SINGAPORE INTERVIEW: CHUA CHYE TECK

In exquisite black and white photographs, Chua Chye Teck offers a glimpse into a Singapore that is not usually seen, capturing untamed, tangled & dense vines and trees of messy, free nature whose layers hint at something hidden, something lost, suggesting memory and ghosts. There is something personal and intimate about this encounter, so it is not surprising to learn that he in some works he returns to photograph places that held special significance as a child. 

SHARMILA WOOD (SW): You have a background in sculpture, can you tell me if this has influenced your photography? Is photography now your preferred medium, if so, why? 
CHYE TECK CHUA (CTC): Of course, my background in sculpture did influence my photography. I paint too, and my first solo exhibition was of paintings. I am always attracted to the formal elements of art such as form, texture, lines etc, and the idea of capturing a moment. My camera angles are always straightforward - this way, the focus will be on the subject rather than the camera angle. As a sculptor, I am attracted to found objects, and have the habit of buying or picking up used objects. This habit of collecting started to show in my photography, as well, since I use the camera to collect, copy and organize. Photography is a medium which I decided to focus on in the year 2001. One reason is the feeling of guilt at having  a collection of cameras paid for by my mother and not using them. They were bought by her as I told her I wanted to pursue photography as a career. Another reason came about during my early years as an artist, when I became attracted to found objects or structures made by layman on the streets. ( "Dear like me do the cleaning " is the first set of images developed from there). I  wanted to use them in my art and did not know how, and I disliked the idea of bringing them into the studio to work on them and calling them mine. The best way I could think of was to document them like sculptures. From then on I  shifted my position as an artist, who creates to a third person who observes and supports. Two years ago I  started carving wooden bases for broken concrete pieces from torn-down buildings found in the streets. I realized there is a limitation to what photography can and can not do.

SW: Your projects often seem to be developed over many years, and involve revisiting the same place, do you think this approach allows for a more intimate understanding of place?    CTC: Definitely. and that also gives me comfort working in these places. Often these places are connected to my life. For example Ponggol ( north east of Singapore ) is a place I visited often with friends during my teenage years. Almost 10 years later I revisited the area and started the project « Paradise ». The reason to revisit is partly the nature of the project. These make-do shelters are not commonly found in the Singapore landscape, and they are transient, disappearing and cropping up over time. Ponggol is also one of the last rural areas to be developed into a typical 'satellite' town.

SW: How do you document nature and urban change in Singapore? Can you tell me why this subject fascinates you?
CTC: I use photography and found objects. The camera changes the way I work. I use different types of cameras for different projects; sometime using medium format with a tripod, other times using a point and shoot compact camera - it all depends on the project. I work with both analog and digital cameras, but mostly using film and later scanning the negatives. The subjects always come to me subconsciously, from what I see and the places I go to every day. After years of working I realize the subjects in my projects are usually what's left behind or what’s about to disappear,When a nation moves forward and the economy is progressing and prospering, working on this subject helps me to understand and be aware of these changes, it is not so much a subject that makes you excited; they are more like issues that I deal with, and art helps me to process it.

Postscript: Punggol is located in the north-east of Singapore. During my teenage years, Punggol coast was where i often spent time with classmates fishing and exploring the forested area. That is where I had fun and enjoyed freedom, a paradise to me when I was a boy. In addition, my father, a carpenter, had a wood workshop in that area during the 90s and I spent most of my time there after school.My memory of Punggol in my youth comes mainly from these two activities. In the past, Punggol was a rural area, and it has since become a developed town with shopping malls, public housing. The salt water rivers have been turned into fresh water reservoirs. Coastal areas have been extended by land reclamation. The wild vegetation have been transformed into parks or gardens, a concept of greenery preferred by the government.

Image courtesy Chua Chye Teck

Image courtesy Chua Chye Teck