WHEN SOMETHING IS NOTHING: On Becoming
Updated: Sep 29, 2020
Written for WHEN SOMETHING IS NOTHING, an solo exhibition by CODA CULTURE and ODELIA TANG
"We all have: filled to the brim | With the love of absent things"
— Alfian Sa'at, A History of Amnesia
A few weeks ago, an elderly woman sat next to me at the bus stop, speaking to me in my grandfather’s dialect. She gestured to the schoolchildren across the road, miming their laughter, as she spoke too quickly for the words to register. I smiled and nodded, making what I assumed was a suitably sympathetic expression. I could not understand most of what she said that afternoon, but one phrase does persist in my memory. ‘Jin kor lian,’ she had said. ‘How pitiful.’ I remember those words, even if I do not know their context. My own grandmother had slipped into a familiar tongue and said the same thing once, about children divorced from their parents.
In his 1990 address to the NUS Society forum on Ethnicity and Singaporean Singapore, one of Singapore’s founding fathers, S. Rajaratnam suggested that that “a shared amnesia, a collective forgetfulness” was imperative to the future of Singapore. Stating that “[t]he history before 1819 is that of ancestral ghosts”, he asserted that only the post-1819 narrative was relevant to the shaping of our nation.
Looking at our post-independent history, one would be hard-pressed to say that he was wrong, even if we cannot agree whether he was right. This historical amnesia has greatly formed the young nation’s consciousness. With this tabula rasa, the state was able to engineer its accelerated development in order to survive as an independent state. We are often told that it is necessary to constantly improve ourselves, to set excellence as a benchmark, to upgrade our skills to keep afloat with the changing tides. The perpetual cognitive transformation demanded of us in order to survive translates into a constant state of becoming, of seeking some kind of more- ness.
In the same vein, it is more-ness that the Singapore-based Chinese painters Hong Zhu An and Chua Ek Kay were seeking through their works. Both painters were negotiating the synthesis of Chinese culture, the Western techniques that they studied abroad, and their own philosophies.
The strokes in Chua’s lotus paintings are immensely expressive, while the canvases themselves are greatly minimalistic. He captures the lotus not as a still image, but in flux. The rhythm of Chua’s brushstrokes portray the movement of all the lotus various cycles, none more important than the other. In an interview with Chua, he expressed that in restricting himself with minimalism, there resulted a kind of decisiveness and clarity with every moment he painted. It demanded a greater understanding of the work to be created and of the self creating the work. In the same way, Hong’s paintings exist as a kind of spiritual object. Visually similar to Western colour field paintings, the abyssal paintings are the result of Hong’s journey to “return to the all encompassing primordial state”. This void-ness is reflected in his self-published statement where he describes a detachment to materiality and returning to a simple life in order to reach a higher level of consciousness. Through the means and process of painting, the artists seemed to aspire to a greater spirituality.
While her works do not engage with the cultural heritage and legacy of Chinese art, Tang’s research similarly focuses on ways and conduits to attain something more. She believes that art has the capacity to catalyse post-humanist transformation and lead individuals to come in touch with emotions, sensations, memories etc. With regard to the notion of identity and purpose, she is informed and influenced by both Nietzschean and Buddhist concepts of transformation and transcendence.
Nietzsche proposes that in order to create and become our true self, one must overreach one’s limits to attain the necessary means to overcome trials of life and existence. One suffers through the burdens of human existence, and must reject society’s virtues and values, learning to create values for oneself on one’s own terms because there are no universal virtues. In other words, to become free and live life authentically, the individual must learn to discard the learned values of the world around us, to be immersed in the moment and approach life with wonder and playfulness.
In contrast, Buddhism advocates a journey of spirituality in order to gain a kind of oneness with oneself, this self-awareness functions as a kind of a transcendence, which can exist as the form of finding peace by getting rid of one's vices and materiality etc. Tang’s understanding of Buddhism is centred in cyclical time: the soul or consciousness will be reborn and live over and over again and there is no inherent value in anything. In other words, recognising that the things that define you in this life do not matter in relation to the greater consciousness that exists in cyclical time.
Both concepts of transformation and transcendence suggest that morales, virtues, materiality etc have no intrinsic value. All these must be discarded, rejected, in order to become more. This form of self-negation kills the ego, and the individual becomes a void.
In her previous work, she explored how the individual may transform through suffering; however in her current series, Tang investigates this concept of the void, or abyss - an inevitable space of nothingness that forces the individual to reflect on oneself.
In conversation with the artist, she visualised the nation as a constantly updating motherboard, whose citizens were as data streaming from one building to the next. A Cartesian ideal, if you will, privileging the mind over body in the same way that the Singaporean government prizes the education of its human capital. As a by-product of the accelerated social engineering, her citizens are socialised and taught their heritage through the means of compulsory public schooling and social campaigns. Culture is downloaded and programmed through these channels. The anxiety of speed is in our core-programming: tracing the updating mrt lines and bus routes, we set out to run faster- faster- we shake and pace in an outcry against staying still. If one is unable to keep up, their code will soon become obsolete without the programmes necessary to read it.
In her analogy, Tang paralleled the outliers to the programme set out for us as a kind of corrupted or outdated data, that the system could not understand. Like any bureaucratic system, it is guided by numbers and statistics. Can any human truly be reduced to mere data? In a way, all of us must feel some kind of ostracism in the perpetually upgrading motherboard.
This loneliness, isolation and depersonalisation is evident through Tang’s treatment of her subjects in the Surrogate series. Rather than other people, the figures in her paintings are accompanied by animals, reflecting their disconnect with society. There is a form of cognitive transformation that occurs when one goes against one’s programming. Through her paintings, Tang invites us to question what is left after defying this purpose set out for us. As with the camel in Nietzschean metamorphosis, in questioning themselves and their purpose, the individual becomes self- isolating. In this isolation, one becomes self-reflective.
In the yin and yang pairs of her Surrogate paintings, Tang offers a space to contemplate the viewer’s relationship with their own ego. One step forward, one step back, and you find yourself at a cyclical zero.
Humans are inherently prone to projecting themselves onto objects, a phenomenon seen in the everyday anthropomorphising of plants, animals, objects etc. The human subjects in the Surrogate series remain faceless for this reason, in order to become vessels for the individuals to project themselves into. They become voids for the viewer to contemplate and question what is missing inside themselves. What more can they become? As you look into the void, the void looks into you. “If you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss also gazes into you.” As the viewer injects themselves into the void, the void too becomes a part of the viewer. In other words, the Surrogate series functions as a mirror. If we are trying to replace something, what have we lost? What are the figures in the Surrogate series a surrogate for? Who knows. Does the same mirror not reflect differently for every individual?
A few weeks ago, an elderly woman sat next to me at the bus stop, speaking to me in a dialect I could not understand. I got on the bus when it came, and looked back as it drove away. There were no other buses that stopped along that route, but she sat there, staring blankly at the road. I am unsure who or what she was waiting for, or even simply what she wanted to say to a stranger; but it felt like a kind of dissonance, listening to her chattering into a void, hoping that somewhere, someone could understand her old outdated code as something other than white noise. Even stranger still, to be a part of that void, reflecting something I cannot yet understand.
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