Meandering through Tiong Bahru’s quaint streets, admiring the various conservation houses dotted throughout the neighbourhood, one often forgets the many lives this estate has lived.
As Singapore’s oldest housing estate, it is now home to various quirky boutiques, art galleries and bustling restaurants. Tucked away in one such street is HATCH Art Project, a contemporary gallery established in 2018 that focuses on nurturing emerging talent both regionally and internationally.
On show is The Lives of Others, Nguyễn Quốc Dũng’s debut solo exhibition in Singapore. It showcases a series of paintings that expresses ideas that the artist has been developing over the past five years.
The show’s premise negotiates the lives of the marginalised (such as immigrants and transgender people) and their sense of “otherness” within a rapidly developing landscape of Vietnam, and the displacement that entails. The works confront the viewers as they enter these strangely familiar domestic scenes and absurd interpretations of the everyday.
A Close Look at Nguyễn’s Immigrant
From one painting to the next, each work commands you to slow down to uncover the secrets tucked away in each composition’s nook and cranny – but the piece which had me transfixed was Immigrant (2021).
The initial encounter was overwhelming, with the scene filled to the brim with signifiers all fighting to be noticed. The walls become a collage with a mismatch of objects, from sentimental memorabilia to garments and toys, and even kitchen utensils. The figures within the painting open up an interesting dialogue between the mother and child, and the figure on the bed.
There are multiple ways of interpreting this composition. For me, it was helpful to break down the diptych into two halves before revisiting it. The break between the canvases has me believing there is more to the work than just a depiction of a migrant family.
The right half of the painting exudes a sense of aloofness and a carefree spirit, with fans blowing the nude figure lounging on the bed. This juxtaposes the other half, which depicts a nurturing and attentive figure in the midst of getting dressed while caring for the child.
The different wallpaper layers are also significant; you can view them as metaphors for impending change, with layers either slowly overtaking each other or being covered up. Coming back to the bigger picture, I feel that there is a possibility that both of the female figures are indeed the same person, but at different stages of their lives.
The act of clothing one’s self could also be the artist quietly alluding to our perception of nudity that is outlandish or perverse but, in fact, freeing.
I felt it was necessary to understand the context and position that Nguyễn adopts throughout his creative process and learn about how he develops his compositions.
Most of Nguyễn’s paintings present the nude body, which often comes with its own baggage — primarily questions surrounding the gaze and or the sexualization of the subject. It reminds me of, for example, Édouard Manet’s Olympia, and the works by Egon Schiele, and Robert Mapplethorpe, to name a few.
Going through the works, I came to learn that even though these scenes are mainly fictional, the artist derives all the narrative elements in his paintings from real-life documentation of individuals, friends and neighbours. He positions himself both sympathetically and empathetically towards them, sharing a mutual comradery as they collectively strive to sustain themselves within a globalising Vietnam and its widening income gap.
Nguyễn also shares his views on nudity within the paintings, mentioning that by disrobing the subjects, he removes identifiable markers of wealth and status — reminding us of the fallibility of our own skin, and the vulnerability of others.
Serving as a hard reality check for the viewer, the show depicts scenarios that prompt them to understand their positions in the world when perceiving the lives of others. This brings to the surface our own understandings (or lack thereof) of ourselves and the realities in which others live.
The Lives of Others is on show at HATCH Art Project until 12 February 2023.