Yeo Tze Yang’s snapshots of dusk – and the hours that stretch beyond – look like they are quite at home with the listless monotony of urban living. The people in these works don’t complain, they don’t bemoan their humdrum existence. They are simply present, and, above all, accepting.
Yeo’s Evening, a series of oil paintings capturing the different facades of night in his home country of Singapore, marks his first solo exhibition in Malaysia. This showcase of 15 works, currently showing at Our ArtProjects in Kuala Lumpur, comes two years after his first solo A Place Behind My Eyes, held in Singapore.
Almost paradoxically, there is a sense of stillness about the works in Evening, even as a flurry of tired commuters pile into trains and buses, hungry workers pick fishbones clean at the nearby hawker centre, and fluorescent lights bathe the darkening space with a harsh glare.
“With Evening, there is definitely the sense of the end of something drawing near, or the moment right before the end, be it the end of a meal, the end of operating hours, the end of a working day,” shares Yeo, 23, during an interview when he was in town for the show’s opening last week.
“All my paintings depict things I see with my own eyes, things I have felt, smelled and heard, and the sensations I associate with them,” he adds.
In one painting, the silhouettes of two bus drivers on a smoking break at the bus depot suggests just another late night wrapped in a blanket of wistfulness. In the next, dishes are left to drip dry at the closing of another day at the hawkers. In another, the packaging from a fast food meal devoured is crumpled, yet still recognisable – all things familiar to most people, not just in Singapore, but also here.
Last year, Yeo won the Silver Award of UOB Painting of the Year (in Singapore). His love affair with art, at least in the context of formal art education, started in his teens, when he was part of the Art Elective Programme for six years in secondary school and junior college. He is currently completing a Bachelor of Arts and Social Sciences degree in South-East Asian Studies at the National University of Singapore.
Yeo acknowledges that there are “many recurring tourist images” of Singapore, like Marina Bay Sands, the iconic merlion spewing water from its mouth, or the impressive Singapore skyline.
“It all feels very luxurious and pretty, but that’s the furthest thing from everyday reality for most Singaporeans. For us, the end of the day means choosing from mixed rice dishes that have been standing around for hours and getting cold, before heading off home on the train or bus,” he says.
So what does this time of the day mean to him? And why does it warrant a whole series dedicated to it?
The devil, as it turns out, lies in the details.
Yeo reminisces that when he was a child, it was in the early hours of the evening where he would wait for his father to pick him up from afternoon class. Then as a teenager, dusk heralded the start of a long bus ride home.
It is such routines, coupled with the changing of day to night, that have left an indelible mark on mind and memory.
Over time, he came to be interested in the collective experience of night, the everyday version that he shares with other people around him.
Today, as an adult, night signifies the time when people get off from work or school and squeeze on buses and trains to get home, when street lamps light up and everyone is on the move.
“At this time of the day I witness the cool grey light beside the metal bars of a fluorescent yellow bus, and the dull, harsh street lamps casting an orange glow, soaking the world and everything around them in shades of yellow and brown. These colours paint the memories of the everyday in my life. This is how I remember and process things,” he says.
Still, Yeo muses that he used to have many preconceived ideas about what the evening meant to him, drawing generously on the imagery and colour palette of the quintessential Hong Kong gangster film, with mystery and intrigue set against neon city lights.
“Being a youth often means you have all these fantasies about night being all cool and wild, like the images from films like Wong Kar-Wai’s Chungking Express. But then you realise your actual life really isn’t all that exciting most of the time,” he says with a laugh.
Evening is firmly rooted in fact and feelings. Yeo really isn’t interested in painting an imaginary world. For this project that took over a year to see to completion, the first half was simply dedicated to street photography, before embarking on the painting.
And if there is one emotion to be taken away from Evening, it is perhaps the realisation that what binds us are the things we see, but often leave unsaid.
Evening is on at Our ArtProjects, Zhongshan Building, 80, Jalan Rotan, off Jalan Kampung Attap in Kuala Lumpur till Aug 5. Open Tuesday to Saturday (11am-7pm). Sunday by appointment, closed Monday. Visit ourartprojects.com for more information.