Bite/ Hold/ Release: The Bogeyman’s Hand is a multidisciplinary exhibition featuring the works of Quinn Lum, Adar Ng, and Lin Shiau Yu. The exhibition was held from 1 – 19 August 2019 at Supernormal gallery, collaborating with Brack as a programme partner. This article by Brack’s contributing writer, Jill J. Tan is the first of two pieces about the exhibition and the artist’s process.
The works circulate relation to maternal presence by considering domesticity, domicile, discipline, and documentation. By turns conjuring of the spectre the mother’s absence and presence, the artists collectively and individually confront trauma, malignancy, loss, and misalignment in each of their final works displayed on-site, as well as process work for the show curated on digital platforms for the audience’s viewing at their own time on Instagram and YouTube, in search of resolution and regeneration.
Lum, Ng, and Lin bear a collective anxiety that by making work which critically reflects upon, but is also critical of, their relationships with their mothers, they could be biting the hand that feeds them. They are mindful that this perception may be held by their families, but also by a wider audience who might hold judgment that they are “milking their own situations”. Admitting that an undercurrent of guilt runs through their undertaking of this show, Lin puts forth the choice to harness guilt to keep work in check, guarding against self-indulgence and upholding its necessity to be made and to exist.
Rather than skirt around familial discomfort and allowing it to blunt the potency of their address, the artists chose to involve their families in their extensive preparatory work which is reflected in process video portion of the show. Pressed up against the very edge of discomfort originating with the inception of this show, the artists and their audience are able to see more clearly the contours of every ridge and crater in these complex mother-child relationships.
While the final works circulate the maternal relation through the artist’s individual aesthetic practices and affective predispositions, in which the balance between revealing and reveiling, cauterizing and letting bleed, varies between works, these process interviews are crucially and collectively interrogative of the mothers in a more direct sense. In a set-up meant to be operative as much as performative, Ng and Lin interviewed Lum’s mother, Ng and Lum interviewed Lin’s. Ng, whose mother passed away from cancer when she was 7, took the lead as the on-camera presence in these interviews asking questions to the mothers, articulating to them her interest in learning “how a mother would be, their thoughts, their wishes, their expectations–because [she] never really had a mother [beyond childhood]”. This being just one of Ng’s motivations for embarking on this work, Lum and Lin had their own as well. The artists’ intentions came together in a distinctive collective practice marked by an unusually heightened porousness between the creative project and the familial relationships it addressed; and between the artists, whose collaboration stretched beyond the bounds of putting on an exhibition together to radically intimate acts of intervening, buffering, surrogating, and holding.
In the early stages of the show’s conception, Lum suggested that in place of Ng seeking closure on memories (or sometimes lack thereof) of her mother, she might instead create work for the exhibition which constituted making new memories involving her mother’s presence in a different way, a hitherto unencountered notion for Ng by which she was quite compelled. Meanwhile, Lum expressed feeling stalled in his relationship with his mother. For three years, Lum has devoted his art practice, which draws on psychotherapeutic models of thought, to processing and moving past traumatic childhood experiences from punitive disciplinary measures meted out by his mother. In Lum’s earnest creative and personal engagement with his mother, he does not seek to place blame but yearns for acknowledgment of his mother’s hand in creating the scars and striations that he is still marked with as an adult. With Lum’s mother’s refusal to admit culpability and provide any measure of closure in the face of his efforts, Ng then floated the idea of herself and Lin stepping in to speak to Lum’s mother on his behalf. She reasoned that if Lum could provide insight into what she and her project had needed to move forward, maybe she and Lin would likewise be able to intervene in order to help Lum’s mother see things from another perspective.
Bridging Lum’s communicative and resolution-seeking intentions, and Ng’s interest in gleaning more about motherly perspectives in the absence of her own, the framing for these process interviews was thus set, and extended to Lin’s mother as well. For Lin and her mother, whose relationship has undergone periods of estrangement due to years of physical separation where her mother resided in Taiwan while Lin and her siblings were in Singapore, communication has been a challenge. Lin had volunteered as a Chinese-language docent at an art museum in an effort to gain fluency in the language she had in common with her mother so as to share more easily about her creative practice, but even then found difficulties in being able to speak with her mother about issues she worked with such as third-culture identitarian politics that were also bound up in feelings of abandonment. It was thus the artists’ hope that Ng and Lum’s interview with Lin’s mother would open up some channels of communication on these matters. The notion of intervention into each others’ familial situations, under the auspices of a joint creative endeavour yet ostensibly superseding it, is expressed matter-of-factly as a practical solution by the artists, belying the casually revolutionary praxis of vulnerability in charting a collaboration of this nature, as well as the foundational existing relationships that must exist to even begin undertaking this component of their project.
