When I first encountered Nguan's photographs of Singapore, it felt like I was glimpsing into an alternative reality of home, one that existed in a parallel, pastel universe. I knew it was Singapore because everything was familiar — the towering blocks of HDB suburbia, the ubiquitous bougainvillea vines that creep all over the island, the everyday solitary characters you pass in the street. In Nguan's reality, these scenes appeared infinitely more beautiful, bathed in a powdery pink-tinged hue that's rarely seen this close to the Equator.
Beyond casting Singapore in an intimate new light, each inhabitant captured seems so self-expressed, their wistfulness, yearning and contemplation imbued in their faces and movements. Surely it couldn't be the same country that was voted the least emotional in the world just a few years back? Yes, there's no denying that I much prefer Singapore as seen through Nguan's lens. In light of the Singaporean's solo exhibition, 'How Loneliness Goes' at FOST Gallery, I sought out to uncover the mind behind the images.
When did you decide to make photography your life's work? I moved to Los Angeles in 2002, convinced that I wanted to pursue photography. But I wasn't sure if I could find my voice. There's a good reason why the movie industry moved to L.A.: The light is gorgeous — or at least sympathetic — for lengthy swathes of time. This meant that I could shoot for hours and hours each day. In 2003, I spotted a young girl on an amusement park ride at Santa Monica Pier who thrust her arms out as though they were an eagle's wings, and finally I had a picture that made me believe that I could do what I wanted to do. This image taught me that every portrait I make should suggest something of the subject's inner life, and perhaps mine as well.
What's your favourite film, musician or book? I know it's odd, but I can't remember the last time I saw a movie or read a book. Listening to music is my life's greatest pleasure. I've collected music obsessively since I was fourteen. I like female singers who sing like men and male singers who sing like women. I'm too much of a control freak to listen to the radio — I can't handle the idea of someone else choosing what I should hear! This is why I didn't catch you valiantly trying to say my name on LUSH 99.5 FM.
Loneliness is a recurring theme in your work, like the name of your current show, 'How Loneliness Goes' at FOST Gallery. What does loneliness mean to you? I suppose loneliness is a less pleasant form of solitude, which can be quite nice sometimes? The problem is, solitude always comes with a slight chance of loneliness. You might think you like taking walks when it's cool and cloudy because it's more comfortable, but suddenly there's thunder and it starts to pour and then you want to die, but that's what happens when you despise the sun.
In a prior interview, you mentioned that you never wanted to sell your work. So what is it that drives you and what do you want people to take from your pictures? The first obligation for any artist is to him or herself. My images are not made specifically for an audience; they result from personal compulsions and habits. The images that I release through various channels are let go in attempts to somehow communicate, without the influence or insurance of words. Let's speak only with pictures and fumble towards empathy.
Has your growing social media following affected you or your work in any way? No. The way I've chosen to use social media has given me a curious variant of fame: My work has become quite well-known, but my own person remains willfully obscure. So things are pretty much the same.
Do you have a dream project? I'd love to photograph inside our public swimming pool complexes, in the same way that I freely moved about and photographed the crowds at New York's Coney Island. It would be a study of Singaporeans in abandon. I just have to figure out how to not get forcibly removed from the premises.
What's next for Nguan? I'm in Tokyo for the next 30 days. This is the first time that I've been in Japan for hanami season since 2010. It's such an indescribably beautiful, bittersweet time. I'm going to shoot a lot in the parks, as I did before, and I'm anxious to find out how I've changed as a photographer and a human being.
'How Loneliness Goes' is running till 12 April at FOST Gallery. For more information, click here.