physical sense but a psychological and emotional one across the terrain of memory: his, ours and that of humanity’s collective conscience.

Clang’s images resemble the typical SIA commercial, but cleverly subvert it through disruptions of time and space. They replace the exoticism of faraway promised lands with the most mundane and nondescript Singapore landscapes, the flow of time haltingly recedes into the past instead of being projected into the future, and the accompanying handwritten messages (mostly conversational excerpts from pivotal moments in Clang’s relationships with his loved ones) are no longer advertising slogans but ruminations on love, kinship and identity. Even the iconic Singapore Girl, usually synonymous with youth and vitality, exudes a more mature and understated allure – most of Clang’s models have moved on from being stewardesses to markedly different careers or motherhood.

Clang re-appropriates the icon as an ambassador for the Singapore heartlands: the neighbourhood car park, art sculpture, overhead bridge, shops and sports stadium – the nooks and crannies that, despite their everyday quality, are iconic landmarks that have defined his Singaporean life and identity. It is a poignant form of protest against the erosion of memories, an issue particularly resonant given that Bedok Town Centre, where he grew up, has been undergoing dramatic redevelopment.

Romancing the spectre of memory

The Singapore Girl is our island nation’s loveliest apparition. Cloaked in secrecy, she is whisked away in a taxi once she touches down at a destination; she is never spotted in the public eye beyond the safe sanctuaries of airports; her uniform, even when put away after years of duty, is considered sacred and inviolable by its former wearers. She dwells within the airborne space that the rest of us fleetingly pass through; as we are upended through the wormholes of time zone differences, she is there with us. In this respect, she resembles a protagonist in a film, whom audiences encounter but do not live with. In John Berger’s words, “we meet [her] in a sky where nobody can stay”. For Clang, who since 1999 has divided his home between New York and Singapore, this sentiment about fleeting encounters is stirring. It is the physical distance and constant state of being in limbo that drives his art, and the self-reflexive process of remembering, sifting through memory’s flotsam and jetsam, as well as forgetting, that brings a universal and timeless quality to his artworks.

The visual recollections in this series include Clang’s childhood memories of learning to ride a bicycle at an HDB void deck area, learning to swim at Bedok swimming pool where his girlfriend and now wife, Elin, was his coach, school sports days at Bedok Stadium, as well as his favourite haunts as a teenager. Some are sites pegged with a specific expiration date (Bedok swimming pool and Bedok Stadium will soon be demolished for a sprawling new integrated sports complex), while others are simulacra bred from the artist’s re-imagining of everyday spaces and the chance encounters he had while exploring them.

Clang’s tableau-style depiction of feminine figures as muses owes a certain artistic debt to Renaissance paintings such as Sandro Botticelli’s Allegory of Spring and Lucas Cranach the Elder’s The Three Graces. However, in Clang’s endeavour, his subjects are not merely objects of pleasure or commodities created for visual consumption, as their emotional involvement is very much evident. For the former Singapore Girls, participating in the photo shoot triggered their own personal memories and the images became a convergence point for multiple consciousnesses and stories. Entrepreneur Pearly Tan, who is featured in Swimming Pool, Stadium, Tree and Dragon Playground, describes the experience as a “back-to-the-past” tour. “I used to climb trees with my younger sister, I fell down at a dragon playground and injured my shoulder when I was seven, I swam competitively in primary school and trained for up to three times a week at Toa Payoh swimming complex,” says Tan, who was a stewardess with SIA for eight years. “I was a tomboy at heart.”

Unsurprisingly, the strongest memory trigger for all the Singapore Girls was the kebaya uniform. A reminder of their connections to the capitalistic machinery of tourism, it exerted a coercive force – even after all their years away from it – to commodify and objectify the wearer. “Once I donned the uniform, [my] instincts kicked in. I started becoming more conscious of how I behaved,” says Christina Widyanti S., who appears in Octopus. Tan adds, “You ease into that role again, showing more poise and elegance to uphold the image of the airline.” This concept of a ‘second skin’ that induces conformity to a set of performative norms resembles Clang’s encounters as part of the Singaporean diaspora. While he challenges stereotypical views about Singaporean culture and identity, he is simultaneously engaged in clarifying his inner self– not only his identity in relation to the Other, but his relationships with his homeland and family, which are coloured with love, longing and tension.