Lum, Ng and Lin’s rescripting of kinship, particularly when highlighted through the subject of fraught mother-child relationships, is thus striking. By bringing each other into the inner workings of their variously fraught family dynamics, this project required the artists to build upon their foundation of friendship to create room for intercession into the familial sphere, as well as forging understandings of each other in the process of making deeply personal and in-flux work, which supplemented and sometimes supplanted that provided by their biological families. The space created by the artists in which these works were created also formed a grounding from which their sharing of intimate work and processes would be opened up to a wider audience, as attendees of the on-site show, artist talks, mask-making workshops, and even viewers of their digital archive of process work at home, might not only be brought into the truths evoked in these works but respond with their own vulnerability in kind. Here, there occurs a twist of the psychoanalyst D. W. Winnicott’s concept of the “holding environment”, wherein the mother creates a safe space for the child which allows the child to then look out and finally venture into the world which holds more than the mother’s care. In tackling the absence of maternal nurturing in their work through collaborative means, Lum, Ng, and Lin have created a space in which tackling emotional and relational challenges may be scaffolded as creative processes, and may be undertaken initially with collaborative support rather than on their own. Winnicott writes of the holding environment: “It is in the space between inner and outer world, which is also the space between people–the transitional space–that intimate relationships and creativity occur.” (Winnicott, 1953). In reconstituting a holding environment on their own terms and collectively working through knots and clots, at turns soothing and confronting, the artists have found new wherewithal to confront their relationships with their mothers, as well as to open themselves up to unfamiliar creative approaches and eventual public expression of these fragile and fraught truths to their audience.
Lum, Ng, and Lin all agreed that in making these works, they sought a certain degree of resolution towards their relationships with their mothers, but Lin also pointed out that these motivations were fueled by their personal wishes and what the works channelled, rather than being occasioned or impressed upon by their coming together for the exhibition. As to the possibility of new questions and wounds surfacing in lieu of healing or closure, however, all three in fact expressed a willingness to embrace whatever arises: for Lum, their very emergence signals progress, while for Lin, they are simply the necessary fruit of what would be a true resolution. In Ng’s case, she was seeking resolution of her memories of her mother, but also seeking to move past her own past unwillingness to address mother’s death directly in her work. It was through the group’s collectively-developed approach for this exhibition that Ng learned to work with personal subjects and archives in a way true to her craft, and not to disavow them. Ng now feels she is aware of why her mother and her death has a place in Ng’s memory, and has been able to engage with how this nostalgia is challenged through her final work. “I could engage in this nostalgia on a personal level and still approach nostalgia with criticality,” Ng said. As it turns out, Ng was not only working with an external notion that work which dealt with and dwelt on her mother’s death could be self-indulgent, but perhaps her own self-perception of what such work would entail, and was able to confront it by filtering the subject through her own preexisting aesthetic concerns.
Lum hopes that the show will encourage audiences to confront what haunts them, and to seek out resolution for their innermost questions. “This sense of empowerment is one that many people don’t have in Singapore,” Lum said, and expressed wanting “to urge and poke them. But also bearing in mind they should do it safely.” While not explicitly articulated as an act of refusal to give in to the audience’s curiosity and desire for mining the personal, Lum’s turning reflection back upon the audience is reminiscent of the stance of scholar of comparative literature and postcolonial theory Gayatri Spivak, who insists upon turning vulnerability upon the reader themself rather than directing it as expected towards a revealing of the subject. The vulnerable act of opening up pivots away from an exposé of the subjects of the work, and onto what the audience might not expect to see in themselves. The provocation and promissory is then one of unexpected connections, and the detection of aches and tingles signal areas hidden away or neglected which require attention, opening up new possibilities of awareness, work, and growth, in both self-knowledge and mutuality.
