Jay Ho

with Lewin Bernard
and Deborah Lim

Lewin:

Hello, my name is Lewin Bernard and I am an independent theatre director. I’m here with artist, Jay Ho, to speak as a guest on the Shangri-La Art Podcast by Chan + Hori Contemporary. So, hello Jay Ho.

 

Jay:

Hello, hi Lewin.

 

Lewin:

Alright, so, let’s start from the very beginning. How did you begin your art practice?

 

Jay:

I think, if you ask any artist this question, exactly when we become an artist, that’s quite vague, right?  No one tells us that we are an artist, we become an artist, maybe until we sell a piece of work. But, even then, that doesn’t really dictate if I’m an artist or not. So, okay, I guess I am right now since I’m speaking in the podcast and, yeah, I’ve been carrying it a bit too far.

 

Yes, I studied in the Nanyang Academy of Fine Art, my diploma, studied a Diploma in Western Painting, sorry, a Diploma in Fine Arts - we had a major, previously, called Western Painting. So, that would be, I guess I would say I’m formally trained in drawing and painting.

 

Lewin:

Right, so, I guess the question would also go back to, when do you know, like, oh, okay, I want to be an artist?

 

Jay:

I think this is, it’s just always been with me, I knew that I cannot stand doing something…normal is one thing, but also, waking up every morning (this other thing). Yeah, having that, just living life in this repeated manner, that’s something that I think I can’t stand to think of myself doing. But, I think there is one part of my life where I figured out that, I figured out I am quite afraid of growing old, I think, I don’t want to be old one day and realise that I’ve not accomplished what I should have done, or there are a lot of things in my life that I want to do and I realise that I’ve missed them, you know, while in the pursuit of working for the money.

 

Lewin:

So, you have goals of like, okay I need to complete this and that, like, a task list of where my art should be or where’s my trajectory of my artwork?

 

Jay:

Actually, that wasn’t really for my art, that’s just for me in general. I just want to do things, yeah, and then making art happens to suit this lifestyle that I’m looking for. Yeah.

 

Lewin:

So, how do you begin your works, your compositions? Does it start with a movement or an idea?

 

Jay:

I do a few mediums, actually, I work with canvases, worked on aluminium panels, and I guess the way I work would be that I like to use materials in ways that they are not supposed to be used.

 

Lewin:

Yes, the non-conventional.

 

Jay:

Yeah, that’s very curious, how I can manipulate materials in ways that, I think there are certain universal patterns that show up, regardless of what materials I use and that’s a thing that I pick up and something that I am willing to explore.

 

Lewin:

Yeah, I think that’s good because even my practice is also similar, in a sense, where I find different art forms to help me with my theatre journey as well. So, in a sense, if I’m working on a play, I’ll probably look at a painting, listen to music, but I won’t read the script per se, I mean, after reading the script, yes, I know the information, but, to inspire, I’ll use different forms to help me get inspired, because if I start going to research into theatre, it’s probably done. So, I want to find things that are not done yet. Hence, that’s my style of doing things.

 

Jay:

Yeah, yeah, I agree with that, I relate to that because, I think, at some point, actually, while I’m studying with friends and we talk about some of these themes, about just things that are happening in our lives, they fit into our works, whether we are conscious about it or not. And, a lot of times, we try to read up a lot about art, I mean, it’s good also, but in many ways, just living a rich life on it’s own can also add a lot into the works.

 

Lewin:

True, because if you keep concentrating on your artwork, you might not see the rest of the world right? In that sense.

 

Jay:

For me, I would say that it becomes a little bit too deliberate. I think people can tell. People can tell that the energy that you give, that is natural and authentic, yeah.

 

Lewin:

So, do you have a ritual to get yourself into the zone of art-making?

 

Jay:

I don’t have a ritual, but I take a long time to get into the zone, yeah. That’s why my schedule’s pretty non-existent because I can’t come in at this time and expect myself to start working by this time. So, a lot of the times I end up staying up late, working in the middle of the night, when I get into the zone. Ritual-wise, I guess it’s the little things, have my sketchbook ready, listen to good music or some podcast, and wait (laughs).

