Featuring Tan Hai Han
HOW DOES SENTIMENT translate to medium? How do we inscribe emotion onto a physical object? What are the means of this mission, and what are its ends?
Tan Hai Han's work 'the sky i wish to share with you' explores these questions. It is a glimpse into a universe built up by two people; a distillation of a unique intimacy, and characteristic of an intimacy that isn't yours: while you can bear witness to this world, and peer into it, you, the reader, will only ever be an outsider. It is a story shared through a series of postcards – stills of Singapore, Malaysia and Taiwan shot on film – addressed to a person known to the reader only as Qiaoling. Captured are hazy snippets of sky, food, places and other scenes captured on film that take on meaning in this narrative of moments that the narrator wishes to share with Qiaoling.
When I first cracked it open, tsiwtswy had resonated with me as a ‘wish you were here project’: a way to express belatedly a lingering sentiment one cannot express in the moment; a story about wanting what we cannot have.
Han initially describes tsiwtswy to me as a break-up story. “The author of the postcard has some constraints. It’s a break-up story, so it’s holding back.”
It’s not a straightforward story, and as stories go, it’s far from an open book (pun unintended). The notes on the postcards are largely enigmatic – while some captions describe the scene the viewer is looking at, most are open-ended thought fragments.
“Everything is very personal,” Han says. “Some are too personal to understand, but everything that the author sends, the recipient has an understanding of.” And for the rest of us, what the author’s words don’t express is hinted at emotively, refracted through Han’s film that captures moments that the narrator longs to share with his ex-lover.
But more than just a break-up story, Han adds that tsiwtswy “might be a get-well story”, where the process of creating this project “unknowingly actually heals the person”.
“Did it?” I asked.
“I don’t know.” He replies.
tsiwtswy is now nearly a decade old, conceived by Han when he was in his twenties, and he has since outgrown the project. He describes that time, and those years, as “dreamy”, by which he means a time “when we live in our dreams”, though he is quick to clarify that that is not a bad thing. “But you need to conclude a project and move on to the next one. Learn from your mistakes and move on so you don’t make the same mistakes again and learn from the past.”
Though Han is a photographer, and tsiwtswy is comprised mainly of photographs, tsiwtswy is not a photo-book. He recalls a debate with librarians at the NLB to have the book shelved with art books instead of the photography section. The postcards, not just the photographs, are the artwork – and tsiwtswy is performance art that may be read as a fictional story, rather than as a catalogue of photographs.
The narrator here is not synonymous with the author, just as Han is no longer the “dreamy” artist he was in his twenties. I think of graffiti artist Steven Powers’ project A Love Letter to the City, where a message originally intended for one person took on meaning for all when displayed in public space. Han has since moved away from tsiwtswy, but in it is distilled an experience and sentiment painfully and universally resonant, and an invitation to get well.
Pictures by Vanessa Ban and Kelvin Soh