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Visual Arts

Insights: Instrumental Possibility

Two artists share more about their interest in sound and movement


Published: 30 Aug 2023

Time taken : ~10mins

Instrumental Possibility brings together the works of Singapore musician, educator and composer Rosemainy Buang and Thai visual artist Arnont Nongyao, who have shared interests in music, sound, movement, the laws of vibration, light and shadow. In this interview, the artists elaborate on the ideas behind the artworks.

Rosemainy Buang

Installation view of <em>Banten</em>, Rosemainy Buang, 2023.

Installation view of <em>Banten</em>, Rosemainy Buang, 2023.

Drawing inspiration from the Balinese concept of Kanda Empat (Four Siblings)—a philosophy that rests on acknowledging one’s origins and harmonising one’s inner self—in Banten, Rosemainy Buang brings together various gamelan instruments: gongs and metallophones, such as the Balinese reyong and Javanese saron, kendang (a two-headed drum), and other instrumental accessories.

Deconstructing many of these instruments from their wooden frames and conventional assembling, a wall installation of percussive forms connected by strings constitutes a central part of the work, surfacing Rosemainy’s explorations with gamelan and Kanda Empat’s philosophy. Also on view is a series of video projections which accentuates and synthesises the collaborative art forms of dance and wayang kulit (shadow puppetry) in gamelan by capturing the silhouettes of dancer Elly Evyana. Enveloping the work are gamelan and other sounds—including voice—that the artist has developed and experimented. All these elements are brought together in a form of a gift, or banten, to restore balance in one’s rasa (intuition).

The gong forms the nexus of each wall installation on view. Could you share how you organised the gamelan instruments in each configuration?

Through the work, I wanted to share representations of the concept banten (gift) and Kanda Empat (four siblings) which informed how the work was conceived and presented.

Installation view of <i>Banten</i>, Rosemainy Buang, 2023.

On the second wall, I hung the bronze plates of gamelan instruments, including the metallophones of sarondemung and gender upside down to achieve a curve. This angled form mirrors the menadah tangan: a gesture where your hands are facing upward.

I wanted to explore the symbolic aspects related to this posture, often associated with thankfulness, gratitude or prayer. However, instead of two hands, we have seven from each saron and demung, alongside 14 from gender. Each piece reminded me of canang sari, a form of banten in Bali, assembled with flowers and incense.

Installation view of <i>Banten</i>, Rosemainy Buang, 2023.

For the third wall, on view are the Balinese reyong. I chose to hang the reyongs in a wave, with the middle gong bearing similarities to a tree shrine.

To tie the entire work together, I applied the Javanese gamelan aesthetic style of using red strings to not only hold the gamelan together but also as a representation of energy circulating through the gongs.

For 'Banten', you also worked with video, presenting the silhouettes of dancer Elly Evyana. While this captures the collaborative art forms of dance and 'wayang kulit' in gamelan, could you elaborate further on this decision to include movement in the work?

Movements in Balinese art are based on energy or taksu. Depending on which end of Esplanade Tunnel you approach the work from, the video is either at the start or end of your experience of the space. I hope the movements on view encourage an interaction and exchange of energy with the people walking through the tunnel.

I also wanted to work with video and dance to try and go beyond the sounds playing throughout the tunnel and the visual spectacle of physical instruments placed on the walls.

The calling to the sense of sight could allow bahasa rasa—intangible communications between your mind, heart and soul, and maybe with the universe.

Could you elaborate further on the Balinese concept of 'Kanda Empat' that undergirds the work and expand on what it means to you?

Kanda Empat talks about remembering the four elements that already exist even before you were born: getih (blood), lamas (creamy biofilm covering the skin of the fetus), yeh nyom (amniotic fluid) and ari-ari (placenta). It is believed that these four elements have been taking care of you, especially the placenta, which protects the fetus. In these difficult and chaotic times, I considered that the Kanda Empat philosophy could be other elements that hold us together and remind us of where we come from. Personally, these elements are my roots: my faith, my family and my gamelan practice.

