by Sheung Yiu

© Ange Ong, Hong Kong Cafe, Cups and Two Fishballs, 2016

«Photography, in my comprehension of it, has always been in some ways violent. And I have always wanted to avoid being so in my practice», says Ange Ong. Looking at the photographs from her series ‘Hong Kong Cafe’ and ‘Nether Doux’, one can feel the muteness and tenderness permeating through the pictureque membrane of her photographs. Academically trained in art history, Ong uses photography to comment on the complex politics and her various concerns about the discipline. A painter who ‘couldn’t paint well without a photograph or a photographic images in my head’, she now makes images with her camera instead. Her work, Hong Kong Cafe, received a Juror’s selection in the open call of Centre For Fine Art Photography (C4FAP) and will be exhibited at the center’s upcoming exhibition ‘FAUX’.

What is your first camera? What is your first memory with photography?

Ange Ong (AO): My very first camera is a digital colour camera from Sony that I borrowed from a relative when I first travelled abroad as a young teenager, but I would say a Contax SR2 is the first camera which I used to make pictures more artistically (if that’s the word). The only thing I could remember with my Sony is that I was protecting my camera the whole time, holding onto it tightly every time I stepped outdoor. Photography at that time was such a privilege to me, it was so precious and magical. It’s funny to think of that with the iPhone by me right now. 

© Ange Ong from the series 'Nether Doux', 2015 

It seems that almost all photographers I interviewed started out entering photography in similar ways which always involve travelling and a used camera from a family member. There's something about traveling/wandering that is instinctually related to photography.

AO:Yeah, I think it is something inherited in photography. Since the invention of photography (and now the smartphones), makers of camera have always wanted to make the apparatus more portable. Daguerre thought himself that his camera could be taken on a trip (probably he was the only one), but with no surprise later it came portable darkrooms and mini labs. People wanted to make pictures so bad when they are traveling. I guess in some way it has something to do with power. When you have a camera in hand, all of a sudden it is possible for you to make something out of the travel, to prove the distance you could make, the people you encountered, the places you discovered, and ultimately you differentiate yourselves with the others who do not own a camera. (And here I am talking about the time when not everyone has a camera in their pocket.) 

© Ange Ong from the series 'Nether Doux', 2015 

You had an educational background in art history, spending your undergraduate and postgraduate years on the subject? How does your knowledge in the history of art influence your photography? 

AO: Out of the many things that I can say about it conceptually or theoretically, the simple fact is that studying art history made me a more skeptical person. Everything could be much more loaded than its surface, every obscure element in an image could denote an idea, every perspective could give you new information. I became less forgivable for someone’s slip of the tongue, I enjoy revisiting places a little more. Being only with one thing or in one place bother me less. I always take an extra pause here and there to look closer. And that actually is a basis of photography —  just looking a little longer until something build up in you to move that arm, to hold that camera up and make that picture. 

You went through a transition from oil painting to photography. When did you decide on photography as your medium of artistic expression?

AO: Frankly, I have to say it happened based on convenience (and now I think about it, it is really quite emblematic of our time). It has to do with a bad way that I was trained when I was a teenager. I was trained in this oil painting studio where we first learned to draw from geometric objects, then figures. When I move into the other classroom after two to three years, there is a box filled with photographs of paintings, individually kept in transparent sleeves for student to pick and to copy from. That is a terrible way of teaching painting but I didn’t know at the time. I just carried on copying for years. After some time, I actually couldn’t paint well without a photograph or a photographic images in my head. 

You talked about feeling that the discipline of art history is only giving us a small part of what we want out of images. Could you elaborate on that?

AO: Illustrations with captions are the standard to-go format in many art historical writings, and surely they enable images because we are learning more about them. There are of course exceptions, one of the few being Carol Mavor’s Black and Blue: The Bruising Passion of Camera Lucida, La Jetée, Sans soleil, and Hiroshima mon amour, but it is not really considered as ‘proper’ art criticism. Some criticized it for being too personal, a little too loose. Surely art history contains factual information but the selection of such is ultimately personal, coming from how one at a place and time responded to a work more than the other in the first place. Writing in art history, however, has to do with having enough ‘cash-value’ for the discipline – how it is useful to inform, to provoke with evidence, how it is relevant, etc. I guess I am interested in the earlier instances of art historical thinking before its inauguration into an academic discipline, perhaps I am just drawn to a more pure understanding of our relationship with images, one that is not required of full justification.  