The annotations on Clang’s images, like echoes from the past, are especially revealing. Drawn from different encounters in his life, they add gravitas to the pictures, sometimes like delicate pinpricks, at other times like forceful punches. In Void Deck, the text is a reference to how he courted his wife. “I did not have her number, but I knew she lived near Bedok Reservoir. So I spent close to two hours calling almost everyone with her last name living in that area. It turned out that I got her last name wrong. It’s Tew and not Teo, so I tried again. She finally picked up the phone and I was totally delighted,” Clang recalls. On the other hand, the text in Flower Shop – “I don’t want to die. Help me.” – shocks and disturbs the viewer with its stark contrast to the scene of vitality and life in which it is embedded. Clang explains, “This sentence was said to me by my favourite uncle who was suffering from terminal cancer. He fell to the floor and told me that. I was young and very shaken by it because he had always been a very strong masculine figure to me.” Yet there is always something left out and unspoken in these annotations, and it is in these gaps of calming silences that we may discover similar epiphanies or moments of repression in our own psyches.

In between
Through a juxtaposition that draws on the whimsical and the absurd, Clang’s series conjures a free space of contemplation about what might constitute Singaporean identity in a world that has become increasingly globalised, borderless and porous. The artist’s introspection, writ large on these images, holds up a mirror to our attitudes towards preserving memories and heritage in an urban city-state that is caught in a perpetual flux of neverending construction and reconstruction. As in Clang’s other works, the series addresses the question of individual belonging. Zygmunt Bauman has described the modern relationship with home as one of “unplacement” instead of “displacement”. Referring to an increasing trend of people relocating to foreign and unknown places as well as those staying put but feeling estranged from their sense of place, Bauman concludes that “home is no longer a dwelling but the untold story of life being lived”. “Home” to Bauman – and by extension, Clang – is not a noun but a verb, a lifelong process of negotiation. Like one pursuing a target on the distant horizon, Clang, it seems, will always be approaching “home” but never fully possessing or sinking roots into it.

His works also create an in-between space, between perception and interpretation, where viewers can momentarily forget about real time and space, away from the deluge of images that inundate our sight and consciousness every day. Clang explains, “I combed through these areas personally before the actual shoot dates, trying to recover that identity in me, that sense of the past. It was like time travel, but it didn’t feel nostalgic as it felt real. It made me think, can I dwell in stationary time if a group of us decide that ‘Time’ doesn’t exist, but rather is a highly subjective and arbitrary entity?” Michel de Certeau, who has likened the concept of mobility and presence to that of a child’s differentiation from the mother’s body, points out that the act of leaving leads to an externalisation and definition of selfhood: “to practise space is to repeat the joyful and silent experience of childhood; it is, in a place, to be other and to move toward the other.”

Swimming Pool is one particular image that conveys the idea of liminality. In it, the Singapore Girl leans against a starting block, water lapping against her naked feet. Turned away from us, she gazes into an unknown horizon, the tension of the image heightened by the swimmer on her left. It appears as idyllic as Claude Monet’s Cliff Walk at Pourville, but is weighed down by the burden of guilt and memory – an unfulfilled promise that Clang made to his dying grandmother in hospital. “My grandma likes to eat char kway teow but due to her old age and ill health, she can’t leave the flat to buy it. She would always ask me or my brother to go buy [it], but we always find excuses not to because the stall is quite far away,” recalls Clang. “She was on the brink of death but the doctors managed to revive her, even allowing her to return home a week later. But on the day of her discharge, she passed away. I never got to buy her the char kway teow.”

In Singapore’s hot, tropical climate, swimming pools are one of the most ubiquitous recreational amenities, perhaps the only one embraced by people across different socioeconomic strata. Water features are commonly used in architectural design as transitional spaces between exteriors and interiors, literally and metaphorically. The touch of water, the sound of it and the way it plays with light provides a psychological respite from the oppressive heat. For Clang, the pool itself represents a space of pleasant memories, but no amount of swimming can dilute his unresolved regret.

Hunting the city

In The Importance of Living, Lin Yutang writes, “The true motive of travel should be travel to become lost and unknown … A good traveller is one who does not know where he is going to and a perfect traveller does not know where he came from.” What is not apparent in Clang’s series is the process by which he selected the locations for his shoots. He has an ardent love for solitary walks, a ritual that helps him to put things into perspective, or even functions as “a strategy for encountering strangers”. It is reminiscent of Guy Debord and his situationist theories of the dérive, whereby Clang puts aside rational attachments and preoccupations to immerse himself in the psychogeographical features of the terrain. This activity is an essential scaffold in his artistic practice, as evident from earlier works such as Time (2009) and Twilight Dreams of a Papilio Demoleus (2012), which demonstrate Clang’s sharp, hunter-like knack for picking out the scent and trail of the urban uncanny – what Freud describes as instances where something can be familiar yet foreign at the same time, resulting in a feeling of it being uncomfortably strange.

