My Future Is Not A Dream
Evenings, Bus Rides and Daydreams
Exhibition essay for Evening, Once More (2021)
By Yeo Tze Yang
Are you looking down like me under the sun
Sweating away, quietly working hard?
Are you like me, having endured the cold
But won’t give up on the life you want?
Are you like me busy pursuing
Pursuing an unknowable warmth?
- My Future is Not Only A Dream, Chang Yu-Sheng
I’ve always identified with the longing and hope within this pop song. I’ve always felt these things around me, growing up in a lower-middle class family in Singapore: the aspirations of climbing up the socioeconomic ladder; the upgrades in life that we simply haven’t reached yet. The eternal belum. The stubborn denial that our futures weren’t only daydreams, while toiling away at jobs we disliked, at lives that were never ideal enough.
* * * * *
Evening, Once More is an exhibition that centers around the aforementioned emotions and ideas through paintings, LED sign boards and text. I look into sensations surrounding what some may call the “magic hour” in the city: the time, around 6.30PM to 7.30PM, during which light in the sky quickly recedes into dark. Evening, Once More is a sequel to a previous series of paintings from 2016-2017, titled Evening.
For many who live and work in urban centers, it's the time when the day of work ends, and when most people leave their workplace and make their way home or to get dinner. I approach this time frame from a variety of angles. In some paintings, I turn my gaze towards the sky and my urban surroundings. In others, the human figure takes center frame, their expressions, posture, clothing and setting evoking similar ideas and emotions of "the end of the day".
I see the transition between work and home, be it in the car, subway, bus or on foot, cast under quickly diminishing daylight and street lamps, as a liminal space absent of a protective “shell”. In those moments, our vulnerability as tired and bored human beings becomes heightened, which I depict primarily in my paintings, alongside LED sign boards and text.
In my paintings, I evoke such emotions through a high emphasis on colours and lighting. Daylight and artificial man-made light (neons, fluorescents, street lamps, LEDs, car headlights, etc.) are all mixed and juxtaposed, like different colours of paint blended together with a brush. The emotions evoked by these colours are communicated through daily sights most ordinary folk would find familiar: pavements, roads, buses, flyovers, shophouses, coffee shops, HDB flats, etc. The uncannily familiar is monumentalized in paint on canvas. These everyday common sights that come straight from my life are shared with all my viewers; most people would have seen most of these things I have seen myself.
I compare my mental approach to Evening, Once More to this painting by Vincent Van Gogh, The Potato Eaters (1885). While it is a somber image, Vincent had written to his brother Theo that the work is not an image of sympathy for these poor farmers, but a picture of nobility and dignity on par with those of aristocrats: What could be more dignifying than to be able to reap what you sow, literally. In the same vein, I share this view of life in the 21st century. On the surface, the works of Evening, Once More seem overly laden with melancholy. But my intention isn’t pity or self-pity. These are a small nod to the quiet triumph of the human spirit to keep pushing on for one more day, because our futures are not only daydreams.
Through these less-than-magical depictions of the “magic hour”, Evening, Once More is a memoir to the lives and stories of nobodies. Nobodies standing at the bus stop, who will try again tomorrow, anyway.
In 2017, I presented a solo exhibition titled Evening. I remember choosing that theme because night scenes had constantly appeared in my work through the few years I had been painting. I remember being influenced greatly by the energetic and hipster visuals of Wong Kar Wai's indie films of Hong Kong by night during that period in my life.
However, as time went by, I found that my personal experiences of the night didn’t really match those that were depicted in these movies. My life lacked those blazing neons and excitement. My evenings did not involve riding a motorbike through the underground pass without a helmet, cigarette in mouth and with a pretty girl on the back seat. I realised I will never be that cool. I was in university then, and most evenings involved getting dinner (usually some stir fried noodles or economy rice) after class and the long commute on the MRT back home.
It was then I realised my own experience of evenings was quieter, more still, less exciting and yet in all its unassuming nature, equally stunning and magical. This endless reflection about evening time and what it means for me followed me through the years. I never felt like it was resolved in that 2017 solo exhibition. (I think about Dr Manhattan at the end of the Watchmen graphic novel, saying: “In the end? Nothing ends, Adrian, nothing ever ends.”) Through the past few years, pictures I’ve snapped on the go with my handphone and some paintings I’ve made constantly harked back at this theme. Evening, Once More is a scratch at a nagging itch that won’t go away.
Colours, Sunset Skies and The City
Compared to my previous series of paintings that was a general survey of night scenes, I chose to zero in on a more specific time-frame for this exhibition. It is the specific moment of dusk, when light recedes quickly from the sky. It is that time of the day when we finish our routine jobs, leave the workplace, and make our journeys home while staring at our phones. The relationship between the sky of that time of the day and the everyday happenings of the city fascinate and spur me to make these paintings. Insta-worthy glorious sunsets that many attribute to some divine benevolence are not my primary interest. The rapid changes in colour of an uninteresting lacklustre sky, as a Grab Food rider zips by on his electric bike blasting the latest EDM hits, say a lot more to me.
