Catching up on Singaporean visual artist John Clang and his state of mind

john clang

Photographer John Clang had a showing at the recent Singapore Art Week 2023. We query him about his career during the pandemic and moving forward

There’s a story, a pervasive one about how John Clang became John Clang. Born Ang Choon Leng, during his stint in National Service, he noticed that his badge name truncated his birth name to ‘C L ANG’. But that only tells us about how John Clang got his name.

No, the much larger story, the one that added depth to his character that is John Clang is his body of work. Dealing with people going about their mundane life, Clang sees the daily occurrences and tugs at the strings, lifting them above the flow of an ordinary existence. In recent years, he has delved into identity, loss and the distance and relationship between the two. In the series, Being Together (2010), Clang projected a live recording of his family in Singapore via a webcam and projected himself in his living space in New York—his version of the updated family portraitIn The Land of My Heat (2014), Clang appropriates the local icon, the Singapore Airlines air stewardess, and places her in the ‘nostalgic spaces’ of a developing motherland.

Of late, Clang has waded into the deep end of the pool of filmmaking and has put out two films, Their Remaining Journey and A Love Unknown. These intimate black-and-white features touched on loss and recovery and were shown at film festivals, both stateside and overseas. 

Their Remaining Journey follows the spirit of a dead theatre actress, who observes the living while waiting for her own reincarnation. Her journey is interspersed with two other storylines of an ex-mistress travelling to Singapore after learning about the death of her lover and a Singaporean transplant in Hualien prepares to tell his wife about his secrets. While A Love Unknown follows two women—Min Ko and Renée Ting—an estranged mother-and-daughter pair—try to break their cycle of depression. Both fictional and real, certain elements from the women’s lives were used in the film.

Clang recently exhibited at the recent Art SG and Fost Gallery during Singapore Art Week 2023. We catch up on Clang’s state of mind.

their remaining journey
In Their Remaining Journey, a dead theatre actress observes the lives of others and the loss of her family

How was Singapore Art Week for you?

Singapore Art Week has been quite a new experience for me as I was exhibiting both at FOST Gallery at Gillman Barracks and also at Art SG. The response was greater than I initially thought and I met many collectors and art lovers in person. It was also a very exhausting week, with so many events happening at the same time. I think it was very organised and I am in awe of the kind of energy level of the people I have met. In short, I was very impressed with the Singapore Art Week and Art SG.

It seems that filmmaking would be a natural progression for someone who started in photography. You mentioned that you like to “do something that is off the beaten path” because film plots these days are contrived. Is this something that you’d still adhere to? What is the media consumption of John Clang?

I actually love filmmaking right from the beginning when I was in my teens. I watched a lot of art films then though it was difficult to obtain them. I had to buy laser discs (LD) from an illegal store and it cost S$100 per disc back then. I am not interested in creating successful blockbuster films or films that can be widely accepted. I am more interested in creating films that reflect the current state of mind of the people existing now and to achieve that, I need to work with non-actors/actresses.

The audience loves plots as they can follow the narrative easily and be hooked to it. It is less demanding for them to engage with the film as they want to be entertained and [be] relaxed after watching a film. I would say that it can be difficult to sit through my film but I know exactly why my films are important and time will explain why.

Other than the slow cinema that I love to watch, I also love to watch Korean dramas with my wife. She hates it when I told her the plots in advance as it usually turns out correctly.

You’ve said that you cast non-actors because you don’t want them to “give [you] everything they feel and have experienced, with no exaggeration or need for drama.” How do you prepare your players for a scene? Were there any issues with naturalism when there’s a constant focus of the camera?

I always cast someone in an attempt to know more about them and to hear their side of the story. I believe everyone is interesting if you get to know them more. All I ask from them is to share with the camera their feelings and I do not need them to do any acting. I will create scenarios that allow them to feel comfortable or even uncomfortable if needed.

The idea of naturalism is not important to me as long they are not trying to act. If they feel uncomfortable with the camera and it shows, that can also be a beauty. It added reality to what we are trying to film. That is the kind of naturism I seek.

a love unknown
An official poster of A Love Unknown

With regards to A Love Unknown, were there any concerns with dredging up past traumas with Min Ko and Renée Ting (whose break-up made the local literary news cycle)? How do you gently lead them into the film?

When I did the film, I only knew a bit about Min and Renée’s past. I did not know the complete story. I only knew that they were both hurt and depressed. So, I invited them to be in the film, just to reflect on what they are going through in their life.

There was no paper/contractual agreement with them when we did the filming and I knew the possible risk of them changing their mind during filming. I am willing to take that risk as I find formal agreement in such a film ruined the artistic idealism I was seeking.

So basically, I have to tread carefully when I lead them into every scene, explaining to them my intention and what we are exploring from each scenario. I also give them no time for any preparation so that they can only respond to the scene based on their natural feelings.

Are you at work with the final instalment of your trilogy? Any hints as to what it’s all about?

Yes, I am working on the final instalment. The actress is someone I found from Buenos Aires and it will be about her dreams and the reality of them. Besides this, I am also co-directing with Lavender Chang on a new documentary regarding single moms. We have been working on this for the past two years and it is still ongoing.

You collaborate a lot with Lavender Chang.

I met Lavender when she was still a student at NTU ADM and she was selected to be in my mentorship programme. She left a very strong impression on me as someone extremely talented and yet also insecure. That insecurity drives her to keep experimenting and growing, resulting in the amazing body of artwork she had produced over the last five years.

She is one artist I admired greatly as her work has a critical depth that allows further contemplation, without any attempt to be trendy. She takes a lot of chances in her work and this methodology is something I adore as it also requires the artist to be very skilled in her craft to ‘let go’ [of] what she had learnt and be free. I can always expect something unexpected from her, but intriguing at the same time. I love the fact that her work makes me jealous.

What are some works that would give us an idea of who John Clang is?

I love the songs from China music artist, Li Zhi, and my favourite film which I [have] watched numerous times is Andrei Tarkovsky’s Mirror. I also like Wang Bing’s documentary art films. 

Absent Smile, a film about an elderly couple longing for their son who lives abroad

You’ve mentioned that a filmmaker must always be neutral. When it comes to Absent Smile, was it tough filming your parents, especially about the real-life distance between them and you?

It is very easy to film my parents as all we need them to do is to be themselves. However, it is very difficult for me to watch the film as I know I could have done more for my mom. She passed away last year before the film premiered at SGIFF.

In a different interview, you said that you prefer traditional photography but you can take still images from a digital film. What’s your stance on social media platforms like Instagram and TikTok?

I am a dinosaur when it comes to technology. I have only had a smartphone in recent years because there’s no more 3G network. I am a total newbie to Instagram. I don’t even know how to operate them and I need my wife to help me. I am not sure if I need them as I don’t post much. I only post things that truly matter to me. What’s TikTok? I do love Tic Tac [though].

John Clang