As de Certeau writes, the user of a city, when engaged in navigation choices such as avoiding paths or taking shortcuts and detours, actualises signifiers of a spatial language, which is known as “the rhetoric of walking”. If the act of wandering is part of Clang’s artistic language, the creation of visual imagery would be his syntax. “The Land of My Heart” is a cartographical rendition of the experience of growing up and leaving things behind. It is also fiercely political, not in the most literal of definitions, but in using art to create a dialogue within and between us. Beyond a nostalgic retreat, Clang’s images attempt to challenge the deterministic norms and rites of social life, and uncover the significance of seemingly banal signs and symbols. His art is not bound within himself, but is capable of what Jean Fisher describes as “sustaining a poetic imagination capable of disclosing the ethos or common dwelling place of our humanity”.

About Kong Yen Lin
Kong Yen Lin curates and writes about photography. Born and based in Singapore, she has participated as a guest curator in Brighton Photo Fringe’s Open 2011, and was the Education Programme Manager of the Singapore International Photography Festival in 2012 and 2014. Her writing can be found at http://inneryennings.wordpress.com.

References
Berger, John. (1992). Keeping a Rendezvous. USA: Vintage Books.
Boullata, Kamal. (2008). Belonging and Globalisation: Critical Essays in Contemporary Art & Culture. UK: SAQI Books.
de Certeau, Michel. (1988). The Practice of Everyday Life: Walking the City. USA: University of California Press.
Stephen Johnson. (2008). The Everyday: Documents of Contemporary Art. UK: Whitechapel Gallery.
Yutang, Lin. (1937). The Importance of Living: The Enjoyment of Travel. USA: John Day Company.

Tree

Dragon_playground

Bedok_Central

Flower_shop

Park

Stadium

Pet_store

Overhead_bridge

Void_deck

Wet_market

HDB

Mama_shop

Octopus

Swimming_pool

Grass

To purchase a copy of The Land of My Heart by John Clang, please visit:
http://twentyfifteen.myshopify.com/collections/photographers-folios/products/the-land-of-my-heart-by-john-clang

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Oct 7, Tue, 7:30PM
National Museum of Singapore
93 Stamford Road, Singapore 178897

The Land of My Heart is a new series of work by visual artist John Clang, resembling picture postcards addressed to Singapore ahead of her 50th birthday. By re-appropriating the icon of the Singapore Girl, he contemplates on vestiges of identity and personal memories encapsulated in nostalgic spaces of a rapidly evolving motherland, after having based his practice abroad for close to 16 years. Travel with Clang on his emotional journey and own a unique piece of his memory.

Book signing session included.

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Cover: ARTiculate by Tan Ngiap Heng

This is my second attempt at the series ARTiculate, portraits of people in the arts. In 1999, as a young photographer who had just left the Esplanade as an arts administrator, I thought that it would be cool to take a series of portraits of artists whom I knew. It would be a series of black and white portraits shot in natural light. I took about six portraits, but then my career taking publicity and production photographs for arts groups took off. I was unable to continue with the portraits simply because I was swamped, and somehow making the portraits did not get me pumped up.

More than a decade later, Platform invited me to contribute to their TwentyFifteen.sg project. The team wanted a new series of work. I was tempted to offer a series of landscapes exploring my inner journey, but that would be something new to me and might take several years to accomplish. So I came back to ARTiculate again. I didn’t want to make traditional portraits, so I’ve tried to use my current practice to create these portraits. In Portraits as Archaeology (2012), I took a portrait of my subject and projected it into their personal space, creating a site for the viewer to excavate my subject’s personality. In Portraits as History (2013, I created intimate portraits of my subjects by using their old family photos to light them. In ARTiculate, I have tried to create portraits of artists while using their artworks to illustrate who they are.

The subjects in ARTiculate are visual artists, writers, dancers, theatre practitioners, musicians, photographers and animators. This is a varied group of people, and finding meaningful instances of their art to create their portraits has pushed me to expand the way I use projections in my work. As the series has progressed, I have been pleasantly surprised by the results. Nothing is perfect, but I feel that I have been able to convey, in these portraits, the art of these artists who live and work in Singapore.

ARTiculate is my visual poem, dedicated to the wonderful Singaporean artists who so greatly enrich all our lives. I have chosen artists whose work or spirit has moved me. This is not an unbiased, democratic survey of Singaporean artists; with only 15 portraits, it could not be such. This is an unabashed groupie dedication, moderated by access to my subjects. Not everyone I wanted to photograph allowed me to photograph them. And not everyone whom I photographed has made it into the tight selection of 15.

