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Working through escapism across three projects with Jonathan Liu

Jonathan Liu often considers the layers of memory and post-memory. Before his recent graduation from London College of Communication, we caught up with the artist-photographer to learn about his process of research as part of the storytelling portrayed in three self-initiated projects — Diary of a Lonely Man, Running from something, looking for something & Mystery is a Compass.
Working through escapism across three projects with Jonathan Liu

by SAND Magazine

August 09, 2018

Image: Mystery is a Compass (2018), Jonathan Liu


What about Edgar Allan Poe moved you to create The Diary of a Lonely Man (2014 – 2016), and why the combination of literature and photography?

The Diary of a Lonely Man, Jonathan Liu

I’ve always been intrigued by themes of escapism and Edgar Allan Poe’s yearning to escape through his work and his literature—that fantasy to want to escape—brings out really strong visuals in my mind. His writing is extremely visceral. I can see everything he was going through because I went through the same exact emotional scenarios. I find myself in his writing and recognise the same impulses he had for solitude and isolation, almost like it’s mirrored from him to me…
It felt odd because Edgar Allan Poe died 169 years ago, yet I still found myself within his text. I saw it as a sense of locating balance and making sense of the world through our historical existence with the writer himself.
Not that I see all of his inclinations to be exactly like mine but there are certainly elements of it. With that, I try to rebalance myself knowing that I’m not alone in feeling these compulsions.

Have you always felt invested in history when creating art?

Knowing History is important in the act of creating. There are so many insignificant moments that we don’t really know about unless we dive deeper into the abyss of human existence thus far. I’m attracted to these moments, narrative, and people in that time period. For example, Virginia Woolf killed herself walking into the river with rocks in her pockets. That weighs a ton in symbolism and emanates the spirit of her work.

What goes on behind interpreting all these text into photography?

The Diary of a Lonely Man, Jonathan Liu

We all make sense of texts through our own experiences. For Edgar Allan Poe, it’s the mystery of the unfinished piece of writing.
He started something that seemed close to his heart and died before he was able to finish it. That curiosity kills me because I really want to know what it could have been, and what would he have written. I think that fantasy of what could have been made me pursue The Diary of a Lonely Man.

Instead of saying that I’m continuing his diary, I’ll say that I’m merely fulfilling that fantasy. I’m examining the situation from the role of a reader, not the writer. In doing so, I’m being introspective about my state of existence through his pain and his work.

What did you feel most strongly about?

I shot the photos on two different trips before I found the narrative. At that point in time, I didn’t really know about how this series of photos would fit within contemporary art. 
They were very personal, perhaps too intimate that they would be misunderstood without the right narrator. 
I was looking at letters that people would send to their spouses when they went on expeditions. I tried to find letters that male British navy explorers wrote while they were out there, ‘finding the world’ – you know, discovering countries and colonies…

The Diary of a Lonely Man, Jonathan Liu

I wanted to use these letters as the narrative of the photographs that I shot. I wanted to create a fictional character – someone who’s sending these photographs back to someone at home. When I came across Edgar Allan Poe’s story, I jumped on it and trashed the previous idea. Once I read his diary, it wasn't something I could get out of my mind. I became obsessed.

Many of your works are influenced by literary expressions, which have the tendency to bring about discomfort. Have you ever had to deal with that in your artistic ventures?

When working through a cathartic process of creating work, we should face these discomforts head on. At times, we actually want its manifestation within us.
People tend to ignore the negative side of the emotional spectrum. We should use that to our advantage and understand, instead of rejecting and denying it.
I work within the state of unknown. ‘Negative Capability’ – a term coined by Romantic poet John Keats in 1817 characterises a capacity in which the greatest writers would pursue a vision of artistic beauty even when it leads them into intellectual confusion and uncertainty. It speaks about the ability of an individual to perceive, think and operate beyond any presupposition or predetermined capacity, which is the capability of being able to work in uncertainty, mystery and doubt.

I think a lot of artists would prefer to be in a position of not knowing, they can learn through the mystery. They may find out about these unknown-unknowns or known-unknowns and make work through that. Enter a situation and let it happen organically. With what I do, I go to places not knowing what my plans are and I feel that is the key to my images.
There’s always this obsession with knowledge and knowing objectively, the right and the wrongs. But I think it’s more interesting when we don’t know.
With respect to that, how do you see image making as a tool one may use to educate its viewer?

Photography is easily absorbed. You don’t have to sit through a 45-minute video to understand a concept. I’m not saying videos or film aren’t good resources. In fact, I love them. But, if you have a strong image, it can convey a lot in the shortest amount of time. Especially in a photo book — you don’t need to have an exhibition. You could send it out anywhere in the world and allow your viewers to find out about things that they wouldn’t have otherwise experienced wherever they are in the world.

