1. Friendships and Family
WENG-CHOY: Friendship has been a major theme in my work for a long time. Years ago, in an essay on art criticism and biennales, I addressed the accusation that I only wrote about my friends. While not entirely true, over the years I have regularly returned to discuss a few artist-friends, and less often have I written about artists new to me. Unlike some others, who can almost promiscuously move from one artist to the next, my kind of critic is like a polygamist, “wedded” to each subject they write about. There’s something about the intimacy of writing about someone you’ve been speaking with and listening to for many years.
Indeed, we are having this conversation less because we may share artistic or intellectual interests than because we have a very good friend in common, and I’ve known your sister for a long time.
I remember once when a friend set up a meeting between me and a young artist. Afterwards, I felt it was like a waste of an introduction. It was just a professional courtesy; it didn’t offer the prospect of new friendship. You don’t have to already be my friend to interest me in writing about your work; rather, for me, wanting to write about your work and wanting to become your friend are very often the same thing. I am motivated less in finding something “interesting”, professionally and intellectually, than in wanting to care about you and your work intimately.
WEI LENG: Many of my projects and work have been of relationships, and build because of relationships—my own and those of the people around me. Like what you have said about not necessarily being moved by an intellectual point alone, I have often functioned thinking about the community and people around me—how their relationships affected the choices they made, the places they moved to, how they lived their lives. Many of my projects have also begun with my family because I have, for most of my adult life, lived away from my family, in different places. This has over the years also made me ask myself how a familial relationship is different from one with a friend, and the intimacy that can happen between family, friends, and also with people one meets in passing. In this way, I have been driven over the years to think very deeply about how one can understand the person one is next to, and the person one is related to. How can one understand one’s family member, one’s friend? How does being related even influence how one can think about a place, what one can value? This has made me very aware of, and I’ve worked a long time through, identity politics, and I’ve questioned the value of group identity politics, especially in relation to the politics of an individual.
I have not had much interest in taking abstract, large topics, and creating an “art project” based on those topics. I have instead been interested in how some of these issues could be considered through one’s everyday, how they manifest and affect one’s family, or friends, or livelihood. In this way, I skirt the grandiose tropes, and perhaps seek to articulate life through its closeness, which, admittedly, is sometimes harder for me to approach.
2. Memory and Method; Meaning and Material
WENG-CHOY: I’d like to move from our discussion of relationships to the motivations and source materials for this particular body of work. Let’s talk about two frames, as it were, the micro-history and the photograph. One could argue that a photograph is very much like a micro-history: the cliché that a picture is worth a thousand words translates to the truism that every picture tells a story. And a micro-history, even if unwritten and only shared amongst family members, quite often functions to offer a few specific, stand-out images from a life. So, tell me, tell us about some of the source materials, and how they provoked you—is that the right word?—to make this work. What is it that these materials say to you, and what is it that your work says back to them?
WEI LENG: The source material of these works comes from a bag of slides that I found in my mother’s kitchen in 2019 when she was moving. The slides comprise images she and my father had made between the late ‘60s to ‘70s in Australia, Malaysia and Singapore, from when they were students, then returned to Malaysia, and then when my mother moved to Singapore. Bringing this back to what we had talked about earlier regarding family and what one can really know, you can say that these slides provoked me in that way. They provoked me because they depict a history that is foreign to me. They depict people I know, but in places and relationships and circumstances that I cannot quite relate to, that I am not a part of. The slides depict lives that I can only imagine, that I wonder might have been different, if I didn’t come along. In this sense, this family history that I hold in my hands, this family history from which I come, is simultaneously mine and not mine.
I started working on this material trying to get closer to them, trying to think about how this accumulation of moments in time, of events, of place, can be understood. The works that are in this segment of the constellation arrived by way of several other steps, and so several other segments. When I first found the slides, I pored through them, and documented them with a regular mirrorless camera. I organised, reorganised, grouped them in relation to the way they had degraded based on the chemical processes they had undergone. To get even closer, I started working with an electronic microscope. I focused on the sedimentation of history upon these images, and the new images that were created as a result. I thought of how they could be looked at—on a wall in a gallery, or zoomable in a screen, on a website like a world map or Google map.
WENG-CHOY: This is the beauty of analogue photography, in contrast to the digital: the indexical relationship of film to light, and how film is subject to chemistry over time.
WEI LENG: Yes it is. And in this current iteration of working with the material, I step away from the sedimentation and compression of history—an environmental history, a migratory history, and a familial history. Instead, I move towards how technology influences the outcome. The technology of recording, in terms of the capture, rendering, and also the chemical technology of the analogue transparency process. These traces become analogous to keys to the systems that shape us, hold us, and bind us. They create means of looking that remind one that images, and documents, are subject to modes through which they are made.
