Inside the Ripple: An interview with Sim Chi Yin
By Marc Nair, 2nd Sept 2018
Listening to Sim Chi Yin, the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize Photographer, at the opening of her exhibition “Most People Were Silent” at LASALLE College of the Arts, I was struck by how focused her creative eye was, how sure she struck at the heart of her subject matter through a series of photographs taken in the vicinity of nuclear sites in North Korea and the USA. It is a series that is all at once contemplative, questioning and questing in the face of a threat that’s both highly visible and invisible at the same time. Nuclear weapons and the threat of nuclear warfare is often nebulous, warheads imagined in the shape of words and threats, but to actually see these locations and to translate them into the witness of the image is a critical act of giving voice to silence and a way for conversations to continue.
*cover image by Gabriel Ellison Scowcroft
Chi Yin conducting a tour in front of her image that depicts fences along the China-North Korea border near the city of Tumen. Photo credit: Lim Sin Thai
Silence, space and the abandoned seem to be the words that best resonate with “Most People Were Silent.” What connections are you trying to evoke through the parallel states of your diptychs?
The images are of deliberately anonymised landscapes, of nuclear-related sites in both countries. What struck me as I was making the pictures were the parallels I found - visual, historical, symbolic. I intended for them to leave the viewer in a suspension of sense of place, and hopefully lead them to a space of reflection, meditation, imagination.
Photo credit: Deng Weizhong
The anonymised landscape hints at a utopian vision of a world without difference. Was this one of your intentions in developing the project?
I’m not sure I’d go that far. The work is meant to be open-ended, deliberately not prescriptive or didactic. I don’t know that there is a Utopia in these quite complex landscapes and interiors which hint at much more complicated things created by humankind. My intention was to have people arrive at questions of place, moral judgement, and personal reflection on how they see the presence and history of nuclear weapons in our world. That said, perhaps it is best people come away with their own reading of the work.
Are we all held hostage by our weapons? Or do we hold the world hostage with our weapons?
Those are the two ends of this very polarising issue. You either think we should not have nuclear weapons in the world at all, or you argue that having them around is key to keeping the balance of power in the world. It’s a complex issue of course. As a history-trained person, I can appreciate the arguments on both sides. But I am struck by how much human genius and resources and funds have been poured into the nuclear enterprise.
Chi Yin photographing in New Mexico. Photo credit: Gabriel Ellison Scowcroft
What would you say is the ethos of your photography?
A sense of social purpose guides me, although how that manifests itself has evolved and become more layered over time. I’m increasingly working more slowly, more research-based, more intentionally. Trying to figure out the ripples and not where the rock hits the water, as Fred Ritchin has put it.
Exterior of Sim Chi Yin's exhibition at LASALLE. Photo credit: Deng Weizhong
How do you walk the line between documentation and art? Is there even a line? And should viewers be aware of this?
I think we’re in a time of blending and bleeding, but there are different methodologies, distribution platforms and, more importantly, ethics, that come with either. I think as long as one is fully transparent and honest about how the work is made and what the intention is, it’s all good.
I’d say the ways and ethics with which I make the work is - so far - all documentary. I’ve started to experiment with ways of presenting the work which might be of another form. And I’m grappling with the tension in my practice between the history-trained mind + 15 years of (writing) journalism, and now the growing questions in my mind about truth, fact, memory and the thoughts of taking leaps into the much more metaphorical, allegorical.
As a former journalist, does there remain a space for text in your images?
I was a text journalist for 9 years at The Straits Times and The New Paper. Yes, text remains important to me, and my captions are often the longest — such that the photo agency staff tell me their archiving systems can’t ingest it all because of length!
But I am of course now a visual practitioner and I tell myself with each project that the visual language now comes first. I try to better myself with each work. I write text to contextualise the images or provide an additional layer of understanding should the viewer want it. In the last few shows I’ve done, I’ve asked for text not to be plastered on a wall next to the image, but to be printed in an exhibition guide people can dip into if they wish to. So they can look at the work just visually, aesthetically, and if they want more they can read the words. My text also doesn’t necessarily prescribe meaning but just provides factual context.
Chi Yin at the Nobel Peace Prize exhibition opening. Photo credit: Johannes Granseth for the Nobel Peace Center
How has your commission as the Nobel Peace Prize photographer changed your practice?
I’m not sure it has in a major way. It has deepened my work in landscapes, and that additional layer introduced by the diptyching was very interesting to work with.
Some friends who looked at this work felt it was “so different” from my earlier work. I’ve been quietly making landscapes and interiors, still life images on my family history and British Malaya project. I’ve been working on that project for years, but not shown much of it as I’m still working very slowly on a book, and a series of exhibitions / installations experimenting with different forms of showing. It’s on that project that I transitioned. The Nobel commission’s visual language is a continuation / evolution from there.
Will you carry on with this project? If so, what’s next and what challenges (if any) are you facing?
I was hoping to build out the work, and had written proposals, applied for grants, but finding funds and time to go to these remote places has been a challenge so far.
I’ll keep a lookout for possible partners and funders, while I’m working on two more group shows in September (in Amsterdam and New York) in which I’m showing small pieces of the Malaya project.
Somewhat related to this search to draw narratives out from invisible and unspoken spaces, Chi Yin’s project “One Day We’ll Understand” explores an aspect of the Cold War in Southeast Asia that is rarely spoken of. Seeking out stories behind the 1948-60 guerrilla war against the British in the Federation of Malaya, that emerged in part from anti-Japanese resistance during World War II, Sim travelled to China, Hong Kong, Thailand and Malaysia to interview and photograph people from her grandfather’s generation, together with their treasured personal effects and the landscapes they remember.
Chi Yin at her "Relics" exhibition, 19 Jan - 1 Apr 2018 at the Esplanade. Photo credit Sim Chi Yin.
Is the title of the exhibition wishful longing or something more sardonic?
It’s from the inscription of a gravestone of a British planter killed during the Malayan Emergency. I photographed it a couple of years ago at a cemetery in Malaysia. We used that frame at the end of the show I did at the Jendela Gallery of the Esplanade Jan - April this year “Relics”. Out of context, it sounds wistful, wishful or preachy, but it has a specific reference and ties in with my own family’s situation. In the performative reading I’ve devised for this project, its meaning becomes clear.
Why did the personal become a historical quest, and where is the line between art and artifact?
What started out as a search for my grandfather’s and familial history blasted open when I realised over 30,000 Malayans were deported by the British during the Emergency, and more importantly, given the state-imposed amnesia, the traumas and ghosts of the period are still with us. I’m due to begin a research PhD in London in October, digging deeper into those histories and ghosts.
In the still life images I made of the artefacts, documents and objects from that period, I didn’t try to aestheticise them. The weight and meaning of the objects should come through, not my intervention with them. Though of course in making pictures of them, I’ve interpreted them in my own way for the viewer. That’s the inherent subjectivity of image-making.
I grappled with whether to show the actual artefacts or my pictures of them. There are different schools of thought on that. It’s an on-going discussion I have with curators and I don’t rule out different ways of installing this work in the future. But for the moment, that layer of interpretation and subjectivity is how I understand art to be different from artefact.
“Most People Were Silent” runs at the Earl Lu Gallery, LASALLE College of the Arts, until 10 October 2018.
Chi Yin's continues her work on the Malaya project and will be exhibiting in UnAuthorised Medium, a group show curated by Annie Jael Kwan which will be shown in Amsterdam from 16 Sep - 18 Nov 2018 as well as in another group show at the PhotoVille festival in New York, also opening in mid September.
For more information about Chi Yin and her work, please visit her site: chiyinsim.com/blog