A Conversation with Yeo Tze Yang
Prompted by Sidd Perez

Evening is the first solo exhibition in Malaysia of Singaporean artist Yeo Tze Yang. The paintings are consequential to the artist’s particular attention to mises en scène in the city that are embraced at dusk; and what these hours cast when light retracts to signal an end of day and delivers different kinds of “night”. This conversation draws out the beginnings of the artist’s sensitivities on what such nights mean for him, and how this enacts a mirror to link rote performance such as his own to others’.

Sidd Perez: I understand that your painting scenes are not about Singapore, but there must be a distinct palette of the city that makes you so akin to its sensibility.

Yeo Tze Yang: I am extremely sensitive to the palette of the city where I have lived my whole life. Hence, my entire psyche is built around how this city looks and feels.

SP: How sensitive are you with time, and the palette of the city that marks time when you are navigating through it?

YTY: For this series of paintings, these images are painted at a very specific time of the day — around dusk: a time with significant meaning in my life for the most banal reasons. It is the time my dad picked me up from afternoon classes when I was 9; it is the time of long bus rides home when I was 17; it is the time I watch my surroundings grow dim.

SP: Obviously you are very conscious of this moving from one location to the next, or how a time of the day enters into another. Is it right to say that the images in your paintings come from images in transit? Are they from your daily travel nowadays?

YTY: For the person I am now, it is the time for people to get off from work or school, and squeeze on buses and trains to get home. The street lamps around us start to light up, and the air is humid but for the blasts of air-conditioning from shops one walks past. Mostly everyone is on the move. At this time of the day, I witness the cool grey light beside the metal bars of a fluorescent yellow bus, and the dull, harsh street lamps casting an orange glow — soaking the world and everything around them in shades of yellow and brown. These colours paint the memories of the every day in my life. This is how I remember and process things.

SP: Are your paintings then definitive of something particular about this city you grew up in and are changing through?

YTY: I’ve been privy to many artistic depictions of other cities. I remember how Gotham City is depicted at night in Batman comics — the dramatic lighting, rooftops, and dark, damp alleys. I tried to mimic these scenes when I was growing up. After all, the process of maturity accommodates mimicking artworks you admire. It took a long time to realise that the dense tropical city I grew up in looks very different from Gotham. Despite being relatively smaller than most cities, Singapore has many “different nights”. Scenes from quiet, empty void decks lit by white fluorescent lamps: the starkness of litter, obscene words or O$P$ scribbled on walls, and people in office wear making their way home at 8pm. There is also the range of “night” in Geylang, where KTV neon lights start screaming as the sun sets and kopitiams become rowdier as the streets come alive. The persistent touristic image of the Marina Bay Sands skyline is mixed into all that. In these paintings I try to capture these Singapores that passengers on the bus, including myself, traverse every evening. 

SP: The way you encounter and filter the city, would you call it ultimately atmospheric?

YTY: Indeed, “atmospheric” could be used to describe an aspect of the work. My work is never about capturing immediate reality or memory accurately. Instead, emotion takes precedence. I ask questions like, “Does this feel right?”, “Am I painting what I felt when I captured this image on the street?” and “This colour doesn’t feel right, I need to adjust it.” I see the world in colours. 

As a painter, colours and image-making is my “business” or “job”. Achieving visual accuracy is not important to me. I prefer to have things go out of proportion often and obviously, improvisation is constant. 

SP: Ordinary people are in your paintings' scenes, but how and why would you create drama via colours and distortions rather than characterisation? What does would this reveal about what you value in painting ordinary life?

YTY: Made over a year, this series is a transition from depicting empty places to portraying scenes of bustling crowds. Perhaps this starts with the recognition that I am taking the bus with people who are equally tired and possibly also find the air-conditioning in the bus too cold. 

It made me consider whether I am really the only one who feels this to be a very emotional time of the day. 

We live in quite an urban environment where the night sky bears brown clouds and no stars, and our skin is illuminated by metallic fluorescents, romantic neons and LEDs. Street lamps, corridor lights — everything is thrown into sharp relief or blurry shadows; emotions heighten before my eyes, and the brush in my hand captures such sensations as I remember them.

SP: Will you tell more about how you encounter shifts in your process as an artist? I remember we conversed about how you used to work through “random images”, versus you being tasked with having an exhibition in mind.

YTY: I found the need for focus when there is the opportunity of a solo show. I felt the works would need a sense of direction to pull the entire show together. I decided to give myself a very broad exercise of making night scenes. I entered without pre-determining images and what a theme of “night” would unveil.

SP: We’ve had that conversation about how the night is painted by other artists — will you tell me how you caught up with this concept via your own witness to other painters’ and filmmakers’ works? 

YTY: I’ve previously made many paintings of the night, but it’s never been something I’ve pursued in research and sought to articulate discursively. It was more about being brushed by influences such as Wong Kar-Wai, Christopher Doyle and Edward Hopper.

SP: Have you thought about how you paint the night/light in relation to them? 

YTY: For this show, it was important to me to attempt rationalising the thematic of “night painting”. I tried researching what that would mean in terms of mapping a particular trajectory around such a theme. In the end, the answers that made sense to me were those that were consequential to my everyday experience of the night.

SP: What makes you feel ultimately kindred to the works they’ve pursued?

YTY: The romantic images from Wong Kar-Wai’s film Chungking Express, where Takeshi Kaneshiro and Brigitte Lin’s characters navigate through the neon lights of Hong Kong by night, felt so distant from boring routine, but were rich in detail and life once attention was directed to it. 

In my art, I am not interested in creating imaginary worlds. What is important to me is to paint the world before me. Inevitably linked to everyone else’s, you feel for someone you may or may not know. For instance, a guy I observe from afar with my “artistic eye”, queuing for noodles at 11pm. I sympathise that he’s hungry — so fuck the calories — and that would be me 10 minutes later, wanting my own bowl of noodles. I don’t see how different my journey home on public transport or my dinner at MacDonald’s can be from that of thousands of other people in the city.

The paintings are of not only my story, but can it be called “ours”?