Teong Shi Hong Derek

My point of entry into the project The Meanings of Water in Asia was through alchemy. One of the places where alchemy flourished was in the Arabic world; it was also believed that the word ‘alchemy’ was derived from the Arabic ‘al-kimia‘. In alchemy, it is proposed that all matter is made from the four basic elements: fire, air, earth, and water. Those four basic elements are then said to be a synergy of the Three Philosophical Principles: sulphur, mercury, and salt; it struck me as curious that the four elements, and by extension all matter, can be synthesised from these principles by varying their ratio; for example, the water element is has the highest concentration of the mercurial principle, hence it inherits the cold and moist qualities of mercury. Isn’t that interesting? Water is water because it exhibits the properties of philosophic mercury. That being said, I came to the conclusion that water is merely an expression of the mercurial principle, and that in all matter there exists the mercurial principle.

The Three Philosophical Principles also correspond to the different aspects of human existence. Sulphur represents the spirit, mercury the soul, and salt the body; it is said that the mercurial aspect of human existence is what motivates it forward; it provides directionality in our existence. I immediately thought to myself that it would an interesting project if I could map this directionality that philosophic mercury represents; is it possible to map directionality in reality? Initially, I was content to map out within a photograph the levels of kinetic energy captured in that frozen frame in time, but I felt that this approach was somewhat literal. It felt like a flat answer to my previous question. At the same time, I had an inkling that ‘directionality’ was not the most appropriate word to express the mercurial principle; while it was not wrong, but it was not the right word. So I decided to focus my attentions elsewhere to give myself some breathing space from this issue.

While I had my concept development set on hold, I had to flesh out the visual aesthetic of my system. My starting point for this aspect was from my own photography experiments; they were an exercise in cropping a photograph and finding compositions within the boundaries of the photograph. It was at this time where I was reminded of M.H.J. Schoenmaekers’ book Principles of Plastic Mathematics in my Survey of Modern Art module, when we talked about De Stijl and how Piet Mondrian chose to use horizontal and vertical lines in his works due to his exposure to Schoenmaekers’ ideologies. The visual aesthetics of the De Stijl movement then became another key influence in my system. The challenge, then, was to combine my own photography experiments with the ideals within De Stijl.

18 00 15 - 18 00 15 + + Translated aIt was at this point when the word ‘intent’ made itself apparent to me. I was preparing to return to concept development when it struck me that that particular word, intent, carried more depth and appropriateness than ‘directionality’. Hence the focus of my project moved to intent: how it functions, how it manifests, and how it interacts with people. As such, I needed a platform where I could share my thoughts about these these methodologies that I have developed, as they are not easily grasped. Using the Three Philosophical Principles as a guide, each of the deliverables correspond to each of the individual principles.


*If you are keen on reading more about how I further developed the concept for my system, do download this PDF document to read it. It seems that when I try to read the file online, nothing shows until I reduce the size to 60%, which makes for a less than ideal reading experience. Here, I will only talk about the intention behind the visuals and form of my book.

My first deliverable embodies the sulphuric principle; that is to say it is the spirit of my system. I have written a short dissertation regarding my methodologies and how they function in context, and I have presented it in the form of a book. While a book ultimately is a book, it does not mean that it should look and feel like any conventional book. It should infuse the essence of its contents into its form and visual aesthetics. With this in mind, I set about making a book that would embody the concepts that I have been developing all these while. The book is in a landscape orientation, but when it opened, it transforms into a portrait orientation. In addition, it is bound with an accordion bind, which once again transforms the primarily horizontal page into a single long, strongly vertical spread when opened fully. In terms of page layout, it is a two-column-within-a-landscape orientation, which once again becomes two vertical forms within the horizontal form of the page. This is done so to strengthen the visual language of verticals and horizontals that Schoenmaekers had inspired me to develop. In addition, when the reader lays the book flat when reading, the act of flipping transforms the page from the horizontal state to vertical state, before returning to the horizontal state; in between states, diagonals are created as well.

Book 1 Book 2Book 3The way I have typeset the book is an echo of the of the visual language that I have developed from my initial experiments in photography. The wide leading in conjunction with justified-with-last-line-aligned-left paragraphs creates white spaces in the body text, similar to visuals of my artwork. The reason I have chosen to justify the paragraphs instead of aligning them to the left is a matter of visual unity: if I were to align it either left or right, the type of white spaces created becomes far too jagged to resemble the aesthetics of my art work.

VARIABLE TRANSLATIONS (video installation with motion and light sensors)

This deliverable embodies the mercurial principle; that is to say it reflects my intent of my system. Building upon the idea that a photographer produces a physical representation of the visual reality around him/her, this installation removes the photographer from the equation and is fully automated. Here is a general plan for the entire installation (including Fixed Translations):Layout 1ExteriorFor this installation, I am proposing to construct a 3 x 4 x 18 m structure with three rooms inside, as seem in the first illustration. Variable Translations will be located at the middle room, and below you can see what the installation does:

PrintMoving imageThis development of this installation arose when I realised that while I was able to created my artworks through photography, the methods use were static. As my artworks are a reflection of reality, it occurred to me that reality, the present, is in motion. That would mean that working from photographs can only reflect the stilled reality within that frame, which does not convey the sense of movement in reality. As such, the came up with this installation as a way to address that limitation. By using a motion sensor, the screen on which movement is represented by the moving white bars, moves from a photograph to a mirror. In doing so the participant becomes part of of a few dialogues, with me, the artist, as well as themselves as the screen functions as a ‘mirror’. This installation is name Variable Translations precisely because of this; as my work is an experiment in mapping and translating intent in reality, this name shows how the installation reflects the changes in reality before it.

FIXED TRANSLATIONS (digital archive + memento)

Lastly, Fixed Translations embodies the salt principle; it forms the body of this project through the forms of a physical object as well as a digital archive. It has always been a particular interest of mine to observe the reactions of people towards an artwork. In my final deliverable, I decided to allow the participants a chance to frame themselves as a way to gather ‘feedback’ from them. A brief description of how this part of my system works:Untitled-2

The act of selecting a frame can be said to be a metaphor for photography; surely this is a manifestation of their intent onto my art work? This is the other answer that I have come up with with regards to my static methods. By allowing the participant to choose a still, they value add to my art because they can see different things from me and vice versa. Hence, my art becomes more diverse because it is subjected to the tastes and preferences of other people who can choose what is to be within the frame; reality is not only reflected through my eyes but also in the eyes of others as well. This reduces the risk of stagnation should I be the only one generating all these images.

IMG_2960 postcard 1 IMG_2962What was particularly interesting to me in these selected frames was how they interact with each other when placed close together. It creates a sense of continuity and move from one frame to the other, an echo of the kinetic visuals of Variable Translations. While I may have titled this part of my system as Fixed Variations, when the selected frames are stringed together, they start to function as a film reel. This is also precisely why I decided to keep a digital record of all the frames that the participants have selected. When I have accumulated enough frames, I would be able to observe how these frames work off each other. This, then, becomes beneficial for me as what is to be a memento  for the participants also serves as extended research for my system.


Personally, this project came quite naturally to me as the bulk of it was in the concept development. I am actually quite happy that I have arrived at this point; it is often in research and experimentation that new points of view are discovered and created. That is not to say everything was smooth sailing though. I have often been chastised for skipping steps in developing a concept; this results in a less then idea translation of my concepts to other people as they are not me. I think that is the largest takeaway form me: be more sensitive to other people.