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Thursday, July 7, 2016, 19:56

All the lonely people

By Chitralekha Basu

Sarah Choo Jing’s portraits of passengers on the Hong Kong MTR are a homage to some of the finest in painting, theater and cinema. Chitralekha Basu reports.

All the lonely people
Sarah Choo Jing’s (top left) current show explores the theme of social alienation and isolation of people traveling together.  (Photos provided to China Daily)

Sarah Choo Jing counts the filmmaker Wong Kar-wai among her artistic inspirations. Indeed watching her current solo show in the compact, dark space of Art Projects Gallery in PMQ — which has the feel of a mini auditorium or a black box theater — feels like being inside one of Wong’s urban noir films such as Chungking Express ( 1994) or Happy Together (1997). The dark, sad and hauntingly intense images of lonely people caught in the throes of the breathless pace of city life in some of Wong’s filmsresonate well with Choo’s work in this series, named Flights of the Mind.

Choo’s subject is people in transit. Using techniques applied in both painting and photography, Choo has spliced together random images of passengers on the Hong Kong MTR. Some of them sit inside the coach, gazing into their phones, some stand outside on the platform, a child gazes out the compartment window which mysteriously seems to have acquired heavy, red curtains, giving the scene a feel of theater. In the image, titled At the Beginning of the End, Choo has put a series of shots in the style of a montage sequence, borrowing the optical effects such as fade-out, dissolve, double and triple exposure used in cinema.

The Hong Kong MTR seems a bit of an odd choice for someone who has lived in London (Choocompleted an MFA in Fine Art Media at University College of London recently) and her native Singapore — cities having two of the world’s most intricate metro railway networks, connected to popular imagination in ways that go beyond transporting people.

Choo says it had to be Hong Kong. During earlier visits to the city, she had felt captivated by the sight of “commuters on the Hong Kong MTR looking rather pensive and in a daze as they waited to get to their destination. A few of them and I exchanged glances and I immediately felt connected to these strangers,” says Choo. “As I began searching for such an accelerated intimacy, I became more aware of the evident disconnection among travelers; many are engrossed in and (at the same time) distracted by technology.”

In Hong Kong she watched metro passengers with greater astuteness than she would  perhaps in a more familiar terrain. The exhausted faces and slouched bodies of people returning home after work spoke to her. “I find the individuals in Hong Kong are perhaps less guarded and more direct with their thoughts and emotions,” she says. The pent-up anguish, stress and resignation writ large on people’s faces in Choo’s photographs seem to point to a malaise of our times — the solitude of individuals thrown together in small, cramped spaces.

“I sense the social alienation and isolation in individuals across cities such as Paris, London, New York, Singapore and Hong Kong,” says Choo. “I am fascinated by how we can be physically so close to one another, yet, emotionally so far apart. I suppose this theme of solitude is a running thread through my practice; and in each new work, I am exploring only an aspect of it.”

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