 

Lewin:

Yes, I mean one podcast I can recommend is the Shangri-La one, so yeah. Okay, so you have an interest in the cosmos or space, am I right to say that? What drew you to that?

 

Jay:

For me, it’s really much about just discovering and finding out how things came to be around me, just my personal discovery, journeying and discovering reality, basically, and over time it’s led me into things of bigger and bigger scales, ultimately, to astronomy because it’s the most - it’s humbling, for one, but it’s also the most all-encompassing, the very nature of how things came to be. And, you know, reading up about astronomy and realising there’s so much more out there, and so much about what we experience and what we talk about only exists in this planet of ours. That alone is quite a humbling experience for myself.

 

Lewin:

True, I mean, as an artist, we always try to discover even more - understanding the galaxy, there’s so much to still discover. Do you agree with that?

 

Jay:

Yeah, culturally, of course, in astronomy and science and physics, culturally, maybe not much is around because it’s mostly scientific, right? And most culture that we understand stems from the Earth, what we’ve been through. So, and I know art and a lot of what we talk about, a lot of what people care about, is things that happen, that has direct relations and implications to themselves. So, very much, pretty worldly.

 

Lewin:

The next question I want to go with is, because I’m a director, do you have a sci-fi movie favourite?

 

Jay:

I actually don’t watch a lot of movies at all. I’m not someone that watches movies, I’ll be pretty boring as a person if you want to talk to me about movies, but there are a few sci-fi movies that I’ve watched, like Interstellar, I like that a lot. I’ve tried to watch Star Trek too, I like that too but I found Star Trek still pretty much very human, the main essence of the show is very human and they use space and aliens as figures to share human stories. Interstellar is very cool.

 

Lewin:

It is, I like how Nolan had this whole equation and how physics worked into the movie and he didn’t want to cut any corners to explain the movie, so that was great.

 

Jay:

Yeah, it can be a bit far-fetched but logically it all actually makes sense, it’s actually possible, so that is a very, it’s sci-fi, but a lot of it is not fiction, so that’s really cool.

 

Lewin:

How did ‘Oumuamua’s Tale come about?

 

Jay:

Oumuamua is an asteroid that was discovered in 2017. It’s the first asteroid, actually, or first object to be discovered that’s not from our solar system. I’ve decided to use this title for this show because just a visitor coming from outside, from out there, we think that we are alone and we are right here, but something comes along and messes everything up. I like the idea of that. It’s like, the idea of, we like to think that we are all protagonists of our own stories, but, ultimately, it’s all relative right? Maybe it’s back to my own personal philosophy that, I personally believe that there’s inherently no meaning to what we do, but we give our own meaning to things that we do and that enriches our lives and, ultimately, that’s the point. It’s what we give to it rather than inherent things, so an object like Oumuamua coming in, telling us that there’s something out there from somewhere else and we’ve actually spotted it, that’s something that I really like about it.

 

Lewin:

So, it passed by Earth on 14 October 2017, do you remember where you were at this point?

 

Jay:

2017…probably just graduated from school, yeah, that was quite exciting news when I heard about it but I guess it didn’t internalise within me, or that I didn’t immediately work on anything about it, that’s not how I work, I’m not one who experiences something in life and immediately reflects it in my work, like oh, this body of works is about something that I’ve been through just recently. It takes a long time for things to settle in, eventually they show up in my pieces. I work in this way.

 

Lewin:

How do you discover your process of creating textures on your artwork?

 

Jay:

I’ve been working with these fractal textures, I’ve been working with these for quite a while ever since my days in school. It’s actually found by accident, the textures that form, because I left some of these catalysts on a cup and I didn’t clean it away, and after a while the textures formed and I thought that’s wacky, it’s something that looks really wrong, it’s not supposed to happen, I like that aspect of it. It’s dirty, it’s muddy, it’s ugly, to be honest, but just the fact that this phenomenon happens and that’s the interesting part of it. I don’t make my works to look pretty, or I want to make it look nice, but I try to see how I can work with it. From then, been working with that, and for this upcoming show, or this show that has happened - by the time it is released - for this series of works, it’s sort of my way to dial back on that fact and find sort of a balance. This aesthetic that I really like.

