Essay Szan Tan

The Remarkability of the Everyday and Mundane:

The Being Together and The Moment series of John Clang

by Szan Tan


“The mundane and commonplace attract me—I have an affinity for subjects closely related to my daily life.” says John Clang, the Singaporean artist-photographer who is based in New York. It is little wonder that the humble and common family portrait has been a subject matter which Clang has been delving into and exploring in the last three years.  In choosing to tackle the family portrait, Clang has undertaken a difficult aesthetic and conceptual challenge. It is the portrayal of the typical and ordinary that poses the toughest challenge for the fantastical and extraordinary easily appeals. Bound by traditions and conventions of portrayal, the genre of family portraits is not an easy genre to approach.   In his portrayal of the family, Clang draws out its  richness and complexities  and the intensity of human relationships. In dealing with the theme of the family, he revisits his own feelings towards his own, making the journey of creating these family portraits a personal and emotional one. Through confronting his own emotions and uncovering the underlying structures and complexities of human relationships within a family, Clang brings out the remarkability of a simple family portrait. Although the act of taking a family portrait is not an everyday event, the image of the family is commonplace and the daily interactions amongst family members are generally mundane affairs. However, it is precisely the cumulative interactions that shape who we are and are intimately tied to our sense of identity and self-worth. The image of the family is imbued with such deep meanings and often elicits  strong responses.

Between 2010 and 2012 Clang created a series of family portraits entitled ‘Being Together’, featuring families from Singapore. Clang first began with his own family portrait which he took using Skype VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol) technology. Using a webcam to record live images of his parents and brother and project them onto a wall / cabinet in his apartment in New York, Clang staged a virtual family reunion and created an opportunity for his family portrait to be taken. He further photographed himself separately with his parents, with each parent and with his brother. In doing so, he confronts himself, his relationship with each of his family member and his feelings towards each of them. These feelings were explicitly explored in his earlier series ‘Fear of Losing the Existence (2002)’, ‘Guilt―Dad, Mum and Joe (2010)’ and ‘Erasure (2011)’, works which formed thefoundation for the creation of the ‘Being Together’ series. In all five portraits taken with his family, Clang’s shadow is often larger than life and perhaps intentionally so. Although almost inevitable for shadows to appear due to the projection of the Skype image from the front, theycan also be avoided. Instead, Clang leaves his shadow in and incorporates it into the composition; this shadow makes his presence even more acutely felt in the image. It was as if Clang wanted to assert his physicality into the image, to exist in the same place as his parents and brother and not just exist as a mirage simultaneoulsy with them. The shadow carries in itself much symbolism and its use here can be read in many other ways depending on one’s background and imagination.

Having lived away from home for 14 years in New York and only being able to visit his parents twice a year, Clang developed  a fear of losing his parents and naturally, this fear  increases as they age. And their aging process seemed startlingly rapid to Clang for he did not have the opportunity to witness them grow old day by day. Instead, it was as if the images of his aging parents appeared in front of him like fast-forwarded frames in a video. Being the eldest son in a Chinese family, feelings of guilt for being away from home and entrusting the care of his parents to his only brother further added to the emotional burden of adhering to his decision to work and live overseas. Such feeling of guilt and fear intertwine intensely and emerge from the surface of Clang’s ‘Guilt―Dad, Mum and Joe’ series in which he scribbles his apologies to his mother, father and brother onto their blanked out faces and recall his fondest and scariest memories with each of them.

Equally intense is the ‘Erasure (2011)’ series in which Clang revisits the theme of the fear of losing one’s loved ones. In 2002, Clang first dealt with this theme in his ‘Fear of Losing the Existence’ series, a series depicting images of blurred faces and silhouettes of his loved ones.  Due to the long expanse of time spent and space separated from them, it became difficult to recall the details of their faces. The images thus created captured this fading of the memory and the struggle to remember. In ‘Erasure’, Clang denies the viewer access to the image of the person depicted by first depicting only their back views and then using an ink eraser to rub out their entire silhouette. The persons depicted are actually his parents and parents-in-law and here; Clang confronts his innermost fears of their eventual departure and expiration from life itself. The act of rubbing out the image of a person is definitely deliberate and perhaps signifies a futile attempt to take control and to deny the eventuality of the lives of his loved ones being taken away from him. As Susan Sontag has said, “All photographs are memento mori. To take a photograph is to participate in another person’s (or thing’s) mortality, vulnerability, mutability.” Indeed, for Clang, the issue of one’s mortality, including his own, is one that has haunted him since young.