Intimacy, Stability, and Risk
Returning to Lin’s point about the necessity of the work’s existence, this too applies to the endeavour of coming together to show collectively. As such, a great amount of discussion was necessary in order to determine shared and complementary stakes of the artists before they embarked on the collaboration. These interwoven connections are evident in many places across the project, such as Ng’s curiosity of mothers’ expectations befitting Lum’s unresolved questions over what his mother expected of him as a child; and Ng and Lin’s impulse in common to gather and document motherhood to address the absences of their mothers in their own lives, namely Ng’s role in the process interviews and Lin in her video collage process work with mothers of young children.
Even then, the joint endeavour is not without asymmetries: Lin’s past work has tended to fall more into the category of documentation rather than intervention; and the depth of their collective exploration, sharing, and discussion was also new to Ng, who had previously worked more retrospectively and from a singular point of view than the degree to which others now had to be let into her process. Through the course of making work for this show, Lin and Ng’s practices were challenged, both by the parameters defined by the nature of the subject matter and the artists’ collective approach to it, and by shifting familial dynamics that occurred during the course of preparation for this show which ultimately shaped the outcome of their works. For Lum, who has made work addressing his upbringing by his mother before this show, there was also the possibility that even the intervention by his friends and fellow artists might not result in the answers or understanding he yearned for from his mother, which then had bearing on his final work for the show.
Critical theorist Lauren Berlant writes: “intimacy builds worlds; it creates spaces and usurps places meant for other kinds of relation. Its potential failure to stabilize closeness always haunts its persistent activity, making the very attachments deemed to buttress “a life” seem in a state of constant if latent vulnerability.” (Berlant, 2000). The surrogate kinship cultivated and practiced by the artists is precisely the sort of intimacy which forms a productive patchwork over lacking familial relation, a relation that seeks and is thought to stabilise closeness. Yet as Berlant points out, intimacy is always haunted by its potential failure to stabilise closeness, and it is this risk that the artists take, both in their collective relation and individual acts of making, that requires further dwelling on.
In Lum’s “Reopening Wounds”, a portion of the installation consists of a performance captured on video which references Carl Jung’s notion of the shadow self as the site of repressed consciousness, Lum created a suit and mask from rattan canes and saori woven fabric, with the canes representing one of his mother’s most commonly used punitive techniques in his upbringing. Lum’s process draws on the psychotherapeutic techniques of shadow work and psychodrama, a form of psychotherapy that was originated by Jacob L. Moreno, in which patients engage with events from their past through engaging through theatrical enactment. As Lum has experienced physical repercussions from creating psychologically penetrative work about his relationship in the past, he sought out the support and supervision of a drama therapist who aided in his preparation and debrief, and was present during his performance to intervene onsite in the event of escalation or loss of control. The risk of endangerment to Lum himself and his audience was the key reason the performance is recorded on video rather than performed live. As much as the technique of psychodrama could provide insight and healing for Lum, the potential for catharsis, this diving into the unconscious also brings with it the risk of psychic and physical wounding given Lum’s choice of materials and subject. Lum’s work is thus designed to safely hold an unwinding, all the while treading the line of productive breakthrough and potential breakage.
During the first portion of the performance, Lum found himself entering into the embodiment of his mother. With his mask designed such that he could barely see out of only one eye, Lum was able to focus on the state he was sinking into rather than the perceptual reality before him. With a television screen playing looped footage of birds, Lum as his mother moves about the room holding a bird cage. He opens up a packaged loaf of bread and begins to line the bird cage with bread, layering carefully at first, then growing frustrated and beginning to dump the first, then second loaf of bread into the cage with abandon. Lum stands, and begins to move around the room, his movements more like stumbling this time, conveying the struggles of motherhood; the cloak of canes rattling on the back of his suit, however, are a reminder to the endangerment to the child that the mother may pose.
