"Our films are stories of walking down different roads, by people who are headed somewhere or working it out," declare Mark Chua and Lam Li Shuen, the winners of the inaugural Julius Baer Next Generation Art Prize. Learn more about the Singapore-based power couple that runs Emoumie, an independent film and music production company.
Their 2020 black and white short film, The Cup, recently took home the top accolade in the Moving Image category of the inaugural Julius Baer Next Generation Art Prize, an award for the digital image. Three winners were selected from ten finalists - Lam was the youngest finalist in the running - and their off-kilter tale of life under lockdown struck a chord with the jurors.
Life during the plague year
The Cup is a surreal fable set in pandemic-stricken Singapore, during the circuit breaker imposed at the height of the COVID-19 crisis in 2020. Taking place entirely within the four walls of an apartment, it tells the tale of a man with a brewing machine for a head, who faces an existential predicament. He is discontented with the bland taste of the brew from his own body, and sets about trying to improve its flavour, with the experiment, happily, ending on a successful note.
The film evokes the dark absurdity of David Lynch’s cinematic world - calling to mind, perhaps, the latter’s web series, Rabbits - but it also vividly and whimsically captures the claustrophobic monotony of everyday life during the lockdown in Singapore, a portrait of radically circumscribed realities. At its core is a sense of deflation, life’s little pleasures and delights whittled away by the contact-phobic character of the virus outbreak.
The primary point of departure for the artists was a profound sense of loss
“The pandemic and its effects, in some sense, have profoundly altered our envisioning of being in the world,” they observe. “The restrictions have resulted in a dissatisfaction with simply being, in this more isolated, restricted way. The Cup, as a picture of, and from, the flattening out of mundane experience during the pandemic, explores the notion that what is missing are the fundamental freedoms of daily life.”
We are greatly interested in creating work that is located at the intersection of image and sound.
The difficulties of the circuit breaker were not only reflected in the film, but also impacted its production. Trapped in their apartment, Chua and Lam assumed all roles behind and in front of the camera; when one was filming, the other had to take on acting duties. The sequence where the central character grinds beans in his head for a drink, was reportedly complicated to execute. As the artists relate it, they had to devise a system of tubes to have beans shot out from the platter atop the figure’s head, a system to pump liquid out of his eye socket, as well as creating a life-size double. They were restricted to making use only of materials and equipment that were readily available at home, and also had to convert rooms into sets for various locations seen in the film. They found the process inspirational, and the physical experience and practical limitations of confinement fed into the pervasive sense of claustrophobia that lingers on in The Cup.
The film has gone on to participate in a number of film festivals both at home and abroad. After its debut in “flat”, an exhibition in Singapore that dealt with the effects of the pandemic, it was screened in competition at the 31st Singapore International Film Festival, in 2020. It showed, the same year, at the 5th International Film Festival and Awards Macao, where it had its international premiere, and was included in the 51st Tampere Film Festival in Finland in 2021.
Sight and sound
Chua and Lam are not just filmmakers and moving image artists, but also musicians. “We are greatly interested,” they write, “in creating work that is located at the intersection of image and sound, work premised on latitudes of narrativity that might bear new witness to, and offer new modes of reflecting on, our times.”
The sound design for The Cup suggests a keen interest in auditory dimensions of the moving image. The film’s sonic textures were intended “to capture the tensions between the sounds of the external world and the frenetic energies of an internal rhythm during the lockdown experience.” To that end, they recorded audio feedback loops to explore ideas of pattern generation and fluctuation in repetition, and incorporated aural effects produced with household objects.
The artists describe their music as art rock that leans toward a psychedelic soundscape, often incorporating elements of noise with experimental approaches to arrangement and composition. Their music utilizes non-traditional, analog equipment, such as four-track tape decks, as well as instrumentation that includes guitars and drums. They have presented sound art performances locally and internationally, at venues such as the Drill Hall Gallery at the Australian National University in Canberra; independent art space, FIGYA, in Osaka, Japan; the ArtScience Museum, Singapore, where they collaborated with Japanese filmmaker, Daisuke Miyazaki. They also recently presented the opening performance at the 10th BINISAYA Film Festival in Cebu, Philippines.
It is important to have works and stories that, in form and approach, speak to the conditions of today.
Digital technology is, unsurprisingly, the frontier of innovation and new forms of expression in the realm of the moving image. For Chua and Lam, it has allowed for rethinking the processes of creating and putting out new work, but, perhaps even more importantly, enabled greater risk-taking with their projects, as increased access has translated into a broader range of platforms. The flexibility of the digital medium has also led to more opportunities for multi-disciplinary collaboration; the diversity of voices and stories emerging in Southeast Asia, they opine, has been amplified by the advent of the digital.
In a world that has seen so many attitudes and assumptions challenged by the onset of a global crisis, digital technology has become one of the chief conduits of communication and creation, The opportunities presented by digital media, and its facilitation of interaction and collaboration over physical distance and geopolitical divides, inform the artists’ chosen theme of “Arising Asia” in the Julius Baer Next Generation Art Prize. The thematic categories of the prize were derived from the bank’s Next Generation investment philosophy, central to which is the role of the Asian continent - home to more than half of the global population, and several of its most vibrant, robust economies.