Memoir III: Bring Your Experience

Disclaimer: Before we start this memoir, I would just like to state I do not own the following pictures. The aim of all these memoirs is to educate.

I was watching The Boys, and in its newest season, season 2, episode 4, both Annie and Hughie were singing along to a Billy Joel classic, We Didn’t Start the Fire (1989). I remember watching the episode, and in typical fashion, I whipped out my phone and shazam’d the song

We Didn’t Start the Fire sums up the historical events between the years 1949 (Billy Joel’s year of birth) to 1989. If there is anyone who needs to come out of retirement in 2021, it’s Billy Joel – we need a 2020 version of We Didn’t Start the Fire

Because of the song, I want to sum up the major events of 2020 in this first part and give my thoughts. So let’s begin.

January 2020, and the Australian Bushfires, a series of deadly fires spread across Australia. I think this truly woke us up to the impending dangers of climate change. Next were the talks about WWIII, US drone strikes in The Middle East killed Iran’s general, Qesem Soleimani – Iran’s No. 2. This sparked a Twitter frenzy and led to some interesting memes. In terms of COVID, the UK saw its first case on January 31st. In terms of deaths, we lost The Black Mamba, Kobe Bryant. Kobe’s death really touched me, because along with Michael Jordan, Derrick Rose, and Dennis Rodman, those three plus Kobe made me love basketball.

Next February and Trump dodged impeachment – well, he’s not out of the woods just yet. Moreover, Ahmaud Arbery was killed on February 23rd. This would be one of the many deaths that would go on to spark the BLM (Black Lives Matter) protests across the world. Now we have March, and we saw the death of Breanna Taylor on March 13th.

With regards to COVID, things became a whole lot worse, W.H.O declared the outbreak of COVID a pandemic. In terms of the UK, we entered our first national lockdown on March 23rd, and this led to complete and utter pandemonium in the supermarkets, from toilet paper to milk to pasta, the supermarkets were empty. Everything felt surreal during those first days, it was like living in an apocalypse, I remember flower being like a pair of Jordan’s. One thing that did help was Disney+ which was launched on March 24th. Did I re-watch That’s So Raven while being stuck at home? Why yes I did.

April and the pandemic continued to cause havoc across the world and Zoom became part of our daily lives. As well as that, we saw the rise of conspiracy theories such as the idea of 5G being linked to COVID. In terms of other news, NASA selected Blue Origin, Dynetics, and SpaceX to carry American astronauts to the Moon by 2024. This was amazing news because, for the first time, privately funded companies were on a mission to take man to the moon.

May and the UK’s COVID death toll surpassed Italy’s. In terms of sport,  Bundesliga was the first major sports league to resume its season. But most importantly on May 25th 2020, we saw the death of George Floyd. This was the straw that broke the camel’s back because his death sparked protests across the world. From the US to France to Japan, the world responded.

June and Space X successfully launched. In terms of July, the people of Russia backed a vote that would amend their constitution. With this amendment, Putin can have two more successive terms – a term in Russia is six years. So in theory, he could remain in power until 2036. In terms of other political news, the politician, John Lewis died. For those who do not know John Lewis, he along with Martin Luther King marched from Selma to Montgomery, the march was part of a series of civil-rights protests. A very famous quote from the politician was ‘Never, ever be afraid to make some noise and get in good trouble, necessary trouble’.

Next, August, and on the 4th, an explosion occurred in Beirut, Lebanon. The explosion killed over 220 people. What is so sad about this tragedy was its impact on the people of Lebanon, the explosion left approximately 300,000 people homeless. In terms of music, Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion released the song WAP and the internet went crazy – because we are keeping it PG, I will not breakdown what WAP is an acronym of. With regards to notable deaths, on August 28th, Chadwick Boseman died.

