Reflections on painting beyond labels, borders and nationalism
Exhibition essay for A Lack of Significance (2019)
By Yeo Tze Yang
“Those who oppose the novel most vociferously today are of the opinion that intermingling with a different culture will inevitably weaken and ruin their own. I am of the opposite opinion. The Satanic Verses celebrates hybridity, impurity, intermingling, the transformation that comes of new and unexpected combinations of human beings, cultures, ideas, politics, movies, songs. It rejoices in mongrelization and fears the absolutism of the Pure. Melange, hotchpotch, a bit of this and a bit of that is how newness enters the world. It is the great possibility that mass migration gives the world... The Satanic Verses is for change-by-fusion, change-by-conjoining. It is a love song to our mongrel selves.”
- Salman Rushdie, Imaginary Homelands (1992)
As I write this short reflection, it’s almost two months before the show opens. I’ve a couple more paintings to complete before I can say I am done, for the time being. The process has been rough, exciting and at times, mundane. Contrary to popular belief, art making does not fully escape the trappings of a routine life; as matter of fact, it depends very much on it. Paintings needs to get done. With that said, perhaps art making is very much like any other job too. It has its ups and downs, moments of satisfaction and insecurities. Like any other job, it’s never easy.
Over this period of making, many of my thoughts centred around how the paintings have been and would be perceived. It’s no accident that the gallery has decided to schedule the exhibition to coincide with National Day. My paintings have somehow managed to become associated with ideas of “local flavour”, “Singaporeanness”, “Nanyang style”, to just list a few of these (loaded) terms. I am not surprised by this, by the way; the paintings do reflect a lot of the life of ordinary people living in Singapore, such as myself.
With such thoughts, I find myself thinking about the artists who inspired my paintings several years ago; the ones who paid attention to the details of the seemingly uninteresting parts of life, and through art, have been able to say something poignant and sharp about our own lives. I’ve always wanted to do the same. The paintings have always been about looking at the insignificant things around me, and to look at them as they are, in the here and the now. I saw painting insignificance as an anti-thesis to social media posts of wanderlusts and expensive holidays faraway. They aren’t of glamourous things. As British artist George Shaw once said, “If you can’t find the sublime in your own bedroom, then I don’t think it’s worth finding at all.”
I wanted a simplicity to the approach of my paintings, one that didn’t require a deep knowledge of art and art history to understand, but only required the heart; to feel, as that was the very way I approach the paintings too. I was heartened to see one of my paintings used, without permission of course, as a stranger’s cover photo on his public Facebook profile. From his pictures of racing cars and popular handphone game Mobile Legends, he didn’t seem like a person from the arts either, and yet my work had come to mean something to him too. I’ve long believed, that amid all our differences as human beings, at the core of all of us are these emotions that we feel and can empathise with: joy, anger, disappointment, frustration, exhaustion, hope, just to name a fraction of a human being’s infinite complexity. This has always been how I approach art, whether consciously or not.
My painting practice also emerges at a period of major changes around the world, and in Singapore too. In recent years, the world has seen the rise of right-wing nationalism, the tightening of nation-state borders and xenophobia. Protect our own kind, keep the foreigners, aliens and immigrants out! In the Sejarah Melayu (Malay Annals), there’s a famous line by the hero Hang Tuah that goes: “Takkan Melayu Hilang Di Dunia.” The Malays Will Not Perish From This World. It’s been used widely in right- wing Malay ethnonationalism, as seen in Malaysian politics. But I do not think it’s an attitude reserved for any particular group. If anything, it says a lot about nation states. In a world where neoliberalism has taken centre stage as the ruling order, change, development and demolition spare no one, Singapore included. MRT trains are packed with the foreign faces of people migrating here from everywhere. Jobs are seen to be stolen from locals by foreigners. As that typical raging keyboard warrior often screams on Facebook, “70% caused this! FT GO HOME!” Consecutively, forests, kampungs, cemeteries and old buildings of bygone eras stand in the face of bulldozers and cranes before being flattened to nothingness, as concrete, glass and steel shoot up like tendrils into the sky and all shout for tomorrow.
It’s ironic then, that in a time of ever-smarter phones, ultra-futuristic skyscrapers and artificial intelligence, human beings have turned the other way, and turned to the past for comfort and sense of identity. Who am I, who are we, when faced with rapid change and uncertainty? And that is where I feel that my paintings has slid quite comfortably into a ‘box’ shaped exactly for my kind of paintings: art that showed some kind of unique Singaporean identity, that no one else could possibly have, that made us special and therefore Will Not Perish From This World.
I was perplexed by these things because the paintings have never been about such a narrative. It took me awhile to realise how simple acts, even in art, could take on political meaning too, even if unintended. As many say, the audience complete the art, and this has been how many have completed mine, even if unconsciously. I found the terms used on my paintings like Singaporean, that implied a national identity and Nanyang, that implied a (solely) Chinese-migrant identity mixed into the idea of Local. All of a sudden, to sip teh tarik at the mamak downstairs instead of craft coffee at the Melbourne-inspired hipster café made one Singaporean. Hence, patriotic? Local and national as two ideas had blended into one.
This slight unease came along also with my increased travels around the region, by bus, by train, by plane, by boat; alongside passengers, strangers, many who look, talk, think and live like me and the people I have grown up around all my life. And they aren’t Singaporeans. I think about conversations en route through the highways of Peninsular Malaysia, Southern Thailand and Pulau Bintan, after dinner at a daichao shop in Kuala Kangsar, at a kedai toddy in Penang, my sketches of people in Ipoh; the humanity that linked all of us, beyond immigration checkpoints, borders and passports. People and places all once connected by history and culture, but now separated by politics, borders and nationalism. I therefore have never felt that my paintings are simply Singaporean or Nanyang. They are of all these places that look and feel so much like home, familiarity and humanity – the very core ideas of my paintings that are intrinsically linked. I find a need to question these politicised labels of Singaporean and Nanyang. I wish to not simply dispel the “Singaporeanness” of my paintings but also explore these connections nearby that transcend borders and give us that feeling of local.
Art can be infinity and beyond. Art can say multiple things at a go, depending on your point(s) of view. As much as I share my experiences with the viewers, the viewers bring with them theirs too, and we meet in the painting of a street at night, a leftover meal, a discarded cigarette packet, a plate of maggi goreng; common experiences as common people. Is my art political? It has turned out that way. Is my art spiritual? I guess. Is my art metaphorical? Perhaps, yes. Is my art Nanyang? Is my art Singaporean? If you insist. There are too many entry points. Feel free to enter, whichever door you may choose.