Thus, they are paintings that are especially about colour and when expressed through recognisable forms of an everyday scene, evoke emotion. I follow the footsteps of colourists like Van Gogh and Monet, but not to capture the glory of nature and pretty flowers. Instead, I am more drawn to nature's subtle relationship with what seems distant from nature: the hyper-urban environment. Therefore, these paintings are also about human beings making sense of our lives in the jungle of concrete, glass, steel, plastic and dust.
While the fascination with these ideas and feelings has been following me for the past 6 years, the works for Evening, Once More were made exclusively in my studio space at the industrial district of Macpherson and Tai Seng, where I have been working at since June 2019. One afternoon, at the common pantry outside my studio, I conversed with the security guard of the building who had come up to my floor for a break. He said he had seen my painting being transported at the car park before, and said he liked it. He asked what kinds of things I painted. I said “local scenes” and told him I have painted many scenes of our surrounding neighbourhood. He scowled, and asserted that there was nothing beautiful to paint in our vicinity.
Being a painter of everyday life, many of the works have been made in response to working in this area. I have found myself taking walks before and after dinner around the area, taking photos of whatever interests me. Like what the security guard had said, it’s not a glamorous area. None of the buildings have that UNESCO-worthy retro charm of neighbourhoods like Chinatown or Katong. As a matter of fact, many of them are hideously designed and renovated, the opposite of what’s deemed “Singapore heritage”.
My mum had also told me that she felt that the area was badly planned: all kinds of buildings and neighbourhoods seemed to be side by side. It’s made up mostly of very old industrial buildings, newer office buildings, worker dormitories, HDB flats, some landed properties, massage parlours, humdrum eateries and grocery shops. There were the white collar workers shrivelled up by 8 hours of air conditioning, the sweaty warehouse packers in jumpsuits, the guys in full body tattoos with their heavily modified sports cars, and everyone else. Everyone gathers at various coffee shops at sunset for teh ais, beers, ma-la xiang-guo and/or roti prata into the night. Like a sponge, I've absorbed these unremarkable and uninspiring sights and they have been translated into paintings of unremarkable and uninspiring people, things and places.
Besides a couple of scenes from outside Singapore, many of these paintings are thus of the ugly Singapore industrial landscape. This is an unintended result of the Covid-19 closure of borders. While it is a pity to be unable to travel overseas, the experience has also made me reflect on what “artist residencies” really mean. It is ironic that we artists are always expected to interact with the immediate surroundings and local community when we are on a residency in a foreign country, but somehow, when we work back at home, we don’t push ourselves to pay equal attention to our own immediate contexts. Besides taking ourselves too seriously, what makes artists any different from a tourist in a foreign country then?
Many people assume I am a staunchly traditional artist, sticking only to the traditional medium of oil on canvas. (People who know me would also know that I rail against the “Nanyang artist” label I often get associated with.) Besides that surface layer to my artistic practice, I consider myself a contemporary artist, because my concerns as an artist, a painter and a human being are of contemporary life. My ideas, my preference for paint on canvas and my personal life in the 21st century share a symbiotic relationship. My works are inherently autobiographical; even if the paintings do not portray me physically, there always are some parts of myself in them. My works are not reminiscent of any bygone eras. They are of places you and I may have just passed by yesterday on the way home, albeit older and unkempt, and that’s just how it happens to be for many parts of life in the city.
This is my most ambitious solo exhibition to date. Besides the number of works, this is also my first time showing small works on paper alongside the oil paintings. While I have always made these small sketches and doodles, these more serious explorations into paper works were a result of both a short residency I did in Kuala Lumpur in 2019, and the Covid-19 lockdown in Singapore, during which I spent many hours a day in my bedroom, messing around with watercolours and other media on paper.
Alongside these paintings, are the LED sign boards: a leap of faith for me to push my own artistic boundaries. These LEDs may not have the handmade and layered quality of paintings, but they are equally heartfelt for me - and you too, I hope - for they are the sign boards I believe all of us would see in our daily life, at elevators, bus stops, coffee shops, etc.. In the exhaustion of my sweaty daily commutes home, I’ve found poetry in their unassuming natures, and hope you find that in them too.
Lastly, Evening, Once More will also have this book: the most comprehensive catalogue I have ever made for an exhibition to date. In the non-virtual, physical realm of things, this physical book will record images of all the artworks, these words of mine, the curators and my close friends, put together beautifully by a wonderful designer. I hope you enjoy this catalogue like a good book.
When I am on the bus or train during evenings and I look at the people sitting or standing opposite me, with either eyes glued onto phones, or gazing into the distance, lost in a daydream or worry, I am acutely confident that what I see and feel is shared with all the other passengers as well, despite all our individual differences as people. These depictions of the evening become a conduit to tell the ignored stories about ordinary people. I share these pictures of life with everyone else, simply because of how ordinary some of my daily experiences are. These are our pictures of the end of yet another lethargic day, that slide through the cracks and are forgotten. Days fade into evenings, and those evenings come to an end, and we get up to try again tomorrow.