As someone who loves the superhero genre, Chadwick’s death really impacted me. Because I remember growing up and watching films such as Spiderman, Superman and Batman, and all the lead actors were white. I didn’t see any superheroes who looked like me. Even though Captain America had The Falcon, and Iron Man had Rhode, there wasn’t a film that had a lead black superhero. There was Blade, but I didn’t know about the film until I was a teenager, and when I discovered the film, its special effects were outdated to me. So here comes this actor who I’ve seen play James Brown, and he comes and portrays this African king called T’challa who is a superhero called Black Panther. Black Panther was a film that allowed black children to dream big, and it allowed them to see themselves as superheroes. So for that Chadwick, we love you and rest in peace.

September and another notable death we saw was Ruth Bader Ginsburg, she was a member of the Supreme Court Justice; appointed on 14th June 1993 by the Clinton administration, Ginsburg can be considered one of the most important female lawyers in America’s history. Ginsburg was relentless in her position and advocated for gender equality and women’s rights. She was the first justice to ever officiate a gay marriage which occurred in 2015.

October and in the southern hemisphere, New Zealand, the Labour Party led by Jacinda Ardern wins by a landslide, and the incumbent prime minister secures a second term in office. As a world, we can learn a lot from New Zealand. Because they handled COVID correctly and didn’t wait for herd immunity.

November and back to America. The US elections have concluded, and Joe Biden was elected the 46th President of The United States. Biden’s victory also saw Kamala Harris become the first woman of colour to be elected as Vice President of The United States. But with the two in office, will America be in a better position? Well, I don’t know? So go America ish. As well as that, Pfizer and BioNTech finished clinical trials on their COVID-19 vaccine, and the overall effectiveness rate  was 95% – so go the healthcare industry!

The final month of the year, December; the UK was the first nation to begin mass immunisation, as well as that, this was its final month in the EU.

If we look at 2020, it was a weird year, but in my opinion, it was interesting. Without a doubt, it was a year no one could predict. 2020 was a tough teacher, and this is why I titled this memoir, Bring Your Experience. Because whatever we do this year, we must bring our experiences.

Someone who brings their experiences into their work is the Singaporean artist, Esmond Loh. 2020 was a year of tragedies and drama, and Esmond is someone who incorporates these ideas into his work. As you will see in this memoir, the backdrops for his paintings are apocalyptic and theatrical.  So, with that being said, let’s delve into the life of Esmond Loh.

As a child, Esmond would always draw, and in secondary school, he was enrolled on an art talent program. The program was designed to identify the artistically gifted students with the hopes of developing their talent. “For me, this was when my art journey really began”.  

Before A-Levels, Esmond was still unsure about an art career, so to find his answers, he did Art A-Level. This was an amazing period for the artist because he found his answers, and his passion for art only grew stronger and stronger. To add to that, he entered the UOB Painting of the Year competition – the biggest painting competition in Singapore – and won the top prize.

In total, Esmond applied to five art schools in the UK, and they were Slade School of Fine Art, Ruskin School of Art, Goldsmiths, Chelsea College of Art & Design, and Central Saint Martins. Esmond received offers from the Slade, Goldsmiths, and Chelsea College of Art & Design. In the end, he chose the Slade, due to its reputation, location and the structure of the course.

One question I always ask the artist is the role their family played on their journey into art. Esmond stated the following, “My immediate family was really supportive but nobody in my immediate family was into art, I have a cousin who is into the arts but besides her, nobody else was really artistic. […] When I was younger, I learnt about art all on my own, my art teacher was the one who really encouraged me to really pursue art”. Besides his teacher, Esmond stated that his friends who were already artists also played a crucial role in his journey, as the advice they gave, fuelled his ambition of breaking into the art world.

In terms of that special moment when Esmond finally felt like an artist, he stated the following, “I think there wasn’t really an exact moment, but I guess I had that thought when I was 19 years old, right after A-Levels. I signed with a local gallery and had my first exhibition, and I sold some work. It was my first time stepping into the art market or art world. I was no longer a student, and I had my work seen and bought by other collectors and other patrons of art. So, I think at that time, I felt like, “Wow! I am doing it commercially, so I am an artist”. But now in retrospect, it isn’t healthy to say I am an artist because of that. Because that would mean my identity as an artist would be dependent on the validation of the art market. So besides that time, I think I was always an artist in my own right, and I think anyone who makes art is also an artist in their own right regardless of what anybody says”. 

