Filmmaker, educator, researcher and artist — Toh Hun Ping wears many hats. He’s a well-known figure in the Singapore film scene, having set up this fascinating portal on the history of local film locations. He’s also been involved in the highly popular State of Motion film – inspired art tours.
After a 6-year hiatus from his art practice, Toh returns to the scene with a new experimental art film Dance of a Humble Atheist to be screened at Objectifs’ Chapel Gallery, and which utilises over 600 handmade ceramic reliefs.
Here’s what he had to say about the work:
On the inspiration behind the film: This work has been 2 years in the making. I’m actually a filmmaker but I went into research for some time. My research work was also done with the intention of making a film – one that would appropriate old footage of Singapore, but along the way, (I faced) a crisis that made me question the meaning of life. And so, I wanted to make a work in response to that, to the existential questions especially with regard to spiritual faith. I’ve always been atheist or agnostic and I felt the need to find out more about dying, the afterlife, whether God exists and the role of an omnipotent being in my life. Where does freedom come in? Why do we have consciousness at all, and what is the meaning of the natural world and the cosmic universe around us?
On the film’s title Dance of a Humble Atheist: I’ve been making experimental films, somewhat semi-abstract, which use very fundamental elements of moving images – colour, form, rhythm, pulse and motion. These are also apparent in this work, which is why you see the word ‘dance’ in the title. There are no actual characters or figures moving, it is more a dance of the forms in the work. There are two elements – one of the existential question, and the other (of the need) to make a work in the form of a moving image, in line with that question. My experience was that I didn’t find the existence of an omnipotent God, that I believed in the agency of the self. This is just a personal position that I wanted to put up and share with anyone who might be interested to know.
What you’ll read in the work is not going to be an obvious, literal statement on the position of an atheist – it’s not meant to be anti-religion. The word ‘humble’ is there because atheism – especially New Atheism in America– is somewhat associated with arrogance.
On the ceramic materials used: My friend Tricia Lim runs Pinch Ceramic Studio which is her own art studio space and also a place where students, artists — anyone really– can go to use ceramics as an artistic medium. So I did that, I started taking classes in ceramics. I wanted to use the ceramics not to make the usual pots and plates, but to make a moving image work. I’ve always taken a hands-on approach to things. Even in my previous works, I’d do things like scratch on film or draw on images derived from video film, which are then scanned and used to make new work. This time, I wanted to work with a more three- dimensional medium, something that was more sculptural, like these reliefs, which have some depth:
On his methods: If you’re interested to know more you can attend my workshop! I’m very transparent about my process, it’s very, very simple. I use a flatbed scanner and I just scan (the ceramics). The digital images are then put through Photoshop using video editing software and then I just put it all together, frame by frame. None of this is actually CGI. The origin of all of this is just the material of the (ceramic) tiles, and it goes through a layer of digital manipulation through Photoshop. I use stop-motion animation, but the finished product doesn’t look like your usual kind of stop-motion animation like say, Wallace & Gromit. I use more experimental techniques.
On how to approach a silent film which runs for 18 minutes: It’s not that I don’t want to say too much about the film, but some things are just hard to put into words. What I offer to prospective audiences is a unique, visceral experience. These images are going to draw you in, and you may not even realise there’s no sound. I’ve heard from my friends (who have seen the film) that they didn’t even realise that the 18 minutes had passed. You sort of lose track. There are enough visual elements to keep your brain busy and you’ll be trying to anticipate what’s going to happen next.
It’s not a straightforward narrative with an explicit storyline that unfolds, but I do have a structure – there are 3 parts to the film and words that will guide and frame your experience. It will really make you question how you see things.
On how the audience should behave: They are free to do anything, to talk even. But obviously, what they do shouldn’t affect someone else’s experience, on intrude on their freedoms. You can pick up the ceramic pieces, but treat them with care. But you know, if you accidentally break one it’s fine too, it just changes my work — it’s fantastic!
Toh Hun Ping’s film Dance of a Humble Atheist debuts on 10 Jan, with a special performance by The Oddfellows’ Kelvin Tan. Find further details here.
(This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.)