The Book Of Eugene
Getting into the head of artist, Eugene Soh
14 February 2016
My first encounter with the phenomenon that is Eugene Soh was when we performed together in Amsterdam back in October 2015.
Over two nights in the repurposed A Lab*, I performed a spoken word set while Eugene laid out a grid on the floor, enticed curious onlookers to put on bulky looking goggles and proceeded to give them a bird’s eye view of themselves, much like someone playing a computer game such as Doom. It was disorienting, but utterly addictive.
That, to me, sums up Eugene’s personality. He does not shy away from changing up his game. Unlike some artists, who keep playing the same three chords in different variations throughout their artistic practice, each of Eugene’s projects is unique; curved balls that leave people perplexed, fascinated, and hungry for more.
Merely a month after Amsterdam, we shared a stage again; this time at TEDxSingapore. Eugene spoke about how he accidentally became an artist while I lauded the benefits of poetry. Watch his talk here and mine here.
*A Lab was the site of the former Shell laboratories. Situated between the Eye Museum and the Tolhuistuin in North Amsterdam, today it is a startup for creative innovation.
Cover photo: Carol
Walking about with Eugene's goggles during Private Citizens, our show in Amsterdam
BITS & BYTES
Eugene Soh started his adult working life as a programmer, something he continues to work on to this day. While he was still studying, he observed his peers learning programming in the way they approached other subjects; mugging to get the grade. But Eugene decided to create a game. With an end in mind, he found programming a lot easier to master.
Nowadays, when he takes on a new project, he doesn’t base it on what he already knows, but rather on how much he gets paid (which is very important!) and how much joy he derives from it. In 2015, he created an app to navigate a virtual version of Singapore’s old Supreme Court. While that made the news, Eugene is really better known for his photography.
In 2010, while he was still studying at the Nanyang Technological University (NTU) School of Art, Design and Media, he was asked to contribute a photograph for the centrefold of Campus Magazine. Referring to that now infamous photo of “The Last Kopitiam”, Eugene quips, “I wanted to do something epic. But it only went viral two years after that. It was God’s will (he says with an ironic smile).”
The Last Kopitiam (2010) by Eugene Soh
That accidental beginning would lead to a host of other endeavours in different fields. One of his subsequent efforts involved buying up numerous Singapore domains with wacky names such as sian.sg, lah.sg and public.sg that were available for sale. Eugene bought a bunch and collected them on Webart, a portal that he created to house all of them. He then loaned out the sites to artists who wanted to display new works. You could say this was the virtual equivalent of arts housing. And much like an arts space today, there are some ‘long-term’ residents, some units remain empty, while other artists display their work from five years ago. Nevertheless, it is this vision of a close-knit community that translates into his personal projects, which are almost always about collaboration.
His second solo show, “Renaissance City”, in December 2014, came out of the success of “The Last Kopitiam”, and featured a series of similarly themed reproductions of famous works of art, made possible through groups of friends who willingly posed for him, often individually, before Eugene masterfully photoshopped everything together.
The Internet, and art, is largely about access, whether through memes or moments, and Eugene seems to have seamlessly melded the two with his brand of unapologetic, in-your-face photographs that run the gamut from a bedroom version of The Human Caterpillar’ to revisioning Seurat’s A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte to Grant Wood’s American Gothic with local actors, Neo Swee Lin and Lim Kay Siu.
Sunday Afternoon On The Island Of Singapore (2014) by Eugene Soh. Location: Upper Peirce Reservoir
THE SECOND COMING OF CHRIST
This is an age where a photograph can be made in a multitude of ways, and where ideals of a pure form run headlong into questions of concept. More pertinently, Eugene’s subject matter could come under scrutiny for the way he repurposes skin tone and setting, and freely delves into parody and possible social commentary. But those aren’t issues that Eugene thinks about too much. Most of the time, he’s just out to have fun. And from the starting point of an eureka moment, he goes on to find a way to create what he has seen.
And so Eugene stumbled, literally, into the premise that the second coming of Jesus could take place in Singapore. Apparently, he had this revelation whilst looking at a halo that surrounded me on a tram in Amsterdam. I was oblivious, but Eugene’s mind was already whirring away. Below are a few snaps from one of our many shoots that we did. This was part of the setup for Jesus’ birthday. If he did have a birthday, he would be over 2,000 years old by now! And needless to say, if you place that many candles on a cake, it will become a bonfire.
WHO WAS JESUS, REALLY?
“I still let myself fail sometimes. Failure is a problem with artists all around the world. I gain experience from failure. It’s a chance to gain EXP, level up and add to my stats.” (In gamer speak!)
Related to that, the failure of Christianity fascinates him. Eugene believes in the possible existence of a higher being, but questions the personality of Christ as portrayed in the Bible. This found its way into fruition in “The Second Coming”.
For me, it is a somewhat surreal, personal experience. Constantly asked if I’m Singaporean, I understand the concept of ‘otherness,’ of difference. Similarly, Jesus lived like everyone else in his time, and yet, he stood apart in a multitude of ways, largely because of the mission he had. While these photographs run the gamut from campy to reflective, they still reflect something communal and people-centered that was at the heart of Jesus’ ministry.
Happy Birthday Jesus (2016) by Eugene Soh
GETTING IT RIGHT
It is the last day of the shoot for the exhibition. And it is a quiet, focused mess of creative energy. Lots of laughter, bare bodies and fake blood.
This is the ‘before’ section of the series, where Eugene is replicating, for verity, how Jesus was portrayed in classical paintings. No postmodern re-appropriating, just something as close as possible to typical religious iconography.
Eugene always has a rough plan in mind, so we look at a number of poses online before contorting ourselves in front of the camera over a few painful hours. What finally emerges is something that is Biblically possible, but socially re-imagined. Clips are used to hold up strategic parts, chest hair will be digitally grown, and let’s just say that abs exist only through the magic of photoshop and the body of the artist.
After we finally wrap, we sit around and gratefully down a few beers. It’s been pretty exhausting, and while no one has spilled any blood or saved the world, we feel we have collectively accomplished something.
“So what’s next?” I ask Eugene.
“I think I’m not rebelling enough. I’m still too guai (Mandarin for well-behaved). If I really wanted to live up my ideals, I would be jailed in Singapore because people here are so easily offended. Jesus was crucified on the cross, but I believe there’s a way to create art tactfully. I need to find that balance.”
We look forward to what’s beyond the second coming.
“The Second Coming” runs from 18 February to 13 March 2016 at Chan Hampe Galleries. (Raffles Hotel Shopping Arcade, first floor. Nearest MRT: City Hall).
The Last Christmas (2016) by Eugene Soh. Featuring our friends who really only turned up for a drinks party!
Text: Marc | Photos: Marc and Carol (unless otherwise stated)