Moreover, when it comes to how he describes his work, Esmond states, “I work primarily with paintings, and I can only describe them as dramatic and ambiguous. My work combines both abstract and figurative elements. If I was to look at a painting on that spectrum of abstract versus figurative, some of my paintings are more figurative – they are directly inspired by an event in real life. However, I have others that are abstract, and have no narrative”.

Some good examples of this are Bear Mountain (painted 2018) and Migration (painted 2018).

In Bear Mountain, so many things are unfolding in front of us. If we start with the bear and the male figure, we can see a struggle occurring over a fruit – the fruit being fought over is a durian. Durians are a tropical fruit, their outer layer is green and spiky, and are typically found and sold in South East Asia. They are considered the world’s smelliest fruit, and people dislike their taste and texture. The fruit’s pungent smell is so bad that it is banned in some hotels and public transport. But even though it has a bad reputation, it is still seen as a delicacy in South East Asia, in fact, in some regions, durians are used to make candy, mooncakes and ice cream.

Bear Mountain was inspired by a dream Esmond had, the male figure you see in this piece is Esmond. In his dream, he was on an adventure through the forest searching for a rare type of durian. Upon stumbling across the rare durian, he encountered a bear who wanted them too.

If you focus your attention to the right, you can see some trees, and they form a tunnel which is lit red. If you focus even further, you can see two figures, Esmond stated that these figures were his family. “In my dream, I was with my family, and they were coming to save me from the bear”.

Another area of interest is the top left corner, this golden beehive-like structure cracks, and what is released is an insectoid-like creature. In the next series of images, the shape of the creature morphs, and each time it becomes distorted. I asked Esmond if this was also in his dream, and he stated it was absent. “With those things you see, I just painted them intuitively, I couldn’t think of anything else from real life. It could be an insect breaking out of a shell but as I said, I just painted it so intuitively. It was the last thing I added to the painting. I felt as if something was missing in that area. So, I added some brush strokes, and those things came about. […] It was an aesthetic choice rather than a choice of having something involved in the narrative”.

Bear Mountain (painted 2018) [Acrylic on Canvas 130 x 100cm]

If we look at Migration, the piece was inspired by a bird hunting documentary. For Esmond, this documentary was very disturbing. “I thought the whole thing was so gruesome, but at the same time so dramatic. So, I decided to make a painting inspired by it”.

Bird hunting is very prevalent in Malta and Cyprus. In Cyprus, songbirds are illegally hunted, and this is done by using mist nets and electronic bird calls. The electronic bird calls are placed near the mist nets to lure the songbirds into the thin mist nets. Once entangled, they are then killed by hunters. In a given day in Cyprus, about 1,000 Songbirds can be trapped. Once killed, they are then sold on the black market; in terms of the annual revenue generated by the songbirds in Cyprus’ black market, it is in the millions. Furthermore, songbirds aren’t the only victims, illegal hunting of robins, blackcap birds, and even owls occur in the country.

In terms of Malta, the hunting of quail is legal, but this hunting law is abused by legal hunters and poachers. In the past, the people of Malta have raised this issue, and in 2015, a referendum was held. In a close result, 50.4% voted to keep the existing hunting laws. But even though the law was preserved for birds such as quail, legal hunters would sometimes hunt protected birds.

Now back to the art. Just like Bear Mountain, so many things are occurring in the painting, Esmond stated that this is part of his creative process, “I see a painting as something similar to a film. A painting is like a film but the things in it are compressed into a single frame. In a film, you can see different scenes, but in a painting, everything is just happening at the same time, this is how I explore the idea of time and reality, and how I can depict reality in a different way”.