 

Lewin:

At first glance, honestly, when I was looking at your images and everything, it seems like I’m on that comet and you’re taking aerial shots of it because it looks like terrain as we go, as we travel in space looking at all these pieces and everything. For me, it feels really like oh wow, I’ve never seen the Earth or any other planet this way before. When you create your works, do you have this aerial shot of how it might look like?

 

Jay:

Sometimes the aerial shots came to be, or helicopter shots, as I like to think about it in that way, because all these paintings, they take a long time to dry, about two months before it’s ready to be hung. They’re always lying down, lying flat in my studio, they take up a lot of space, so I like to photograph them with the camera and document the details and, a lot of the time, because they’re lying flat down, the reflections off the ceiling, they are casted on. I like to think of that as albedo, or reflectivity of a planet and I think, for myself, I like capturing that aspect of the works also. That’s how the aerial shots came to be, just the fact that it’s all on the ground and I can’t hang it up and I have to take it in this way.

 

With regards to the actual pictorial surface, I don’t really think a lot about pictorially what I want it to be, maybe sometimes just to add variety in the series of works, I’m curious about how this other pigment, this other colour would work with the other one and I’d try it out. A lot of times, why the works have this sort of gradient to them, it’s partly because I want to use as many, I want to experiment with many different pigments at once, because, every piece I do is really to resolve a curiosity in me. So, if I know, this piece, this is how it’s going to turn out, I won’t be working on that. I work with, sort of, an unknown parameter each time to see what happens and slowly this knowledge builds up.

 

Lewin:

With every artwork, do you discover yourself more?

 

Jay:

In what way?

 

Lewin:

Like for every play I do, I find I learn more about myself, in the sense where physically or mentally, spiritually, so, there are certain points that I would learn about myself through the play. With your artworks, like each piece, do you learn something about yourself, or do you experience something creating it?

 

Jay:

I think I’ll say I learn more about myself through how I make the pieces or how I got around to make the pieces, like what you said about ritual earlier. Some bodies of work get in the zone easier than others, so some are left demanding that way, then, from there, I guess that’s how I learn about myself in the way I work, or in the way I approach, like, being anxious about how the works turn out, being, all this flurry of emotions that happen when you’re in a creative zone.

 

Lewin:

For your works, because you experiment, in the sense where you pour paint onto it and then you see how it settles, when do you know it’s done, you know, okay this is what you want?

 

Jay:

Oh, that can be tough for a lot of these pieces. Sometimes, they are not done, or so I think, and I hang it up and then I work on something else and, over the next few days, look at the same piece hung on the wall and then I realise, I think it looks okay, looks about right, that happens sometimes, this observation just informing how I perceive the work.

 

Lewin:

Right, like how you discovered this texture-making as well.

 

Jay:

Yeah, some pieces I really have to slow down and look at it from a slower pace, to discover more from it. Others, some of them can be limited purely by technical reasons, purely because chemically it’s not going to work out, but there are a few pieces where I still push that. Aside from that, it’s really very much just the overall looking at a piece of work in all-encompassing standpoint, overall, how different, many, many different factors affect these pieces of work, that’s how I decide.

 

Lewin:

Do you have any strong bond with any of the work? Like there’s one painting you have a special connection to it more than any other? Or is it that , with all, you have similar connections in different ways?

 

Jay:

Naturally, actually, I don’t have a strong bond with my pieces because working with this nature, all these pieces, they are pretty much all make it or break it at every layer that I do, in the way that they are irreparable, unchangeable once I lay something out. I try not to have too much of an attachment to them because, a lot of times, a piece of work may be mediocre but, because of attachment, I leave it on and it becomes a piece of work that I’m not proud of eventually. That’s quite funny, because now it looks like I’m working on them in a very objective way, but, I guess, I have to be. I need to look at them objectively, whether they work or not, and having a bond to any one of them can skew that a little, but, inevitably, there would be a few pieces that I like more than others.

