When it comes to islands, the obvious sometimes bears repeating: an island is isolated. A territory whose own existence and culture seem removed from a larger continental context. The ocean acts as a fortress. And both islander and visitor are always, paradoxically, both on the outside looking in. An island is a source of contradiction, envisioned as paradisaic or infernal, barbaric or futuristic, real or fictional. Someone has occupied this territory, and yet, who was here first? Who decides who is the local and who is the foreigner?
These tensions of place, ownership and inhabitation are soph O’s source of artistic exploration. Unintentional Islander focuses on O’s fascination with the complexity of the island psyche, as defined by the convergences of the forces mobility and cultural preservation as well as the intersections of personal histories.
O’s latest artworks revolve around the fluidity of migrating and immigrating communities. The porousness of this coming and going results in the construction of alternative histories about individuals and communities, who have a desire to create a sense of collective memory. Here, the imaginary permeates into the real, but only in intangible forms. O’s language is a graphic depiction of mutating images that draw from fantasy and actuality. Her rich and vibrant palette results in a harmonic balance of colour and imagery. In this latest installment of the series, O presents a selection of work arrayed by her use of different media. This time she resorts to acrylic paints instead of colour markers as a preferred medium of work. She continues with the painstaking process of creating convoluted worlds defined by details and symbolism. And her titles are often poetic indications of the playful narratives that are overtly hidden in her pieces.
On O’s previous body of work, SupersPychics, she alluded to the notion of the island in specific pieces such as Map of the Island, Beyond the Chocolate Mountains and Like a Flying Dust. Moreover, this continued to be an underlying thematic that provided a cohesive and connecting subtext for the other works that addressed this concept indirectly. Each of the works carried a certain individuality particular to the island and yet they operated as a singular entity within a larger cosmos. Each image was composed by a numerous collection of elements that resonated within a grander context. They depicted symbiotic relations that define beginnings and endings in continuous circularity.
At the centre of this current exhibition, stands a three-part painting. O depicts three comets that navigate as individual celestial bodies in this sidereal spectrum. Characteristic of her work, O plays with the notion uniqueness and context. Each individual piece stands on in its own, but there’s a physical element of modularity and interchangeability between the three canvas. The adventurous selection of colour used to define the individual elements that compose each piece of the puzzle has a compelling visual impact. However, in this new series there is a slight stylistic departure from her previous works. O continues to create images composed by the confluence of other objects, though in these instances the objects have more of an abstract quality than before, the effect of which creates a subtle ambiguity of the forms. And yet the intricate nature of object she selects to depict is still present.
Comet i: i’ll Drift on My Hilltop and You Can Rest on Yours reflects on the theme of insularity and continentally. There is a desire to demarcate territories, an urgency to establish a sense of place for both the visitor and the local. O was interested in the tensions that arise when the local leaves their own country to live somewhere else and after a while return. The native falls into the position of an outsider. A sense of deep displacement occurs for the one who has left, a sense of discomfort and uncanniness takes over. Home is no longer home; one becomes a stranger in his or her own land.
Comet ii: When You Ride Along the Stormy Tide Pools alludes the ebb and flow of tides as a metaphor for unpredictability and transformation. As the tide drifts in, there are inevitable changes in the environment. New things are brought in and others are washed away. The constant shifting of the ocean can also translate into the ambiguities and randomness of life. But, after a while, this unpredictability becomes expected as well. Change is the now the new constant.
Comet iii: Out of The River, Into the Sea is a complex piece inspired by the transformations space shuttles endure when launched into the sky. The stacks that compose the spacecraft are jettisoned to burn up in the atmosphere, and only an orbiter is left. O was interested in this concept, where comet iii is actually a detail of a small world that exists within another. A colourful city made of small mountains and inconspicuous citizens adorns the canvas. This piece is connected to another work entitled My Potato is As Sweet As Yours, which is the macrocosmos from where Comet iii emerges. O creates a spirited depiction of a leaping frog equipped with propeller tank whose body is composed by playful graphic patchwork of images. An animated wizard’s hat, and the candy-printed trunks worn by the frog are some of the humorous nuances that O brings to this piece. The artist alludes to a spring of transformation, to a process of evolution and change. One place becomes too small and it is time to navigate the unknown.
