Playing With & For The Community
I want to bring art into society, make art an issue for debate and discussion.
– Chan Poh Ling
At the first glance of Chan Poh Ling’s photographs, you would probably wonder, as most viewers do: ‘what is it that I see?’ and ‘where is it taken?’ In one picture, the clear blue sky reveals the naked dry earth that seems to suffer from a long drought. In another one, the dramatic shape of sand looks to be formed by erosion of wind and rain over the ages. As you wonder, your imagination flies from the west coast Spanish to Scottish highland where legend and myth were born between cold waves and hard rocks. So you will definitely be surprised when you find out that Chan Poh Ling’s photographs were taken right here in Singapore, not at all far from the lushly flowering Botanic Garden and the glittering hyper-modern ION mall.
The heroes in Chan’s photographic works Stockpiles in Singapore are building materials that are piled and stored in various parts of Singapore. For an island that doesn’t contain any natural resources, even such sand, gravel, cement powder are imported from neighboring countries; Malaysia, Cambodia, Vietnam and China. Eventually these materials will be turned into concrete and used for building up new condominiums, shopping malls, HDB houses and infrastructures that contribute to the spectacular of the Singapore society. These stockpiles, – as high as 30 meters – are located on the outskirt of the city. On a sunny day, after the trucks and machinery roars cease from unloading and loading the sand, the place are mostly left quiet and unvisited. Few people would even notice their existence. Seldom any outsider would come closer to observe the shape of the sand formation.
But these piles natural beauty and surrealistic existence caught the eyes of a young artist. Some years ago when Chan was sitting in her father’s car when they passed by Jurong Industrial park, her eyes were caught by the piles of sand and cement along the roadside. “ They look so beautiful to me.” she recalls. Thus begins her year long project of photographing the least noticed objects in the tropical Singapore landscape.
The famous American photographer Louis Stettner once said, being a photographer means perpetual discovery. Among pile of sand and cement power, Chan discovered another kind of beauty that would assimilate the majestic natural creation on a much larger scale. Her camera isolated the fragment of the sand pile or ditches on the muddy road left by trucks. She deliberately composed images that reminded her of pictures she saw on National Geography. By slightly altering the exposure time, an ordinary sand mountain at the Tampine industrial site has converted into a sober iceberg floating on the northern Atlantic Ocean. The poetic meaning of such image has exceeded the optical transcription of the reality and shows that, with some imagination, beauty can be found in the mundane -right here at home. Stockpiles’unique alienated existences take the works into a deeper level. After all, Chen is reframing a fragment of the Singapore society through her camera seeker.
Q. When you work on your art projects in Singapore, what are the things that you are concerned about?
A. I’m interested in many social issues, like the urbanization of our city state, foreign laborers’ social status, youth culture, feminism and so on. I want to bring art into society, make art an issue for debate and discussion. Like my Stockpiles project, I’m interested in exposing the unseen reality to the Singaporeans. How many shopping malls are there in this country? Has anyone thought about how these malls are built and who built them? I think cement has a special position in Singapore’s development, but has been totally ignored. Another one of my school projects is about foreign workers. I went to the site where Indian labors slept after their hard day’s work and documented their daily life. I have to say I was shocked. How would people even live in that kind of condition? These are the people who build Singapore. Our garden green city is polished and maintained by those anonymous people hidden behind masks. I want to give them faces.
Q. What upsets you and what makes you angry?
A. One thing that really makes me angry is when I see through how the public media manipulates people to place them within a stereotypical framework. Like the other day I saw an advertisement for a kind of chocolate. There was one guy in the middle and two girls hugged him from both sides. The advertisement talks about double happiness. Come on, we live on the 21st century, why still one man two women? Why not two guys and one woman? The society is so nonchalant to such man chauvinism expression that it really makes my upset.
Q. So what do you want to do with your art?
A. I hope I can bring art into the society and make people wonder what they see and think about what they see. I have the idea of bring my Stockpile series back to the sand piles and hang them out on the site so people passing by would notice their existence. Perhaps even bring those photographs of stockpiles to shopping malls and give people another glimpse of what this commercialized society is grounded on. I’m interested in street art and want to see how art can be integrated with people and react towards what happens in the society.
How would you describe your generation of Singaporean youth?
I think we are all very ambitious, believe in ourselves. We are more tolerant and open-minded compare with our parents. We find it easier to talk about issues like sex, homosexual, more accepting of sub-cultures like body-piercing and graffiti. But I also think Singaporean kids complain a lot! We are not all so talented.