The Diary of a Lonely Man, Jonathan Liu

Through image making, we possess that capability of creation that can trigger emotions immediately. All it takes is a single image to change or empower your mind.
Do you think an image is always open to interpretation, and how does the act of interpreting come across as knowledge to you?
I think a personal interpretation of an image is actually the exciting part of photography. Everyone can view the same set of images but triggering a personal experience, memory or emotion that is different from another person.

Think about the polarities when someone sees sadness while another sees happiness in the same image. Whatever you see is mirrored to how you’re feeling at that point in time. When it comes to the supposed melancholia in my work, I don’t see sadness as a detriment but a coping mechanism. 
You basically see as much sadness in my work as the sadness that’s currently inside you. I think that’s the beautiful part about image making. It’s not definite. There’s no right answer.
How or when did you first come across the film camera as a tool of expression?

I think I had my first proper camera in 2007. It was a Lubitel, a Russian medium-format camera. I started out with medium format even though my dad had a 35mm – what people normally started out with.

Prior to developing an interest in the film process, I shot digitally. I read about the process of digital photography and the physicality it was lacking. I wanted something more tangible.
I noticed how film could slow down your process – when you do, you start to notice and learn things. In other words, you become a better photographer by slowing down.
The darkroom is really crucial in my process. There’s more importance in the printing than in the camera or apparatus that you use because you’re essentially re-photographing the image. The idea of ‘photography’ becomes true to life since the act of printing decides the end result. I do believe that shooting film and printing in the darkroom is truly the only way to learn photography.

What’s your connection with landscapes?

I started shooting landscapes 11 years ago, when I was 13. It was a very naïve thought, but I just wanted to take photos of sunsets because I liked them. I would go to Changi Boardwalk with my digital camera to camp out for them, and I actually won a small competition for Microsoft Vista’s wallpaper contest. That was when I started exploring how you could make money through photography. There wasn’t really a market for landscape photography then, I would later develop an interest in fashion and portraits.

It was during army that I was freelancing as a fashion photographer. I worked on catalogues for brands and start-ups, through those projects, I got to experience the commercial side of photography.
I think my decision to pursue photography in university was to explore the bridge between commercial and the arts. 
How do you find familiarity in landscapes, and is that even a concern for you?

I think nature and landscape is something that we have no control over, to a certain extent. Nature is something that’s greater and older than us and has existed far longer than us. To ignore it is a profane act because there is a mirror of existence within our land.

Our pain in the pain of nature, happiness in the sun, sadness and melancholia in the sea—they are all interlinked organically. Growing up in a metropolis like Singapore, I was really obsessed with what the landscape of the North looked like – places like Iceland and the arctic. Through my years in university, I’ve realised my obsession originated from how I was raised in a city of constructed pseudo-nature.
As artists we create what we lack in life and I was craving for the raw, untouched nature of wild landscapes. 
Replacing the experience of man-made nature in Singapore with the primordial nature of Iceland is a big shift in experience because you get hit by visceral emotions that you’ve always fantasised about — yet it’s better than what you can imagine.

All the trips to Iceland I’ve made have shaped my understanding of existence. The quietness of the roads aided my thinking, but it can also drive you to an extreme point, which was very evident in Running from something, looking for something.

Running from something, looking for something (2017), Jonathan Liu

I’ve learned on my trips within the raw nature – it’s one of the most important experiences of my life. To quote something I’ve read previously, go out there to reality and bring something back. That’s exactly what I find myself doing.

Is there a reason for shooting in black and white?

I never thought I was as good at shooting in colour. Maybe it’s because I find colour distracting that I do not share the same passion for it. The decision for shooting in black and white is to capture a reality that has never existed because reality doesn’t exist in monochrome. With that, what you’ve photographed becomes a new entity, one free from the distractions of colour focusing solely on the elements within the image.

I’ve been told to shoot more in colour because whatever I have now looks too sad, but I like it that way. In my opinion, you can’t reject sadness because then it would eventually consume us.

Running from something, looking for something (2017), Jonathan Liu
There’s an objective, realistic sense in that — because we will be sad, and if we continue to reject sadness instead of understanding it, we will end up falling even harder.
If you embrace and learn from it, I think you can normalise sadness – which I think I am doing through my work. They exist to create this awareness in people that you are not alone in sadness.

What do you think is the balance between normalising and glamourising sadness?

I don’t really see the latter as the first response to ‘sad art’ or ‘sadness in art’. I think there’s a lot of sad art out there and I give them the benefit of the doubt. There’s a bit more freedom now within contemporary art to realistically express yourself.