Those Pants are Too Short for Your Legs is a title inspired by a children’s book written by Roald Dahl, The BFG. This particular work depicts a loosely articulated body, composed of an amalgam of terrestrial and maritime creatures breathing life into existence. O was drawn to the misconceptions that arise from prejudice when encountering something novel. Again, she is interested in the situation when one leaves home and once again comes back, but with this work she is concerned with the divisiveness that sometimes occurs in such circumstances. O wanted to translate a sentiment of bewilderment when it comes to these situations. For her, just because a person has left and eventually comes back, doesn’t imply a complete transformation. The experiences gained abroad may have enriched the person, and for some the exterior may have changed, but their soul remains mostly the same.
The piece Unintentional Islander encapsulates the essence of the whole exhibition. This work captures the spirit of O’s entire narrative, as it is the microscopic view of all of the other pieces. It appears to be a map that allows the viewer to navigate and decipher the intricacies each individual piece, yet it speaks as well of the entire microcosms constructed by the artist.
Beyond the chromatic arrangements orchestrated by the artist, soph O’s current creations delve into the vicissitudes of belonging to a place that has been left and returned to. Unintentional Islander is a collection of small universes that speak of home and the yearning to belong, to remember and be remembered.
Curator, writer and founder of Feminist Rant zine, based in Singapore
A good collector sees the value in repetition, in reiteration, in recurrence. One object can resemble the other in almost every detail, yet that minuscule distinction that seems superfluous to many is what captures the attention of the person who collects. Objects that are collected through time trigger stories of the past, and these become the signifiers of memories that don’t want to be forgotten. Regardless of their form, these signifiers can manifest as images of places visited, books that were read or melodies of songs once heard. Collections may conform to the conventions of nostalgic memorabilia or sophisticated rarities, but regardless of their genre there is that investment of thought, dedication and observation.
Collections are meant to be recollected, remembered and revisited. Little objects, places, unidentified beings and inexplicable trinkets that represent ideas and memories seem to inspire these works by soph O on display here. Through time, these remembrances keep on growing and building on to each other. One can always go back to see them and even see something more. Her works are small poems saturated of polychromatic verses and psychedelic stanzas that speak of her stories. And like a generous collector, she has opened this cabinet of curiosity to us.
A first impression that may strike the viewer of these works by O is that they oscillate across — almost — the entirety of the colour spectrum. To convey the immensity and variety of her visual field, the artist creates hand drawings on paper using colour markers. Her process is long and painstaking, and her depictions are conspicuously detailed and specific. On the reasons for using markers, soph give a simple and direct answer: she wanted to see the possibilities and combinations of colours; she wanted the honesty of the reaction of the ink with paper, and to be challenged by the minutiae that each object seems to intrinsically posses.
The illustrations are exhaustive and intricate depictions of little worlds that are found in a larger universe. When staring at them intensely, it seems like an experience of going through the looking glass and discovering a hidden pathway for stories that are yet untold — a kaleidoscopic patchwork for the viewer to navigate. It is almost as if in this series of works, the individual works are not discrete entities, but each are continuous with the other, as the different little worlds bleed into the others. Each corner of one work resonates with the corners of other works, as codes and symbols reappear constantly throughout the series of works. One of these recurrent elements are small huts shaped in the form of convex lines. The huts speak of the notion of place and home. And the population of animals and abstract creatures assume the roles of the inhabitants and dwellers of these places.
