What does it mean to make images in an uncertain present? Through photography, video and sound, Abridge reflects on the materiality of images and media, grappling with the vital yet tenuous presence of personal and shared pasts.
This project began through a series of interviews with people who migrated from southern China to Hong Kong between the 1960s and 2000s, seeking to develop Tay’s earlier body of work titled ‘The Other Shore’ (2014-2016), which focused on portraits and narratives from a new, young generation of ‘mainlander’ Chinese migrants to Hong Kong. But in 2019, these narratives of historical displacement themselves became unmoored amid the protests, which complicated conversations and personal networks. This dilemma exacerbated existing uncertainties about the need or ability to continue making familiar photographs and recordings from which to work.
I’ve had problems taking photographs these last few years. I remember talking to you about how the encounters and interviews I had when I was working on ‘The Other Shore’, felt like so much more than the photograph [. . .]. .
I think the use of more space and objects has mainly to do with the image — how one encounters it, how one sees it, how one understands it . . . And that goes back to my frustration in working with photography and my wanting to just break it all up. How could I make it more apparent how I was thinking about the photograph as I was working with it, to show the document as more than representation?1
Developed between 2018-2021, the three parts of Abridge reflect a process of introspective, instinctive exploration, in which Tay’s own work and process becomes as much the subject. Abridge probes the materiality of Tay’s process, through photography, video and sound. The central collection of images is a new body of C-type photographic prints made by rephotographing a corpus of images Tay made while living and working in Hong Kong as a professional photographer for over sixteen years from 1999. In that time, the former colony witnessed significant challenges and changes, many of which passed before her lens. Yet her camera also recorded corners of everyday life, liminal and fleeting moments. By reproducing and transforming parts of these images, as slides and contact sheets, with her mobile phone, Tay registers their presence as artefacts and her insistent position in the present, echoed in the fluid reflections on their luminous surfaces. There is a sense of the uncanny in a familiar street or crowd, or the gesture of a boy lifting a mask to his face – flashes of collective memory that linger and are refracted in the present. This process parallels her initial conversations about displacements across time and space, partially recuperating these images and her complex position in this transversal landscape.
I don’t think working with space or putting images in an installation is a big shift away from images . . . The space frames the way the image is encountered, to make the image also tactile, embodied, atmospheric.2
Tay used her mobile phone to register both shifts in technology and her practice, but also the broader question of the way we see and interact with images today. This stages a kind of friction, in which Tay uses this now everyday (amateur) device to physically rediscover her ‘professional’ images. There is a slippage here between their status as images of the past and their presence as material artefacts, physical remnants not only of that past, but of the technologies and processes invested in its documentation. This is reinforced by the insistent titles, each meticulously cataloguing where the original image was, and the precise film that was used. Like those memories and meanings, such technologies are not so much lost as eclipsed.
Such an exploration of the role of photography and video in mediating not only the past but also the unfolding history of the present takes on material form in Live streaming, Prince Edward, 12/11/2019, 23:35:05-06. 25 frames per second, 1920×1080. (2019). This work comprises 25 individual ink-jet prints, each showing a single frame from one second of video recorded from one of the many live streams on television at the time. This number of images is based on the PAL (‘Phase Alternate Line’) video format, in which a picture is made of 625 interlaced lines of colour displayed at 25 frames per second. This structure and form, corresponding to the setting Tay used to shoot the video, is usually imperceptible to the human eye, so as with the C-type prints, the material form of Live streaming intentionally references a certain media genealogy, registering the coexistence and friction between the digital and analogue processes and standards. There is also a tension here between the suspended time of the photographic instant, and the montage closure between the collected frames; a closure that rests on the performance of viewing the work in space. Despite the linearity of the display, the narrative assumption placed on photographic images seems suspended: what is happening in this split second? Moving back and forth across the frames, the passage of time is difficult to reconstruct. Meanwhile, in each picture the ‘moving’ image, sits within a still room, shot from a fixed perspective; above the television, there is a barely discernible framed photograph from one of Tay’s earliest bodies of work, looking on like a spectre.
Every night it would come on and everyone was doing it. You could stream it on your phone… when I went to the office, they were watching 5-6 different streams, keeping a tab on different cameras and scenes. People watching . . . I did this specifically to make the work. I wanted to reflect this experience of watching it like a movie, and when you’re on the streets it’s like a movie set.3
These two bodies of photographic work orbit a single-channel video installation, Bus ride, Hong Kong to Zhuhai, 28/1/2019. (2021), projected onto a light, hand-made screen, which floats in the space. Based on video documentation of a trip from the earliest part of the research process, here we journey across the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau bridge, embodying the camera. An engineering marvel, this infrastructure promises regional circulation, symbolically positioning Hong Kong in a network across the ‘Greater Bay Area’. Given the sheer scale of the bridge, however, we, can only ever take in a fraction—a moment—of the whole. Moving through this monumental monotony, we loses a sense of direction: are we moving forwards or backwards? At intervals we glimpse other rephotographed images, other than those printed in the C-type series; while the mundane chatter of the other passengers on the audio channel—people making phone calls, children eating snacks—gives the journey a casual, everyday ambivalence. The present simmers away.
In What Photography Is, James Elkins sets out to write ‘against’ Barthe’s Camera Lucida, to grasp another ‘sense’ of photography. For Elkins, Camera Lucida, a persistent influence on theorizing and thinking of photos, is ‘too full of light’ to register the medium’s other, ‘inhumane’ dimensions. Elkins seeks to recover or see what he terms ‘hardnesses’, those surfaces over which our eye glosses in search of something else, something to interrupt or distract—Barthes’ punctum. Such a point registers or allows us to register our fears and desires; they offer a means of identifying the image—identifying with the image. In this light, any photograph forms a kind of mirror image. Without this, we fail to see ourselves, to relate, and eventually lose interest in seeing altogether. But what is it that we don’t see?
Elkins wonders what would happen if he removed familiar modes of seeing from the equation, to defamiliarize his eye, in a series of ‘farewells’ to familiar genres, to remove the familiar modes of seeing: farewell to family photos, to street photography, to ‘found images’, to photojournalism. Rather than leaving empty surrounding space, he uses the example of microscopic photography to literally, yet symbolically, illustrate the very fullness of that space we don’t see, picturing and describing a series of amoebic life forms, usually invisible, in their watery universe.
Sometimes the best strategy for changing a way of thinking is to just spend time looking differently. Catascopia, looking down into the world of small things, is inevitably anascopia, looking up from among those things and toward the world above—a world that is then somehow changed. Spend time pondering photographs of things other than people . . . and your habits of seeing will slowly become visible.4
The works in ‘Abridge’ share the common features of being layered fragments, recaptured and layered again, intentionally revealing their making, their media, and yet Tay’s hand in their current state, their currency. No longer informing as they once did, they reflect past as only so many fragmentary glimpses, stubbornly refusing to form a nostalgic whole.
1This and the following excerpts from an email conversation with Wei Leng Tay, published in Krischer and Tay, ‘Excerpts from a conversation’, in S. Perez ed., Crossings (NUS Museum, 2019), p.21-22.
2Wei Leng Tay, ibid, p.28-29.
3 Interview with the artist, 15 April 2021.
4 Elkins, ibid, p.152.