Susie Wong is an artist, art writer and curator living and working in Singapore, and it’s her recent 2014 exhibition, (after image) My Beautiful that caught my eye. At the centre of this exhibition were five heftily sized drawings of Susie Wong’s father, a man she drew from the front, sides, and back. Because of their near life-size scale, and owing to the meticulous attention to detail Wong carries out, her black and white drawings of her father are noticeable for the sense of presence they exert on the viewer. You feel as though her father is in the room with you, half naked, ready to talk to you.
One of her enduring themes is presence and absence, and I get the impression that Wong dearly loves her father. It isn’t because she wants us all to dearly love her father that she has chosen to depict and exhibit the ageing, fragile gentleman for us all to prod at with our eyes, but because she loves two things – art and her father.
By drawing her father topless, recording him from various angles, Wong is showing us someone she loves to be around, in this case her close companion in life. Is she suggesting we should value the fleeting presence of our loved ones? Because life if short? Eventually, as Wong knows, her father will be conspicuous by his absence. For now, he is conspicuous in his presence.
Wong indicates in her bio that she has a mistrust of representation. What this can possibly mean for her representation of her father is up for interpretation. An interpretation that could take us away from my earlier thoughts – that she depicted her father to remind us to celebrate the things we love – is that she is demonstrating how art is a poor imitation of life. A life-sized drawing, no matter how meticulous, no matter how lovingly crafted, is no replacement for the real thing.
Wong doesn’t just draw her father, and nor does she stick to figures. At her (after image) My Beautiful exhibition, she exhibited a total of three groups of drawings. One group contained the aforementioned images of her father, whilst the remaining two contained Asian landscapes – possibly Javan – and drawings of cherry blossoms.
The landscapes, possessed of a haunting quality, come complete with quotes lifted from Joseph Conrad’s classic novel Heart of Darkness. This piece of literature dealt with the issue of colonialism at cusp of the 20th century, which leads me to humbly assume that Susie Wong is trying to stir memories of a brutal, imperialistic past. The reasons for this are unclear, but my personal thoughts are that perhaps the clue is in the exhibitions title – after thought.
An after thought is something that is added later. What can be added a hundred years after colonialism was taken apart? How does her Javanese landscapes make us feel after we read Conrad’s line “The sun was fierce, the land seemed to glisten and drip with steam” ? What can be added to her father’s life?