GL: The first time I encountered your work was almost 15 years ago! At that time, you had just finished your MA at Lasalle and I distinctly remember seeing your paintings in the studio. They were decidedly neither figurative nor abstract, and had these forms that were suggestive of the body and the landscape. The work had a kind of strangeness and awkwardness that reminded me of Philip Guston. (Pardon my rather hazy description, I’m writing from memory here!) You have moved on quite a bit since then. How do you feel about these early paintings and how they sit with what you are interested in now?
JS: Interesting you mentioned that Guo-Liang, I think those nightmarish bodies of work are something I subconsciously try to hide and not speak about because what I’m doing now seems different. But I think they were an important part of my growth as an artist, and you can say my interests are still the same but explored through very different means. You are right, I was looking a lot at Philip Guston, who till this day is still one of my favourite painters.
GL: One thing that struck me, looking at your overall practice, is how diverse it is – both in terms of medium as well as approach. The word ‘shapeshifting’ comes to mind: there is drawing, painting, sculpture, sound, video and increasingly, the incorporation of digital and technological elements. There seems to be a very healthy disregard for medium-specificity in how you work. Is this a conscious decision for you?
JS: It wasn’t as conscious as when I decided to stop painting for quite a while and moved on to other mediums; it was only recently that I returned to working on paper. I am obsessed with any medium I work with actually, I see them as what maybe Rosalind Krauss sees as a kind of tangible or intangible support, be it a stretcher, a screen, an automobile, memories, an atmosphere, etc. I am also defined more by projects now. ‘Project’ seems like a bad word for an artist but I felt more comfortable after hearing Alfredo Jaar calling himself a ‘project artist’. I see myself as an artist-at-large because I cannot stay still.
GL: From the oil paintings in Apropos (2012) to the polystyrene foam wall reliefs in Terra Sensa (2014) and the digital screen works in Spectrum Version 2.0 (2017), there appears to be a recurring fascination with the monochrome. Conceptually, each series of work occupies very different premises but somehow, they all end up engaging formally with colour and light. Why is that? Do you see yourself as an abstractionist?
JS: Good question. Tell you something really interesting that I’ve not told many people and again, it goes back to my MA. I actually wanted to be a monochrome painter during my MA and I wanted to base my dissertation on Mark Rothko. But I saw it as pretentious (or maybe foolish) and a real dead end in both writing and making, hence I abandoned my thesis halfway. I think I wasn’t experienced and knowledgeable enough. Another curator had also previously brought up the idea of the monochrome in my practice. I don’t consciously think about this. I always wanted something more stripped, essential and elemental I guess. My Variations paintings with Art Forum gallery in 2011 were my first foray into the monochrome, though I had experimented with that through exercises in my MA. I don’t know if I am interested in ‘abstraction’ as much as I am an abstract person.
GL: What was the impetus for the work in the exhibition, Curtain (2017)? I enjoy seeing the juxtaposition between the cold technological apparatus and the warm bodily associations. For me, there is a certain ‘circularity’ to the piece. You have taken a moving image of a shower scene and broken it down into a series of data, which then gets translated back into points of light and presented through a light-emitting device that itself resembles a curtain of sorts. There is something very mesmerising about seeing this soft lumination but the abstraction that happens in the process also creates a sense of distance.
JS: I wanted to create an effect of sensuous estrangement and alienation with these objects to the viewer when I made them, which you can say could be linked to the current (and trendy) discourse on affect theory, though I have not read much about it. Nothing like this has been said about my work but I am obsessed with memory. ‘Memory’ is seen as a very cliche topic in art school but I’m not using it superficially; it chanced upon me just the other day with all the recent work I’ve made. I ruminate on the relationships between thought, action and memory – how they get lost in the translations and agencies of objects and memory technologies. Jonathan Flatley wrote about how the extinction of human meaning restores to things the ability to speak in their own language. Alienation too, in the Brechtian concept of revealing the mechanisms of the artwork, reminds the audience that there is basically no illusion. Distance to me is important as it moves the work away from sentimentality, allowing it to become other things. With this work, you can make out references to Dan Flavin and Felix Gonazalez’s light installations. However, I want to end with three works which are closer to these thoughts or feelings. First is Maurizio Bolognini’s ‘Programmed Machines’ which generate an inexhaustible flux of random images that humans cannot see. Next is Paul Chan’s ‘non-projections’ where the videos remain as light within the lenses of his projectors and are not projected as images. Lastly, would be the final scene of Steven Spielberg’s film ‘A.I.’, first developed by Stanley Kubrick. Here, in a distant future, an advanced race of robots recreate a boy-android character’s (played by Haley Joel Osment) memory of his human mother, but only for a day, which cannot be repeated.