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"I think of the modern everyday life to be greatly problematic and political" — Lai Yu Tong

"To know that someone does things without any return—it should be how art making is," says Yu Tong in his studio. Despite his quiet disposition, the multidisciplinary artist is outspoken on his beliefs in artistic expression.

While discussing art spaces in Singapore, he urges fellow young artists to think about diversifying the experience of art shows, talks and gatherings instead of following a set formula. While his art deals detachment, exhaustion and speed, Yu Tong's music as cosmologists responds to changes in stability and pace.

by SAND Magazine

April 10, 2018

Photo: Marvin Tang

In his studio, pinned on the walls are a mixture of sticky notes detailing ideas of work titles and newspaper excerpts from various sections of the Singaporean state-owned newspaper, The Straits Times. Yu Tong later explained that he's currently working on a series of image-based artworks examining conditions of modern everyday life.

While reviewing the cut out pages, Yu Tong stresses that he's intrigued by the materials and handwriting of protest signs and exploring how these conscious decisions by protestors helps him to re-evaluate design.

Perhaps one of the most peculiar things about the young artist is his desire to not be a 'good' artist — "Well, there's a limit to what good can be. But there's no limit to artistically bad works."

What prompted you to create works based on modern living?

When I started thinking about an art practice or to start to make sense of the work I was making, I tried to think of things that affected me that I would feel compelled to make work about. What that was then, for me, was that many of us in Singapore, who had stable middle-class families, decent living conditions and at the very least own a smartphone that we are terribly addicted to, have almost everything we need but yet experience everyday conditions of loneliness, exhaustion, restlessness and instability, that we have come to accept.

In your opinion, is the manifestation of politics inevitable through such social observations?

I make a lot of work that are sort of mindless and sometimes cathartic or fun exercises to me. Because of the way I work, I usually do not consider the political nature of my actions whilst I am making these works. It is often after the work is done when both myself and my viewers derive the politics behind them.
Of course one way to start thinking about politics, is to first think about the politics of art-making (sometimes, and in my case, often equatable to time-wasting), and how it already reflects a kind of privileged modern lifestyle not entitled to everyone.
I’m hoping that when people look at art, or at my art at least, such criticisms can first be made. Apart from being cynical, I believe such a context is also important to the understanding of my work, and serves as an entry point to start thinking about the problematics of modern life.

I’m particularly interested in How To Make A Clock Spin Anti-clockwise (2017). I can’t help but see themes of existential crisis and the questioning of ‘nowness’. What was the basis of the zine?

A lot of my work start off as instructions, titles and words in my head. Thinking of them as things-to-do has been the only way that I can work because I need such clarity to work, and for the work. I made How To Make A Clock Spin Anti-clockwise at a point when I was really interested in instruction manuals.

I like the idea that instruction manuals unlike artworks sell a process rather than a product. My zines are always sold cheap and intended for mass distribution.
I would like to teach as many people as possible, one way to deface the clock and disrupt the process of time-telling. I have something against the clock mostly because it has its roots in industrialism as an instrument that was popularised out of a desire for efficiency and control, and is hence completely misaligned with the way humans perceive time.

The zine I made had no written instructions and I believe is pretty difficult to follow (if you did, you would probably just spoil a perfectly functional clock). It also looks like instructions on how to make a bomb.

How important are materials to you when it comes to creating works? What do you consider when deciding how to put an idea down to a physical object or art piece?

I start with ideas in the form of texts. The materialised version of these ideas should ideally communicate as well as the texts do. Of course, they only communicate this well in my head, but for viewers the visuals often fail to translate this clearly into words.

This is often the interesting part for artists and I believe we are often creating a language of our own that requires audiences to gradually learn and understand as they look at more works. The language of my work is mostly made up of glass cups, chairs and lots of laser prints on cartridge paper. I communicate mostly with images, and have been finding new ways of making images—both in the sense of taking the images, and in showing them.
Can screenshotting be a form of photography? Can cheap black & white Xerox prints enter the realm of fine art?
Do you see your works as a romanticisation of the everyday? Does banality annoy or frustrate you?
Banality really frustrates me. It’s a real problem to me on a personal level. As such, I think my works do quite the opposite from romanticising or appreciating the everyday.
Instead, I think of the modern everyday life to be greatly problematic and political. The scary part is that because we are so accustomed to these conditions and habitual behaviours, they become invisible; mere parts of everyday life.
For instance, I have a real problem with how the camera and various media has altered how we perceive things and experience our lives. I have a problem with how our impression of the sunset used to be a dragged out roughly hour-long process of fleeting gradual shifts in hues but has now been replaced by a time-lapse video (probably played out less than 5 seconds).
The widespread culture of image-making and image-proliferation today has greatly altered our experience of things such as time, speed and happenings.
Pre-time-lapse era, when I was watching the sunset with friends, it seemed easier to sit through the whole hour-long spectacle even though it was always difficult to encapsulate it as a memory or an image in our head.

Now, even as we may resist whipping out our cameras to capture an instant of the sunset, or a time-lapse (perhaps now hyper-lapse video), our gazes constantly shift about impatiently. It’s inevitable that such a breakthrough in technology has reconfigured our perceptions, because it is all we ever wanted. We could finally capture the sunset and understand it.

How is that connected with the exhaustion you feel? 

I like to mention exhaustion because it’s something that anyone reading this right now can relate to yet its one of those conditions that we have come to accept as part of life today.
It’s also something that bothers us everyday but we hardly address through art, as much as every artist I talk to is plagued by it.
It’s often shelved under “first-world problems” — a category of issues less likely to be addressed urgently, not because it isn’t widespread or severe, but maybe because it is so widespread that it has been accepted as a norm instead of an issue.

Perhaps it is also brushed aside because there is no real solution to this and its something we have caused upon ourselves. In the same way, mental health issues are not yet widely accepted as serious health problems compared to other physical illness, despite both having the same potential of claiming lives.

In a previous interview, you spoke about repetitive rhythms. Sometimes recurrent motions tend to stop us in our tracks. Do you have a particular way to cope and move along with life when they do become a distraction?

I guess I haven’t quite understood my relationship to repetition, rhythm and recurrences. I’m quite a restless person and I constantly yearn for stability. Even so, when I do stabilise, I get restless about stagnating. The furniture in the house I have been living in hasn’t stayed in the same position for more than a week.

Maybe to end this interview on a lighter note, I thought I’d share an advice I got from an artist a while back when I was figuring out my practice. It might answer your question on ways of carrying on, something I guess I have been and will continue to figure out.
He told me that he couldn’t see that I was having enough fun making my works. To stress the importance of fun, he explained it with two artists that I really look up to.
He said that he fully believed that the performance artist, Teh Ching Hsieh, who had dedicated his life to several gruelling year-long performances, and Bas Jan Ader, whose last performance was an attempt to sail across the Atlantic on a tiny boat before he eventually disappeared with his shipwrecked boat washed ashore, had fully enjoyed the process of making their work.

I later discovered photographic documentations of both the end of Teh Ching Hsieh’s monumental Time Clock Piece, as well as the last photograph of Bas Jan Ader on his sailboat waving goodbye to his wife. In them, they both were pictured smiling widely. They both thought it’d be fun.

Lai Yu Tong is a Singaporean visual artist whose works respond to common conditions borne out of modern living—exhaustion, over-consumption, mundanity and disorientation. He sees his practice as a process of locating rhythms within the everyday and finding ways to carry on.

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