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Visual Arts

Insights: Mike HJ Chang

Experimenting with the "cone of vision"


Published: 5 Apr 2024

Time taken : ~10mins

The Long and Oblique View comprises a series of wall-oriented objects crafted from varying materials, such as acrylic, foam, paper pulp, 3D printing, ceramic, electrical trunking and text-based works. Unfolding across the Esplanade Tunnel, the works are interwoven to construct a visual narrative, drawing from two consistent themes in Mike HJ Chang’s work: the faculty of sight and the formation of space. 

Installation view of <em>The Long and Oblique View</em>, Mike HJ Chang, 2024.

In conceptualising these works, Chang responds to the linear and elongated characteristic of the space by experimenting with ideas of stretching and its potential to create effects of distortion, interference and obstruction. These artistic explorations are inspired by the artist’s everyday experiences and manifest in various ways. Some works evoke physical obstructions and representations of getting caught or trapped. Others delve into aspects of seeing and perception by playing with natural phenomena like condensation and evaporation, the connections between visibility and light, as well as employing devices associated with vision. This interplay of expanding motifs and contrasting forms is brought together through Chang’s enduring sense of humour, a consistent thread undergirding his practice. 

The Long and Oblique View explores the interplay between our perception and the spatial aspects of what we see. Several works in the exhibition evoke physical or visual disturbance, interference and distortion in response to the unique characteristics of the Esplanade Tunnel, with consideration to the concept of the "cone of vision". Can you elaborate on the concept of the "cone of vision" and explain how the linearity of the space influenced the creation of works in the exhibition?

I landed upon the idea of the "cone of vision" when I started thinking about the Esplanade Tunnel. The presence of columns and various elements makes it virtually impossible to have a clear, unobstructed view of the space. Additionally, due to the length of the Tunnel, for the viewer, objects at the end of the space appear diminished due to perspective. These reasons inspired me to use the "cone of vision" as a motif or metaphor to develop some of the work. 

I have also been thinking about apparatuses of seeing, which could encompass anything from camera obscura to lenses and telescopes. These tools serve as instruments of vision but require the construction of space for light reflection to make seeing possible.

I find it intriguing to consider them as metaphors, especially when they are broken or not functioning at full capacity. In such instances, there is a chance for them to transform into something else or disrupt the images they create. 

This concept forms the backbone of much of my previous work. Specifically for this show, many pieces depict a duality where something is happening, while simultaneously, something else is occurring in contrast. 

For example, in Missing Corner, the grey box is a simple rectangular shape, but I removed one corner, or in the case of the cans in Water Level, they are stretched out of shape. As the title Precarious Candles suggests, the manner that the candles are stacked looks unstable and fragile. There is always something slightly altered with the object, even though it might not be directly related to vision or sight. By the act of looking, the audience should pick up on something slightly off or surprising happening to either the composition, the material or the idea. 

Returning to your question, the "cone of vision" was my starting point for the exhibition, but numerous works developed from this idea through the process of creating all the pieces in the show. 

The rhythm and arrangement of the works influence the viewers' experiences. What are some considerations that guided you when determining the placements of the works?

I approached the arrangement of the works in a very formal way. Once all the work was completed, I could start considering shapes, colours and materials. I contemplated how to display them to achieve a sense of pacing and create various points of interaction between different forms and motifs. I first organised them into groups of two or three to observe their responses and then moved them around to explore different possibilities. There were probably a thousand different iterations but what I ended up with felt satisfactory. The challenge of this space was visualising the works in my head and it did not make sense until I put them on the wall. On paper, it was a different exercise. Once the works were on the wall, some arrangements started to make more sense and I made some small changes to enhance certain compositions. I juxtaposed varied shapes and broke similar shapes apart to create rhythm and challenge conventional wall composition. It was a fun exercise for me. 

Installation view of <em>The Long and Oblique View</em>, Mike HJ Chang, 2024.

I began delving into 3D printing approximately three years ago when a friend introduced it to me and provided access to a 3D printer. After acquiring a second-hand printer, I embarked on learning 3D modelling. The initial phase was challenging due to my lack of experience but with persistent practice and numerous trials, I now feel adept at designing the shapes necessary for my work. 

3D printing opened up a lot of different possibilities for sculptures that I could not imagine doing before. It enabled me to create things that were previously challenging, especially those requiring precision that I could not achieve by hand. For instance, in So So Da Da (I am a Soda Can but I Tripped), achieving precise details manually would be quite difficult. With 3D printing and modelling, I can ensure that the final output matches my exact vision. This, in a way, provides a nice contrast to my usual working methods which are raw and organic. For example, my ceramic pieces may exhibit a degree of clumsiness; some of the thermoplastic pieces in the exhibition are not overly refined, and paper pulp, which is a material I often use, does not allow for extreme precision. I like having varying degrees of finish in my artworks and find joy in working with materials that occasionally yield happy accidents. 3D printing, being precise and executing exactly what is intended, provides a contrasting element.  

<em>So So Da Da (I am a Soda Can but I Tripped)</em>, Mike HJ Chang, 2024.

Apart from 3D printing, learning 3D modelling has offered diverse ways of thinking about creating and producing desired shapes and forms. For instance, although I lack the machinery for computer numerical control (CNC) cutting, I can design shapes with 3D modelling and send them for production. These 3D modelling skills have opened various possibilities for sculptural creation, making the process both enjoyable and convenient.  

While you employ a variety of materials in your works, I would like to delve into your use of electrical trunking, as it is an everyday item that you expressed interest in incorporating into the exhibition during our earlier discussions. What draws you to this material?

I have been observing electrical trunking for about a year, particularly in older buildings, malls, HDB blocks and void decks. They often appear in a somewhat disorderly manner, with some being added later than others. Despite their inexpensive and readily available nature, I consider them an integral part of the architecture. Even though electrical trunking is non-permanent, somewhat disposable and meant to be concealed, they contribute to a building and its space. 

When I was first asked to propose works for the Esplanade Tunnel, my initial thought was to use electrical trunking to create minimalist, formal and abstract work. I find the material quite appealing, and the idea of removing it from its usual context and turning it into artwork seemed compelling. 

This initial idea treated electrical trunking as a readily available industrial material that can be manipulated. I experimented with cutting and weaving to explore its possibilities. Part of the exploration involved considering what was already present in the space and initiating a dialogue with the existing piping. Additionally, there was an interest in working with a material that is typically overlooked or hidden. 

“Tree branches catching empty fruits,” is the title of one of the works in the exhibition and was initially a proposed title for the show. Where does this idea stem from?

I do not recall precisely, but one of the earliest pieces I created for this show was the small paper mache work with fruits wedged in it: the arched tree branch shape against the wall. This work, entitled Wedged Fruits, draws upon a simplified shape inspired by contemplating tree branches. Many motifs in the show involve trees with fruits, such as figs or olives, as I was particularly interested in their arched shape. As concepts developed for works in the show and I explored the idea of disruption and distortion, I began imagining a reverse perspective, where instead of trees bearing fruits, they were catching flying fruits.

The notion of getting caught or ensnared became a recurring theme in the show, seen in works like Caught in a Web and From Drain to Sea. This exploration revolved around how things end up in unexpected places. The inspiration for this came from observing various objects fitting perfectly into drain gratings, like rocks, snails and debris. It seemed as if they were meant to be there. It became a thought exercise—what if we reverse engineer and create different narratives and viewpoints about how these everyday occurrences came to be. 

The Long and Oblique View by Mike HJ Chang is on view at the Esplanade Tunnel from 18 January to 12 May 2024. 

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