Onward to PLACE

My JC art class will be doing an exhibition with the theme ‘PLACE’ in less than two months – sort of a revival of our coursework memories and an attempt to see how we can pursue art after graduating from school, seeing as not all of us are/will be in art school. It will be held at Yen Lin’s studio space, which is a shophouse along Marshall Road in Katong. Here’s an excerpt from the theme outline, which was included in our proposals for grants:

Artists may consider the physical and formalistic aspects of the site of our exhibition (Marshall Road in Katong), tackle the challenges presented when working within the set conditions of a specific space, or explore the definitions of a place and the memories and feelings that would constitute its existence… Moreover, finding a sense of place and belonging is an issue that many of us are encountering in this period of our lives. We are all turning twenty-one and on the threshold of adulthood, unsure of what direction we are to take. For those of us studying abroad, ʻHomeʼ has become an increasingly elusive concept while we divide our lives across continents, as is the act of art making in a comfortable place with a group of like-minded peers. As we finish our terms in National Service or our first or second years in university, our youth seems almost like a dream. It drifts in and out of our consciousness, and we are confronted with the reality of the widening distance between self and the illusion of the past. It seems that this is the best time to struggle with the overlapping places and spaces in our lives.

Other than being the curator of this exhibition, I will also be contributing an artwork. I am doing this post now in order to clear my head about what I will be embarking on.

When I first started thinking about this artwork, I had a personal aim in mind. I wanted to push myself further in the direction of artworks that had a mechanical and obsessive feel to them, such as my self-portrait (below), but at the same time introduce something more emotional to my works. The latter point is something that has disturbed me for a very long time – I didn’t know how to introduce the very confessional elements that I had put into my creative writing, the intensity of my feelings, into an artwork.

As I was completing this portrait, I was struck by how strangely masochistic the experience was. It was not something I had never pursued with my artwork prior to this. I realised then that a painstaking act can be inherently emotional, that a destructive act can somehow generate a creative force, just as I had created poetry as an extension of a heartbreak. The dichotomy between creation and destruction could be enhanced by piercing holes in a paper rather than making tiny marks, therefore simultaneously destroying the paper and creating the image. Furthermore, I thought about how this detailed process can be brought deeper into a state of tension by using fragile materials such as tracing paper or rice paper.

This continues to form the baseline of my work. Looking back, it is everything that built up from this that made things a lot more convoluted.

For example, at the time, I was struggling with the idea of guilt, particularly guilt by way of having destroyed something. I wanted – I possibly still want – to create a work that could replicate this feeling of guilt in the viewer. I wanted to create a work that would therefore make the viewer hesitant, afraid of potentially destroying something, of having to tiptoe around the space so that things don’t fall apart. This is something I may still want to pursue, but is now going to be secondary to the main idea. I think I always knew that it was too big to share the limelight with another huge concept.

I left all of this in the back of my head until I encountered the ideas and images of utopia during art history class, as described in my last post. I thought it was the perfect imagery to talk about creation and destruction, and to juxtapose with images of decaying urban surfaces (e.g. peeling paint). Utopias are human dreams of creation that, in their impossibility, can only be left to decay, while the decaying surfaces are an outcome of a physical act of creation. It also merged well with my own attraction to urban structures.

Again, I have had to eventually confront the problem of the entire work becoming far too loaded, to the point that it was becoming weighed down by its own complexity. A talk with my JC art teacher, Mr Chia, further revealed to me that this complexity might be the wrong kind of complexity. I would be taking on all the baggage of, in this case, Futurist architecture, when the image – nor the technique – had not developed to a point that would be interesting. That is, the layers of my concept were unnecessary and could not support the lack of layers in my imagery.

This ties into yet another problem, which I had addressed in my paper on this project. How should I develop my work in terms of the installation? In this respect, the whole idea of guilt – the obsession with creating an emotion in the viewer – was bogging down the organic growth of my basic process/concept. I got caught up in trying to push the fragility/precariousness of the installation. I think that I have to learn to trust in the inherent emotional impact of the process and explore that fully, rather than creating a step-by-step formula to achieving certain objectives, which sends my work down the path of derivative-ness that I so desperately hate in art and want to avoid in my work.

So, my next steps now are:

1. Go big. Find larger sheets of tracing paper and experiment further with the technique of piercing holes.
2. Abandon utopian imagery (for now). Perhaps work with something more abstract, such as this composite image diptych that I created some months ago for one of my classes:

3.  Layer images. Transfer print images onto tracing paper; photograph through the holes and then transfer print that back onto another sheet of tracing paper, etc.
4. Work with the space I’m given (i.e. working with PLACE). What if I used these windows in Yen’s studio? How would I deal with the grilles?

I am still at the point in art making where I feel utterly lost. It’s hard when you felt like you arrived at the solution a few months ago and now you have to backtrack again. I forgot about all this – I guess it was right of us to call this a re-experiencing of coursework. I don’t know if I have the discipline to do this project, or the time to complete it, or the maturity to deal with abstract images and anything more complex than piercing the same-sized hole over and over again. I don’t know if I will be happy with what I create. Art will always be a struggle – it never lets you forget that.



  1. Jon

    Hi Berny,

    reading your post really makes me feel like i’m not doing ANYTHING in mine… hahaha. I think in your puzzlement and confusion, you have reached a whole new plane that you are unaware of. You quite summarized your own question in an answer of a sentence “Art will always be a struggle – it never lets you forget that”.

    I think that line in itself is the answer. So where is your “PLACE” as an artist? where and how do you position yourself/your work/your concept as complete or finally “reaching”? Perhaps it is this constant struggle in a state of flux and and search for a constant / some sort of stability that does not actually exist. Perhaps when artists finally reach a certain “style” it is just some facade that they have found, but are truly constantly still searching within themselves – otherwise why would they always be making art if they were finally content with whatever they’ve produced? So maybe we don’t really need to be that concerned about feeling out of place with our art… or perhaps, i’m sure we all know, that it is just this terrible natural progression all artists have to go through.


    on a second note. i reaalllly loveee the diptych you did!! but that’s just me right? you know i love abstract stuff like this that look like just swashes of colour etc.

    ok i dont know if iv been constructive, but great insight. haha very motivational.

    hai need to start on mine ohmygosh. cheers!


    • Berny

      Hi Jon, thanks for the longggg reply! I think what you said in your second paragraph is something very important that I should touch on as a curator for any essay/speech I’ll have to do… I think I just really need to start work, which I haven’t been really doing. I hope I won’t be too exhausted by my job. I think I should bring stuff to work to do if no one is giving me anything at the moment haha.

  2. pok

    lol i can’t wait to see the exhibition and your finished product! and of cos the hear your curator’s speech

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