Postcards to a middle-aged nation
Photographer John Clang’s new book The Land of My Heart celebrates Singapore’s 50th anniversary as a nation with a tribute to one of its most iconic exports.
The Land of My Heart is made up of various urban landscape photos ‘adorned’ with models in Singapore Girl uniforms. Clang includes on the photos short handwritten messages that range from irreverent to somber to sexual.
This combination of elements creates a complex and personal message about Singapore’s identity. The Singapore Girl’s symbolic sexual and racial objectification turns its model into another inanimate adornment within the urban landscape. The result is visually stunning, humorous, and subversive.
“The Singapore Girl is our island nation’s loveliest apparition,” the book’s press release reads. “She dwells within the airborne space that the rest of us fleetingly pass through; as we are upended through the wormholes of time zone differences, she is there with us.”
By featuring the Singapore Girl, Clang explores the lines between national, social and personal identities, all linked by the abstract sense of home that is simultaneously both extra-personal and a public construct.
John Clang writes a short snippet of dialogue with a Blackwing pencil across each of the book’s photos. The messages written across each photo come fragmented and without context. Many of them recall past events from Clang’s life.
Clang writes “No, Singapore is not China” on the balcony of an apartment complex while several Singapore girls pose with upstanding dispositions on the jungle gym in the courtyard. In another image, a Singapore Girl sniffs pleasant flowers with “I don’t want to die. Help me” written in the forefront. These sentences are often non-sequitors that have little concrete to do with the tone and mood of the composition.
A close look into each piece suggests meanings within each photo’s juxtaposition. Most generally, Clang “conjures a free space of contemplation about what might constitute Singaporean identity in a world that has become increasingly globalized [sic], borderless and porous.” It’s a portrait of a nation trying to capture its past while it loses its culture to homogenization.
Singapore Girls look out from the second floor of an apartment building, holding up the pristine façade of the tourism industry attempting to appeal to its Western customers. Written across the balcony is a casual, throwaway family exchange, perhaps between siblings: “Your plate is like a mountain. You know this is a buffet? . . . What is a buffet?” The snippets of thought and dialogue resemble the floating instances inside one’s subconscious that pop up throughout the day and time.
The Land of My Heart features John Clang’s most stunning urban photography. Clang’s ability to scope out compositions in the capitalist landscapes of urban Singapore really shines – as does his masterful use of lighting.
Though the Singapore Girls are one of the book’s principal motifs, oftentimes the photos’ subjects are the overhead bridges, the balconies, the high-rise condominiums. In other photos, Clang creates ambiance surrounding the Singapore Girl in daily errands. Marketplaces, high-traffic streets and storefronts enchant the Singapore Girl, and are more localized than the impersonal, monolithic urban development.
Clang shows the viewer his unmediated view of Singapore, making not a big statement and instead favoring subtlety and objectiveness. He travelled through significant landscapes of his past growing up in Singapore to find sites that truly resonated with his own identity. Clang explores rather than interpolates these areas, creating “an in-between space… away from the deluge of images that inundate our sight and consciousness every day.”
The Land of My Heart is newly available from TwentyFifteen. It’s a one-time pressing of 500 copies – you might want to get on it now.