He's Going the "Long Distance": Alvin Ong @ Yavuz Gallery, Sydney
Alvin Ong resides both in his birthplace of Singapore, as well as London, where he studied at the Royal College of Art, Perhaps both these locales inspired the title of his new show, Long Distance, at the Sydney branch of the Yavuz Gallery. While this current body of work explores the very timely emotions connected to isolation, distance and displacement, the themes stem from Ong’s own experiences in two continents, growing up in the suburbs in Southeast Asia and graduating from art school in Oxford in 2016.
Over the years, Ong has been slowly deconstructing his works and figures, reducing a previously teeming narrative to more gestural interaction, suffused with the use of familiar items. For this latest series, he created a series of oil on canvas works that converge on abstracted, amorphous, nude figures. In unidentified, and thus, identifiable subjects, floating in similarly unspecific, yet familiar elements, the artist creates an atmosphere of fragility and changeability.
"Perhaps they could be a reflection of a sense of otherness stemming from my experiences of distance and displacement living between Singapore and London over the last few years," Ong told Juxtapoz about the background of his deconstructed, featureless figures. "These periodic returns have made me see each 'home' in a different light. I think also, that this also has to do with our natural tendencies to shape-shift and code-switch as we move from one place to another. I am really interested in moments and modes of encounter when one culture meets another. Perhaps that is why the subjects are so hybridized and syncretized that one can’t really tell where one ends and another begins."
Incorporating everyday items and technical gadgets, Ong creates constructs a larger narrative told through these surreal, borderline grotesque snapshots. "As I was working on this show I knew that they would all be seen together so I might have seen them as sculptures co-existing on the same stage, illuminated by the same stage lighting. I've also noticed how the food references, smartphones and screens keep recurring as the series unfolded. Perhaps it has something to do with connectivity, since both the food and our screens, ever more so, have become the objects through which we relate to one another and create communal experiences, at this moment in time. Looking back on the milk teas and other objects scattered throughout, I realize also how the objects also function as physical projections and manifestations of their interior lives and desires. They are both satisfied and dissatisfied. There’s a lot of restlessness going on here."
While not directly inspired by the global pandemic and lockdown scenario that ensnared him in Singapore, many of the works perfectly portray the solitary life most of us have been forced to embrace, and the situation has imbued these paintings with a whole new, albeit unplanned, resonance. "I think that because viewing these images on a screen creates a certain physical and emotional distance, it also feels like I have also become a member of the audience too," Ong explains about how his inability to experience the exhibition in person changed the way the works are experienced. "I don’t see it as a negative thing though. I could be that detachment is something we have to get used to, even more so now, as we work remotely in the new normal."
Aside from being a debut show on a new continent, Long Distance marks a major move in the young painter's aesthetic, which he plans to pursue. After breaking up his figures and reassembling them, he plans to experiment with deconstructed environments, as well as a broader skin color palette. Ong observes, "Boundaries are blurring. Planes are shifting. I’m playing with vocabulary. It’s almost as though I’m continually learning and re-learning my own language." —Sasha Bogojev