How did we get here

Solo Exhibition By Wei Leng Tay

Curated By Lisa Botos

1 April - 3 May 2015

How did we get here is a selection of images from Tay's ongoing body of work Hong Kong Living started in 2005. Tay's images capture uncertain moments in everyday lives. However, beyond conventional portraiture, the works underline Tay's own understanding and projections of personal and familial power dynamics and pressures, as well as the physical and psychological facets of the sitters. The result is a multilayered series with narratives constantly playing off each other, and changing as the artist herself grows with the process and experience. As Tay states, "The imagery depicts states of mind, relationships and tensions between the people that are somewhat real, and also projections of my own relationships. The work helps me make sense of how we navigate and negotiate our personal lives, and the multiple roles we might play."

Recent solo exhibitions include Out of Place, Lumenvisum, Hong Kong (2014); Convergence, Chulalongkorn University Art Centre, Bangkok (2012); Discordant Symmetries, NUS Museum, Baba House (2010/11). Selected group exhibitions include Roving Eye: Contemporary Art in Southeast Asia, ARTER – Space for Art, Istanbul (2014); Concept, Context, Contestation, Bangkok Art and Culture Centre (2014); Asian Art Biennial: Everyday Life, National Taiwan Museum of Fine Arts (2013); Still Building, Selasar Sunaryo Art Space, Bandung (2012); All about Fukuoka, Fukuoka Asian Art Museum (2010).

Tay’s work is featured in public collections including the National Taiwan Museum of Fine Art; Fukuoka Asian Art Museum; Heritage Museum, Hong Kong; and Kiyosato Museum of Photographic Arts, Japan.


by Robin Peckham

Reading a photograph by Wei Leng Tay necessarily begins with the sensation of boredom—this is natural, and must be admitted before we can move on to more productive things. Her photography initially deflects curiosity about the specifics of the work and instead raises the status of the image: What are we supposed to be looking at here? What kind of image are we facing? We recognize that the work is not about the particular in a meaningful way, and that these images belong to a broader system that lies just beyond the boundaries of understanding available to individual works. There is a feeling that it is the viewer who falls under critique here, that our media consumption habits predispose us to read these images incorrectly. Our approach to photography today is often far too literal, leaving us unable to decode the relevance—not to say meaning—of the image outside of its immediate media context, be it photojournalism, contemporary art, or something else entirely. Tay’s work reeks of aura, but what its halo stands for is more complicated. We feel that these works are intensely personal, and that whatever research might go into them (that is to say, whatever they might be about in a social sense) and whatever formal attributes affect their composition are secondary to the involvement of the artist herself.

Preconceptions, mercifully, can be wrong; this applies to the viewer as much as the characters who inhabit the work, who often feel lost as to their roles in the practice, and the artist, who, we suspect, often ends up with more than she intended. The obvious topics of the work are naturally and immediately deconstructed. Domesticity, of course, is submerged in a sexualized nostalgia for the familiar relationships surrounding the individuals pictured in scenes like Cathleen and Raphael or Pinky. What remains is a latent discomfort that cannot be explicitly discussed, but rather informs and adds an edge to everything around it. There are artists who take questions of media and the use of the image—even looking directly at domestic situations—and make them more or less boring. Think of Li Yu and Liu Bo, who dramatize offbeat articles from the newspaper by restaging the tableaux of frontpage photographs with long, still videos in which no one moves—almost. Or John Clang, whose work with telepresent families split up over long distances is his least visually engaging practice, even if it constitutes the ineffable background to his more exciting one-off still lifes. There is Nguan, whose outdoor lightness mirrors the darkness of Tay’s interiors. And there is Chien-Chi Chang, whose responsibly distant black-and-white images counterbalance the inextricably intimate and oddly entangled subjectivity we find here. For all of these photographers, the fates of the artist and the image diverge as much in their afterlives as, we suspect, do their subjects. Unique to Wei Leng Tay, there is far more to be discovered in the expressiveness or, more likely, non-expressiveness of the figures she captures in Lee Family than in their living conditions and the social environment around them.

Reading a photograph by Wei Leng Tay often then proceeds to a feeling of revulsion when we mistakenly focus more on these external conditions than on the involvement of the artist or the relationship between figure and lens. This is the problem with the extravagant profusion of research-based practice and the artist-as-ethnographer today; everyone gets pulled into this way of working. For Tay, the question of how the artist is perceived—by the viewer and by her subject—is often more significant than what she herself perceives. There are, indeed, social issues that are raised in her work, but most are the product of the artist’s interest in herself: she focuses, for instance, on middle-class Chinese families in Singapore and Malaysia, as well as, later, Hong Kong; she has also immersed herself in mainland families in Hong Kong, and in Japanese families in rural Japan. The constant, however, is displacement, not the particular ethnic or cultural matrix that might come to dominate the practice of a lesser artist. These categories are interesting because of their self-imposed racial segregation, and for the images of insularity that they cultivate. Certain formations emerge in Tay’s understanding of these displaced domestic cultures within cultures: what she sees is the framing of the self, of gender, and of family structures, albeit in ways that reflect her own position as much as anything else. Everyone becomes subject to the epistemic violence of the category, of the label, and so this is the last thing that the artist seeks to do with her photographs. They speak, always, in the register of “Am I this?” rather than the more common “You are that.” Tay understands her own process in a way that is open-ended enough for it to avoid becoming literally sociological; wherever there is a message, it should be far from obvious. Our lives, after all, are not so dramatic. What we end up seeing is that things aren’t happening at all.