 

———

 

Deborah:

Thank you, Lewin, for that wonderful first quick interview and chat with artist Jay Ho, I’m Deborah Lim, curator at Chan + Hori Contemporary, and we’re bringing back the Shangri-La Art Podcast for a special Singapore Art Week edition which is happening from the 14th of January 2022. As part of this Art Week, we are featuring a solo exhibition by artist, Jay Ho, who’s in the studio with us today, and, as you can imagine, we’re also bringing in new voices to the podcast from when we first began and, thus, bringing Lewin in with his theatre background is, kind of, one of our first encounters so far, and also his interaction from a different genre to art.

 

Now that I’m talking about theatre, I’m thinking about our venue, we’re in Telok Kurau Studios and you may or may not hear a few roosters, parrots, cars and shouting, it really feels like we’re part of the natural environment, and this is the place where Jay works quite a bit, so, bringing a bit of that reality to you.

 

So, Jay, let’s get to maybe a kind of bigger picture vision of your work now that Lewin has gone into specifics with you. When we first spoke about the building of this show, you were talking about the idea of faith, and how faith kind of plays a very big part in your artistic process over the years you’re realising - what exactly do you mean by this? Do you mean a spiritual faith or is it more like a kind of mentality?

 

Jay:

I think, over the years, when I’ve worked with all these pieces, I start to realise that at the core of what I do, it’s actually quite spiritual in some way. Faith, for me, it’s not religion per se, but I think it takes a great deal of faith, for myself la, to be able to experiment in this way and make works of this nature. Yeah, that would be the core of what I think.

 

Deborah:

Does it have to do with the fact that you’re working with materials that are not so easy to determine, the outcome, or something to do with aluminium panels, the paints you use?

 

Jay:

Yup, like what I’ve mentioned with Lewin earlier, the fact that all these materials are really make it or break it, it’s really you’ve no clue how they’ll turn out and there’s a very good chance that nature will just screw you over, even if you think you know exactly what you’ve done, or even if you know, like, for me, certain pieces that I’ve, as much as these are done spontaneously, there are areas or aspects of the work where it’s a bit more calculative and even with all that done, there’s a good chance that it won’t turn out in the way that I expect them to, which is more exciting, actually.

 

Deborah:

True, let’s speak a bit about that. I mean, we know nothing in the works are really fully up to chance, right, because if that was the case, everyone could do it. Everyone could mix paints together and experiment. What you’re doing here is quite intentional and we’ve also spoken before about how you’ve got certain formulae or combinations, it’s quite scientific actually, has this been something you’ve refined more and more?

 

Jay:

Yeah, technicality-wise, making the works, that’s something that I’ve been working on, but also, spiritually as well. In the past few years that I’ve been practising, the works that I’ve been making, I come from a perspective that’s out of curiosity, out of the experimental spirit to see what happens, I want to mess things up and see how far I can push that, but, for this body of works, it’s really distilling what I know best about the materials that I’ve worked with. It’s coming into more of a scientific way of working, yeah.

 

Deborah:

Yeah, because, this to me, this is why I would never say the works are fully up to chance, because if I thought about people like John Cage taking into account the environment and ambient sound or Donald Judd, you know, all these are artists that really work off the element of chance and then put that in their work, but, with you, I think there’s a nice kind of balance between control and chaos, and maybe, in the same way, what I like about Jay’s works is that - as you look at the textures, you imagine certain layers started first, but, actually, the layers can emerge from the bottom, they can drip down depending on how, Jay, you’re hanging them or laying them flat - so, actually, there’s a multi-layered approach to this, right? There’s the first initial impression and then there’s what is actually going on, and most people would not be able to decipher this unless they’re you, right?

 

Jay:

Yeah, I had an idea about something that you spoke earlier, that I really wanted to expand on.

 

Deborah:

Was it in relation to the layers and what we see on the surface?