Lum begins to rip bread out of the bird cage and fling it at the birds on the screen, flinging with increasing force and violence. When this activity has been exhausted, Lum then begins to strip bundles of canes, forming them around a fishing rod to which he attaches rolled bread slices that he then whips about the room with imprecision, eventually foiled by the bread-bait getting caught in a truss above the television. Though at one point Lum does whip the canes directly at his body, these exertions with the assembled fishing pole and bread pelts can be read as creative techniques of discipline employed by Lum’s mother, referenced in Lum’s previous works in which he reenacted punishments involving being made to kneel on peanut shells and hard rice for hours, and having his knees poked with needles.
In his description of one of the above works, Lum wrote: “She decided to poke needles into my knee as she realised she needed to be more creative in her forms of punishment.” (Lum, 2019). Yet during a discussion when Ng, Lin, and myself described the acts presented in this work as “sinister”, “not intuitive”, and of a more deliberate and calculated nature than the more socially conventional act of caning, Lum was caught off guard by our perceptions of the work, and implicitly, of his childhood experiences and his mother. Even within the holding environment forged by creative collaborators, destabilisation of long-honed readings of events which then upend or shade one’s version of relation and reality may spring up at any point, leaving open the possibility of a fundamental misrecognition by either the self or those they presumed in sync with their self-knowledge. The moment of disjuncture between our interpretations and Lum’s self-perception points to the subjective nature of a person’s reified self narrative and past, even if this is often reflected upon in the artist’s existing practice.
In the final exhibited work, a recording of Lum’s performance component of “Reopening Wounds” plays on a screen from inside the same birdcage he used. The other key objects used in the performance, from the television screen playing a video of a flock of pigeons to the fishing rod, are also displayed in the space, all illuminated by a large projection of Lum’s masked and costumed “shadow”. While the performance on film reflects Lum’s experience and journey in embodying and attempting to understand his mother, as well as his subsequent attempt to enact a healing of the intensity of the aforementioned embodiment process, Lum felt that the recording should only be one part of what he is conveying within this space and for this show. By allowing the audience to reckon with each of the symbolic and material components of the work, Lum creates an opportunity to interpret and mediate the forces of conditioning in ways other than his experience of the maternal relation alone.
For Ng, she vacillated between concerns of overexposure and underexposure of the central subject in deciding on the work she would show. “My Mom Lives in a Dying Medium” originated from Ng’s experience of attempting to digitise Video Home System (VHS) tapes of her mother that her family was still in possession of, and her finding that the viewing quality of the digital recording of VHS footage paled in comparison to playing it on her laptop via a manual conversion of analogue to digital. While Ng acknowledged that this was one way in which to preserve the last moving images of her mother stored on an otherwise dying medium, she recognised that much of the quality and richness of the footage is lost in the process of conversion process. Questioning her own desire towards preservation and purity of the original which feeds into what she feels is a stream of nostalgia, Ng then attempted to write the contents which she previously digitised back onto the VHS tape in order to push further on the resultant drop in quality that occurs each time the footage goes through a loops of conversion that go back and forth between analog and digital. Ng characterizes the work as a reflection of the attempt of two incompatible frameworks trying to read and write to each other.
Some of the first material Ng worked through this process were objects that Ng associates with her mother, rather than the images or videos of her mother. Ng’s turn instead to the explicitly ordinary–a can of Campbell soup and a pack of instant noodles (both chicken flavoured), a rendering of her room, a can of mock abalone–can then be read as an isolation and subjectification of the Barthesian punctum of scenes featuring Ng’s mother. Yet Ng ultimately found the focus on these objects to insufficiently confront and address her overall intention for the work, as well as the processes which she had gone through before arriving at the final stage of work, and ended up using these looped objects as a coda to another portion of the work which held the other extreme of both Ng’s, and Lum and Lin’s, concerns about overexposure.
