Film Imitates Art in 'Abstractions' featuring 6 Singapore experimental filmmakers


Abstractions: Filmic Readings of the Something New Must Turn Up Exhibition was a newly commissioned film anthology that closed the recent Painting with Light International Festival of Film on Art by the Singapore National Gallery. It comprises six filmic readings by Singapore filmmakers (Ryan Benjamin Lee, Chew Chia Shao Min, Chong Lii, Toh Hun Ping, Russell Morton, and Gladys Ng and Ng Hui Hsien) on works within its namesake exhibition, which is ongoing at the Gallery.

These six artists were selected as subjects for the exhibition as they represent the diversity of artistic practices and backgrounds of post-independence Singaporean artists. They worked across a wide range of mediums, techniques and disciplines – from Jaafar Latiff’s batik paintings and Mohammad Din Mohammad’s talismanic collages, to Eng Tow’s bronze installations and Lin Hsin Hsin’s digital art. The artists also came from diverse backgrounds – Goh Beng Kwan, Chng Seok Tin and Eng Tow furthered their art education overseas and returned to Singapore, while Lin Hsin Hsin, Jaafar Latiff and Mohammad Din Mohammad continued their artmaking in Singapore. Together, they represent the pluralistic and diverse local art scene of that time. While they had different art practices, the six artists shared something in common – they were all artistic innovators in their respective mediums.

The six filmmakers chosen are known for their experimental practices and innovative approaches to respond to what the exhibition propositions as new in the practices of the artistic forerunners working in post-independence Singapore, the project seeks to embody the progressive spirit that inspired lifelong experimentation for the artists in the exhibition, and which continues to engender something new in the present. Echoing the artists’ interdisciplinary approaches to artmaking, the filmmakers had also worked across diverse media. For the commission, they had flexibility in determining film form and if artist collaborations (e.g. with a photographer or performer) were needed.

Axis by Ryan Benjamin Lee (in response to Chng Seok Tin: Drawn Through A Press)

In Axis, a labyrinth constructed from images of grids, ladders and glass ceilings collides and coalesces into an impossible space. This film is a rumination on mall culture in Singapore, with the homogeneity and verticality of these centres of consumerism mirroring contemporary power structures and the desire for upward mobility. This animated short is inspired by works in the exhibition Chng Seok Tin: Drawn Through A Press such as Gold Rush (1993), Social Climbers (1992) and Game of Chess (1999–2001).

‘Unfortunately, Chng Seok Tin had passed a few years ago, but I think her work speaks for itself. I worked closely with the show’s curator, Cheng Jia Yun to conceptualise and become more deeply in tune with Chng’s emotional and political feelings towards the state of Singapore in the 1980s. A lot of her work responded to the institutional ‘value systems’ at play; having experienced social mobility herself through higher education. Floating ladders come to symbolise endless social climbing while grids and chess boards demonstrate power play. These images informed the structure of my own film, which moves from the vertical to the horizontal; a symbolic flattening and dismantling of power.’

One After Another by Chew Chia Shao Min (in response to Goh Beng Kwan: Nervous City)

‘One After Another is a reading of the works in the exhibition Goh Beng Kwan: Nervous City. The film draws from paintings in Goh’s Urban Renewal series: Minaret (1973), In The Clouds There Are Dwellings (1985) and Advertisements (1962–1966). Director Chew Chia Shao Min interprets the nervousness referenced in the exhibition title as a state of longing and anxiety. She uses images of waiting, simmering and engulfment to convey the tension that arises from suppressing charged emotions. In the film, the city becomes a fever dream of discontent as the protagonist and viewer alike are trapped in transitory states—always coming or going, but never arriving.’

‘We showed up at Goh's studio after a hectic morning of filming and he was cool to kick back and let us do our thing. We tried a version of the last shot with him instead of me, and it was fun to direct him and experiment with it. Mr. Goh Beng Kwan may be in his 80s but he has a profound light and playfulness that is entirely fresh, deep, and wise. He also has a great wardrobe and a sick sense of style.’