Map of the Island is a vibrant configuration of colours and patterns that reveal the plan of an undisclosed location. However, when glaring upon the numerous components that construe the convoluted diagramme, small clues appear in the form of pictorial metaphors. Elements such as the conch, the beast, the lagoon, the signal fire, the huts — these speak of a familiar story, a seminal one. Drawing inspiration by William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, O recreates the nameless island in her own aesthetic. Every colour seems to represent a legend both in a cartographic and figurative way. Like the detailed narrative of Golding, she recreates multiple instances with intricacy and obsessive meticulousness. One can see the gradations of cerulean and azure of the iconic blue flowers that emerge between the red and grey stones where the parachutist was laid to rest by the fickle winds. The conch symbol of reason and democracy prominently emerges from the island’s drawn jungle, as well as the beast, a figure that embodied fear, the unknown and evil. However, for the artist these references can also be read on a larger scale. They may represent an unknown island or perhaps even a place like Singapore — is the “island” something actually real, or is what’s real an imagined collective creation.
Soph develops imagery that borders between the extraordinary and ordinary. In Beyond the Chocolate Mountains, what sounds like a tasty fairytale it is actually a drawing that reflects on the origins of the world, on a disappearing species that returns through her fantastical concoctions. The artist depicts a dinosaur bursting in chromatic and geometric arrays, breaking away from the traditional subdued palette of greys, greens and browns usually reserved for the prehistoric creatures. She had recently read about new findings about the real colour of dinosaurs, which indicated that there were more pigments in their skin, therefore adding an element of rarity and uniqueness. It wasn’t about creating a mythical creature where all the colours were casted upon it to make it beautiful but as a pursuit of this peculiar and newly found fact. The dinosaur appears to be moving, to be walking away from a place, perhaps the island. He looks over his back but his body is facing forward. One last look before he leaves. However, he is not alone. On his back he carries a small village in the form of huts, which accompany him to an unknown journey.
O’s works are threaded through a larger narrative of extrapolating the infinite possibilities of life that can be found within an object or a being. Like a Flying Dust alludes to the existence of organisms within organisms — this time the host is an unidentifiable creature. From his eyes two snakes slither out in such a way that it seems as if they were part of the host and yet not. The host’s body extends into different directions and makes contact with peripheral bodies around “him”. “He” interacts with these four beings, tacitly communicating through umbilical chords. There is a symbiotic relationship between all the entities which surround the host; it seems they take from him away energy to survive, but still they also, in turn, regenerate the host by feeding what seems like his protective aura.
The notion of place and home is densely recreated in How Many Rivers Do We Have to Cross?. Although not evident at first, the image of a snail emerges from the white paper. Its shell is a scaffolded structure that holds different worlds into one. The snail’s armour is inhabited by earth- lings living in small huts, flying objects that have attached themselves to its flanks, and diamond-shaped spaceships that have landed on the core of its structure. In this piece, there is a balance between a cosmopolitan utopia and oneiric and whimsical settings such as the “watermelon lake”. Interestingly enough, its protagonist is completely unaware of the world that is growing and being built on him. The complexity of this realm can be observed in how diverse ecosystems can emerge from one being. The ecology of this place is the confluence of denizens of cosmic, terrestrial and fictional lands.
At a first glance, Chasing Tales appears as a colourful and flexible fox resembling a rag puppet. His body looks like bits and pieces of scrapes and fabrics that have been sown together in playful and amorphous way. The title of this piece works in two registers: it refers to the game of him chasing his own tail, but also in the tales, in sense of the stories existing in this miniature cosmos residing in his body.
Shipwreck seems like a tangential creation that stems from Map of the Island.Here a sunken ship has remerged to the surface after years of being underwater. The once pristine structure made of shiny steel has been corroded and taken over by prismatic algae, corals and polyps. The ship speaks of a past in this new found flora and fauna refer to it’s present.
Three Graces is a drawing that depicts three bodies that are an amalgam of sedimentary layers, where stalactites and stalagmites rise from their surface. However, these structures have a malleable formations reminiscent of modeling clay. They seem to be drawn to each other, interacting, moving and reshaping the land.
M.A. in Contemporary Art at Sotheby's Institue of Art, Singapore
M.A. in theory and History of Modern and Contemporary Art at Universidad de los Andes, Colombia