Capturing beauty in the banal

Capturing beauty in the banal
"I am always interested in the in-between, the intersection between the real and the surreal, documentary and fiction.", Sherman Ong on the images he creates.

An artist residency in Hanoi in 2004 got photographer and film-maker Sherman Ong started on what he calls "a visual haiku series".

A freak hailstorm he witnessed in the city led to Monsoon, a series of photographs taken in a span of just 25 minutes. It shows motorists rolling into a ball or as Ong, 42, says, "trying to make themselves as small as possible" to avoid the falling ice.

That award-winning series got him thinking about the relationship between nature and man within constructed urban settings.

As he travelled around the world, he looked for what he calls "the intersections between nature and human nature, between the landscape and the body".

The idea, he says, is to "offer an alternative viewpoint to the banal while eliciting the subtle beauty of everyday life".

These photographs are part of his ongoing solo exhibition at Art Plural Gallery titled Spurious Landscapes From The Land And Water.

Framed as though part of a reel of film, he places one image after another to give a cinematographic effect while exploring different aspects of the human condition.

Some of the images are from the Monsoon Series. Others were taken during his travels over the last few years through Spain, Vietnam and Brazil, while the rest were shot in Singapore.

The exhibition features 28 works priced between $2,800 and $5,600, and runs at the gallery in Armenian Street till May 31.

The idea of coping by controlling nature in a built-up urban environment has been a recurring theme in his work.

He says: "Through my travels and in my encounters with different peoples and cultures, I have seen that they have their own survival mechanisms of coping, harnessing or controlling nature in order to build a stable social environment where they can thrive."

Whether it shows up as a freak hailstorm or as a deserted village in Spain, his images question why people give up some places and stay in others. He says this question intrigues him.

"I am always interested in the in-between, the intersection between the real and the surreal, documentary and fiction," he adds. Malacca-born Ong's love affair with the lens began on his 10th birthday when his father, a primary school teacher, gave him a Kodak Instamatic camera.

He started by taking photos of his pets - dogs, rabbits and fish - and recalls that as being "the beginning of my relationship with the world of images".

As a child, he often accompanied his grandfather, a projectionist at the now demolished The Sun cinema in Malacca, to work. Ong came to Singapore in 1989 on an ASEAN scholarship and studied at Hwa Chong Junior College.

Having grown up with both film and still photography as a child, his practice today drifts effortlessly between the world of still and moving images.

He is drawn to both forms as they allow him room for expression and for movement between what he likens to "drifting between calligraphy and sculpture and back again".

However, he did not set out to be a photographer.

He has a law degree from the National University of Singapore and after passing the bar exam, decided not to be a lawyer as he found the nature of law too adversarial.

His desire to be creative saw him working as a video editor, then a producer with MediaCorp.

He started exhibiting his photographs in 2002 and in 2010, won a major photography award. He beat 12 other nominees to become the inaugural winner of the Icon de Martell Cordon Bleu award for photography.

Ong, who is single, has exhibited his art in New York, Amsterdam and Tokyo, and has also made three feature films. One of them, Hashi, won an award for Best Screenplay at the 2009 Singapore Film Awards.

His parents, who are still living in Malacca, had initial reservations about his career choice, and he says that going into film and photography was a "leap of faith" which paid off.

He adds: "It took them a while to accept that this is what I wanted to do."

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Where: Art Plural Gallery, 38 Armenian Street
When: Till May 31, 11am to 7 pm. Closed on Sunday and public holidays
Admission: Free
Info: Call 6636-8360 or go to or

This article was published on May 7 in The Straits Times.

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