Prior to making “My Mom Lives in a Dying Medium”, Ng had completed a process video work originating from a moment of petulance when she was 6-years old, where she threatened to walk from her family home in Hougang to her grandparents’ home in Bukit Batok where her mother was residing while ill. Ng decided to make good on that statement, and began her journey from the exact Hougang address where her family no longer lives, past midnight, and stopping to video record certain portions of her journey for documentation, it took her over eight hours in total by foot to reach the Bukit Batok address. Ng could not capture, much less edit to show, the entirety of her eight-hour walk. In tracing an imagined journey once intended, bridging the distance between where she and her mother were, Ng was still left with snippets of time–moments–ultimately. Part of Ng’s work features footage from this walk, the playground in Hougang past midnight, and shaky shadowed images of her journey in the dark with audio overlayed of her father telling her about her mother’s prognosis and deterioration in the last eight months of life. This recently-created digitally-captured and edited footage forms the refrain in this piece, alongside a piece of analogue video recording of Ng’s parents reciting their marriage vows. In it, Ng’s mother, veiled and revealed in only one close-up zoom then reveiled once more, vows to never leave her father, and when the officiant makes a mistake, is made to repeat the phrase “always be by your side” twice, an echo which haunts in and of itself. This refrain is cut by interspersed footage of Shroedinger’s moth, often thought to represent the lingering dead, and of Ng speaking about the ensured wilting of unbudded flowers at her mother’s columbarium niche. Employing the same technique, Ng puts the looping footage through the aforementioned conversion process, resulting in narrower and narrower aspect ratio of the video frame, and poorer and poorer resolution. The eroded yet indelible nature of memory and presence, shuttling between the recursive pressure to remember and forget, exerts itself as a loop.
Ng and her fellow artists discussed if portions of this sequence, particularly Ng’s father’s voiceover about her mother’s fading and passing, leaned too far in the direction of the pornography of pain, particularly with the repetition. For the viewer, however, the anticipation and bracing attention paid to these portions is a complex negotiation of emotion, agency, viewership, and voyeurism that is truly a compelling interplay. Ng noted, too, that the visuality of the shrinking picture size on the screen as each loop passed provided the viewer with dimensions of the work other than the content of audio and video which they could choose to focus on. The CRTV screening this video was also deliberately placed by Ng under the stairwell of the exhibition space, so audiences could be alone with the work but also feel like its more obscured location meant its contents were an opt-in experience which they were choosing to let wash over them if they were amenable to confronting all that the work was charged with.
Finally, in the case of Lin’s work on the show, her process was transformed by a destabilization not in art but in life. Lin’s early concept work involved the anxiety of mirroring and reflection, specifically attempting to enact acts of domesticity in working through fears of eventually being expected to perform the duties of a housewife and to be as sacrificial as she perceived her mother to be. In the midst of preparing for this exhibition, however, a rupture in Lin’s family life caused her to finally see her mother as more than this archetype of the selfless provider, and to recognise her humanity as a person who lived with the very same trapped feelings that Lin herself was troubled by. This recognition of conflict and complexity within her mother also allayed another tension that Lin has sought to explore in her work: squaring this perception of her mother’s sacrifice and duty for the family with Lin’s seemingly contradictory feelings of abandonment from having grown up without her mother physically present with her in Singapore for years at a time.
In Lin’s final work for this exhibition, “Bleed”, she created a mirroring in a more direct sense, placing sheets of rice paper together and having her and her mother paint portraits of each other, then later of themselves, with each of their inks seeping through the papers such that their likenesses eventually merged into each other. Lin chose rice paper and ink as medium in order to ease her mother’s comfort with the process, knowing that her mother used to do Chinese ink painting. This was the portrait Lin had been seeking. Previously, Lin had already asked her mother to draw a portrait of her for the purposes of this show, but that had not happened. Lin was not fully clear on why she then desired it, but in retrospect felt it was a way to force her mother to confront and focus attention on her.
Now, Lin staged an encounter through the act of painting each other, in which a “face to face” conversation in the wake of conflict takes on new meaning. On one hand, there is the mode of attention that painting one another requires that supersedes everyday ways of looking at and being with one another, a potentially profound recognition in attempting to capture their essence. On the other, there is also the slipperiness in which direct confrontation is tempered by the activity of painting, a distraction that allows much needed facing of one another, articulation, communication, and resolution to take place. The act of portraiture proposed and enacted this time around is also vastly different that the one-sided act of Lin’s initial proposal: in choosing simultaneity and mutuality, Lin is not only asking to be seen but also opening herself up to the potentially unseating process of seeing her mother more clearly, and possibly against the grain of how she has always painted her in her mind. The bleed of ink and opening up the painting process to the strokes of the other person’s interference is also a signalling openness to vulnerability and porousness. Following the encounters which premised confronting each other, Lin then transitioned the work having rice paper sheets still back-to-back, but having her and her mother paint themselves instead. Lin made the shift such that reflection was now turned inwards to process that had just been opened up through dialogue, and helped them to look at themselves in relation to how they saw each other. In these iterations, interfering in each other’s work through the permeability of paper and ink entailed a negotiation of trying to establish their own image while being disrupted by each other, and was therefore that much more intensely felt as both violation and collaboration.