If we look at the painting, we can see an array of hunters, some with guns, and some checking their nets. Esmond stated that elements from this piece were referenced from the documentary and his imagination.

In terms of the colours used in this piece, the colours work very well to create a dramatic scene. It feels like I’ve been transported to an Alfred Hitchcock film. For example, if you look at the bottom left corner, one bird has escaped, and the other bird is dead on the floor. As well as that, the sky is very dark and ominous.

Migration (painted 2018) [Acrylic on Canvas 130 x 100cm]

In terms of what his art means to him, Esmond’s response was the following, “I am very introverted, I feel like art is a way of talking to myself. It is a very personal conversation, a way of getting to know myself better as a person. I usually make art with the objective of exploring or visualising a certain idea or vision I have, and through that, I explore my interests, my feelings, my emotions, and my memories”.

If we look at Esmond’s catalogue of work, some good examples of where we see this are Invasion (painted 2019) and Funeral (painted 2019).

Esmond stated that Invasion was inspired by the bilateral relations between his home country Singapore and Malaysia.

Some quick history. Singapore and Malaysia were one nation for about 23 months, until 9th August 1965. In 1948, Britain had colonies in South East Asia, and they were the Federation of Malaya, Singapore, Sarawak, Brunei and North Borneo. In 1963, the colonies gained their independence except for Brunei and formed one nation. For Singapore, this was an opportunity to become part of a bigger market and freedom from Britain. But things were not perfect, there were problems.

Equality was an issue in Malaysia because the Malay population had better access to education, civil service jobs and trade. Economics wise, both Singapore and Malaysia found it difficult to reach tax agreements. Political tensions also had an impact, in Malaysia, the main party in charge was the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), and they were pro Malay. In Singapore, the main party was the People Action Party (PAP), and they ran on the principle of equality for all races, and even had the slogan a ‘Malaysian Malaysia’.

So here’s what happened. During Singapore’s 1963 election, UMNO took part under the party called Singapore Alliance Party. But this wasn’t seen as a threat compared to what the PAP did. During the Malaysian elections, PAP took part, and even though they lost by a large amount, they still secured a seat in parliament. Their idea of a ‘Malaysian Malaysia’ making its way into a Malaysian parliament was a cause of concern for UMNO.

In July and September 1964, racial riots occurred, and both sides suffered casualties. By the end of the riots, neither side could trust each other, and during that year, the prime minister of Malaysia, Tunku Abdul Rahman decided it was best for the two to become separate nations. After the arrangements were finalised, both prime ministers declared to their people that the two were separate nations. For the Singaporean prime minister, Lee Kuan Yew, this was crushing because he believed in the union, he even broke into tears when he read the news.

So that’s the history of the two nations. If we fast forward to today, both countries have a multifaceted relationship and Invasion gives us a small glimpse into this.

When I first saw this painting, its clear blue sky immediately caught my attention, because we have this picturesque sky, but we also have these tanks, and helicopters, and soldiers. So I asked Esmond, “why the clear blue sky?”, and he responded with the following, “Both countries are located on the equator and are both tropical countries, the weather is blue skies for most of the year, and that is what I see most of the time. But as well as that, I was reading this book called Prisoners of Geography (by Tim Marshall), and when a country wants to go to war, you don’t just declare war, you need the right conditions. When you have good weather, you actually have the perfect conditions for going to war”. I found this answer to be very interesting because it helped me understand the reasoning behind the blue sky, but it also allowed me to understand Esmond more as an artist. Invasion has shown me that Esmond loves creating dramatic scenes, and will use elements such as a clear blue sky to portray that drama. Because what we are seeing is a full-scale invasion. Both the sky and ground are given an equal weighting, something is happening in the sky such as the rockets and the helicopters, and something is happening on the ground, as seen with the soldiers and tanks advancing.