 

Jay:

Before that, oh yes, I’ve never fully seen myself as the creator of all these pieces and I made all these things and, a lot of times, I tend to under-emphasise that it’s through my judgement and through my experimentations that I find out how this works. That’s why I’ve been coming at it from an angle that it’s really spontaneous and uncontrollable, because in my perspective, back then, that’s how I saw it. I never saw myself as I made these things happen, because these are all natural phenomena that happen anyway and I’m just a facilitator letting all these happenings occur. So, that’s how I saw it in myself, but, you’ve been speaking to me about how it’s really not all random and I start to realise, yeah, that’s true, it’s not, you know, having to own this process, I guess this development is also something that occurs within me over the years.

 

Deborah:

Yeah, because I think a lot of what we do is subconscious and we’re not always so aware at the moment, like what you said earlier in the interview with Lewin, that you see something, you internalise it and you put it into a body of work. I think most people don’t operate that way, unless they’re hyper-aware of everything in their day-to-day life, right? Most of the time we take in something, it brews for a while and then, suddenly, as you’re reflecting on it, it could be years or months later, then you realise oh wait, there was this connection and blah blah blah. I like that aspect of it where, perhaps, it’s all a complex kind of mixture and you don’t really need to pinpoint what it’s about, you don’t need to say it’s a landscape, it’s a solar system, but there is enough ambiguity to play with as well.

 

Jay:

Yeah, I don’t necessarily see all these works as landscapes directly or to be representative of something. To me, first and foremost, it’s very much my own personal journey and process with discovering things. Of course, you know, I like how certain things look, I have my own tastes, and those come through into the works and, they are inspired by natural things around us.

 

Deborah:

Yeah, definitely, I mean, we also used to talk about how some of the materials that you use would be considered more industrial, cheaper, they’re not the most high-brow and yet, when you look at the work, you wouldn’t be able to tell that these materials were the source. You’ve kind of repurposed them, packaged them, even given them an additional layer of value and is that something that you like about it? The fact that they are so-called lower materials but you’re putting them in this setting and calling them art?

 

Jay:

The one good thing about being an artist is that I get to hang out with rich people, poor people, people with all sorts of backgrounds and I don’t feel myself to fully belong in any class, that’s something I enjoy and, I guess, that’s what I like about working with some of these cheaper materials. Of course, they come about with me experimenting first, when we do experiment with these sorts of works, we can’t commit to all the best ingredients or best materials. Even then, I’ve moved on to use better-grade materials and top-of-the-grade things in my works and they just don’t turn out as well as the cheaper materials, which is quite funny to me, but, of course, I work in ways that are supposed to be unintentional. I work in ways that are not supposed to be how they are used, so that’s why. And, I guess, it also relates to me very well in this way of working, I’m more of a hardware shop person as opposed to an art shop person. I mean, both get me excited, I’ve been a material geek for a while, but, I guess this spontaneity in working with household materials and the capability to produce a larger variety of things led me to a hardware store more than an arts store.

 

Deborah:

Nice, yeah, I think that’s quite a different approach than most artists would even imagine, because if you imagine you’re a painter, you go to the nearest paint shop with the fancy art paint, the Daler-Rowneys, all of that, and then you’re working with the most expensive material perhaps, in order to create your work, but there is a certain comparison or contrast or opposites that come through in the way you’re now producing.

 

I’ve also got a kind of observation when I see your work because, up close, we’ve dealt with the idea of scale before, how sometimes some of these works - if they look like they’re through a satellite view or from a microscope, it’s all that idea of scale and what you speak about, the universe being so much bigger than we could imagine or even count ourselves as important in, so, sometimes when I go up close to your work, I get a very different feeling or sensation as opposed to further away. I think it has to do with texture. The wrinkles up close that make me think about, I could get a bit squeamish even. Is this something you consider as you’re making? Do you go up close and change or affect certain details, or do you view it more from a step back?

 

Jay:

I would say I view it more from a step back. I look at the whole piece as a whole first, before looking up close at details. Just based on the type of person I am, I look at things in the big scale or the bigger picture, and that’s how I like to see my life in that way, to look at the bigger picture, to live it in this way. But, of course, details in the pieces when they are there, it’s always nice to see things that surprise us. Sounds like a mini game, you find things, even I, myself, I find things in my paintings, I find a lot of dead insects in my paintings. It’s almost like a catalogue, an insect zoo, okay, not that bad but, it happens.

