Filmmaker and photographer Sherman Ong (b. 1971) has exhibited in Europe, US, Brazil and Asia. In 2005 he was part of the Goethe Institut Art Connexions, a traveling group exhibition to Melbourne, Jakarta, Hanoi and Berlin. He was also participated in Another Asia, the Noorderlicht International Photo Festival in the Netherlands in 2006.
Why do choose to work with photography? Is it the only medium you work with?
On my 10th birthday, my father gave me a Kodak Instamatic camera. That was the beginning of my passionate relationship with the world of images. As a child, I was already going to the cinema quite often as my grandfather worked as projectionist in a now-demolished cinema called The Sun in Malacca. From still images, I soon developed a keen interest in moving images. For me it was a natural progression and also a logical one, as both the still and the moving image are in essence the same.
Now I work in both still and moving images, as these are the two art forms that resonate with me and allow for an unlimited scope of expression from the random happenstance of documentary/street photography to the conceptual tableaux of highly constructed imageries. Photography allows me to move from ‘calligraphy’ to ‘sculpture’ and back again, all within the same medium.
What does the photograph mean in the 21st century?
Since its invention, the photograph/camera has never been and will never be an objective tool. In the 21st century, the photograph has become so malleable in its interpretation and context that it is no longer possible to just evaluate a photograph in isolation of its maker. Today, where corporations can be more powerful than countries and values are no longer bi-polar, the photograph’s role has evolved to take into account a global geopolitics with many centres of power and cultural dominance. The photograph has become a ‘mercenary’ aligning itself to the agenda of its most powerful bidder.
Nevertheless imageries that are found in photographs, films, paintings and other visual art forms all share an experiential aspect that goes beyond the intellect. The ability of the image to reach out to the viewers through a non-intellectual mode, bypassing any intellectual/conceptual discourse ensures that the image (photograph) will still have its place in the 21st century.
To quote Laszlo Moholy-Nagy (1895-1946) who remains relevant more than ever today: Knowledge of photography is just as important as that of the alphabet. The illiterate of the future will be a person ignorant of the use of the camera as well as the pen.
What are the prevailing themes in your work?
I have always been interested in the human condition – living, dying, loving, praying, forgetting and longing – and how we organize and regulate our lives and our environment. As a photographer, I am interested in exploring the intersection between Nature and Human Nature, between the landscape and the body, offering an alternative view point to the banal while eliciting the subtle beauty of everyday life. In my encounters with different peoples and cultures, I realize that each of them have their own survival mechanisms of coping, harnessing or controlling Nature in order to build a stable social environment where they can thrive. This idea of coping, harnessing or controlling Nature, and how it intersects with Human Nature in our quest to better our lives - in particular, the social/private spaces in a built urban environment - has always been my interest and a recurring theme in my work.
How did you come to make this particular work/series of work?
I was in Hanoi for my artist residency under the Goethe Institut Art Connexions project. I had already started on a visual haiku series, HanoiHaiku, when this series came to me by chance during a hailstorm one afternoon in Hanoi.
On that day, the sky was very dark. I was in a van when suddenly I heard very loud banging on the roof of the van. Then I saw the hailstones falling like rocks on the bonnet of the van. It was my first time experiencing a hailstorm. I was in awe of its sheer power and intensity. Large pieces of ice came crashing on to the van and other vehicles on the road. The ice pieces are quite big and people were just running helter-skelter for protection. They would rush for the nearest shelter or instinctively couch down to make their bodies as small as possible so that there is less surface area for the hail to hit.
The hailstorm lasted for about 5 minutes and was followed by blistering rain. When the rain came, some people decided to carry on with their journey through the blanket of water. The rain was so heavy that I was looking at the scene through a sheet of water. I wanted to capture the mood of the monsoon and how it affects human mobility and the surrounding urban environment. For me, the intervention of the monsoon on the landscape and the body underscore the relationship between Nature and Man within a constructed urban setting.
The word ‘monsoon’ comes from an Arabic word ‘Mausim’ which describes a seasonal shifting of wind directions. The monsoons govern life in most parts of Southeast Asia, determining the profitable months of beach resorts and the agriculture calendar of farmers throughout the region. The landscape changes and human mobility is affected during the monsoons, but this intervention also creates a seasonal shifting in mindsets and psyches of the people as they go about negotiating this transient watery terrain. The sudden, heavy downpours have turned the region into one of the water-rich areas of the world but without the proper means of harvesting rainwater, the region still suffers from water-related problems.
This series contemplates the impact of the monsoons and its intervention on human mobility, the landscape and the psyche of the inhabitants of Hanoi. Taken through a moving van with the windows wound up, the images offer another way of looking at the urban landscape through the intervention of water, wind and glass.
Please complete the sentence:
All I need is a clear mind, a good heart, a healthy body and lots of love.