In early 2017 the artist Isabelle Desjeux offered me to do a one month residency in L'Observatoire, a studio hiding away from the hurry of the city in the greeneries of Upper Bukit Timah. I had felt the urge of going back to painting for some time already. For over a decade, my work as a lecturer had focused on photography, and the studio works had been a natural reflection of this evolution. Graphic and painterly practice had been mostly restricted to the pages of my travel sketchbooks. The time had come to pick up my brushes again and immerse myself in the process of building up images through the slow process of colour layering instead of instantatenous light capture. But this return to painting would also have to reflect the journey accomplished thus far.
Exhibited artworks and studio installation
The work developed over a period of five weeks. My initial intention was to, so to say, turn the standard pictorial process on its head: I would paint first and draw later. The painting was to be the sketch bringing the imagined scene to life. This visionary probability in full colour would then become a study for the final monochrome work reproducing the tonal range of early black and white photography. Charcoal and china ink were to tip off the "missing daguerreotype" into its state of veracity. Obviously it didn't happen that way. Did I run short of time? A bit maybe; school duties kept me away from the studio more than I intended. But in truth the main reason is that I quickly rediscover the pleasure of painting, and embraced its physical immediacy wholeheartedly. The first two painting were done over a weekend; the following two took almost a week. By the time I came to the last three, I clearly had no choice but surrender to the process and relish in the fascinating alternation of uncertainty and doubt followed by ecstatic assurance, the feverish search for expressiveness in the layering of brush strokes, and last but not least fell willingly into the trap of constant reconsideration of colours late into the night. At long last, I was painting and I was enjoying it. The hell with concept...
Works in progress
28 October 1844 - Street scene in Macao.
"I used my day to take daguerreotypes of the various points of view that Macao and its surroundings offer; the wharves of Praja-Grande, the big pagoda, the inner harbour, the streets of the Bazaar have offered interesting subjects. Today I still found complacent Chinese who agreed to form motionless groups, provided they could see first the image reflected on the frosted glass; their astonishment, however, had nothing very profound; it was rather that vague curiosity which the children feel at the sight of a new object; there are indeed many subjects that astonish only the learned or the meditative minds, and the phenomena of the daguerreotype are of this category."
Journal d'un Voyage en Chine - Vol.1, 331.
5 November 1844 - Canton, a group of young ladies in Paw-ssé-chen's country house.
"I enter and find myself suddenly in front of a swarm of young girls of very elegant demeanour; frightened at my approach, they had made an involuntary retreat, but the expression of my face that I had made as graceful as possible, and my repeated chinn chinn had calmed all their anxieties, they stopped, looked at each other and went off, at my nose, with an immense laugh, half cheerful, half mocking; I hastened to profit of this happy disposition; my daguerreotype was already in set un in front of them, when my companions arrived; one of them intervened clumsily to make room for me, and instantly the wind of dispersion blew on these pretty doves."
Journal d'un Voyage en Chine - Vol.2, 41.
7 November 1844 - Canton, a silk embroidery.
"His national self-esteem had been moved at the sight of the magnificent works exhibited by Mr. Hedde; the woven silk portraits of the Blessed Virgin and Jacquart preoccupied him especially; he then presents us with a very beautiful picture, woven of silk and gold, depicting an old man on a chariot of triumph drawn by an elephant, to support the honour of Chinese manufacture; this picture is, indeed, a work of exquisite quality, but the fabric has been somewhat arranged by stitches of embroidery; It remains, then, in regard to the difficulty as well as the perfection of their execution, well below the admirable works of the Lyons factory; however, the importance of this work makes me reproduce the design with my daguerreotype."
Journal d'un Voyage en Chine - Vol.2, 52.
9 November 1844 - Canton, a statue of Kuan Im and a monk.
"I noticed in the third temple I visited a beautiful white marble mosaic, beautifully carved and surmounted by the statue of the virgin Kuan-yn breastfeeding a child. I was about to be make it the subject of a daguerreotype, when two monks who had finished their service (it was three o'clock) approached to examine my instrument and asked me to explain its use; they approved my project by gestures, and one of them even consented to stand motionless in the field of my daguerreotype."
Journal d'un Voyage en Chine - Vol.2, 57.
14 November 1844 - Visit of Lamqua.
"I did not say that I had a visit from painter Lamqua about eight days ago. Driven by the desire to see this admirable instrument which draws all alone and of which the Canton painters are very preoccupied, he had examined my daguerreotype with great attention; and at his request, I had made his portrait, which I had hastened to offer him. He had seemed very much pleased with this politeness; but I had not heard of him since then, when today he was announced and handing me a box of green morocco, similar to the one in which I had enclosed his portrait in daguerreotype, he asked me to accept this testimony of his gratitude. I was pleasantly surprised upon opening this box, to find the miniature portrait of Lamqua, painted by himself on ivory, with a perfection and a finish that would make the admiration of our best artists; and interestingly enough, Lamqua had taken as his model his own daguerreotype portrait; so this painting is remarkable for the vigour of its relief. It is impossible, it will be admitted, to go further with courtesy and savoir-vivre; assuredly the people in whom such traits are manifested can be regarded as civilised."
Journal d'un Voyage en Chine - Vol.2, 74.
12 February 1845 - Sulu, a group of horsemen by a spring.
"This point of the coast is located on the busiest road on the island. The inhabitants circulate there in group and stop in the shadow of a huge pagoda tree (banyan tree) which serves as a sort of caravanserai for passers-by. All are armed, young and old, with spears and sabres; some walk on foot, but the greater number are mounted on horses, buffaloes and humpbacks. I seized with the daguerreotype a group of these curious horsemen..."
Journal d'un Voyage en Chine - Vol.2, 196.
12 February 1845 - Sulu, the banyan tree by the spring.
"and also reproduce the pagoda tree whose measurement of the trunk has just given me ten meters of circumference. The few women who surround us during this operation are in no way hidden from us and seem to enjoy the same freedom as men."
Journal d'un Voyage en Chine - Vol.2, 196.