I hope you find the work as delightful as it was for me to create it.

sYtcKsVOaKKYaA4_8mqaApz6i8O8siP58BiPqcnNgw3euK3aXkZWbaiaJhtKDDk_HG4Ocw=w1294-h921Goh Soo Khim
Ballet Dancer
Co-founder and Artistic Director of Singapore Dance Theatre (1998 – 2008)
Director and Principal of Singapore Ballet Academy (1971 – 2013)

Portrait for the series Articulate. Series for Platform's 2015 projectChng Seok Tin
Visual Artist And Writer

as2ZzZFBLvA3AheoE4N713l9Z5FYU0fDtuEq_TdWtR38KPCtCcgt_T_bE0_GDllHp97niA=w1294-h921Santha Bhaskar
Classical Indian Dancer
Artistic Director of Bhaskar’s Art Academy

ePdl_cnFmSqwjY1Sdaozmsm7Gg4Fqa1pDtho4mfdya7-LpHY1-x2pf4NckQ2VF4Vmr78qg=w1294-h921Thirunalan Sasitharan
Theatre Practitioner
Director of The Intercultural Theatre Institute

Portrait for the series Articulate. Series for Platform's 2015 projectQuek Kiat Sing
Chinese Contemporary Ink Painter

2Mv1MNgIoh_3x2e7mbiukgzKNOwrCMkYaXZT7vr6V7lJzsA0hAZkwmBPMUtFzopiLcdS0w=w1294-h921Chow Chee Yong
Photographer and Educator

YCGTabw67D-jZH3dSq0UQ3s56Uxo2Y1tAAMNr5cj9vp_23nXqdz_VUBDkQErQHyBHRuqxw=w1294-h921Leslie Tan
Classical Musician
Cellist of T’ang Quartet

OxeDKUucV08q2kIcG7wJmOh74D7OMm8ndqXGL-C7bg7LyJUKqTX0dgImJk_Gj2RsoYMhYA=w1343-h655Kunyi Chen
Trickfilmster

nFF13JDWBIcNXkkVg9MCM014cnjJZAFDIrd9kI6pchPnzrHdQPTF_wEVEymcaxjDRXu3EA=w1343-h655Iskandar Jalil
Potter

daJsxULF8L1UssFP_MCEJ5aOQI_k8Fo2TDvgSUKVLzl3gOrv_m3HZaRUG_GMHTw8YJKj5Q=w1294-h921Adrian Tan
Writer and Lawyer

Portrait for the series Articulate. Series for Platform's 2015 projectOvidia Yu
Writer

CNAxnoWwzVzcX-Ch5YzrzcO92alMBFp3z3ItrOQ5TD8hxH8UbexWJGxitgqnLjdSWIveXg=w1294-h921Li Xie
Theatre Practitioner

HV0hq6ZBHO5FhDmsiD44f_T1YAm5tyHGClD8RNHbMDNi6zkq0sO7x5Y-Qh645khBirBdIQ=w1294-h921Zai Kuning
Multi-disciplinary Artist

pQL8QzdIOA7RlKIE8m_rbOOL4-Q574r9Dd7yCGtk_m1ZJzrQG9tCuQvC8xmYINwG-voIUA=w1294-h921Haresh Sharma
Resident Playwright
The Necessary Stage

Alvin Tan
Founder and Artistic Director
The Necessary Stage

IgjKJ0_MFloOUKh4BuNsKbI4keU4Q2cNFK4lYOpQGzaq4lrdbR6SWREFLdmSeKqkCJVzUg=w1294-h921Zul Sultan
Musician
Leader of the band Tania

   

To purchase a copy of ARTiculate by Tan Ngiap Heng, please visit:
https://twentyfifteen.myshopify.com/collections/photographers-folios/products/articulate-by-tan-ngiap-heng

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07/20 Matthew Teo's coverMade over a period of four years during my tenure at Calibre Pictures, this series shows the various concerns that gripped me as I entered the working world fresh from National Service. Many of the images depict my struggle to cope with work, friends, partners and family as work took up a huge chunk of my time during my early years with the studio.

MatthewThese pictures are very much an extension of myself, just as all my past series also revolved around my friends, family and military service. The everyday has, in recent years, become intimately intertwined with contemporary art, and I take daily life as my subject matter.

Gaffer tape, mannequins, trolleys, huge bags of equipment and lightstands are part and parcel of my life as a camera assistant. Including them in this series is my attempt at formalising my work, as well as coming to terms with my career as a commercial/fashion photographer while juggling my own expectations as an artist and the influences I have had since my teenage years. I hope to challenge the boundaries we continually reconstruct between the self and others, as well as question what is socially acceptable to share with other people. This is particularly relevant in a modern world permeated by social media, where everyone is trying to share a piece of life and grab attention. I also use self-portraiture to express widespread social sentiments as well as my personal ones towards national policies and governance in Singapore.

