A Beautiful Tension

Interview by Luo Jingmei
Images courtesy of Nguan

The worlds in photographer Nguan’s images are as surreal as they are poignantly familiar and real. In them, 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 elusively private and unphotographed, prefering that his images be 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 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.

How Loneliness Goes, Nguan how beautiful tension

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.

How Loneliness Goes, Nguan how beautiful tension

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.

How Loneliness Goes, Nguan how beautiful tension

‘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 are 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.

Read more in The U Press N˚9 (Singapore edition).