Arts & Culture

The Enduring Beauty of Truth

B-side visits the home of Singaporean photographer and Cultural Medallion winner Chua Soo Bin to speak about his approach to portrait photography and his collection of imperfect clay wares and historical title deeds.

Words by
b-side staff

Text by Hera
Photography by Juliana Tan

Chua Soo Bin’s entanglement with art is characterised by his multifaceted career as an accomplished photographer, art director, art dealer and patron. In 1989, Chua received the prestigious cultural medallion for his self-initiated photographic project Legends, in which he undertook the imperative task of documenting the lives of fourteen Chinese ink masters. Chua noticed that there was a lack of photographic documentation for the Chinese ink masters of the late twentieth century, who were respectable figures in their advanced age. Between 1985 to 1988 he dedicated his time to research, visit and photograph the Chinese ink masters.

Truths & Legends, an exhibition currently shown at the National Gallery of Singapore (6 Dec 2019 – 6 Sep 2020) features Chua’s photography works, especially the series Legends. B-side visits his home—a confluence of artistic endeavours woven into the everyday—to speak about his latest exhibition, his approach to documentary photography and his dedication to collecting.

H: Legends as a project has been published as a book and shown as exhibitions successfully. Initially, while you were conceptualising and photographing for this project, what did you envision the outcome to be? Did it inform the planning and the printing of the photographs?

C: In the 80s, I was shooting an advertisement for Singapore Airlines in Northern China. I met a lot of artists and was motivated to start my own project. My friends helped me, and I did my own planning too. The project took four years to photograph; I took many pictures but ultimately, I chose six photographs per artist. However, I see my work in Legends as distinct from commercial photography—I was not interested in capturing pretty images of the artists, but their true lives. That was why a lot of time was spent on research and observing the artists.

“In portrait photography, one must be able to photograph the character of a person.”

Chua Soo Bin

I used a Nikon F3 to photograph with natural lighting. At times even when the light was dim, I did not mind it too much, because I knew I could push the film during development. Ilford sponsored the films; I used mainly the 400 ASA film, which was pushed to 1600 ASA, this is why the photographs in Legends have high contrast and grainy textures. This is the effect that I wanted to showcase. In 1989, I published the project as a book and mounted an exhibition of the photographs later in the same year. 

Charmaine Toh curated the Truths and Legends and it looks stunning. There are two types of prints in the exhibition, one was mounted on aluminium and another was the gelatin silver prints, which I hand-printed. They were also sponsored by Ilford who provided the paper in the 80s. I donated the gelatin silver prints in 1989 to the then National Museum Art Gallery and gave some to the artists as well. The artists have since passed away one by one. Legends have been shown a number of times in Singapore, Hong Kong and China. After I was conferred the Cultural Medallion, I used the prize money to mount an exhibition and print the second edition of the book. Recently, NAC has given me some funding to print a third edition of the book.

H: There have been several exhibition iterations of Legends, is there any exhibition display format that you like the most?

C: I like every one of them, each of them tells a different story. In portrait photography, one must be able to photograph the character of a person. For instance, Zhu Qi Zhan was almost a hundred years old, but he has a child-like character. Each of the masters has their own personality, so the images have different narratives. Consider a movie which shows a sequence over time, it communicates a story. Similarly, the photograph tells a story, but through a single picture.

H: Were the ink masters approachable individuals?

C: The ink masters were already respectable figures when I approached them, so it was not so easy asking them to pose for me. Typically, I did not photograph them immediately during our first meeting. I talked to the ink masters about my ideas, allowed them to familiarise with me as an artist and to express my sincerity to pursue this project. Eventually, they were more willing to cooperate with me. 

H: Did you spend a long time with the ink masters?

C: Yes, I made several visits to the artists, some of them up to four times. Sometimes the artists were busy or were doing something elsewhere. For instance, Liu Haisu was visiting Huangshan, so I made a trip to Huangshan with Liu Kang, where Liu Haisu made a painting of the mountain. I would visit their house, look at their artworks and spend time with them. Then I will start thinking about the possible angles to photograph. I would pay attention to their particular preferences, for instance, if an artist is a discerning tea drinker who appreciates tea wares I will photograph them drinking tea, another might be a big fan of stewed meat or someone who loved drinking, then I would attempt to feature it. Only a few of the photographs show the artist wielding his brush, many people would approach a documentary of an artist this way. 

I think what was important to me was that after spending time with the ink masters and photographing them, the process changed me and made me humble. These artists were masters in their art form, but they were also exemplary characters, they understood that one must be humble(谦虚), thus people respected them for both their talent and their virtues.

H: Were the ink masters interested in how they were depicted? Did they give you any idea on how they would like to be photographed?

C: No, they trusted in my process and respected me as an artist. What I aim for is for the artist to appear alive in the photographs, even today. The artists in the photographs do not appear like they are posing. 

H: Younger contemporary artists from China are extremely engaged and reactive towards political and societal changes in China. Did you feel that the ink masters you featured in Legends were also reacting to changes in the political sphere?

C: No, the practices of the ink masters engage directly with tradition and culture that has been passed down for generations. On the other hand, contemporary artists are very engaged with political issues. In 1997, I organised one of the earliest exhibition of Chinese contemporary artists 《红与灰:八位中国前卫 艺术家》(which can be translated as Red and Grey: Eight Chinese Avant-garde Artists). The exhibition reflected an aspect of critical art in China, the artists featured were unafraid to be rebellious and engaged with satire as a tactic.

“These artists were masters in their art form, but they were also exemplary characters, they understood that one must be humble(谦虚), thus people respected them for both their talent and their virtues.”

Chua Soo Bin

H: Throughout your illustrious career as a photographer, art director, art dealer and patron, you have embarked on numerous creative projects. How do you decide upon which projects to pursue? What motivates you and what do you value in these pursuits?

C: To me, the most important factor is whether the art has moved me, I will only pursue a work that I love. Of course, I have worked on a variety of photography and gallery works that involve the more traditional Chinese ink paintings, to contemporary and conceptual art. I am also interested in new works currently being produced by young artists. Even as I am getting older I am still perceptive towards the art scene. 

H: Are you currently embarking on any project whether as an artist, a gallerist or a collector? 

C: I collect some works that have defects or may not appear valuable on the onset. For instance, these Southern Song clay wares which have just arrived are flawed so most people would not be interested in them, but I find beauty in their imperfection. From my point of view, objects that are too perfect may not be beautiful. This clay ware was damaged during its firing, for me there are feelings and sentiments in this imperfection and it produces a natural beauty. 

I am also interested in Qing dynasty handwritten title deeds; these are no longer valid deeds since China transitioned from feudalism towards a socialist republic, but they have become interesting items. The title deeds may bear official red seals and are called “red deeds” (红契) or they may just contain the handwritten descriptions, these are called “white deeds”  (白契). The latter tend to be circulated more by the common folks. If a property was sold off to a new owner, the title deed would be appended with a new piece of paper and would get longer with increasing transactions. I have more than a hundred of these title deeds and have been collecting them since the 1990s; I consider this a personal project. Not many people know about these Qing dynasty title deeds, but they are a form of culture. 

Chua Soo Bin: Truths & Legends is showing at the National Gallery of Singapore from 6 Dec 2019 – 6 Sep 2020 at the City Hall Wing, Level 4, Wu Guanzhong Gallery. General admission ticket required (Free for Singaporeans and PRs).

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