#NAC Doesn't Like Me#NAC Doesn’t Like Me

#My Assistant Bag of Tricks and Treats#My Assistant’s Bag of Tricks and Treats

#Every Muthafucka Wants a Piece of Me#Every Muthafucka Wants a Piece of Me

#Christianity is Work#Christianity is Work

#I am Jesus Christ#I am Jesus Christ

#Best Friends Forever#Best Friends Forever

#6 Receptacles of Joy#6 Receptacles of Joy

#Same Same but Different Two#Same Same but Different Two

#Favorite Bits and Pieces of My Different Partners#Favorite Bits and Pieces of My Different Partners

#Same Same but Different#Same Same but Different

#Thank You Tiffany Tan#Thank You Tiffany Tan

#Anarchy In Singapore#Anarchy In Singapore

#My Lovely Tudung#My Lovely Tudung

#I Love Singapore So Much#I Love Singapore So Much

#Serving Singapore Both Ways#Serving Singapore Both Ways

   

To purchase a copy of A Little Bit of Me from Everything Else by Matthew Teo, please visit:
https://twentyfifteen.myshopify.com/collections/photographers-folios/products/a-bit-of-me-from-everything-else-by-matthew-teo

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Robert Zhao Renhui
Singapore 1925 – 2025
Photographs from collection of The Land Archive.

This book chronicles the significant changes in Singapore’s natural and urban landscape that have
occurred over a 100-year period. The 15 images in this volume have been carefully selected by
researchers from The Land Archive to capture the changing face of this tropical island-state. They
touch on issues of land reclamation, national boundaries, ecological changes, pollution,
conservation and the ever-evolving skyline.

The pictures capture an ongoing dialogue between the city’s man-made infrastructure and its
natural spaces and creatures. While Singapore architecture is documented in aerial views of the
country’s tallest buildings, and its ubiquitous public housing, there are also photographs the
island’s wildlife. These include fauna in Marine Parade, native animals in the wildlife reserves,
which houses one of the biggest collection of animals in captivity, and the last few wild animals.

The Land Archive manages an extensive archive of documents from private memoirs, historical
maps and photographs to oral history interviews and audio-visual materials, some of which date
back to the early 19th century.

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Dolphins
Marine Parade

02_low
View of Singapore Island

05_low
Ulu Tiram

06_low
Sand from Ulu Tiram
Ulu Tiram Bukit Timah

07_low
Singapore Wild Animal

08_low
Overlooking Bukit Panjang
Gali Batu

09_low
Singapore Tree

10_low
Singapore Hill

12_low
Singapore Wild Dogs

13_low
Tiger in Pond
Mandai

15_low
Man with motorcycle

16_low

17_low
Jurong Hill

18_low
View of Marina Bay Sands

20_low
Woodlands

 
To purchase a copy of Singapore 1925 – 2025 by Robert Zhao Renhui, please visit:
http://twentyfifteen.myshopify.com/collections/photographers-folios/products/singapore-1925-2025-by-robert-zhao

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RobertZhao copyCan you tell us who is the real Robert Zhao? Where was he born? What was his childhood like?

I am Robert Zhao Renhui, and I was born in Singapore. I cannot remember much of my childhood because there weren’t a lot of photographs taken. My dad had two Yashica cameras, which came in handy when I was in Primary 5. I started taking photographs in the classroom, and I added ‘spirits’ to the images by using a felt tip marker to draw random small shapes on the film. I brought the photographs to school and the reactions from my classmates had a profound effect on me. This is one version of the story.

I also remember growing up near a fish farm, which explains my interest in animals. One thing I am sure of is that after I turned 12, my father took me to Tuas to fish. I must have walked on the reclaimed land for hours, seeing people fly their model planes, without quite reaching anywhere. The place was just sand without end.

Do you think you can tell us how we know when you are telling us the truth and when you are taking us for a ride?

In real life, I’m not good at telling lies, my friends know immediately when I am lying. I usually dramatise the truth, which is much easier. In the same way, my work usually starts with facts and my direct observations. Along the way it gets twisted and distorted into something else. For example, “View of Marina Bay Sands”, the print that we are offering for my book, is a scene that will never happen. Some people can’t tell and have asked me how I shot the photograph. I don’t blame them – Singapore changes very fast, so our memory of its landscape is often vague. The picture is a composite of two cities from Japan and the United Kingdom, two countries which have shaped how our island looks today.

Do you always get irritating questions similar to the previous one?

Even if I do, I try to be polite. Usually I learn something about myself with every question.

The Institute of Critical Zoologists is a grand-sounding name. For someone who isn’t familiar with your works, they might believe this establishment actually exists. Do you often get contacted by real zoologists?