It’s fascinating because my initial thoughts were, who was doing the invading? Was it Singapore? Or Malaysia? Furthermore, when was this piece set? Because if you look closely, you can see the construction of a bridge – both Singapore and Malaysia are connected by the Second Link Bridge. So, is the backdrop referenced from the 1980s or 1990s, when the bridge was being constructed?

But that’s the power of art, it makes us think because Esmond couldn’t give me the answers to my questions, and that’s fine. He stated in our interview that Invasion was not intended to represent the two countries. The painting is a scene focusing on two imaginary countries similar to Singapore and Malaysia.

Invasion (painted 2019) [Acrylic on Canvas 160 x 190cm]

With regards to Funeral, Esmond painted this in memory of his late grandmother. After completing his first year at the Slade, he received the news of his grandmother’s death. Once he heard the news, he immediately made plans to fly back to Singapore.

Esmond stated that the painting combines elements from Singaporean, Chinese and Christian funeral traditions. For example, the hut in which the funeral is held in is a distinct and common feature of Singapore’s suburbs. It is meant to be a common space that can be used for various activities, including a funeral. Additionally, if you look even closer at the hut, you can see a crucifix – Esmond’s grandmother was a Christian.

If you look at this piece, you can see people wearing white tops and black trousers – wearing white at a funeral is a Chinese Tradition. During a Chinese funeral, the grieving family and guests are expected to wear white.

If we look at the left side of this piece, we can see a fire producing smoke. During a Chinese funeral, joss paper or ghost paper is burnt, and this ensures a safe passage for the deceased into the afterlife. In some funerals, objects are made from this paper and are burnt, for example, iPhones, televisions and even cars.

If we turn our attention to the giant fish head, this is in fact, a salmon’s head. Esmond stated that his grandmother loved eating fish heads, so he added a salmon’s head. Along with items made from joss paper, physical items are also burnt, this is also a Chinese tradition; it is believed that the burnt items will also enter the afterlife with the deceased person, this is to ensure they live a luxurious and comfortable life in the afterlife.

Funeral (painted 2019) [Acrylic on Canvas 120 x 180cm]

Because this is Volume III: The Maverick Series, I asked Esmond the following question, “How is your work different from other artists?”. I really liked Esmond’s response because it was thought-provoking and stimulated a discussion in our interview. “If you look at other artists, some are focused on challenging conventions, and some are focused on effecting social and political change, and some are interested in storytelling and entertainment purposes. But for me, I make art to understand myself, and ultimately have fun”.

Esmond went on to say the following, “Even though I show my work in exhibitions, I don’t think I need an audience most of the time. A lot of artists believe that the most important thing about being an artist is to keep pushing boundaries and to come up with new and novel ideas, and maybe make an impact on the world. But I don’t know how many people would agree with me, but I believe it is important to have fun, be honest, and make something personal. I believe art is quite self-indulgent, so it is not always about doing something for society or other people. For me, I do it for myself. Many people would not agree with me, but I feel art is ultimately about freedom, and every artist has the freedom to do whatever they want”.

With regards to artists from the past who inspire his work, Esmond stated his inspiration doesn’t come from the past but his contemporaries. “People think that because my work is quite surreal, they think I am inspired by the surrealists. But actually, I am more inspired by contemporary artists.”

When it comes to his contemporaries, Esmond states his influence comes from Neo Rauch and Jia Aili.

Neo Rauch is a German artist who is known for producing paintings that have an uncanny and ambiguous nature. His paintings consist of industrial and natural landscapes, and his figures are usually in a state of transformation or movement.

In terms of Jia Aili, he is a Chinese artist who is known for juxtaposing contemporary moods with traditional figurative styles. His work consists of abstract and fragmented landscapes. With regards to the subjects in his paintings, they can be seen searching for something or wandering around.

Besides Rauch and Aili, Esmond also stated that his inspiration comes from his personal life. “My art is inspired by life itself. Like I said before, my paintings have my thoughts, my memories, and my experiences. So, with regards to what fuels my work, it is things that I am drawn to, such as nature, wildlife, vast landscapes, and barren urban spaces. I am interested in ideas about time and space, reality, memory, and drama”.

