Interviews

Photographer Nguan Talks about the Myths and Realities of Singapore

One Singaporean photographer wants to contest the idea of his country — often characterized as a clean, efficient hub of global capitalism — as sterile, spotless, and ultra-modern.

Nguan, image from ‘Singapore’ (all images courtesy the artist)

Some of the most moving photographs are those that make the familiar appear extraordinarily fresh, like you’re opening your eyes to it for the first time. That’s how the work of the photographer Nguan hits me, when I examine his images of our home country of Singapore.

Known only by his enigmatic alias, Nguan has been photographing the Lion City for over a decade, revealing its urban life through his distinct pastel palette. He recently released his second photobook, Singapore, a follow-up to his 2013 title How Loneliness Goes, which meditates on everyday alienation in our densely populated island metropolis. Published by his imprint Maybe Hotel, this second series pieces together a broader profile of Singapore through photographs from 2007 to 2017.

Cover of ‘Singapore’ by Nguan (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

My country has changed a lot in that time — foreigners have boosted its population as starchitects have left their marks on its skyline. Nguan captures what endures despite these developments: bougainvilleas that embellish the balcony of an old public housing flat; the tan, sandal-wearing uncles who smoke in the heat; and the sticky, heavy air, which I can almost feel through his images of humans (and cats) who unabashedly press their bodies to the cool ground.

“I like to say that each of my photographs is the middle of a story, where the befores and afters are left entirely to the viewer,” Nguan told me in a recent conversation we had over email. Like turning points of a story, they have led me in a wonderfully strange direction: to revisit a Singapore I already knew at heart, and find in these scenes a renewed sense of home.

Our exchange on Singapore, shared below, has been edited for length and clarity.

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Claire Voon: There are certain immediacies that often come to mind when people — locals and foreigners — think of Singapore: the food, the greenery, the ultra-cleanliness, the chewing gum ban. What about the Singapore experience were you intending to bring forward? Or, what is “Singaporeanness” to you?

Nguan: If you stood in the middle of the Padang [an expansive, central field] and twirled 360 degrees, every building you’d see is gray or white. It’s this section of the city that features most prominently in conventional narratives of Singapore. When I began working on the series in 2007, my aim was to contest the idea of the country as sterile, spotless, and ultra-modern, even if that impression is not necessarily unfounded.

“You’re a jungle city whose true nature cannot be paved,” I wrote in my notes. I depict a country teeming with ghosts, with literal and metaphorical weeds appearing through cracks in its asphalt.

Nguan, image from ‘Singapore’

CV: How did your relationship with Singapore change over time, especially after having moved to different cities and photographed them, and many others?

N: I was away for 15 years, and being outside for so long probably helped me to recognize what is indelible about our country when I returned. One of my goals was to emphasize the sheer beauty of our heartland, and to do it in an unironic way. Other works that highlight the Singaporean vernacular sometimes do so with an exaggerated wink, which smacks of insecurity to me.

The book is arranged according to a sort of dream logic, where one shade of fuchsia might recall another from a different situation. I was interested in examining whether layers of meaning and emotion could emerge as a result of the proximity of one image to another. How Loneliness Goes was meant as a preface to Singapore; to borrow possibly outdated record industry parlance, I think of How Loneliness Goes as the lead single, while Singapore is the LP.

CV: Singapore is often considered a global city, and as a small one, that has often involved us shaping ourselves for a global audience. The city is home to so many expatriates, yet the people you focus on are Chinese, Malay, and Indian — no ang mos make the frame. Your perspective is clearly that of a local. Who is this series for?

N: My wish is to present a Singapore that is riveting and exotic to both locals and the wider world. At the same time, I think the specific hum of our daily lives is discernible in the pictures, and there are nuances in the book that only someone who has lived in Singapore would fully appreciate.

Nguan, image from ‘Singapore’

CV: I recently read Left-Right, edited by Geraldine Kang and Kenneth Tay, and was struck by their frank characterization of Singapore as a “peculiar image factory.” Would you agree that the art scene is part of such a monolithic system of visual production? Where do you fit in, and what are you rebelling against?

N: I’m not sure if Singaporeans are particularly prolific when it comes to producing visual-based work, but I’d certainly agree that there is something that feels manufactured and inorganic about our art scene. I have no idea where I fit in — I’ve just been doing my own thing.

CV: I’d argue that you’re one of the most well-known photographers and most followed photographers from Singapore. Has knowing that countless people who have never been to Singapore, yet understand it through your very particular perspective, affected your practice?

N: Iconic cities such as Tokyo and Paris live in our imaginations because of our repeated encounters with them in movies, books and TV shows; I was in a relationship with New York long before I’d even set foot in the city.

As you imply, Singapore is familiar to a relative few and rarely portrayed in popular culture, which presents a challenge for our artists and writers. How do we define the country, and how can we amplify and mythologize our experience of it? Is it possible for the city to be compelling to those who have no associations with it?

I can’t say that I feel any pressure to be ambassadorial — my job is to break your heart.

Nguan, image from ‘Singapore’
Nguan, image from ‘Singapore’
Nguan, image from ‘Singapore’
Nguan, image from ‘Singapore’
Nguan, image from ‘Singapore’
Nguan, image from ‘Singapore’
Nguan, image from ‘Singapore’
Nguan, image from ‘Singapore’
Nguan, image from ‘Singapore’

Singapore is available through Maybe Hotel.

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