Most of my work is ‘performed’ through the context of an institution, which takes the form of my website, www.criticalzoologists.org. I’ve received emails inviting me to be on the peer review panel for academic journals of zoology. Some artists have also enquired about the possibility of working with the institution. Once, I was contacted by a photo editor of Discover magazine, a popular science and tech journal. They published one of my pictures showing a very well-camouflaged leaf insect perched on a plant. The image was from my series called The Great Pretenders, which explored ideas of mimicry and authenticity in photography. So basically, in those pictures, there were only leaves, and no insects.

After the image was published, a scientist from Germany who had spent his life studying leaf insects wrote me an email. He said, “I couldn’t recognise the species in the image until I went to your website. I finally understood why.”

You have gone from being criticised for your earlier works such as Wu Xiao Kang (with artist collective A Dose of Light), to being celebrated as one of the most exciting young artists in Singapore. What has the journey been like?

It is still too early to tell. In a lot of ways, I’m still starting out. It was difficult in the beginning, when my Wu Xiao Kang fictional narrative upset some people. That was a good lesson in managing responsibility, expectations and trust. I do what I do to survive and to fuel my art practice. It’s like a monster that just keeps getting bigger. You expect more of yourself after each project. In a way, despite my initial struggles, the easiest period was the beginning, when art wasn’t really a job.

Are you afraid that in time to come, you may not be able to tell the difference between truth and lies?

I tend to think everything is a lie, ha! Anyway, I believe that my Singapore landscape work will feel different over time. It will take on a different life, like all photographs, which get harder to read with time. Especially in Singapore, where the landscape changes so rapidly and it’s hard to remember what really happened to some places. Anyway, a photograph is always lying in some way and we must be careful not to look for an absolute truth in such a precarious object.

Your girlfriend is also in the creative business. Is she as crazy and imaginative as you? Does she always trust you since you are rather good at confusing others?

I think she is crazier than me. I would have never given up a stable job (she was an arts writer) to pursue my own dreams! She is working on her own short stories at the moment and I think there’s a certain craziness in her writings and she is definitely more observant and sensitive than I am. This in turn brings out interesting perspectives on things that happen around us. She can read me very well and she doesn’t understand why I still bother to lie to her for fun. I think she trusts me.

Do you think your works are political in any ways?

I always think there are enough overtly political works around and I am not the best person to contribute – it’s not my natural inclination, so why force the issue? What I’m obsessed with is humankind’s interaction with nature. When I look at landscapes, I am looking at the impact we make on nature and the narratives we create when we have the ability to create artificial waterfalls, sand dunes, air-conditioned parks, zoos and natural history museums.

But these stories that we spin aren’t divorced from politics. (Obviously it’s hard to find anything that is untouched by political forces.) So if politics come into my work, it’s by sneaking in through the back door. In Singapore, for example, we are very green and pruned. This is a political decision. This is a way to show that we are in control, that even nature can be controlled. So when anything grows too wild in our Garden City, I tend to visit these spaces.

Do you use photography to comment or criticise?

My photographs are usually of situations that I find interesting. So it’s more of an observation. It’s a picture. It’s visual. It’s not about saying one thing or another. I don’t set out to talk with my images.

Can you help us imagine two possibilities? First, a Singapore you can be proud of in the future. Second, a Singapore you cannot be proud of in the future.

My main concerns are with nature and how we co-exist with it on our really small island. A Singapore I would be proud of respects the little wilderness we have as part of the history and make-up of this land. There is only so much pruned nature we can enjoy.

A Singapore I can’t be proud of – so many ways for us to go wrong, where do we start?

In a way, Singapore today makes me both proud and ashamed. Take that eco-bridge we just built over the Bukit Timah Expressway for animals to move between two nature reserves which we separated [with the expressway] many years ago. Every time I drive under the bridge, I cannot help but ask myself: Do animals really use the bridge? Was the bridge built for them, or was it just a project to show that we care for nature? What will happen when they start using the bridge since these two habitats have already been separated for so long?

Where do you find your inspirations and ideas? Is it true that you have a lot of imaginary friends?

I use Google Alerts for subjects that I am interested in to see how these subjects come up in news items and academic discussions. I put alerts on things such as “wildlife conservation”, “extinction” and “animal traps”. I am also on a constant look-out for images on the Internet and in flea markets. At the moment I am collecting images from all the natural beach sand dunes in the world to try to construct an alternate history of Singapore’s own sand dunes.

In my institute, I work only with imaginary collaborators. A few people presenting an idea to you always seems more convincing than someone doing it alone. It is like how this TwentyFifteen.sg project has 20 photographers, which adds depth to the investigation. It’s the same idea.

Were any animals ever harmed in the creation of your works?

I don’t believe any animals should be harmed for art. I worked with cockroaches once, but those roaches were going to die anyway. I persuaded my friends to surrender their house cockroaches to me – after being killed by insecticide instead of being smashed with a shoe. I prefer working with dead or stuffed animals. I tried photographing my friend’s cat once and it was impossible. I usually just visit the zoo or use discarded dead birds or fish from local pet shops.

