Experimenta Mesh 17: New Media Art in Australia and Asia contact


: : Pamela Zeplin

Question: How does a Singapore/Perth-based artist and occasional resident of Venice, Kassel, Hong Kong, Gwangju and Adelaide, not to mention Sydney, Sao Paulo and Switzerland, create meaningful and memorable experiences of place? Answer: Like a good rug-pull, with polish, precision and a decent dose of displacement.

Matthew Ngui

Habitually on the move, Matthew Ngui, like many artists working in new media, interrogates meaning ‘within different cultural and socio-political spaces which shape society’ . The journeys on which Ngui embarks, however, enter other dimensions beyond the conventional safety of elegant installation and theoretical text. Ngui’s flying carpet rides plunge through jostling cultures and strange spatialities; they enter decidedly dangerous terrain, where space itself is warped and perceptions bent.

In the hands of this artist, video, performance and installation become slippery devices, conjuring up dark magic domains, where reality and illusion dissolve into remarkable worlds of ‘elsewhere’. Through a surveillance camera, anamorphic markings on wall and floor are transformed - via a video monitor - into the convincing illusion of a chair. But just try and sit down on this piece of ‘furniture’! To render this ‘real’ the ‘sitter’ (on-screen) is required to perform strange gyrations, creating a skewed and perplexing perspective which raises the question: ‘what is wrong with this picture?’

Matthew Ngui

Next, fighting our way through a forest of randomly-marked plumbing pipes, we find on the wall next door that the pipes have disappeared into a piece of coherent text. Meanwhile, other visitors walking through the pipes have also disappeared into disembodied fragments, moving amongst this text. Dumbfounded, we check again: as if by magic, and to our relief, the human bodies are reconstituted and warm. How can this be?

Such technological virtuosity, however, also engages at a much deeper level than sleight of hand or trompe l’oeil tricksiness. Under Ngui’s spell we are confronted with contingency, the frailty of human perception and the fertile cultural possibilities inherent in mis-matches and mis-communications, conditions from which even the artist has no escape.

While regularly participating in global events like Documenta and the Venice Biennale, Ngui also engages with humbler – and larger – locations. In searching out ‘the very particular smaller but interesting bits of culture which are often overlooked ... but are major players’ , the specifics of each new site present intimate possibilities for Ngui to test ‘little experiments’. One of these ‘players’ is cooking, which, while fundamental to life itself, represents a mundane activity. Food is also culturally specific, offering enormous potential for anxiety, as well as connectivity and comfort. In interactive, time-based installations at Singapore’s Goethe Institute, MCA (Sydney) and PICA (Perth) , Ngui transformed raw foodstuffs into performative cuisine, suspending spatial and social expectations of the formal gallery, to create, for a time, an enchanted Chinese take-away.

Ironically, Ngui is a reluctant and modest conjurer, constantly ‘trying to find the right blend of social relevance and "beauty" for art to be meaningful’. Recently, in striving to connect his practice with broader communities, the artist has activated more expansive public spaces in Graz and Singapore, where he plans to modify anamorphically the city’s skyline using the text ‘Home’. On the other side of the globe, he’s working with Swiss scientists to roll 800,000 balls through an avalanche-prone medieval town.

In creating ever-widening spaces for creative ‘thinking and doing’, the dynamics of disruption nevertheless still lurk within Matthew Ngui’s technological and performative bag of tricks; things are not necessarily as they seem, so tread carefully; you may be stepping into a parallel universe.

Pamela Zeplin is an Adelaide-based writer and Senior Lecturer at the South Australian School of Art, University of South Australia.