 

Deborah:

And to you that’s part of the process as well, right? In a way?

Jay: It’s one of the variables that I can’t control. I try not to get myself too affected by that and sometimes these different elements, the nature of the studio that I’m in right now, dust that falls on the paintings, they create all these nucleation sites or so for the factors to occur, to happen.

 

Deborah:

Yeah, I think it also has something to do with us in the tropics, the heat, the temperature, the humidity and all that affects the way the works set, what goes in in the process, because you have to dry them for pretty long as well and, over that time, all these different combinations could happen and factors that you can’t control.

 

Jay:

Yeah, definitely, I love travelling, I love discovering the world but my art practice, this media in particular, just so happens to be quite specific to my studio right now. I do have another series that I have worked on, the Noise series, on raw canvas using recycled foam boards, and that to me would be a more versatile medium to work on. So, that’s something I realise about local artists. Some of them, because of the nature of the cost of living, we have a few mediums that we work on that may not require us to have a studio and that other medium to me would be that medium.

 

Deborah:

It’s movable.

 

Jay:

I worked on it during Circuit Breaker, during lockdown.

 

Deborah:

Nice, but, so the aluminium panels are actually quite specific to the studio, to the climate, to Singapore even. Great, would you describe your work as more abstract? Does it matter?

 

Jay:

No it doesn’t. When people ask me, right off the bat, I say I make abstract paintings, because I think that’s a lot easier to answer, but, ultimately, for me, what exactly is abstraction is a whole different can of worms.

 

Deborah:

Yeah, I feel like if you’re a contemporary painter and your works look abstract, then you also kind of have to assert your position, what you are contributing to all the history that came before you, abstraction has a certain place and time, of course, there is contemporary abstraction but it’s really important how you as an individual in Singapore are positioning yourself there. Are these things you’ve considered, how you’d fit into the overall storyline, or is it more at the moment specific.

 

Jay:

Definitely, I’ve thought about this, you know, being a full-time artist in Singapore, I get questions like this a lot, from everyone. I’ve just never related completely to any one group, even within painting, the mediums I work with, the material aspect of it is very heavy with every piece that I do. I realise I could never really fit into any particular group, yeah, so with abstraction, there is a period where I really tried to make abstract things like I am an abstract artist, thus the works I do, I stray away from what looks too pretty, I still do, but, so I stray away from things that look too representational as well. I do it on purpose, I don’t want people to see any link and it becomes one-dimensional, the work just flattens itself in that way, but, more recently, I’ve just been a bit more open about things. If it looks like something, how I came about arriving at this result, if it’s authentic, then, yeah, it is what it is.

 

Deborah:

Yeah, so the genuine intention carries it more than what you see or what you could relate it with.

 

Jay:

Yeah, it’s really not the main point.

 

Deborah:

And, maybe just as a final question, how would you imagine the most ambitious work you could create? Is there a desired scale, a desired project, a desired outcome that you’ve thought about?

 

Jay:

I’ve been thinking about making this huge painting through my experimentations and also my experience with taking all these aerial shots or helicopter shots, like a large piece, like four meters or something that’s on the floor because that’s how I work. Something like that, that would be pretty cool, a huge piece on the floor, meant to be on the floor, made to be on the floor.

 

Deborah:

So, in a way, that captures your process right? How you make and also people look through your same lens as you create?

 

Jay:

Yeah, scale-wise that’d be pretty significant, but, you know, it’s very different to view a work on the ground than on the wall, very completely different. That’s something that I’ve thought about.

 

Deborah:

Nice, I hope you can make it happen at some point!

 

Jay:

Yeah, logistics will be hell, but someday.

 

Deborah:

Well, we can dream. Thank you so much Jay for today.

 

Jay:

Thank you Deborah and Lewin.

 

Deborah:

We will end off this session here!