Photographing the In/visible
By ZHUANG Wubin
I am not well informed about the issue of euthanasia. I do not feel qualified to speak about the issue. I am primarily a writer of photography, having interviewed Malaysian artist Eiffel Chong (b. 1977, Kuala Lumpur), on and off, since 2007. I suspect this is why I have been asked to write this essay.
For the twelfth iteration (beginning in November 2018) of the Exactly Foundation residency, an initiative established in 2015 by Taiwan-born Singaporean Li Li Chung, Eiffel is selected as the participating photographer. The residency’s intention is to generate discussion on specific issues that concern her by providing a production grant to selected photographers who are required to produce a body of work, in response to the issues. After the work is made, Li Li organises a discussion-dinner at her residence, bringing the photographer in contact with a selected group of viewers who are required in the following weeks to respond (in text or images) to the photographs. The viewers are also encouraged to invite people within their social circle to respond to the images. At the end of each residency stint, the produced images and the collated responses are printed in an exhibition catalogue.
In selecting the highlighted issues, featured photographers and participating respondents, Li Li assumes the curatorial role in this residency initiative. It is clear that Li Li relishes the opportunity to germinate (and to be involved in) the discussion of thorny issues. But she has also taken the rare step of committing her time, energy and financial resources in organising this multi-year initiative during her retirement years. Her tangible support for Singapore-based photographers through the residency needs to be recognised.
Returning to the issue of euthanasia, Li Li is invested in it on a personal level. For the past two decades, her once-vigorous mother had been living with dementia, mostly under full time care, in a medical home at Tamsui, Taiwan, until her recent passing. Given that her mother has not left any instructions on the matter, the question of whether to resuscitate her in cases of emergency has since bugged Li Li.
In 2017, she attended the PhotoSymposium Asia in Kuala Lumpur where Eiffel delivered a presentation of his artistic practice. One of his projects, titled Institutionalised Care (2005-07), quickly resonated with her. On the surface, Institutionalised Care features straight photographs of medical equipment and installations found in clinics and private hospitals across Malaysia. The punctum of the work revealed itself to Eiffel when his grandma passed away six months into the project. Through his loss, Eiffel started to see beyond the surface of his photographs. This is how he contextualises the work today, that the medical space is the only place in the world where birth and death exist simultaneously.
Li Li, on the other hand, seems to have received the wound of the work in a slightly different way. It convinced her that Eiffel might be the right person to create a body of work to address the issue of euthanasia. The catch? Eiffel had not even heard of the term ‘euthanasia’ before she approached him for the residency!
In hindsight, Li Li made a rather astute decision to work with Eiffel. In general, straight photography requires the photographer to gain access (using ethical or unethical means) to interesting subjects in order to turn them into photographs. Something must exist in front of the camera for straight photography to work. Despite an early fling with photojournalism in Malaysia, Eiffel was forced to evolve his practice when he studied photography at the London College of Printing. Nevertheless, he has never sidestepped the fact that the camera documents. In fact, he continues to work with straight photography. He does not create tableaux vivants on Photoshop. Rarely does he veer towards the performative in his art making. It is certainly possible to see his photographs as evidence of something that once existed out there, just that he does not use them in this way.
In his work, Eiffel often references the wound of mortality. But his work is usually activated through the statement that accompanies each project, cajoling his viewers to see and think in a particular direction. This is also his strategy for the series that he made in this residency.
Responding to the issue of euthanasia, Eiffel created a body of work titled Hurt Like Heaven (2018-19). The photographs are taken at the void decks of HDB blocks in different parts of Singapore. They direct our attention to the cracks and marks on the walls, which hint at human usage and subsequent attempts to maintain the façade of these public spaces. Eiffel’s approach reminds me of the work of his Malaysian peer, K. Azril Ismail (b. 1977, Kuala Lumpur), who photographed, almost obsessively, the graffiti on the prison walls of the now-demolished Pudu Jail. The exhibition of Azril’s work, Pudu Jail Graffiti: Aesthetics Beyond the Walls (2002-03), in Malaysia coincided with Eiffel’s involvement in the Exactly Foundation residency.
As a Malaysian (and the first participant of the residency who is not based in Singapore), Eiffel expresses an obvious fascination with the manicured beauty of the HDB void deck. Incidentally, the void deck is the place where many Malay families host their boisterous wedding receptions. It is also the place where Chinese families hold funeral wakes. This is as close as this line of thought traverses, vis-à-vis the issue of mortality.
As we live longer lives, as we become more aware of how certain societies have legalised euthanasia, it seems inevitable that the issue would eventually surface for public debate. Over the years, there has been a thread of public letters published on the Straits Times, fermenting the discussion. It is clear that the writers of these letters are incredibly passionate about the issue. However, it is unclear whether these exchanges have generated further traction amongst the general public.
The issue of euthanasia remains, bubbling beneath the surface, almost visible, and nearly invisible. It is analogous to the marks and crevices that appear on the void deck walls of Hurt Like Heaven, where a new coat of paint might not be enough to conceal the unsightly, the unphotographable. This duality between the visible and the invisible is what Eiffel strives for in this work on euthanasia.
Interestingly, when Eiffel first emailed her the files, Li Li thought that the thumbnail images were devoid of visual details. She thought that the files were corrupted. She downloaded them three times, just to be sure. After making an urgent call to Eiffel, she finally realised the issue. The image details can only be seen when the files are viewed in actual size on the computer monitor. Her experience reminds us that the issue of euthanasia is not cast in black and white. It requires us to look and scrutinise. There are so many details concerning the issue: the difference between assisted suicide and passive euthanasia, the relevance of palliative care, the political cost of pushing for it at the policy level, and the usefulness and limits of the Advance Medical Directive.
In Hurt Like Heaven, the onus is on the viewers to desire to see the details of Eiffel’s photographs and be able to go beyond the surface in order to make the connection with the issue at hand. This requires a degree of imagination and awareness from the audience. The dinner hosted by Li Li for Eiffel and the respondents on 19 January 2019 offered possibly the most conducive way to experience the work. During the session, each respondent received a set of 8” x 10” prints of the work. Eiffel also delivered a candid introduction to the series, directing their attention to the duality of visibility and invisibility that informs the work.
His artistic approach in Hurt Like Heaven is strategic because it allows him to sidestep the ethics of euthanasia. In fact, he would have to come out of his comfort zone in order to function like a photojournalist to shoot, for instance, a family dealing with the dilemma of euthanasia. That kind of approach might have generated a more impassioned debate, or it might unwittingly replicate the echo chamber effect on social media. Instead, Eiffel’s decision to photograph the void decks is his attempt to limit his response for the residency to the ethics of photographing / seeing euthanasia. In this way, he does not have to be explicit or “journalistic” on the visual level.
In Hurt Like Heaven, Eiffel compels us to scrutinise the details of his photographs and the issue of euthanasia. The challenge then is for viewers who encounter this work outside of the immediate context of the residency to see beyond the surface of his photographs.