In 2013, thanks to the only positive effect of the haze caused by Indonesian forest fires, the light in Singapore took on a pinkish hue. Everything looked slightly blushed and powdered. Wandering around the dreamy streets, it suddenly struck me: I’m in Nguan’s world. Nguan: the Singaporean photographer whose works depict the city as a pastel-toned suburbia. In them, the tropical glare is muted and poetry found in crumbling blocks, empty corridors and shuttered shops. Often alone and staring straight at the camera, his human subjects are preoccupied – caught midstep, midbite, midshave. One man is shown kneeling at an empty bus stop, staring at the camera. He’s caught up in some private, unknowable nightmare. Another photo shows a guy lying prostrate in a void deck, with his cheek to the floor. And falling on every picture, the softest possible light.
It’s hard to describe the feeling evoked by this version of Singapore. Sadness isn’t exactly the word. Neither is loneliness. (The title of Nguan’s 2015 exhibition and 2013 book, How Loneliness Goes, seems oddly inadequate, flattening the complexity of his images.) Instead, the photographs strike a balance between sweetness and brutality, longing and psychosis. His pictures present a face of Singapore life that is – hard as it is to articulate – familiar and true. More importantly, it’s a face that, before him, had never been so clearly revealed.
HIs photographs strike a balance between sweetness and brutality, longing and psychosis
With his coolly evocative shots, Nguan is one of the most distinctive chroniclers of life in the Lion City. People know him, but he prefers to remain low-key, and during the past ten years has attained the status of the worst-kept secret of Singapore’s photography scene. Other than self-publishing two books (the other being 2010’s Shibuya) and exhibiting in the occasional group show, he stays under the radar. He’s not represented by any gallery either, and sales of his prints are virtually nonexistent (by choice).
He had his first ‘proper’ solo in January this year, and this also went by without great fanfare. And frankly, it was an odd place for the reclusive artist to break his silence. He was exhibiting under the M1 Fringe Festival, which, while including visual arts, has a primary focus on dance and theatre. The ION Art Gallery venue, while spacious, was located on the decidedly unromantic fourth floor of ION Orchard, one of Singapore’s largest malls, accessible by a perpetually crowded lift.
The photographs on show were drawn from Nguan’s Singapore series (2011–14), which, although included in a republished edition of the sold-out How Loneliness Goes, had been on his personal website for years. To someone new to his work, the exhibition served well as a ‘best of’ introduction. To the seasoned Nguan viewer, it was an encounter with old friends.
Present and correct was that wonderful picture of two schoolgirls walking down the street, one staring at her phone, the other looking on with her mouth downturned in a complicated expression of envy and boredom. Another iconic photo also made its appearance: the side profile of an office lady, standing slightly stooped in the sun, while out-of-focus ixora flowers bloom drowsily in the background.
Besides the consolations of familiarity, there were some new pleasures to be had at the show. Previously, Nguan’s images were often experienced in a linear and uniform fashion, by scrolling down on computer screens or turning the pages in books. In the exhibition, Nguan arranged his prints in the longish, curved gallery at different heights and groupings, creating new conversations between the pictures.
For instance, the back view of a woman dressed in a pink sari facing the sea was placed next to a picture of a staircase, glimpsed through a tiny, clover-shaped opening in a pink wall. There were correspondences: the pink of the sari and the pink of the wall, the crossing diagonals of the coastline and the staircase. But there were also juxtapositions: nature versus architecture, the openness of sky and water contrasted with the tight, limited views of peepholes.
It was a well-hung show, the presentation imbued with the principles that define Nguan’s work: thoughtfulness, subtlety, control. Some people came to see it. And then in less than two weeks, everything got taken down.
Over the past ten years, Nguan has developed a body of work set in several of the cities in which he spends his time. In his earlier days, he captured Los Angeles and Hollywood in City of Dreams (2004–11) and Tokyo’s busy streets in Shibuya (2008–10), and demonstrated an ability to record private moments in urban areas. But Singapore is undoubtedly where his best work is done, with the composition getting sparer, one or two human subjects, and the depth of field getting shallower, giving the scenes an even, anaesthetised look. Yet the most striking characteristic of his Singapore work has to be its low-contrast, desaturated, slightly pinkish palette, adjusted on the computer after the film is scanned. It is a hue I associate with Japan’s springtime light, and as mentioned, the glare-diffusing, druggy effects of air pollution.