 ‘Being Together’ is therefore a continuation of Clang’s intimate exploration of his personal feelings towards his family. Though separated by thousands of miles, the portraits taken with his family using Skype technology provided a brief reunion and consequently assuaged not just pangs of homesickness but also possibly and temporarily alleviated any feelings of guilt. Clang took those fleeting moments of joy derived from his virtual reunion with his family and expanded it by sharing it with others like himself. He sought out those who were similarly living and working abroad and their families and arranged for their family portraits to be taken. 40 virtual reunions of Singaporeans working overseas and their families in Singapore were thus staged from Paris to Washington to Sengkang and Toa Payoh between2010 to 2012. The resultant family portraits reflected not just particular family realities but also a history of shared experiences in today’s highly mobile milieu. What is captured on print is a crystallised moment of unity, connectedness and group identity as a family despite the physical separation. The projection of the image of the physical environment of one’s home in Singapore( which was so familiar and yet far and foreign simultaneously) onto the walls of the temporary abode of the depicted who were living abroad was often an extremely surreal and emotional experience for them. In choosing not to depict any special event or occasion related to the family such as a birthday or wedding for the ‘Being Together’ series, Clang emphasises the profound ordinariness of a family portrait for each depicted moment is ultimately to unite and not to idealise, glorify or celebrate, unlike traditional studio portraits.  It is the everyday moment and the everyday setting that constitute the family and aspects of its intimacy that are captured and evoked. Although in a foreign land, the projected image of one’s home (the haven) and family whom we seek refuge brings comfort to those who have lived apart from their families for many years. The simultaneous feeling of being part of and yet physically apart from one’s family is precisely what Clang had hoped to capture.

The intensity of the moments of being together as one family unit is also underscored in another series of family portraits which Clang has been working on in the past two years. Entitled ‘The Moment’, this series was first presented in the National Museum of Singapore. The format adopted for each family portrait in this series is that of a triptych. Three simultaneous frames of the same precise moment were captured and presented. Here Clang pushes the boundaries of the conventions of depicting the family by incorporating the spontaneous and impromptu, thereby bringing out the naturalness and ease of interaction amongst family members. At times, heads are half-turned and eyes are not directed at the camera and in one instance, a child’s face is not even revealed as it turns away, absorbed in its own world playing the iPad. Through incorporating such moments of unexpected individual activity and movement, Clang successfully combines the family snapshot with the family portrait. Stiff poses and formal arrangements of seating are abandoned and an air of informality and casualness, reflecting the intimate relationships between various members of the family, takes over. The breakdown of formality in the depiction of the family however does not imply a breakdown of family hierarchies and power relationships. Gendered roles and inter-generational hierarchies are very much intact and can be discerned through gestures, postures and the positioning of bodies. By adding side views taken from the position of the depicted, Clang puts the viewer in the ‘shoes’ of the depicted and blurs the line between the viewer and the depicted, inviting the viewer to imagine the moment of being photographed together with the family. Simultaneity and the sharing of the same moment are thus emphasised. The triptych format also surfaced interesting perspectives otherwise not possible in conventional family portraits. The use of the triptych format is indeed a clever device for it recalls the sacredness of a biblical image and echoes the significance with which we place the family. The texturing of meanings through various devices in ‘The Moment’ series is what made it appealing.

Due to their ordinariness and ubiquity, the importance and significance of family portraits as personal and historical documents are often overlooked. Clang understands the significance and associative meanings of the family and exploits his emotions to explore the theme. He realises the remarkability of the ordinary through the humble family portrait and brings it to another level not just by using technology innovatively and adopting compositional devices creatively but more importantly by simply capturing the enduring qualities of the family and emphasising the power of the mundane and commonplace to move one’s heart.