Cheap Spirits for Sale

A friend once proposed: You know how people generally lament about how time flies when you’re having fun? Perhaps, an attempt to extend time would be to live with boredom and misery.

Amidst the chaotic heterogeneity of the world around us, we find ourselves particularly drawn to observing the passing of time of others, like how we would observe the salaryman as he goes about his daily grind. The charting of time of the mundane and the sublime through the eyes of a wandering silent observer is a space of solitary contentment for Singapore born painter, Yeo Tze Yang. Born and bred in the island-state, one imagines Yeo fitting comfortably within urban surrounds that denote a perfectly crafted landscape of the future; furnished with efficiently developed automated systems.

A world that is going through rapid digital revolution inadvertently disrupts a layer of society that has yet to pick up the pace of such an environment. For a young artist brought up in an environment that speaks of his generation with hints of mockery (apparently being devoid of fundamental values and qualities); how does Yeo navigate past the auto-oppression and away from a curse that may cause one to be unproductive? He devotes his emotions and psyche towards the act of painting.

Through extended periods of contemplative observations that are followed by the resulting act of painting, Yeo produces tightly framed fragmented silent-scapes of the fringes of Singapore, Malaysia, and Bintan Island. Holding in high esteem hues and visual stylisations of filmmakers Wong Kar-Wai and Christopher Doyle, and realist painter, Edward Hopper, Yeo creates a body of emotionally charged paintings that depict stark rural and urban scenes, punctuated by pensive figures and mundane everyday objects captured in broad daylight. They traverse with ease; slicing past academic dictates of the medium and terminologies of the -isms. Are these his attempts to sedate the enmity he feels towards a landscape that operates on the basis of expediency?

On a parallel landscape within a separate dimension, Malaysian born self-taught photographer George Wong portrays life that is seemingly more assertive and purposeful; calculated for maximised productivity. Pervasive on all foregrounds, leaving little room for distance, stances and postures of suited up salaryman are portrayed in strict orderliness. These demonstrations of hierarchical importance are progressively juxtaposed alongside a series of dramatic performative behaviour captured in their moments of ecstatic release. Presented unapologetically in high contrast, these black and white images depicting individuals in heightened states of mind are works by Wong, who currently lives and works in Singapore. Born one and a half decades earlier than Yeo, Wong’s rendition of a similar landscape appears to be unsympathetic of Yeo’s lamentations at first glance.

Wong’s portfolio reveals highly detailed observations of a voyeur. His body of work shown in this exhibition was weeded out from the labyrinth of his uncategorised photographic portfolio, spanning over eight years of documentation. He captures barely perceptive liminal subjects of his immediate surrounds, resulting in a subliminal visual memoir of his thoughts and journeys through time. Consisting of people, spaces, places, scenes, and scapes in brutal black and white clarity, one would notice a consistent pattern in Wong’s portfolio; that they do not seek to define. Rather, they dwell in a state of in-between that suggests a different kind of mundanity; a longing for time past and lost; a trading of sunrise for sunset. These remnants and fleeting moments are dualities that fall between the crevices of a demanding and distracted society.

Cheap Spirits is a combination of words that may suggest an inexpensively priced hard liquor. In a literal sense, it could also translate as worthless beings or souls lacking in motivation or low in morale; all of which serve as entry points to this joint exhibition by George Wong and Yeo Tze Yang. Derived from the Latin word spiritus which translates to “a breathing (respiration, and of the wind), breath; breath of a god,” and spirare “to breathe,” the term spirit alludes to an intrinsic quality vital to man — an abstract governed by that of which is intangible and immaterial. It may only be substantialised by its reference to a being (physical or non-physical). Such is the variegated premise of this exhibition — displaced objects and subjects sit anxiously as they align on a spatially opposing grid; a sea of calm within its own tension.

Sharing in common the employment of vernacular photography, both Wong and Yeo were able to immediately relate with one another; their personal narratives intrinsically linked though worlds and years apart — and thus, a familiar stranger. While Wong produces articulately intricate documentations of sublimated moments of in-betweens, Yeo further interprets these suspended realities of nondescript surroundings through immaculately crafted paintings. The detachment of these realities from their context results in an observatory for displaced and disembodied narratives of everyday banality. They pivot around representational abstracts of a person’s dispositions and emotions; of ghosts of rural and urban bygones; of the spirits that long to belong. At this juncture, viewers are offered a contemplative space for personal introspection, where they may experience a time extended, within a space abstracted.

While juxtaposing Yeo’s carefully crafted oils alongside Wong’s stark straight photography creates a system of disruption, their silent observations are distilled. Together, these fragments present a silent film to the viewers outside of an idyllic frame with honest clarity, whilst contributing a form of historical documentation of a body and an identity located within a specific time and place; a safe space for solidarity where they are able to reflect upon each other.

In typical nature of abundance, where spirits are omnipresent; existing within multiple realms where they overlap a multidimensional plane within a parallel universe, they may well be considered banal and thus, cheap. Such ironic devaluation is contradictory to something so vital to man. In that spirit, perhaps an attempt to extend time would be by capturing the mundanity of others — of whom and which we are able to project ourselves through these spiritual stills, in hope that light would refract at the end of our tunnels. For it is only when we look out from a place of darkness that we are able to emotionally attune ourselves in our grasp for reality within an increasingly manufactured society. But be warned: that of which we consume — that illusive distilled solution — we know, could in turn consume us.