'I like to be lonely - in fact, I love it'

Elusive cult photographer Nguan holds his first selling exhibition.

Helmi Yusof
Published Thu, Feb 23, 2017 · 09:50 PM
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NO full name, no age, no picture of me please, insists Nguan at the interview. Singapore's most famous cult photographer has 63,700 followers on his Instagram account. His works have been published in legendary magazines such as Vice and Relax and shown in several global art institutions.

He was invited last year to temporarily take over The New Yorker's Instagram account, saturating it with dozens of pictures of Singapore. He is possibly the country's biggest unknown ambassador.

But he prefers to remain largely anonymous and rarely sells his works. He says it's simply a matter of practicality - how else could he scour the island incognito and take intimate shots of ordinary folk in their most unguarded moments?

But now a few things are set to change as he opens his first selling exhibition next week at FOST gallery. The exhibition of 23 photographs is called How Loneliness Goes, a forlorn title the reclusive artist likes very much. And he's still unsure if he'll even show up at the opening night party.

Q: What's your relationship with loneliness?

A: I like to be lonely - in fact, I love it. The show How Loneliness Goes is based on a book put out in 2013 when I was going through a terrible time. My father, one of my best friends, was dying. And I felt like I had to do something to express how I felt. The book got a lot of attention, which I didn't expect.

In general, though, I like being alone and its one of the themes of my work. I want to show that beauty and melancholy twirl inseparably around the same tree. When you encounter beauty, you immediately experience melancholy because of the realisation that you are unable to share it completely with another person.

Q: Some people think the only art that endures is the one that carries a sense of pain and loss. Do you agree?

A: I think the most powerful kind of art makes you realise that you share the same pain as everyone else in the world. But I do think there's room for art that's made for distraction and levity. For me, at the most basic level, the art must be beautiful. And then hopefully, other layers can be added. But in order to qualify as art, it has to be beautiful first.

Q: Why do you choose this specific palette of soft, dreamy, pastel colours. Are you trying to wrap cotton candy around the pain?

A: I lived abroad for 15 years, mostly in the US where I had studied and stayed on after my studies. When you're abroad, you become very aware of the way Singapore is perceived from the outside. Our symbols are typically shown as the Merlion or Marina Bay Sands. So I wanted to create my own mythology. I wanted to redefine that perception.

So I made the images to look like an illustrated fairy tale. I homed in on certain objects, such as the bougainvillea, the spiral staircase, the pastel HDB landscape, and the plastic chairs. The tension between the tone and the intent of the image is interesting to me. I deal with themes of isolation, income disparity and even racial tension. But it's all portrayed in, as you say, candy colours.

Q: The images also look tentative, staged and removed from reality. It's street photography that doesn't look like street photography. It exists in a space between the spontaneous and the self-conscious. What exactly do you look for when you take that shot?

A: Photography is a very mature art form. It's older than film. You can't create a lot of new things, The only things you can create are tiny shifts within the genre. Street photography is often done in a lurid, gritty, almost macho style.

I thought it'd be interesting to use the methods of street photography but employ colours that are associated with calm and innocence. I take it as a compliment when people ask if I staged the photos and directed the people in it.

But I didn't. I don't talk to the people I photograph. Most of the time, they are not aware I'm there. I walk around with my camera, observe human interactions, record them and amplify them. It's been a habit and compulsion for 10 years.

Q: For years, you told galleries that you don't want to sell your works. But now you've allowed FOST to hold an exhibition and sell your works for the first time. What's changed?

A: I never made photos for living, I made them to live. But I find that the venues to show your works are limited if you don't want to sell. The contemporary art world is driven by money, and you can't really be part of the discourse if you don't want to sell.

Q: Do you now feel a specific pressure of having to see the works sell?

A: No, I don't really care if they sell or not.

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