Jessica Bradford (b.1987 Singapore) is a multi-disciplinary artist based in Sydney. Bradford’s work explores her mixed race heritage by questioning stereotypical representations of cultural or national identity. She destabilizes concepts of an original, authentic, or static cultural identity by working with reproductions and self-reflexive forms. Her current practice spans painting, ceramics, video and installation.
What was your impetus for creating the work Haw Par Villa?
I stumbled across some old photographs of Haw Par Villa in a second hand market in Singapore and immediately recognized it. I had been collecting found family photographs for years in Sydney, and had only recently started to find them in Singapore, a hobby that began separately to my arts practice but slowly engulfed it. The allure of finding these old photographs for me is the inconceivable difference between what was and what is now. Even the most mundane image is fantastical, because you know without a doubt that the image is real but at the same time it documents a reality that is gone. Especially in the case of Singapore, where the social, cultural and physical landscape has so rapidly changed in a fairly short period of time. In the face of this constant impermanence the shock of Haw Par Villa was so radically different. The clear recognition of this place hit me like a lightning bolt.
Situated on a hill facing the ocean in the south of the island, Haw Par Villa is a bizarre Chinese garden/cultural theme park made by the billionaires behind tiger balm. It was built in the 1930’s as a free public park around one of their mansions as part philanthropy and part marketing ploy. The parks’ painted concrete dioramas of Chinese folktales, religion and mythology were made with an illiterate public in mind; looking to educate the younger generation on their culture in a growing cosmopolitan and westernizing society.
For most of my childhood I grew up on the other side of that hill, and my mother would take my sister and I to visit, noting that when we were young there were no fences and we could simply walk through the back into the park. I had forgotten about it until I found those photographs, and it was a joy to return to a site of childhood that still actually existed.
Being able to visit the site where the photographs were taken, of which I also had a personal connection to, shifted my practice into engaging with my cultural heritage. In my previous work my attraction to found family photographs was the immediate relatability of the images, paired with the utter inaccessibility to the history or memories associated with the photograph. In collecting and working with found photographs I was trying to address my desire for belonging and the disconnection I felt with my cultural past.
Exploring Haw Par Villa became a way of examining my personal experiences of Singapore and negotiating an ambivalent relationship to my Chinese heritage as a mixed-race individual. It eventually grew to critically consider how Chinese culture has been defined and represented; from how the original family of Chinese-Burmese migrants wanted to depict Chinese culture, to how it is articulated by the Singaporean Tourism Board, who bought it over in the 1980’s and have been renovating on-again off-again ever since.
There is a strong focus on materiality in your work Haw Par Villa. As a work, it seems to resist categorisation materially speaking, instead existing in the interstices of hybrid mediums. Can you describe your practice, and how it relates to broader concepts in your work?
In my work I question how culture gets represented, specifically looking into stereotypical or mono-cultural representations of cultural or national identity. These representations often rely on the concept of an authentic, or original, cultural identity. Growing up as Eurasian I was uncomfortable about not fitting into these simplified identities, but now as an adult I think no one really fits into them. Over time I have become less preoccupied with the specifics of these representations and moved to consider the politics of who gets to describe culture or History, and the material forms used in these representations that are codified as neutral, authentic or factual. A lot of institutional critique and post-colonial art practices engage with these topics; examining the messenger as much as the message. Formally I approach these concepts through the processes of reproduction, as reproduction and imitation play with notions of authenticity, authorship, and the original and the copy.
Often there is a bit of confusion with what the works are and how they are made. They resist easy categorisation. The final works are strange hybrids, part photography and part something else. In my practice I work across painting, ceramics, video and installation, but the starting point for a lot of my work is photography. I know it is a fairly obvious statement but photographs are not the objects they represent. There is a gap or slippage between the object and the original, the photograph and the copy. By starting with a ‘copy’, the work begins to really disrupt any sense of a clear referent or origin (with the final work sometimes being a painting of a photograph of a sculpture.)
In my practice, how I choose to incorporate the photograph/photographic image differs across mediums. When painting, I reproduce found family photographs of Haw Par Villa to scale in pastel and liquid pencil onto primed sheets of metal. My ceramic sculptures are based on photographs I have taken of the fabricated concrete mountain-scape and grottos in the park. When hand-moulding the ceramics I am limited by the visual information of the photograph and the works end up more like sculptural reliefs than your typical 3D sculpture, with only one side having detail. The videos documenting the park might as well be photographs because they record the static dioramas and statues with only the motion of clouds or trees to expose them as moving images and not stills.
“Tiger balm is grounded in the kind of mundane everyday cultural practices, that are an interesting continuation of cultural habits, but are not understood as heritage or ritualistic. Tiger balm can evoke nostalgia, and certainly some of the packaging available works towards this, but it remains too ‘present’ for it to ever become just a sign of the past.”