Under Nguan-specific brand of dislocation and opiated tenderness, Singapore’s familiar sights, such as blocks of public housing and their brutalist uniformity, are made touchingly vulnerable
I have often wondered about Nguan’s decision to diffuse the equatorial sun. On the one hand, the trendy, filtered look is reminiscent of lifestyle-magazine photography and some of Rinko Kawauchi’s early work, but on the other hand, this watercolour wash is something wholly itself; that is, possessing a Nguan-specific brand of dislocation and opiated tenderness. Under this treatment, Singapore’s familiar sights, such as blocks of public housing and their brutalist uniformity, are made touchingly vulnerable. The cover image for his website features a gigantic rainbow painted onto the facade of a block of flats – a common motif used by the state to prettify public estates, though the effect is to make things look slightly deranged. But against a lilac sky, the block with its broken rainbow, slashed in pieces as it spreads out across the parapets of different floors, never looked as sweet.
In Nguan’s gentle theatre of melancholy, playgrounds, with their coloured slides and swings, are also frequent settings. Even the empty candy-coloured plastic chairs, familiar sights in Singapore’s kopitiams, or coffeeshops, are players too, shown having their own silent conference in one picture. In another shot, tiny fallen leaves collect in a drain hole: a hole that, from the angle of the photo, takes the shape of a pink heart. (By the way, I imagine that this picture would be Nguan’s perfect gift for a lover: dead leaves and a Valentine.)
Of course, rendering everything in the inoffensive colours of girls’ stationery runs the risk of tweeness. One possible criticism is that the quiet moodiness of his images can get pretty one-note after a while. Which isn’t quite fair: Nguan has a consistent style but isn’t samey. More importantly, there is also the worry that he is a kind of fey gentleman artist-flaneur, colour-adjusting scenes of lower-income, suburban experience for Tumblr-friendly consumption.
But Nguan’s anthropological curiosity does not feel exploitative, because it has, to use a profoundly unfashionable term, empathy. The recurring Edward Hopper-esque individual in his work – the solo diner, the late-night convenience-store worker, the solitary swimmer – they are not zoo exhibits to him, but kindred spirits.
His unforced affinity with his subjects goes some way in explaining why his images, even in their anaemic colourations and flat affect, remain so compelling. In a photo, a girl is slumped on a bench near a badminton court, her slippers kicked off, her body as loose and curved as a wet noodle. She fixes the viewer with a wary stare that simultaneously conveys the boredom of empty childhood afternoons and something altogether more existentially mysterious. In another image, three people are sitting in the sea, looking at a low aeroplane passing overhead. The water and sky are almost the same colour: strawberry milkshake and cataract-blue.
Sea, sky, swimmers, a passing plane… What is it that makes the picture generate such a force field of longing, wonder and sadness?
Sea, sky, swimmers, a passing plane… What is it that makes the picture generate such a force field of longing, wonder and sadness? The British novelist Jeanette Winterson once wrote: ‘The poem finds the word that finds the feeling.’ Like all good art, Nguan’s best pieces have that truth-seeking homing instinct too, the subtle ability to excavate and articulate the ineffable.
His work is particularly important in a place that is not always easy to love. Like all tidy metropolises, Singapore doesn’t tend to inspire much devotion. But Nguan has made the place a little less difficult, a little softer. One of my favourite Nguan photos shows a pink bougainvillea growing out of a pot in a common corridor of a highrise. The familiar tangle of leaves had never looked so lovely – the petals papery and delicate, and the barbwire branches twisted but straining towards the sky.
Bougainvillea is ubiquitous here, so common that I have almost stopped seeing it, although this cheap hardy vine is everywhere on the island, blooming on the sides of roads, hanging over bridges and spilling out of pots in homes. Yet looking at this picture of the plant being so vividly alive, I remember blurting to a friend once: forget the orchid, the bougainvillea should be the national flower – although in all honesty I cannot say what exactly of Singapore it embodies. All I can say is that the picture finds a certain feeling, and it feels right.
This article was first published in the Summer 2015 issue of ArtReview Asia.