Playing With & For The Community
Another Point of View
Photographic Art of Tay Jiun Lin Sebastian
by Kaimei Wang
“Art should be something really personal and as close to the heart as possible and only then that the art being produced is truthful and authentic. Above all, aesthetics is usually the first thing that comes to my mind when it comes to image making.”
— Tay Jiun Lin Sebastian
Tay Jiunlin Sebastian is a photographer. Before that, he was a painter. Before that he was a serious athlete representing Singapore in international junior competitions until he hurt himself badly during sports training. For a 21-year old young man, the trajectory of his career path has always involved action, movement, concentration and lots of visual imagination.
Sebastian shoots images of things: objects that scatter around in our daily life, a half-broken egg, an over-matured pomegranate fruit, a corner of an unmade bed, some old-socks that don’t seem to belong to anyone, clothes covered with mysterious stains… He points his camera to his object in a dark room where the only light source is a simple torch or light bulb installed in his object. He presses the shutter at a very close distance and allows the camera to absorb the light and register the details of the object. After shutter does its mechanical work the rest is just silence. Sebastian seldom uses photo-shop to alter anything on the image that he has caught in that dark room. The way that he arranges his setting for shooting and the process of making them almost can be experienced as a religious ritual. It is in such tranquil moment of art making, our young artist reaches his inner voice and discovers the unseen beauty in these ordinary things. The details of a broken egg extend its vulnerable fragility from an ordinary object into a metaphor of our life on earth. The power of photography simultaneously catches the reality and yet escapes from the reality. The photograph becomes an object about an object.
Whereas traditional photographic theory believes that photography is about the camera catching the light reflected from objects, Sebastian wants to test the opposite. When he started to develop his series of fruits and other objects, he wanted the scarcity of light sources to drain the content from his objects and thus let the texture of the things and the vast blackness left around fill the image. Sebastian’s approach makes me think of the famous white paintings the American artist Rauschenberg created in the 1950s where the monochromic white color reduced the painting to its very essence of representation and functions like “airports of the lights, shadows and particles” as described by Rauschenberg’s contemporary John Cage. The camera in Sebastian’s hand turns darkness into the receptor of light and the image is the reflection of darkness. The results of such an apparently perverse approach are some subversive images that are ambiguous, unpredictable and extremely beautiful.
Kaimei Wang: You were a half-time serious athlete in your school time. You were also enrolled in NAFF majoring in painting, but switched to photography major later. Has sport influenced you as an artist? When did you start to realize the power of photography that can be expressed in photography but not sufficient in painting and what did you discover?
Tay Jiun Lin: I started to paint when I was very young. My uncle took me to the community art class and I immediately loved the way that color and form can express my feeling during painting. In my school year, I did javelin throwing and took the sport really seriously. For me, I enjoyed javelin throwing as much as I enjoyed art. Both sport and art making require intense energy output, concentration and striving. I did painting for a long time, lots of color and expressionistic abstractions. What I discovered in photography is the great richness of details that I find however I’d try in painting, I wouldn’t be able to capture as in a photograph. It’s like photography is about reality because it catches reality, but at the same time, photography has the freedom to escape from the reality and changes things that are captured by the camera lens into something different, something transcend the ordinary being and becomes something holy. It’s the power of photography that I discovered when I started to shoot photos instead of doing sketches when I was preparing my paintings. So I told the school that I wanted to switch to photograph major. The school didn’t agree in the beginning because I was already finishing my first year in the painting major and I had missed quite a lot of lectures on photography. But I managed to convince them.
KW: How do you choose your motives? Why are you interested in taking photographs of fruits?
TJL: I try to tie personal life experiences and my thoughts to create my art. Personally, I think art should be something really personal and as close to the heart as possible and only then that the art being produced is truthful and authentic. Above all, aesthetics is usually the first thing that comes to my mind when it comes to image making. That is what really that attract audiences at the first look.
I choose fruits as my subject. Fruits play a significant double character in the life cycle. Trees grow, flowers bloom and bear fruits. Fruits could mean the end. For example, the phrase ‘a fruitful journey’ can only be made when one realizes at the end of a journey if it is a worthy one. In a certain way, fruits represent the closure of a life’s journey. Yet in a different context, they hold a very significant meaning of bearing the seeds that leads to a beginning of another life. Fruits then represent the idea of the end as well as the beginning of a journey, just like a circle, where endings and beginnings seem so obscure.
KW: Let’s look at the other series “Eternal Presence”. Interestingly these images of unmade bed and stains on old clothes, to me, are more about absence than presence. They are very narrative as if some forensic evidence of unsolved murder mystery. They are also very solemn. The calmness of these images convey the feeling of respect, almost like a religious experience. You know, stains, Jesus blood, Holy Shroud… so what was in your mind when you created this series?
TJL: It’s quite interesting you said about religious experience. It never occurred to me when I created this series that I consciously associated these still lifes with religion, though indeed I am trying to be a devoted roman catholic. But maybe subconsciously, I projected my respect and thoughts about religion in my art works. My art works are in first hand strongly tied up with my personal life experience and thoughts. I found these old junks in my father’s company’s warehouse. They presented a kind of beauty that was so everyday life yet so alienated to our life when looked in details and fragments. Their eternal presence is a reminder of the trace of our life, perhaps, the absence is more metaphysical. By portraying the images in a certain degree of abstractness, it seems like the hints to the identity of the subject is being taken away. That also, the textures can be emphasized. Like Ivey Penn’s photographs which I admire dearly, it is about the magic touch on details.
KW: So what objects are you interested in shooting now?
TJL: Actually I start to document my grandmother and the objects that she took with her when she first left China and arrived on this island. As she gets older, I feel the urgent of getting the best of her into my memory. The objects in our house that carry the memories of the older generation who has lived a complete different kind of life as we do today. I feel only sad that my vocabulary in my grandmother’s dialect is so limited. So maybe photographs help me to fulfill this gap for communication and understanding.
KW: One last question, how would you describe your generation of Singaporean youth? Find 5 words!
TJL: Sincerely, we don’t think we are so creative. Maybe “brainless” or “mindless” is a hard word, but in some sense it is who we are today. People need to question things. We can’t just live like sponge absorbing whatever is given to us. We need courage to raise questions, which I don’t think we have. 5 words… monotonous.. I need to think about if there are any positive words, too.