Where the previous paintings had been done to furnish the images of the other, these acts of self-portraiture displayed in Lin’s exhibited work allowed them to focus on themselves, for themselves. Lin hopes this may become a recreational activity that her mother can continue to do for herself in order to provide a mode of expression and diversion from the routinization and confinement of domestic life.
Lin’s choice to respond by making art as a means of processing and intervening in emergent precarity, and Lum and Ng’s providing her space to do so while also making work of their own with the potential to reopen wounds, makes clear the possibility of life restructuring art and creative collaboration, and of art unto life. Even as the artists negotiate how to hold each other and those around them, and tweak and shed ossified notions of the subject of their work and of themselves, the space in which they contend with these relational webs is constantly reconstituted and molding to how they grow. While this exhibition places a visible boundary marker on where Lum, Ng, and Lin’s work and their relationships have taken them to this point, the intimacy and potentiality upon which these works are grounded ensure that their future transmutations will be just as compelling.
Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida. (1980).
Lauren Berlant, Intimacy. (2000).
D.W. Winnicott, “Transitional objects and transitional phenomena,” International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 34:89-97. (1953).
About the artists:
Adar Ng (b. 1994, Singapore) is a media artist who works primarily with the medium of photography and video. Her works are based on philosophical queries on reality and its impermanence in the world. She uses the camera as a witness of the absence and presence in other inanimate entities and employs the usage of metaphors in a poetic endeavour to portray temporality and loss.
She is a graduate from the school of Art, Design & Media, Nanyang Technological University and has since participated in the exhibitions Undescribed #04, Adaptations by Supernormal.sg and CDL Singapore Youth Photographer Award. She was also selected to be in the digital publication of Belgrade Photo Month New Talents 2019.
Lin Shiauyu, (b.1995, Shanghai, China) is born a Taiwanese, raised in Shanghai and currently based in Singapore.
Previously trained as a painter and now practicing as a photographer, she works as an interdisciplinary image maker. Her works are tied closely to her personal experiences, delving into human conditions such as womanhood, sense of belonging, identity, and relationship within a diasporic family.
Quinn Lum Fu Loong (b.1993, Singapore) graduated from the School of Art, Design and Media in 2018 with a BFA (Hons) in Photography and Digital imaging. His works explore his personal identity and social environment by the use of auto ethnography. From which, he investigates the control and expectations imposed upon him by society and questions their relevance in today’s context. Raised in a result-oriented and abusive family, his works express his desire for freedom and to be one with himself.
He has recently exhibited in various shows which include, Singapore International Photography Festival 2018 & Undescribed 2019. Quinn’s works have been awarded the Dominie Book Prize for SIPF Photobook Open Call 2018, Student Single – Second Prize in the NTU International Photography Awards 2017, the Gold with Honours in the Singapore Youth Festival, Arts and Crafts Exhibition 2012 and the Most Promising Young Artist Award in the UOB Painting of the Year 2010.
About the writer:
Jill J. Tan is a Singaporean writer, artist, and researcher. Her work has appeared in Guernica; Mynah Magazine; Vulture Magazine; Palimpsest: Yale Graduate Literary and Arts Magazine; the anthology Film Criticism Collective 2017 (ed. Chris Fujiwara); and is forthcoming in Resistant Hybridities: New Narratives of Exiled Tibet (Lexington Books). She received a B.A. with High Honors in Religion from Wesleyan University and an M.A. from the University of Chicago, where she first began her ongoing research in the anthropology of death. Her current ethnographic project as a PhD student in anthropology at Yale University explores the public consciousness of death in Singapore. She presently works at a Singaporean funeral company running its death literacy foundation. Jill is committed to collaborative practice, co-theorization, and multimodal exploration, and works alongside artists to produce text on their practice and individual works as an embedded critic and researcher.