Whether you’ve seen Rifqi Amirul Rosli’s paintings at SPRMRKT, his sculptures at Objectifs, or most recently, his digital works online at Falling into its Thingness, the one thing that remains constant is his exploration of the in-betweenness of things. From transitional spaces to transitional states, the artist uses a variety of media in his employ to probe at the nature of being caught in between. Over a series of conversations, we find out how Rifqi explores this in-between space in his practice in various ways.
A lot of your work deals with transitional or liminal spaces and in-between states such as between heaven and purgatory. What draws you to them?
I was living in Johor Bahru with my family for about three years before my National Service, and during that period I was just questioning my sense of belonging. Although Malaysia and Singapore are quite similar, I felt very alienated as a Singaporean moving to another country. So I was really stuck in between – I didn’t consider Singapore as my home, because I only worked there. That’s when I started to question that feeling of being neither here nor there, being in between.
That then evolved to looking at transitional spaces, spaces like walkways where there’s no sense of placeness to it. I was very influenced by Marc Auge’s writings on non-places, which is quite a good read. He explains it as a non-anthropological space that’s not human-centric, or rather, there’s no history to these places. It’s always a neutral space, but also a space with no culture attached to it. People just don’t linger and stay and live there.
Like Woodlands Checkpoint and Changi airport, perhaps?
Yeah – non-places are also border-places, but border places in the north are very cold and harsh. It points to how it’s catered for migrant workers, people from Malaysia, working to Singapore. The transportation is also by land, for a certain crowd, whereas the airport is international. At the airport the transitory lounge is also a non-place, but you get a sense of home because of all the comfort – the air-con and the carpet. That’s another way to look at non-place.
I was looking at this duality a lot – borders really influenced my practice as well. Back then I was looking at hostile architecture, so things that are divisive, like fences or cones… then it evolved to my work today, which is also very influenced by addressing power structures. For the Objectifs show, I was addressing power structures through these totemic kind of structures, these lattices that I was very involved in.
Tell us more about your thought processes behind those works.
For this show, my strategy was to explore how you soften something. I was trying to think about how do I soften that kind of harsh architecture? There was this term in architecture called “architectural softening” which is a legit term apparently [laughs].
So I was looking at that – strategies to soften architecture are through the addition of shrubbery, leaves, fringes, nature, to blend in with nature, or even the curvatures of buildings that look more organic. And Circuit Breaker kind of low-key influenced me too because I was looking at the overgrown shrubs that grew so much and really softened edges.
How I introduced this softening in my work is to wrap the forms up in this plaster to introduce irregularities that are more organic, that could resemble skeletons or other organic forms:
I was also very attracted to stone spray, which produces this grainy, spotted look that mimics stone. It gives that natural look through artificial means. I was looking at faux-objects like faux stone and grass, and being very drawn to the plasticity and fakeness of these things. This fakeness is very playful, and another form of softening. It’s the same with the PVC fringes, I just painted it and put it to strips.
How did you come to incorporate PVC into your work?
I remember using it three years ago. It was an accessible material for me at that point in time. I was very drawn to its heaviness and the strength of it. And I really love that weight it gives, the way it straightens itself up. It’s such a good material. It changes based on the temperature such that when it’s hot, it slowly straightens itself. So when I was unrolling it, it was a bit curvy, then it started to straighten. It’s a very malleable and good material.
Very docile, obedient… A very Singaporean material, huh?
[laughs] And you see PVC everywhere outside. It’s a very accessible material that people tend to look over. People always want the archival material, material that lasts forever, but how long can art last? I was really just making the art for the medium and appreciating the physical qualities of it.
As I worked with the materials I came to realise that they have different quirks. For example, creating fringes out of acetate sheets is different from doing it using PVC. The former has its own suspension, a flexibility or bounciness that gives it a different reading. For me, this is more playful because it bounces rather than sags. Whereas for PVC, if it’s curvy and overarching, it becomes really saggy. It’s almost fleshy to me, a bit bodily perhaps.
So one of the questions that I wanted to ask you was what motivates you in your art practice? You’re getting really nerdy about the materiality of things – is that what draws you?
Actually, yeah, I get very excited about material, and I’m just realising that.
Where would you say you are currently in your practice?
I’m pushing my vocabulary of being in between through sculpture right now. My interests are in sculpture but also print media. I’d like to think that even drawings and paintings are also sculpture in a way. I’m not medium focused – I don’t stick to one medium if that makes sense.
What does that mean, to build your visual vocabulary?
It’s the things that I always relate to, the forms that I always come back to, I think that would be the language that I’m trying to build. For sculptures, it’s also about learning to look at it in 360 degrees, and being aware of everything. It’s a different kind of attention that you need to pay. So some languages in sculpture are very different from print, and it’s a process of translation from one medium to another.
Like you have to learn what works and what doesn’t.
Yeah. So I usually work in that process of translating. A lot of my process comes from drawing first. Then from drawing to print, they go through a phase of transitioning between each other. From drawing, to print, then to photo, that kind of thing.
What is your process like? How do you figure out whether something works or doesn’t?
If I don’t like it, I’ll just throw it away. I’m very okay with trying things out even if they don’t work out. People tend to tell me that I can compartmentalise. So if this fails, I put it aside, shove it in the drawer, and do something else. You don’t let that affect you so much. Then you go somewhere else.
There are always multiple strands in my practice that I can cling onto – if part of this sculpture doesn’t work, I can focus on the drawing. If the drawing doesn’t work, I can go to my collective, Pure Ever. That’s why having a multimedia practice is fun – you have that flexibility of switching and experimenting.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. All images courtesy of the artist.
* The artist has requested for this artwork title not to be translated into English.