Sherman Ong: Art, Life and Identity

Sherman Ong is an award-winning filmmaker, photographer and educator from Malaysia, based in Singapore.

Straddling fiction and documentary, his films were exhibited in Europe, US, Brazil and Asia and have won awards in Hong Kong, Greece, Italy, Indonesia and Malaysia. He is an alumnus of the 1st Berlinale Talent Campus 2003 and has premiered works at Rotterdam Int’l Film Festival, Int’l Documentary Festival Amsterdam, Institute of Contemporary Arts London, International Electronic Art Festival VideoBrasil and the Yokohama Art Triennial, Japan.

Sherman Ong - Hanoihaiku
© Sherman Ong

Today, I attended a talk by Sherman in school. Here are some (paraphrased) excerpts and commentary of the talk.

On Art:

Art is drawn from a corpus of the past to create a new meaning in the present. Each work is the result of an individual’s experiences in life. Art’s context must come from within.

All art is political…I like to use it as a catalyst for further discussion. For example, in Hanoihaiku, I am exploring the transition of space – the urban and private space. I was interested in presenting it in the form of a Japanese haiku, as it is the closest thing to film. The juxtaposition of images in the triptych creates new meaning, different from the individual image, and an open narrative. It becomes a pure distillation of what you see.

I have seen Hanoihaiku before and I liked it, although I couldn’t quite get what he was trying to say at first glance. Interpretations of the images are changed when placed in a triptych, more layers are added to the original images. By peeling away the surface, deeper meanings are revealed about the state of change in Hanoi.

The growth of contemporary Chinese art:

When art is separated from its original intentions, it becomes a commodity. Why do we see the sudden interest in Chinese Art? China’s economy is growing, along with it, its political power and the value of art. So people buy into it, hoping that it will rise in value in the future.

And I thought, no wonder nobody (the world) generally cares about photography in Southeast Asia (except ourselves). Our lack of economical/political strength obscures the work that we do. In the commercial sense of it, there’s no point in collecting art from SEA, which makes it kind of sad.

Finding his comment on how art can be political very interesting, I then asked Sherman whether the “subdued” voice of our artists was due to our political climate.

The state of society affects art. In a country like Singapore, people do not value the image. When given a picture, they go, “Like that also can?” and bring it down to the print shop to have it replicated. It’s not subdued but rather the citizens themselves. We are used to our comfort level and do not want to take risks. It’s a very Chinese (mercantile) mentality of giving up something just to trade, and in our case, the political voice.

Compared to other bigger economical powers like Japan/Korea/China, photography in Southeast Asia is nascent. Even more so when you consider its use. Photography here is widely regarded as a form of aesthetics, which people can derive pleasure by looking at it. People, lacking in vsual literacy, do not read deeper into what they see; dismissing images straight away when they do not appeal to the masses’ senses. However, I feel that there are many people working to change that, pushing photography to a higher level by organizing more festivals/exhibitions/talks. Maybe things will change in due time.

On identity:

The traits of an ethnic group is defined by its culture, not ethnicity. Through my travels, I have met many Chinese in different countries and they all appear to be more Hispanic/Latino/Hawaiian than Chinese. They identify more with their new home than China.

Eventually, Singapore may not need to depend on the loyalty of its citizens. As a hub for many services, people just come and go. We become a floating state, what happens to our identity? How do we find this feeling of attachment?

Perhaps not having an identity is our identity.

While I would like to challenge the notion that we do not have an identity, I could not come up with a concrete argument against it. Perhaps, as a nation, we are too concerned about the mechanics of making money that other things like political voice and identity get thrown aside, which makes it doubly sad. Before we part, I would like to show you a picture from Sherman’s Monsoon series.

Sherman Ong - Monsoon
© Sherman Ong