What relationships do you see between cultural memory and tiger balm as an object, which is quite a ubiquitous ointment across many parts of the world?
Though smell is connected to memory, and smells or sounds can operate like objects in which cultural memory can inhabit, I don’t think tiger balm has the same commemorative value or social meaning as a representation of collective heritage. Rather than being a representation of culture, an abstracted object memorializing a collective experience, I feel like it is embedded in culture. The smell of tiger balm is pungent and familiar. It promises a comfort that was physically learnt and is physically remembered. Though there is a certain ubiquity now to tiger balm due to globalization, the growing interest in traditional Chinese medicine and a successful business practice, I do still see it as something regionally or culturally specific. The people who have grown up with tiger balm, had their parents rub it on insect bites or their temples to mitigate headaches, is in my mind still different to those who have found it in airport pharmacies and use it like any other pain-relief ointment. So there is cultural memory, a collective memory, embedded in the use of tiger balm. But it’s a bit of a weird one for me because tiger balm is grounded in the kind of mundane everyday cultural practices, that are an interesting continuation of cultural habits, but are not understood as heritage or ritualistic. Tiger balm can evoke nostalgia, and certainly some of the packaging available works towards this, but it remains too ‘present’ for it to ever become just a sign of the past.
Your work reveals a layeredness of time as it exists across space. How do you see the complex relations between place, history and transformation in your work?
Time is a very present part of the Haw Par Villa project, in many different ways. Though the project seems to focus solely on a physical place, it is a site that occupies various temporalities, and is messily layered with personal experiences, collective memory, and history.
All spaces can act as triggers for memory of course, some officially commemorating an aspect of the past, or being the site where an event has taken place. I am more interested in the mundane and personal ways memory connects with space. Especially as the rapid urban development in Singapore makes those connections more fraught. Memories become uncertain and dreamlike, when the physical landscape they were moored in disappear, and as the identity or character of a place changes. Even sites like Haw Par Villa, which at first appear static, like a timeless abandoned ruin in a Ghibli movie, have radically changed over time.
On my first revisit to Haw Par Villa, my memories of the park, the found photographs, and the actual site all differed so greatly that I spent most of my time there plagued with a sense of vertigo. Over the years sculptures and infrastructure have been added or removed, modified or relocated during renovations by the various owners of the park. The entire space can in some ways be understood as a palimpsest. Paint neither adheres to concrete nor survives the tropics well, and on some of the sculptures in the park you can actually see layers of paint peeling off and revealing previously painted sections, exposing the physical evidence of time like rings in a tree.
I attempted to capture and play with some of these bizarre temporalities in my video work; from the implication of time through signs of the disrepair and procedural upkeep of the sculptures, to the timeless calm inactivity of the park, to playing with the live video of a static object, to the video edit that exposes the recording as just a looping past moment.
I am particularly interested in how your ongoing research has informed this work. Could you please tell us about some of the research you have been involved in?
Most of my practice starts off with material research, such as visiting the park, collecting visual material, and hunting for found family photographs in second hand stores and markets. Which is followed by reading, and investigating how Haw Par Villa relates to the larger social, cultural and economic history of Singapore. Research has certainly played a considerable role in the project overall, allowing it to expand beyond personal memory and experiences, into broader questions on how culture is defined and represented.
“The comedy of archiving or collecting — practices used frequently in museums — is that it attempts to capture something ‘alive’ and constantly changing with processes that are static; like photography, casting, or even text. It seems fairly obvious but again the photograph is not the object it documents, as all objects are constantly changing—chemically and physically—over time.”
What significance does (re)production, or the process of archiving play in Haw Par Villa?
Photography and collecting share a nervous obsession for preservation. This compulsion for documentation (or possession) definitely runs through this project. When I first started revisiting the park I could barely believe it still existed, and I spent a lot of time photographing it because I felt at any time it could be bulldozed down and erased from existence. Though the project has developed into something else, that desire to archive something before it is gone still lingers in the work.
The comedy of archiving or collecting — practices used frequently in museums — is that it attempts to capture something ‘alive’ and constantly changing with processes that are static; like photography, casting, or even text. It seems fairly obvious but again the photograph is not the object it documents, as all objects are constantly changing—chemically and physically—over time, and the photograph merely documents one moment of an object’s history. In my work I don’t attempt to create an encyclopedic archive of Haw Par Villa. Such an attempt would always be impossible. My (re)productions are always a labour of love, not an effort of categorization.
By All Estimates exhibition is showing at 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art between 12 April – 26 May, featuring artists Rathin Barman, Jessica Bradford, Erika Tan and Moses Tan.
Taking Singapore as a locus of multiple regional identities, By All Estimates brings together works by artists that give form to narratives obscured by the city-state’s rapid urban and social development and the coexistence of competing projections of cultural inheritance and recognition.