Photos: Sarah Choo and Albert Tan
She might only be 24-years-old and currently based in London on scholarship to pursue her Masters in Fine Art at London’s Slade School of Fine Art, but multidisciplinary artist Sarah Choo already boasts an impressive list of credits. Among many highlights, including group exhibitions in the United Kingdom, Germany and Korea, she’s also the youngest winner of the prestigious ICON de Martell Cordon Bleu photography award for her work, which combines photography, painting, video and sound.
Despite her success and obvious distinction as one of the rising names in Singapore’s art scene, the bubbly artist remains down-to-earth and dedicated to her art practice. Still jet-lagged from her flight back from London, Sarah explains, “I see my (art) practice as a different language… I’m not trying to create something new, like a whole new way of seeing or anything. I’m always reflecting on things. I see something, I interpret it and then I re-present it. You can then see it from my perspective.”
For one so young, Sarah’s works hint at a somber, deeply reflective inner conscious. When told that she’s like an old soul in a young body, she smiles, and says: “Many people have told me that, actually. I think it’s just that different people go through different experiences and mine haven’t been that positive, exciting or happy. I think that artists in general have a side where they contemplate and my art work shows that.”
Exploring intimate themes of alienation as well as time and space, mixing mediums allows her to more accurately express herself and cultivate a distinctive style. “I’m always trying to say different things and having the right mediums, and understanding them, really helps to convey the message clearer,” she elaborates. And the finesse has not gone unnoticed. French curator of photography, Madame Agnes de Gouvion Saint-Cyr, who led the five-member jury during the ICON de Martell Cordon Bleu awards last year, describes Sarah’s work as “sensitive and refined” in the way it describes such “intimate, inner issues.”
Growing up in a traditional family, art wasn’t something that her parents approved of, which saw Sarah make the brave decision to finance her university education and her own living expenses with her artwork. “I’m close to my family, but like typical Singaporean parents, they get worried when their kid is taking art,” she reveals. “The most artistic person in my family would probably be my grandfather, but I never got to meet him. But he was into photography too, and he did colour tinting. I’ve always been interested in him since young.”
Sarah credits her progress and achievements to her education at Nanyang Technological University’s Art, Design and Media School. “Doing fine art in a design university was perhaps one of the best decisions I’ve made in my life,” she reveals. That really changed the way I think and pushed me to do things I wouldn’t have done. It made me ask myself questions like my identity and consider my practice,” she adds, qualifying that the experience made her consider herself as an artist, and how art could actually be a sustainable career.
Much of your work stems from your experiences. Can you tell us more?
I think my work was influenced by the way I observe people, the way I gather information. My extended family is rather large, so growing up, I spent a lot more time observing rather than participating. I remember always being in a corner observing the way people behave, like how my aunts would talk to each other; like how one aunt would talk to another differently. I’d see the differences between my mum’s side of the family, and my dad’s side of the family, and see how its’ different. There’s that personal barrier that comes up. For me, that idea influences the way I work.
What’s the creative process like for you?
I’m moving away from directing the scenes. So I’m looking at people around me, actual events that are happening there and then. For example, the Puddles in the City series, I was inspired by street performers. I was crossing the road at Times Square in New York City and saw street performer’s reflection in a puddle. I thought that it was such a powerful image because street performers are like an icon, you’re dress as something and you’re an entertainer. But at that point, he was just crossing the road, so I took a shot, went back, and re-worked it. I looked at it, considered it and think about what I was trying to say. When I’m making the work and I’ll be editing with either Photoshop or giving it layers of paint to give it the colour hues. Making the work is always a thinking process where I’m eliminating choices while thinking about what I can put in. The performers knew someone was shooting them with a flash, but they didn’t know who.
It sounds like a very time consuming process.
I don’t work on one project at one time. I’d work on a few together. It depends, but I’d say a few months to a year for one completed series.
What’s the most challenging part of your practice?
For the recent projects, it would be confronting the live situations. In the past, I was creating everything; it was my own opinion and view. Now the sources come from real life. So the challenge is being sensitive to the people I’m photographing and being careful in the way I portray them when I present them. It’s my artistic responsibility. I usually work at night, and I get quite sad observing the scenes. It becomes so real that it affects me, unlike my past works, which is artificial.
How do you cope with that attachment?
It makes me want to show what I’m seeing and I want people (the viewers) to see it and think for themselves and find out what they thought. Was it a nice picture that looks pretty or do they feel sympathetic. I’ll leave that reaction to the viewer.
What’s the most satisfying part of your work?
It’s seeing the final product completed. It’s such a time consuming process. It takes so long that I sometimes feel lost when I don’t see the final product after working at it.
Another part that I feel is important is the viewer’s response. I love hearing about what people have to say about the work. People tell me things they don’t like is like a challenge. I also really like it if people ask me questions, because then, we start to talk.
You’re a self confessed workaholic?
I’ve spent hours refining my skills. I wasn’t born with the vision, because art cannot be contrived, it has to be effortless, you know. I wasn’t born knowing how to paint. I had to really believe in this and really worked like crazy to be where I am now. And I don’t sleep much. I cannot stop thinking about work.
I think part of the reason why I believe in working so hard is because I saw my family struggle. How getting basic stuff is not so easy. I saw how my parents were working hard and it took really long before they came to a stage where they can live a little more comfortably and relax a little. To me, that is inspiring.
Stylewise, what inspires your work?
I’m very inspired by theatre, like plays and musicals for the way they light the scene, the entrances, exits and staging. Photographers like Gregory Hudson, Eugenio Recuenco and Jeff Wiles also inspire me a lot. Fashion interests me too. I like interesting storefront displays and photoshoots like W magazine. Shakespeare is also someone whose works I’m also inspired by. I find the fool interesting in his texts, because the fool brings out the sad reality as the all-knowing, yet helpless one because there’s nothing he can do about things.
What are some of the projects you’re currently working on while you’re back in Singapore?
I’m going to be showing “Waiting for the Elevator”. It’s a composite of documented events at the HDB void decks in Singapore. What’s going be shown is individuals within their environment. It’s a video piece that’s going to be projected across the tunnel from esplanade to city link (the Jendela Visual Arts Space) from July 11 to September 14. It’s commissioned and presented by Esplanade—Theatres on the Bay as part of its VISUAL ARTS programme and will free to the public.
This article first appeared in Vol 2 of Gallery & Studio.