ISTANBUL — When Singapore-born artist Sim Chi Yin came across an old black-and-white photograph of a man with a camera hanging around his neck, the discovery prompted a nearly decade-long quest. The story she tells through her photographic, video, and archival work is one that has been as omitted from official narratives as that man, her grandfather — a leftist newspaper editor and activist imprisoned, deported, and eventually executed for his political beliefs — had been erased from Sim’s own family history.

“Art provides space to look into these silences and these gaps,” Sim said at an artist talk during the opening events for the 17th Istanbul Biennial, which takes archiving as one of its recurring subjects. The biennial highlights her ongoing artistic research into her grandfather’s story and the larger anti-colonial struggle waged in British Malaya (today’s Malaysia and Singapore) during the mid-20th century. This meticulously crafted and quietly powerful work probes the ways in which the past reads differently depending on how and by whom history is written.

Installation view of Sim Chi Yin, ‘One Day We’ll Understand’: Interventions, Remnants, Requiem at the Pera Museum, Istanbul

The biennial presentation of Sim’s multi-part project, ‘One Day Well Understand’, opens with a strip of paper printed with mostly fragmentary and unattributed texts, laid out on a long table at Istanbul’s Pera Museum. The viewer is left to sort out which texts might belong to news reports from the conflict, accounts of the fighting by British soldiers, or the oral histories Sim has collected from her grandfather’s leftist contemporaries.

This multiplicity of viewpoints sets the stage and tone for the project’s Interventions (2018–21) series, 12 foil prints on glass plates hung along one wall of the museum, picturing soldiers parachuting into the jungle, a burning house, or captured insurgents with their weapons piled at their feet. The images were sourced from the collection of the Imperial War Museum in London and originally used as British wartime propaganda. By presenting them in a semi-transparent way that allows the viewer to see through the images to the labeling notes on their reverse side, Sim prompts consideration of dualities and shows how constructed such images really are.

Installation view of Sim Chi Yin, ‘One Day We’ll Understand’: Interventions, Remnants, Requiem at the Pera Museum, Istanbul

A former journalist, Sim came to question the primacy of archival sources after realizing the deliberate decisions behind what gets included or excluded. Challenging official accounts and creating alternative bodies of knowledge is a current that runs through many of the projects featured in the Istanbul Biennial, which has a stated working methodology (there is no designated theme) of “compost.” Other process-based works reflecting the idea of “anarchiving” include initiatives to write feminist movements back into the political histories of Nepal and Turkey; a crowd-sourced library of books related to war; and an itinerant video archive of resistance movements around the globe. 

Sim’s ‘One Day Well Understand’ also connects with the artist’s other work, which has often sought to illuminate ignored or forgotten lives. Her portraits of Chinese migrant workers crammed into tiny Beijing basement homes — a project called The Rat Tribe — were featured in the 15th Istanbul Biennial in 2017.

The Remnants (2016–17) series of ‘One Day Well Understand’ is represented in this year’s biennial by four enigmatic large-format photographic prints. Darkened landscapes, a blurry elephant bursting out of a thicket, and the tip of a tower poking out above treetops together evoke the dense jungle where, as one of the texts Sim collected notes, “every other banana leaf may hide one of the enemy.”

Installation view of Sim Chi Yin, ‘One Day We’ll Understand’: Interventions, Remnants, Requiem at the Pera Museum, Istanbul

A final piece, Requiem (Internationale & Goodbye Malaya) (2016–18), is a two-channel video installation for which Sim filmed elderly exiled leftists singing these two old revolutionary songs. Some seem to struggle to remember the words before finding their voice and raising it confidently, but then lowering their heads and looking a little lost once the song is over, as Sim’s camera lingers.

“Song transports us into different head and heart space,” Sim said in her artist talk, explaining that she seeks to give viewers different entry points — a beautiful landscape, a moving melody — into her work and the little-known story she is trying to tell.

“People read different things into the images, they find different resonances in their own histories, their own lives,” she added. “When political space is limited or constricted, art can be the only place through which these memories and histories can be transmitted, the only place to have — or at least open — these conversations.”

Installation view of Sim Chi Yin, ‘One Day We’ll Understand’: Interventions, Remnants, Requiem at the Pera Museum, Istanbul

‘One Day We’ll Understand’: Interventions, Remnants, Requiem continues at the Pera Museum (Meşrutiyet Caddesi No:65, Beyoğlu, Istanbul, Turkey) through November 20 as part of the 17th Istanbul Biennial. The biennial was curated by Ute Meta Bauer, Amar Kanwar and David Teh.

Jennifer Hattam is a freelance journalist based in Istanbul, where she writes about arts and culture, environmental issues, food and drink, politics and society, travel, and urbanism.