Behind & Beyond Yesteryears: An Interview with Sean Cham
Many of you may have heard of Yesteryears, the photography collection capturing 50 abandoned and forgotten places in Singapore through a series of in situ self-portraits. We interviewed performing artist Sean Cham, creator and photographer of Yesteryears amongst many other remarkable works and musings on our urban landscape, all of which can be viewed on his website.
Hi Sean, tell us more about yourself!
I’m currently a final-year student at Yale-NUS. I’m an Urban Studies Major, and an Arts and Humanities Minor. As an artist I dabble in different mediums, namely photography, installation work, and theatre. I’m very interested in urban spaces and how we interact with our environment, our history and heritage.
Yes, we’ve noticed your works are indeed very grounded in urban spaces and memory. Do these themes have a personal connection to you, or do you see yourself as a vessel through which other people’s stories are told?
I would say it’s a bit of both. Of course at the entry level it’s told through my own personal history and memory, as well as a desire to better understand and approach what I’m interested in. Then I go on and start doing research — talking to people, as well as through websites and photographs, for example.
Let’s backtrack a little. Besides art and photography, you also mentioned you do Theatre?
It’s nothing professional per se – it’s mostly just been productions I've done in school. I am currently working on something called First Storeys with The Future of Our Pasts. They usually explore different histories and challenge different narratives. My project, First Storeys, focuses on the topic of housing settlements and resettlement, and how it affects lives. I also explore how the narratives we know and tell can be questioned – for example, we always hear about the kampong and metropolitan shift in housing and development, but there are so many different things that have happened in between. I look at more personal narratives, encounters, and stories, and bring all these out through some version of speculative history. Speculative, because I don’t know the full history, and I will never know the full history of anything. Even when I was conducting my research on these projects, there were a lot of people who didn’t want to share their stories.
With regard to your upcoming project, First Storeys, how will your installation differ from a normal theatre production?
For First Storeys, the audience enters a specific space, then they will immediately be immersed in an environment that they can interact with. They will be able to interact with the space, things, and the situations around them.
How did you begin your journey as a performing artist?
I think it was when I was in secondary school that I was first exposed to Theatre, Drama, the Arts, and exploring different artistic mediums. My friends wanted to join my school’s Drama Club and I simply tagged along. After a while I think they left, but I stayed on. I just stayed on all through JC, until I found my own voice and style, and topics or concepts that interested me that I wanted to explore and talk about. I think I‘ve just always been interested in stories — be it through theatre or photography, or any other mediums. But those are my main two.
What’s your process like when doing a photography series?
I’m gonna use Yesteryears as an example. So for every Yesteryears shot I did, I’ll read up on the history of the space I would be exploring. It’s all very speculative and it’s difficult to get an all-round history of any space, but I’ll look for articles and stories that are related to the space. Then I’ll conceptualise an image that I think would best represent the space. And then I’ll take my photography equipment and stuff down to the site and then just stand there and see what stands out to me the most. Sometimes it can be it the architectural forms, or the architectural details. And when the previously conceptualised idea in mind, I’ll see if I can merge the two. For the actual photo-taking I just set my camera to self-timer mode and then I’ll start running around. So what emerges is a composite photo with many layers, which I’ll then edit.
What about your process doing an art installation?
I’ll use First Storeys as an example. I started work on it last year around July or August. So I pitched the idea, it got accepted, and I received the grant. Then I just started doing research and going through archives to see what comes up – what stories resonate with me and which ones haven’t been told.
Then there was the process of deciding where best to house this installation. I am very excited in site-specific installations and seeing how the history of a space relates to the art. So there was a lot of site recce at the space. We’re still seeing how we can arrange it such that the story of the space fits the project. And then I finally decided on the theatrical element. I chose theatre because I wanted to humanise the personal aspects of these stories, so there was the idea of giving these people – these characters — a voice to tell their stories. I feel that using theatre as a medium would help, but at the same time it might also be limit the experience because the audience would be force-fed the story. But the entire experience of exploring and finding your own narrative within all this is very interesting. So I decided to kind of merge both installation work and theatre into one piece.
Do you face challenges when confronting these themes and telling these stories?
I can’t deny that there’s a certain responsibility that comes with telling stories, especially other people’s stories. But I try my best to do as much research as I can to better understand the context and situation of every story I encounter but at the end of the day, I don’t walk in their shows and I will never walk in their shoes, and I know that I won’t fully be able to understand what they’re going through. The stories that have been shared with me are only one facet of many situations, and while I feel that there are many gaps that are still existing in the narratives, I always try my best to search to fill those gaps in. I wouldn’t say that I represent the people I talk to and their stories, but I try to respect them and their stories.
Are there specific stories or issues you’re talking about?
I deal with more social issues, like migrant issues. I mean, it’s kind of different. When you’re doing something related to history or storytelling, there are always gaps you can’t fill and things you can’t piece together. But with something as current as issues of migrant workers being marginalised or misunderstood, it’s not so much about speculation but about understanding and empathising with them. It’s about sending out a message and trying to put out their stories and struggles in the best way possible, without stereotyping and creating more opportunities for others to marginalise them.
Where do you get inspiration for these projects?
I come up with most of these ideas in the toilet actually, haha. It’s a space for me to think about things and reflect. But okay generally these ideas usually come at the spur of the moment when see something and I think, okay this is something worth talking about. I also gain inspiration from the urban environment, as well as what people think and talk about and feel about things and the environment we live in.
What is the most memorable exhibition or photo series you have done?
For me it was 2015’s exhibition, Unseen/Unknown organised by DECK. It was where Yesteryears was first shown in a public space. Yesteryears was always on an online platform and being able to see it physically on a wall was very memorable. And then two years down the road it was published by Math Paper Press, and having people open a book and tell me they have memories of this place was very nice and very memorable to me. Just being able to have conversations with another person about their memories that took place in a location we shared the experience of visiting or being in was very heartening.
What is one project you’ve always wanted to do but never had the chance to?
To be honest, there are many. But one that I am thinking about and might embark on when I’m done with all the projects I have on hand is to look at my personal lineage and trace my roots all the way back to China. My paternal family goes back to our ancestral village every year and there’s a whole book about the family history somewhere. I’d like to look at the history of Hakkas in China and Singapore and the larger political relations between these two countries through my own family lineage.
I also want to talk about mental health but I haven’t found a voice for it yet. It’s a very touchy subject that I don’t think I am ready for yet, but I do feel it’s very important to talk about and address.
What’s coming up next for you that we should look out for?
I’m a commission artist for the M1 Fringe Festival 2019, and my project This Is Where will be looking at migrant workers’ issues in Singapore. And then I’ll have First Storeys from 1st to 10th March 2019, a theatrical installation exploring the housing narrative of Singapore.