How do the transformations here then speak back to that micro-history? In many of the works, the original image in the photograph is sometimes obscured. The image surface is smooth. The colour shift induced by time and climate also creates a surface opacity that one can glide across effortlessly. The people and places depicted are trapped in a time and place long past and unrecoverable. What then are these photo-objects? A white cardboard slide mount starts to appear like a chalkboard. An idyllic horizon burns like it is lit by fire behind a grid. My mother’s handwriting is magnified until all one sees is what it is constituted of. A seaside bench rests in a pockmarked reality.
3. The Distances Between
WENG-CHOY: I’d like to ask you what you think about the experiences of audiences. And maybe this is a question to ask when you are no longer in the midst of your artistic process, but you have already mounted the exhibition and have a moment to take a step back, and have some distance from the process of making, and can pivot to reflecting upon what it might all mean.
And I’m also asking not so much about the audience looking at these transformed photos-objects of yours, but rather the experiences of them being in the same space with your artworks. I think this is a distinction worth exploring. That at stake with this body of work isn’t just looking, but the feeling of sharing time and space with these objects that are saturated with personal history and memory.
WEI LENG: That’s a hard question Weng, but such an important one. I often ask myself what the stakes are, with what I make. How much of oneself can one put out there? What is it worth? These works are of personal photographs and memories, but at the same time they speak to many parallel lives and histories. The photographs that are used as initial references for the works are by my parents, and in this way unique to my family. But at the same time, my family was not unique in how they had to navigate Malaysia and Singapore—how they had to look for options for education, for work, the decisions they made to move for a better life and opportunity. Like many of that generation, they had to manoeuvre the formation of these new nations as they themselves were coming of age. In that sense, when you talk about what being in this space means, the way history builds in the gallery space with the works is something that is important. But having said that, this cross-border experience and existence continues for many today. The past that the work speaks of is undoubtedly present and embodied.
Formally, with the work, I ask myself how I can ask audiences to cross that threshold from simply looking, and move into the space of seeing. And as they see, can they share the emotion, wonder or banality I felt when making this new work, or to go one step further, to what my parents might have seen or experienced. Can that temporal dimension be crossed? Of course, this can easily become a nostalgic trap, but this sense of nostalgia could also be like a form of momentum that makes one constantly reflect. How then, through the use of images that are more figurative, or more abstract, can the works play with and off each other, and help this past to be considered, or, rather, reconsidered?
WENG-CHOY: I suppose one way of framing my last question is that it’s about the distance between the artist’s feeling and the audience’s experience. This distance is important in art, because it’s often the space that allows art to do what it does. Making and displaying art is not like making an argument. In contrast to political persuasion, where you want to close the distances and come to an agreement or alignment. For example, in US politics today, in the fight to protect a woman’s right to choose an abortion, there may be a range of different perspectives and opinions on the complex issue, but after all the discussion and argument, action requires a decisiveness, and not ambiguity.
Another way to put it is that I don’t think the point of showing your work is for audiences to somehow get all the personal history references. And yet, somehow, still, the point is that the audience will experience these photo-objects as intimate things with their own rich micro-histories. It’s as if your aim is not to tell a specific story of your parents’ lives—a story that does not quite include you—but to convey that feeling of something that is intimate to you, and also distant from you. And to convey the tensions between intimacy and distance. And that somehow when the audience experiences the work, this feeling gets reproduced in them too.
WEI LENG: Yes, Weng. I would say that the personal historical information and its representation are not the main point. The narrative I consider here is not a storied one. Instead, it is one that wonders about the idea of that intimacy, or that tension between intimacy and distance, as you put it. When what we can hold on to are these split-second moments, when these fragments can show us these lives lived, and simultaneously remind us of everything that we cannot know, how can they then be pieced together? Can colour, abstraction, and technological artefacts open up what they can mean? For example, the abstraction in the works create a space for remembering a past—flickers of a past that pulls at nostalgia, indicative not of particular events, but instead moments that build toward the present. Similarly, the colours, like the technological artefacts, speak to particular systems of creation and their inhabiting particular geographies and climates over the years. These combine to bring us into a present that is heavily laden with that history and life, and yet subject to its rearticulation, and transformation.
As I write here, it feels as though we have gone full circle. And we have, in a way, come back to your thoughts at the start of this conversation on artists and their work and what is important to you. How does one not make work that an audience just looks at and is interested in only intellectually or topically? How does one make work that speaks to so much more, that one hopes the audience can care for intimately?
LEE WENG-CHOY is an art critic now based in Kuala Lumpur. For over twenty years, he worked and lived in Singapore. He is working on a series of conversations called Friends with Disagreements—forthcoming with Stolon Press—and very slowly working on a collection of his essays on artists, The Address of Art and the Scale of Other Places.
The micro-history and the photograph: Lee Weng-Choy in conversation with Wei Leng Tay