Arts & Culture

Eugene Soh: Technology is Art

Does technology count as an art form?

Words by
b-side staff

Atypical Singapore is part of the Singapore Tourism Board‘s Passion Made Possible global campaign. The exhibition features art from seven contemporary artists picked by Khairuddin Hori, curatorial director and partner at Chan + Hori Contemporary. How did he select the artists for the travelling exhibition?

With Atypical Singapore, we wanted to feature a glimpse of what goes on in the underbelly of the contemporary art circles of our nation-state. We also wanted to provide access and share the continuous passion and work by emerging artists who are primarily out of the market, possibly perceived as being a little too edgy. As an example, three of the artists — Gerald Leow, Muhammad Izdi and Daniel Yu — are self-taught and have never gone through systematic education in art colleges. These are artists who I believe have various values to share and will strive further in their artistic practice regardless of fame or fortune.

One of the chosen artists, Eugene Soh, might strike us as familiar especially since his Renaissance City series recently went viral. The series parodies contemporary life in Singapore while taking on compositions of famous works.

Our personal selves are only one of what makes society tick, and we tend to take the unique characters around us for granted. Eugene has a knack for interpreting and reflecting the obvious among us. In Atypical Singapore, he extended the originally frozen tableaus from his Renaissance City series featuring many recognisable everyday local characters composed within Singaporean landscapes into moving augmented reality pieces. His work can also be seen as homage to publicly recognisable masterpieces by legendary artists, from Michelangelo to Georges Seurat.

B-Side asks Eugene himself how he chanced upon art and his plans after Atypical Singapore.

Creation of Ah Dam (2015)

How did you first discover art?

Probably from watching Art Attack when I was a kid. If you asked that kid back then to guess what he would be when he grew up, he would probably say an astronaut or a Ninja Turtle.

The Last Kopitiam (2010)

What made you want to be an artist? Was there a particular work that proved to be a turning point in your career?

It was an accident! I was actually planning on being a game developer, which I still kind of am.

As for the work that marked the turning point of my career, it would be the Last Kopitiam piece that I made in 2010. It was published, put on Facebook, and went viral in 2012. Maybe Facebook’s newsfeed algorithm changed and gave it a boost. After that, some galleries started contacting me to see more photos. Little did they know that the Last Kopitiam was my only photo piece at the time.

Sunday Afternoon on The Island of Singapore (2014)

Share with us how the concept of Sunday Afternoon on the Island of Singapore came about.

Sunday Afternoon came about when Chan+Hori Gallery offered me my second solo exhibition in 2015. It gave me enough pressure and motivation to continue my Renaissance City series, which is a series of “Singaporeanised” famous paintings. I was going for a relaxing and approachable image that you could keep going back to and notice more details like a kite in a tree or a plane in the sky. There is also a contemplative sadness in the work that can be explained in subtle hints like the number of people on mobile devices.

Food For Thought (2014)

In your opinion, what is it about technology that adds value to the art?

To me, technology does not add to art. It IS the art! The medium is the message. The choice of technology and medium is a huge part of the process of self-expression for me. If I choose to build a virtual reality game, or in the case of Atypical Singapore bring my photos to life in augmented reality, they have all been purposeful creative decisions.

Having been through art school, I have witnessed many people’s ideas go unrealised because they do not know the technology. Being a coder and technologist, I do not have that problem because I will find out how to build it. The augmented reality for this show is a prime example of something I just learnt! Many thanks to Khai and the Singapore Tourism Board for introducing me to the wonderful new world of Spark AR.

When Khai first asked me about the augmented reality for this show, I was still thinking of the old method that I had done, where I built an app from scratch and had to get people to download it to see the augmented reality animations — a terrible workflow.

Then Khai mentioned Facebook’s Spark AR. I went home, googled it and realised that Facebook has made augmented reality ridiculously simple and accessible! My mind was blown away. I see myself playing with Spark AR for quite a while, thanks to this project.

After Atypical Singapore, what other concepts or projects would you love to explore or work on?

Atypical Singapore is not over! I will be presenting my art and augmented reality experiences at the next installment of Atypical at the end of November. I am also teaching augmented reality classes at NTU to show students how easy it is and how they can learn via online tutorials without a formal teacher like me.

In September 2018, my team and I participated in a three-day hackathon, Startup Weekend Singapore, and emerged as grand champions with our project Mind Palace. It is a virtual reality experience that aims to help dementia patients remember by visiting familiar places in Singapore in virtual reality.

This is not the first time I have made virtual reality for the elderly. We plan to build Singaporean environments that resonate with our local elderly, like a kampong or a void deck in Ang Mo Kio or the Old National Stadium or a favourite Kopitiam, depending on our interactions with our first dementia patients. These environments will be stocked full of Singapore flavour and culture, and they could be repurposed to make Singaporean virtual reality experiences that everyone can enjoy. We do not see many 3D games and 3D environments set in Singapore. We will build them ourselves and we are going to need all the help we can get!

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