Void and More by Toh Hun Ping (in response to Lin Hsin Hsin @speed of thought)

Void and More is an abstract animation of paper, light and shadow. This short film articulates director Toh Hun Ping’s ruminations on nothingness and existence through experiments with paper folding and creasing, elementary geometry, aleatory operations, visual motion illusions, and moving image-making with material reliefs. It is inspired by the artistic practice of Lin Hsin Hsin, presented in the exhibition Lin Hsin Hsin @speed of thought. It explores themes in her artworks such as the void, the infinite, the cosmic universe and human existence, the marriage of art, mathematics and science (especially astrophysics), as well as the tactile and the organic.

‘Many hours of origami folding followed, to train myself to fold the more advanced and complex origami models, both figurative and abstract models. I got to the point where I practiced folding every origami model about two to three times before executing the actual one to be used for the animation. What was left after the origami models were unfolded were crease patterns. There were about fifty to sixty origami models that I selected from numerous origami books. They were chosen based on their crease patterns and how one model/crease pattern matched to the next one, thus forming a series with the potential for making animated images.’

Mystic and Momok by Russell Morton (in response to Mohammad Din Mohammad: The Mistaken Ancestor)

Mystic and Momok reflects on the philosophy and methodology of Mohammad Din Mohammad (1955 –2007), a polymath known variously as a mystic and traditional healer, actor and musician, silat master and collector of Southeast Asian cultural objects, painter and sculptor. The film documents the process of creating a musical composition for Mhd Din, devised by a computer algorithm, Momok, which was developed by the artist bani haykal. Capturing voice samples from Mhd Din’s family alongside newer and less familiar voices, Momok arranges these samples into a musical composition that accompanies a silat invocation by the late artist’s brother, Sadiq M Din.

‘Momok is a computer algorithm that takes samples of sounds and rearranges them into a composition. This eventually becomes the soundtrack of the music video. I enjoyed this conversation with technology, where the algorithm reassembled the voice samples. There is an element of chance and serendipity, and I felt that this process of embracing technology and the unexpected as an element of the artwork was in the same spirit of MDM’s process of art making.’

Quest or Quest by Chong Lii (in response to Jaafar Latiff: In The Time of Textile)

Quest or Quest traces Chong Lii’s personal encounter with the exhibition Jaafar Latiff: In The Time of Textile. The film takes aesthetic and narrative cues from fantasy and science fiction tropes, adapting fragments of Jaafar Latiff’s batik works into a metaphysical landscape. Microscopic visualisations of warp and weft of the textiles enmesh with vignettes of an alternate fictional environment, mapped by an unnamed consciousness. Fragmented scenes of parks and wharfs, pixels and scans emerge at different scales to create an intoxicating headspace of terror and euphoria.

‘The process really only kicked off during a visit to the Heritage Conservation Centre to view Jaafar Latiff’s works being treated and analysed. I expected to see a great deal of technical capacity but was nonetheless fascinated, by the level of specificity and precision conservators displayed towards these paintings. Among their instruments was a powerful digital microscope capable of magnifying up to 200x. Looking at Jaafar’s batik paintings at such a scale was immediately activating - this viewpoint had deepened his gestures of cosmic abstraction for me.’

wanderings by Gladys Ng and Ng Hui Hsien (in response to Eng Tow—the sixth sense)

wanderings is inspired by Eng Tow╩╝s sensitivity to colours, materials, and the rhythms of nature. Explorations of paper, fabric, and natural elements invite the viewer to enter an intimate, meditative world infused with light and shadow, density and void. The process of making this film was directed by chance and the senses, reflecting the intuitive approach to artmaking explored in the exhibition Eng Tow—the sixth sense.

‘We began our collaboration by sharing a lot with each other, such as the artists or works that we find inspiring. As we come from different disciplines, this sharing helped us to build a common visual language. With this visual language in mind, we began to film in nature reserves and parks, as the natural world is a subject matter that often features in Eng Tow’s practice. We filmed together, but we worked independently as well. At this stage, we didn’t have a clear idea of how the film would turn out. We simply trusted our intuition. It’s our attempt really, to explore and approach the collaboration with an open mind, rather than wanting clear, concrete ideas quickly.’

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