What were the best and worst things you have heard about your works?

I try to avoid hearing or reading anything people say about my work. Sometimes I get wind that people feel betrayed by my works. This should happen, it’s not a bad thing to me.

If you can spin a story, however absurd it may be, about Singapore’s past, present or future, what would it be about?

Over the years, Singapore has had all kinds of temporary sand dunes, imported from neighbouring countries for land reclamation purposes. It’s about time we have a sand dune that stays as it is. It should be a permanent monument to Singapore’s success story of creating new land.

What if one day you wake up and realise that you’ve lost the ability to imagine, what would it be like for you? What do you think you would be doing?

This is a real fear that I have whenever I am near the completion of any project. A fear that I have run out of things to say. I just hope it never becomes true. If it does happen, I guess I’ll become a tour guide. I’ll still be telling stories, but other people’s stories.

Are you famous?

At the moment there are 678 likes on my Facebook page and about 1,200 followers on my Instagram account.

Help us picture Robert Zhao in 2025. What can we expect?

Hopefully he’s creating better photographs than he is now.

TwentyFifteen.sg invited some of our friends to send questions to Robert. Here are the two that he chose to answer.

Steffi Koh, undergraduate, Nanyang Technological University: As you’ve had encounters with wild animals, dead animals and animal activists alike, how do you see animals and their place in your world?

I am trying to see things not from my point of view, because I’m human and tend to complicate things. I believe the world works in much simpler ways. I like to see things from the perspective of animals or plants, and wonder what they would think of all these things we do such as wildlife conservation, pollution and extinction. We are all in this together.

Daniel Boetker-Smith, founder, Asia-Pacific Photobook Archive: I see your work as being very politically motivated, but in a very subtle and smart way. Can you tell us about how politics influences your work, and how important is it that photography makes us think beyond the borders of the image – about society, truth, the future, etc.?

My motivations are actually much more selfish. My work usually starts with curiosity and a burning desire to photograph a particular subject.

Singapore’s borderlands, where the huge ‘sand scapes’ are, form one of these subjects. I’ve been going there for 15 years. I was trying to find a way to photograph this vast landscape and couldn’t find a good way to do it.

It was only after I started reading about some of the ecological consequences and political motivations of the act of land reclamation, that I started to appreciate the space with a different perspective. I was attracted to the space because it was a form of wilderness that happened by accident. It wasn’t a planned landscape like many of the neighbourhood parks and gardens and reservoirs we have in Singapore.

So when I started to shoot these sandy landscapes again, although I was informed by some of the political reasons why these spaces existed, I just wanted to pose some simple questions. When does sand become land? When does land become country? What really happens when we have so much new land? I try not to impose a very strict political lens on my work. I find that images, when they are good ones, tend to be richer and more mysterious.
As for what photography can do outside of itself – I don’t think about that so much. I just like to wonder what people will think when they pick up my images at some flea market in the future.

 
To purchase a copy of Singapore 1925 – 2025 by Robert Zhao Renhui, please visit:
http://twentyfifteen.myshopify.com/products/singapore-1925-2025-by-robert-zhao
 

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

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RobertZhao copyRobert Zhao Renhui (b. 1983) works mainly with photography but often adopts a multi-disciplinary approach by presenting images together with documents and objects. His work includes textual and media analysis, video and performance. His recent exhibitions include the Singapore Biennale 2013, President’s Young Talents 2013, Photoquai 2013, International Festival of Photography at Mineiro Museum (Brazil) and Engaging Perspectives at the Centre for Contemporary Art (Singapore). He has exhibited in the Noorderlicht Photo Festival, Format Festival (Derby, UK), Lianzhou International Photo Festival (China), Fukouka Asian Art Museum (Japan), Photo Levallois (Paris), Seoul Arts Center, GoEun Museum of Photography (Busan, Korea), Zabludowicz Collection (London), Shanghart (Shanghai) and PPOW (New York).

Robert’s work has been awarded the Deutsche Bank Award in Photography (University of the Arts London, 2011), United Overseas Bank Painting of the Year Award (Singapore, 2009), Sony World Photography Awards (2010 and 2011) and honourable mentions in Photo Levallois (France, 2008). In 2010, he was awarded the Young Artist Award by the National Arts Council (Singapore). His work has also been featured prominently in Artforum International, ArtInfo, Fotografia and Punctum.