© Ange Ong, Hong Kong Cafe 5, 2015

What I saw from the series ‘Hong Kong Cafe’ is a play on space and perspectives with a composition heavily influenced by traditional still life painting. It reminds me of Laura Letinsky’s work. What is your approach for the series?

AO: I am living in New York right now and I often visit the Chinatowns here. There are places where people say you will feel like you are living back in your hometown when you are there and eateries where they try so hard to provide you with the full immersive experience of eating in a particular city. I have been to very “authentic” places that mimics the Hong Kong Cafe, it is called “cha-chang-teng” in Cantonese but usually cafes here. They have extremely similar menus, as well as the taste of dishes and servers’ attire. Despite that, I always left feeling slightly out of place when I ordered a cold drink and no one is charging me an extra dollar, like in any cafes in Hong Kong. 

The series ‘Hong Kong Cafe’ has to deal with the kind of half-satisfying visual simulation promised by cultural constructs like Chinatowns, Little Italy-s and Little India-s overseas that we carry on to seek despite knowing its artificiality. In terms of the composition, actually it is quite different from the style of still life painting that I learned. In more traditional style, the perspective is from a much lower angle, sometimes even perpendicular to the wall, but perhaps it had influenced me in terms of the muteness in my work. I do love Laura Letinsky’s work. For me, her work is very quiet but unsettling. 

© Ange Ong, Hong Kong Cafe 7, 2015

You told me earlier that sometimes the images you creates perform as substitutes to written art criticism. How does your work reflect this philosophy for example on ‘Instruction Portraits’ or ‘Afterwards’?

AO: Personally, I just lost interest in reading most of them.I am no longer interested in the current way most art criticism (live art criticism, not art criticism in books) is written. I don't think I am the only one and of course, there are always people who find them invigorating. For one thing, it is less vigorous – less vigourous in its internal politics, less vigorous in its pursuit to position new works in history and often less vigorous in its voice in writing. Triple Canopy’s point in its circulated article on “international art english” is the other thing.

In ‘Afterwards,’ I made images after paintings of Lucian Freud and David Hockney not really with an intention to make a comment or critique, I made them for engaging with them, for the process. The pictures are merely the residues of the effort taken to understand a work. Mostly, they are also the documentation of re-enactments. I felt like only by re-enacting through photography that I can understand the works physically – the height that one has to stand at to look down to a scene or the miles one has to drive out from L.A. in order to find such a landscape. I cannot really say they substitute writing art criticism, but rather more for me to have a more satisfying engagement with works. 

You have photographed Hong Kong, yet your take on the city is very unique. You avoided the crowded and cliche cityscape and instead juxtaposes still life, quiet cityscape and portraits in your series ‘Nether Doux’. How does Hong Kong inspire you artistically? In a city with such dense visual elements, does it influence your aesthetic and artistic thinking?

AO: Actually, until you point it out, I did not really think of 'Nether Doux' as a series about Hong Kong (even though all of the pictures were made there). It just happened to me. Perhaps it is just me not seeing. Perhaps, in some way, it is not really about Hong Kong.

© Ange Ong from thee series 'Nether Doux', 2015

Now that I think about it, in a city like Hong Kong, we are constantly disturbed by the overpopulation, the architecture, the noise on the streets, certain news and certain people in political power. The recent protest events in Hong Kong had further portrayed it as a violent, angry city. For me though, it is a city with many hidden sides of its gentleness (“wen-yau” in cantonese). And I guess if I have to express that, I would want to do it in a way without disturbing anyone and gently. Photography, in my comprehension of it, has always been in some ways violent. And I have always wanted to avoid being so in my practice. 

(The interview is slightly edited for clarity)


Ange Ong