Reading a photograph by Wei Leng Tay settles, in the middle phases of the process, into a satisfaction with or at least acceptance of the flatness of the image. Putting aside questions of research and realizing that there are forms of silence other than boredom, we become curious about how, precisely, the artist manages to accomplish what she does with these pictures. There is a very conscious flattening of any family or social drama that might take place before the moment is recorded, even when it is clear that Tay pulls the trigger at a sensitive time. When something happens, it is always a memory of the very recent past. The key question in her work is this: How much should the audience understand of what she is trying to do? How much of herself should enter the images? How much social history should be captured? It is this instability, this refusal to make a decision about where the photograph begins or ends within her practice (and within the world at large) that makes this body of work so compelling.

For Tay, the perfect threshold is reached when she herself understands what she is trying to do. Everything else, as they say, is icing on the cake—including the legibility of the photograph for her viewers, even those who could be considered ideal viewers. The artist has experience in photojournalism, and in the flatness of her creative work there is a curiosity about the current polarization of photography in the news: to have value, an image must be either unique, unreproducible and spectacular; or universal, endlessly recyclable and timeless. Tay’s photography has nothing to do with these categories, and yet her practice speaks to mass media culture far more than it does to the culture of viewing photography in galleries. As if to underscore this fact, she pays attention to the balance between various forms of media in her work, occasionally including recordings or transcripts of conversations and other forms of documentation alongside the images of her subjects. This background, however, necessarily becomes vague. Tay refuses to attribute specific quotations to specific personalities, allowing their positions to recede into a general interest in social conditions that never overwhelms the photograph.

Reading a photograph by Wei Leng Tay really only becomes interesting after the viewer has already passed through these initial phases of discomfort. What happens next is surprising: perversion enters the picture, with the understanding that something else entirely is happening here—that the pictures we are looking at resonate not because they reflect their subjects or their intended audience, but rather the projected desires and positions of the artist herself. This is most obvious in Tay’s involvement with Hong Kong Chinese families, but is also evident (in a more distant and, therefore, extreme way) in everything up to and including her portraits of the women in Japanese families. Sometimes this takes the form of projected autobiography—the feeling that subjects with the same life experiences might have similar concerns—but, as often as not, it also takes the more interesting form of projected image production. Here, the artist makes pictures that tell her things about herself that she otherwise refuses to acknowledge, and presents her subjects in ways that affirm the self through the manipulation of the other. This is a long, two-way process of dealing with expectations: Tay might expect the social circumstances of a family to tell her one thing, while the subjects depicted might expect to be presented in a certain light.

As these disagreements are negotiated, social realities collapse onto individual psychological portraits, both of which evaporate and enter into the artist’s production of a possible image of the self. There is something performative about this process, as the artist embeds herself within families (members of which quickly go from being strangers to relatives in a queer domestic structure). This is not to suggest that Tay’s work with her subjects is at all flippant—her approach is earnest, curious, and open. It is possible, after all, that this way of working is nothing but the projection of a writer onto an artist. We all traffic in misunderstandings, even as we hope that some might be more critically productive than others. The artist is a participant in an open-ended theatrical rehearsal without star or director—one that never expects to come to fruition on the proper stage. By appropriating the lives of others, Tay comes out on the side of an anti-identitarian politics.

Reading a photograph by Wei Leng Tay concludes with a feeling of optimism and excitement born of the fact that so much of the baggage that would otherwise weigh down her project can be successfully stripped away. There is an understanding of what can be accomplished in interpersonal relationships, and of what art can do to mediate otherwise tricky social situations. Rather than engaging in the kind of humanizing documentary approach that has poisoned so many otherwise inoffensive images, Tay delivers a universalizing project that is simultaneously more open and less understanding—or less willing to understand. Her strongest photographs eliminate the visible identifiers of culture, shifting these outside of the frame of relevance and leaving behind only the remnants of what could be called universal culture, the culture of the non-place. The artist has moved tangibly from searching for something within her practice to producing; what she needs is no longer something tied to a self or other out there in the world, but rather something that can be called into being through the image. Looking at photographs from the better part of a decade ago, certain social issues remain evident; today, this space has already been explored, catalogued, and left for dead. Perception becomes alien. Tay is not interested in commentary on a specific community, but rather on the conflicting ideas of image and media that pass directly over these communities—how the universalizing lens of the genre of family portraiture in Fion and Hei Hei or Kitty, for instance, might reveal both the fractures and connections between individuals, between households, between cultures, and, most importantly, between self and other. Many things feed into the final emotion that is distilled in any one of Tay’s pictures: the search for a subject, the painstaking work of getting to know strangers, the fabrication of particular moments, the capture of something that disregards the content of all of these things. As we move on to the next image, we are left with the feeling that Tay has done as much as any artist can do—she went somewhere, did something, and only came part of the way back.

Robin Peckham is an arts writer and curator based in Hong Kong



  • Wei Leng Tay

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