Robert received his Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in Photography from Camberwell College of Arts and the London College of Communication respectively. His work addresses man’s relationship with nature, paying close attention to how our attitudes and opinions shape our assumptions about the natural world. He has also undertaken research residencies at the Fukuoka Asian Art Museum, Bangkok University Gallery, National Museum of Wales, Earth Observatory of Singapore, Ffotogallery (Penarth, UK) and Arctic Circle Residency. He will be involved in a residency at Kadist Art Foundation (San Francisco) in 2014.

www.criticalzoologists.org

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Released together with each new book are three limited prints from an image chosen by the individual photographer. So far, six have been unveiled and one of the set has been completely sold.

In April, you will be able to see ALL, if not most, of the images framed, in a mini showcase at the National Museum of Singapore. You will also be able to see all the books published so far.

Please come back again for more details for this special event.

Meanwhile, a recap of what we have offered up to now.

a20_Geylang_Lorong_3_001
From For My Son by Darren Soh
http://twentyfifteen.sg/2013/07/03/limited-edition-print-1-darren-soh/

Sandcastle Day
From Our Coastline by Lim Weixiang
http://twentyfifteen.sg/2013/08/06/limited-edition-print-2-lim-weixiang/

03/20 Bay of Dream
From Bay of Dreams by Kevin WY Lee
http://twentyfifteen.sg/2013/09/26/limited-edition-print-3-ox-lee/

HW010
From Two People by Sean Lee
http://twentyfifteen.sg/2013/11/18/limited-edition-print-4-sean-lee/

Boktabali, Bangladesh
From Made in Singapore by Tay Kay Chin
http://twentyfifteen.sg/2014/01/08/limited-edition-print-5-tay-kay-chin/

RobertZhao
From Singapore 1925 – 2025 by Robert Zhao Renhui
http://twentyfifteen.sg/2014/02/15/limited-edition-print-6-robert-zhao/

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Despite our daily blasts of messages promoting different things, it doesn’t surprise us that many people are still confused about what we do, or how we do it, when is this ‘nonsense’ going to end, if we are a secret society, etc etc.

We also have to apologize if you are receiving the same message more than once, from different people.

It means several things. One is that we are passionate folks who kinda sing the same tune. It also means we are needy and kiasu to some extent.

We have often asked ourselves, ” Why do some much just for ourselves?”

One of the yardsticks for us is your ‘participation’.

Honestly, it would be quite easy for us to sell some titles in bulk to a few organizations and then declare to the world that we are out of print.

But trust me when I say that it doesn’t give us as much satisfaction, when compared to our books being shared by many different people.

We also think that it is important that you know how we operate, and how we treat the people who work with us.

Seriously, we think we are an ethical organization that is not profit driven. And we are not rich.

To begin with, each of the photographer who publishes with us OWNS and RETAINS his full copyright. His only commitment to the team is to license 15 images to be reproduced as part of the series, and the run is limited to 500 copies.

The photographer also agrees to let the group have the first right of refusal for a group exhibition.

In addition, one of the images from the series is also selected for reproduction into three limited edition prints which we sell to finance the project.

Apart from that, each photographer is free to do anything to the 15 images. Needless to say, he owns his own rights to the outtakes from the project as well.

In return for letting us publishing his works, each photographer only gets 10 copies of his printed books, two each of the other books published in the series, some publicity, a book launch, and some referrals. If he wants additional copies of his own books, he has to wait until the window opens, and he pays the cost of the printing.

You may think that our agreement is not a big deal. Wait till you hear the horrible contracts we receive each day from other publishers.

How we fund this project has also been of interest to different people and we have nothing to hide.

The initial financing of the project came from three good friends who gave us about $1500 each. A few of the Platform founders also pledged some amount but to date, we have found no need to activate that portion yet.

Each of our limited print sells for $1200. If all three prints from one photographer are sold, the printing cost of that particular book would have been 90% covered.

The sale of our books contributes substantially to our coffers too. The advance sale of complete sets at $500 each also yielded substantial amount.

We are always proud to say that we pay our printing partner, Grenadier Press, on time, every time.

Our other cost comes from area of print making, in which we are lucky to receive sponsorship of materials from Cathay Photo, our long-time partner.

We are blessed to get year-round venue sponsorship from the National Museum of Singapore.

Apart from the photographer, the ‘regular staff’ in each book includes the four founders of the project – Darren, Ernest, Leonard and myself; Yu-Mei, our super duper copyeditor; Flee Circus, our wonderful portraitist; Jonathan, the crazy creative director/designer.

On launch day, we usually count on good friends like Sebastian, Ox and Wei Xiang to man the cashier.

Our stocks sit in whatever extra holes we can find in homes, offices, storage spaces.

Nobody gets paid, not even for coffee. Or petrol.

If this sounds like a mix of complaints and boasting, it is probably a bit of both.

But if we don’t believe in it, and enjoy most of it, we won’t be sending you all the updates.

Right?

Have a great day ahead and do think of us yeah?

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