There is a lot of sadness within people that culture forces people to compress it within themselves. Why do we hide sadness for the benefit of happy people? What do we have to benefit from hiding it?
Instead of going into this realm or generation of ‘sad art’, I think we’re entering a generation of true expressive freedom.
We have the power to express freely within the age of data. Instead of seeing it as a glamorisation of sadness, consider them as those who are encouraged and inspired to share their own stories.
Performance artists like Tehching Hsieh have influenced my work immensely. In comparison to performance, there was a point in time where I felt like I was on the exterior of my work. I wanted to be within it.
That was my main impetus in going to Iceland by myself — without the Internet, sleeping in the back of my car in -15 degrees. It wasn’t a smart decision, but I wanted to feel everything that society had been distracting me from by adopting a performative approach.

We think that we have taste, but it’s all based on ideologies. Being in a generation with Instagram or Tumblr means that we’re somehow caught in the ideology or theoretical framework to embrace sadness — which I think is inevitable and working from that in a positive way will normalise it.

What’s your thought process like when creating each work? How do you begin to conceptualise something?

It depends on the project that I’m working on. The Diary of a Lonely Man stemmed from my obsession with the narrative. I just couldn’t shake it from my mind. In some ways I’m still working on that after 4 years because it has been some time since I’ve started the project. It’s a way for me to work through the obsession because these images help me in post-rationalising them.

Running from something, looking for something (2017), Jonathan Liu
Running from something, looking for something was my way of working through a personal crisis. When I found myself on the exterior of my work, I wanted to relive it. It was a sort of pseudo-pilgrimage.
I’m actually working on a dissertation exploring what a pilgrimage is — one with no specific goal, away from its religious pretext. In doing so, I circumvented the perimeters of Iceland, went to the most Northern part of the world that I’ve ever been. I just found myself running away from something that I didn’t know. At the same time and more importantly, I was looking for something else.

These two elements suffer in silence. This mystery brings it back to me working through the act of not knowing. I kept a diary of the trip and have now self-published the project in my new photo book.

In the process of 'running from something, looking for something', do you think you will find what you have been looking for?

I think we should ask ourselves – do we need to find anything when we run from something? I ask myself that a lot. A pilgrimage is a simple concept — you go on a journey and you have to exert yourself physically in order to achieve something that is tangible at the end. That’s the journey that people have taken for thousands of years — they go on a journey to make something intangible tangible.
Running from something, looking for something (2017), Jonathan Liu
I’m trying to explore if it’s possible to go on a journey not knowing where you’re going to end up and coming back with something tangible. You could say it’s the paradox of a pilgrimage.
Are there other artists you’re thinking of basing your future works on?

My new project is inspired by Plato’s Meno, where a poetic assertion was proposed by Socrates that the human soul has acquired knowledge of all things prior to birth and thus what one perceives to be learning in life is not the acquisition of unknown knowledge, but recollection or recovery of knowledge already known. In response, he was challenged by with a paradox. How does one search for something that is unknown to you when you do not know at all what it is?

Conceivably, there is a mystery to this unknown entity. Socrates posited that this mystery can act as a compass guiding you through the seemingly unknown towards knowing. That was the theoretical reference of the title “Mystery Is A Compass”. I then took that reference and applied it to the disappearance of a 20 year-old boy named Everett Ruess, who went missing in Southern Utah, USA in 1934.

Mystery is a Compass (2018), Jonathan Liu

A boy utterly consumed by the wild desert landscape while on a metaphysical quest in search of the unknown, rare indeed was his ability to sense beauty so acutely that it bordered on pain.
A penniless romantic, he wandered through the terra incognita of the land and proclaimed in his letters to the outside world: “I have seen almost more beauty than I can bear.” 
This series is the closing chapter of my university journey. I’m ready to explore perspectives from within myself instead of basing it on people and other artists. I think I’m ready to take that step to make works based entirely on myself.

Since both concepts of The Diary of a Lonely Man and Mystery is a Compass are somewhat speculative, how do you think they really died?

That’s funny because there are many theories of how Everett Ruess died. It’s that mystery that I’m interested in. People with different emotional responses to it comes up with different theories about their deaths.

Mystery is a Compass (2018), Jonathan Liu

I don’t think it’s that hard to believe that Edgar Allan Poe died because he was shanghaied – kidnapped, fed alcohol and drugs. where political parties pay people to get others drunk to vote for a certain political party. It’s the most unromantic way to die but it’s unsurprising to me because of the harshness and evils of men in history.

And about how Everett Ruess died — that one is deeper than the surface. He could have literally just been reckless and fell off a cliff. Or he could have been murdered and thrown into the river. That’s the one I’m most interested in knowing about, the variation of theories from others.

Jonathan Liu is a Singaporean photographic artist working primarily with print-based darkroom processes within my practice. Having graduated in 2018 from London College of Communication with a first class honours degree in Photography, I have a vast technical and theoretical knowledge within photography as well as experience in print through self-publishing hand-made photo-books, taking part in international art book fairs such as Offprint Paris, Offprint London and Unseen Amsterdam.

Find out more at


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