Another good example of a painting that really encapsulates Esmond’s philosophy as an artist is Prison (painted 2019).

When I first saw Prison, I instantly thought of Van Gogh’s The Prisoners’ Round/Prisoners Exercising (painted 1890), and I was right, because Esmond stated that this piece was inspired by it. Additionally, I discovered that The Prisoners’ Round/Prisoners Exercising was inspired by Gustave Dore’s Newgate Exercise Yard (completed 1872).

Esmond stated he wanted to transport Van Gogh’s piece to a modern-day setting. “When I saw the Van Gogh piece, I was very fascinated by the composition. This idea of the prisoners walking aimlessly in a circle, going round and round – I was really inspired to make a painting of a similar composition”. In my opinion, Prison is a fantastic piece that allows us to really think about our prison system. In the painting, the prisoners are wearing orange jumpsuits, and are walking in a circle, attached to each other – the idea of individuality is stripped from them. In both paintings that preceded Prison, there was no watchdog, and I think the inclusion of the dog in this painting really emphasises the bleakness of this situation and adds to its drama.

Another aspect that caught my attention was the prison’s shape, it’s a panopticon. Panopticons were invented in the 18th century by English philosopher and social theorist, Jeremy Bentham. The panopticon was developed to monitor many prisoners using a small number of guards. The monitoring of prisoners would happen from the watchtower which was in the centre of the panopticon. From the watchtower, the guards would observe every prisoner at any given time and remain unseen. This created a psychological effect because the prisoners knew they were being watched, but didn’t know when they were being watched. During its early use, it was a revolutionary piece of architecture,  because it ensured good behaviour. But in today’s world, panopticons are rarely used. Nevertheless, I think its use in this piece, in a modern-day setting, really delivers the message that there is no escape from this prison.

Like the other pieces seen in this memoir, a dark colour palette is used, and this creates a dystopic setting, and by Esmond using these colours, he creates a dramatic scene which in my opinion, allows us to question the idea of prison.

Moreover, if you look closely at the watchtower, you can see a glowing figure. Esmond stated this is a recurring figure that appears in some of his paintings. “He is this mysterious figure that even I don’t know or even understand. Sometimes I just feel he belongs in the painting, he is like a shadow who is watching from a distance, watching events unfold in my paintings”.

Prison (painted 2019) [Acrylic on Canvas 152 x 122cm]

The next question I asked Esmond was ‘what message do you want your art to give?’. Esmond stated the following, “This is a question I really don’t have an answer to. Because like I said, I make my paintings without really making a message. It’s really a conversation between me and the painting. So, I’m not someone who makes art to send a message, but if there is one thing I want someone in the future to know from my art. Well, it is the fact you know a bit about myself in the paintings, you get a sense of who I am, and what sort of ideas I had”.

In terms of what to expect from Esmond, the artist states he has no specific plans due to the ongoing pandemic. But he is still hopeful once things return to normal. In terms of recent achievements, Esmond won the Silver Award in the Established Artist category for the 2020 UOB Painting of the Year competition – he entered the painting, The Last Hawker Stall (painted 2020).

I remember when I first saw Esmond’s work at the Slade’s 2019 graduate show, I remember that experience so well. I remember entering the room, and after 10 minutes I was frantically looking for him, I wanted to ask him, “why do you paint?”, and I finally have that answer. So don’t ignore the talent that is Esmond Loh, he is articulate with his words, and articulate when it comes to communicating his thoughts, his memories, and his experiences on the canvas. “I asked myself why I was making art, and once I did, I decided to go back to how I made art as a kid. And when I was a kid, I did whatever I wanted to do. So, I do that now because I feel like I need to do that to enjoy myself”.

To see more of Esmond’s work, visit www.esmondloh.wixsite.com/fineart/ or follow him on Instagram at @esmondloh

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