A photographer’s image couplets evoke a sense of deliberate lightness, nostalgia and love.
Human beings are geared by evolution to identify patterns, which we use to explain the things around us.
Art, too, is how we seek to explain the human condition: putting out a piece of yourself with the hashtag #isanyoneoutthere in the hopes of connecting.
So it comes as a surprise that self-taught photographer Keng Leong doesn’t want you to leave his upcoming debut solo gallery outing thinking his thoughts. In fact, being “stripped naked” is not exactly his cup of tea.
“I’m not terribly proud of this, you know, stripping yourself naked in front of people. I don’t believe in making an overt statement with art. If you are honest enough in your work, then you, the entire you, including your politics, your pretence, will come through, there is no need to make a statement,” says Malacca-born, Klang Valley-based Keng Leong, 47, who is also a freelance filmmaker, YouTube cooking personality and occasional writer.
His solo opening, entitled Syntax, plays on the idea that humans are pattern-seeking creatures. It starts this Tuesday at Artemis Art in Kuala Lumpur.
“My relationship with the images ends at the wall, and it is up to the audience to find theirs with them henceforth. I have no say at all,” he explains.
Keng Leong takes this notion and turns it on its head, pairing what he describes as “unconnected” images together, side by side.
Each individual’s interpretation and understanding of the pieces – 16 image couplets – will vary according to their own emotional state and history.
Alone, a photograph might make no sense. But once it’s paired with another separate piece, a message is formed.
“The process was difficult. I didn’t crop anything because I only use one lens, but I had to take into account where it was being viewed – on the computer everything is very different from something printed in a book or hung on the wall. Factors like colour, the viewer’s distance from the image, the photo’s distance from each other – I had to take all of that into account.”
Technical finesse is not Keng Leong’s goal, but the amount of care he took with the show belies impeccable taste and an exacting mind – his prints are on cotton photo rag and framed in a unique custom-manufactured frame of his own design.
“I chose everything very carefully because I want it all to appear light.”
Besides the exhibit, Keng Leong is also releasing a limited edition run monograph, with 86 images or 43 pairs.
There will only be 52 copies, the first is for his mother and the 52nd, for his wife.
Each couplet in the monograph is up for grabs as a print – but only in editions of 10 copies.
At press time, Keng Leong has already sold all 16 of the artist’s proofs before his show has even opened, which doesn’t happen very often.
But Keng Leong is not an ambitious man.
“I’m lazy. I had a paradigm shift after I re-read a book called Dear Theo, a collection of letters from Vincent van Gogh to his brother. In it, Vincent says he has a ‘certain obligation and duty’ to leave behind a souvenir ‘in gratitude’. In which an ‘honest human feeling is expressed’.
“That got me thinking about door gifts for my own funeral. I have a niece whom I love very much; I want to make something she can give out at my funeral.”
Influenced by American photographers like Charles Harbutt and Ralph Gibson, Keng Leong seeks to capture a feeling, an experience, rather than a concrete image. Keng Leong lived in New York for a decade where he was mentored by Harbutt at the International Center of Photography, and he also had the opportunity to study with art photographer Gibson.
“Gibson has a lot of influence on me. Any two of his images from any point in time can match, which shows a strong philosophy – not of work, but as an individual.”
Keng Leong finds inspiration in both his great mentors, but also in literature which helps him look into himself.
“You go deep and it gets dark; it’s scary but that’s that how you see the light.”
His image couplets evoke a sense of deliberate lightness, nostalgia and love. Throughout the Syntax show, bittersweet sentimentality soaks each piece, although others may feel differently.
“I despise sentimentality,” says Keng Leong, “but when you look at art, it’s all sentimentalism.”
Syntax is a surefire way to discover what moves you, an investigation into yourself.
Keng Leong’s Syntax exhibition opens at Artemis Art (Lot 21 & 22 Level G4, Publika @ Dutamas, Block C5, Solaris Dutamas in Kuala Lumpur) on Sept 16. It runs till Sept 21. Monday to Saturday: 11am to 7pm. Sunday and public holidays: noon to 6pm. For more information, visit artemisartgallery.com. Call 03-6211-1891.