This work reminds me that when we feel unsure or kusut (tangled up), we can always take stock of the past and present and realign. The process of putting Banten together was a way for me to seek peace, give an offering and remind myself amid kusut, there will be peace inside of you.

I hope to share this space of peace and healing with everyone who journeys through the Esplanade Tunnel.

Arnont Nongyao

The Shadow(y) Needs No Bones expands on Arnont Nongyao’s ongoing interest in this idea of public instruments, public sound and thinking about how to develop situations for creating sounds collaboratively. For this work, the artist has conceived five instruments devised with LDR (light-dependent resistor) sensors that line the Esplanade Tunnel. As passers-by walk through the space, their shadows activate and generate sounds produced by these light-sensitive instruments. Overlapping movements of shadows will craft and weave unintentional “poems” that keep changing and evolving, enacting new ways of energy exchanging and composing.

In Arnont's conceptualisation of this work, his decision to work with brightly coloured wires draws inspiration from the inner mechanisms of amplifiers created by the late Khvay Loeung, a self-taught Cambodian sound inventor whom Arnont regards as an important mentoring figure and collaborator.

'The Shadow(y) Needs No Bones' is a series of five instruments devised with LDR sensors. As passers-by walk through the space, their shadows activate and modify the sounds produced by these light-sensitive instruments. You intend for various shadows to overlap and create sounds together. Could you elaborate on your ongoing interest in the ideas of “public instruments”, individuals creating sounds collaboratively and thinking about how people interact and participate with sound?

There are a lot of bells, drums and gongs situated around the temple in Thailand, which people are allowed to play. I like to listen to the moments when strangers touch the instruments at the same time, generating vibration and energy through the loud sounds; it is believed the louder you play the instruments, gods will bestow more blessings onto you. 

I got this idea of “public instruments” through these observations. As the Esplanade Tunnel is a public walkway, I wanted to create instruments brought about by the shadows people cast on the wall as they pass The Shadow(y) Needs No Bones. The sounds made by the instruments change according to the shadows cast by people on the wall, altering the sounds emitted each day from the work. Walking through the work creates this sonic encounter and exchange of energy and creative energies. 

A part of this work draws inspiration from the inner mechanisms of amplifiers created by Khvay Loeung. Could you share more on Khvay Loeung and his impact on your practice?

When I saw images of the Esplanade Tunnel, the space reminded me of the inner mechanisms in the DIY amplifiers constructed by the late Khvay Loeung, my mentor in Phnom Penh who was an audio inventor. From 2015 to 2020, I created DIY instruments alongside Khvay and learnt immensely from him through the processes of observation and making. Khvay assembled the amplifiers using an empty dark iron box and then collected some electronic parts from the trash around his vicinity.

I occasionally noticed Khvay's amplifier became noisier and created error sounds when I got too close to it. For me, it seemed like these devices had become instruments. It is in this similar manner that I created the five works in The Shadow(y) Needs No Bones.

In your practice, you are fascinated with sound, and specifically vibrations. Could you expand more on this interest and where it stems from?

This is an individual interest of mine. When I was young, I lived near an airport. When I turned on the radio at home, the broadcast was disrupted by aeroplane traffic sounds and frequencies. There was so much weird noise around me that I became a person who did not talk much and instead started listening more to every sound, especially noise. At the time, I could not understand where these sounds originated from and focused on the vibration, sensation and how these noises affected me.

Listening is a huge part of my life. For instance, when I am in a market in Thailand, I will choose to purchase food from a shop where the chef cooks with a nice rhythm and sound. I like to observe how the chef produces sounds when they are cooking, and for me, I feel like I am eating and tasting the vibrations of food.

I often think about how people in different cultures listen and how vibration affects us beyond the physical and the way sonic realms can build relationships and connections.

Instrumental Possibility is on view at Esplanade Tunnel from 26 May – 10 Sep 2023.

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