‘Five Minutes With Nicola’ is a column where two artists have a conversation, to bring you the inner workings of the creative mind.
Upon entering the exhibition space I was surrounded by a rich darkness, in which warmly lit bubbles of light gleamed within shadows. My eyes adjusted, and I saw each was a circle of light enclosed by a glass bell jar. As I was drawn closer, each pool of light offered up a flower, hovering within each dome.
My focus ventured closer still, to discover that in this artwork, each specimen bares the furrowed lines of human skin. Each petal is a sliver of thinly shaved flesh.
The artist belonging to this skin is Ezzam Rahman. Ezzam’s performance Allow me to introduce myself, also features downstairs at SAM 8Q. Meanwhile he lectures at LASALLE and NAFA art Institute. I was lucky enough to peel away the surface and get a glimpse into his thought process, in conversation with Ezzam himself.
Ezzam’s epidermis has featured in his works since 2009. So to start with I have to ask….
Nicola Anthony: The question on everyone’s mind – where did you get so much skin?! Using your own body as material for Here’s who I am, I am what you see makes the installation very evocative of the performance of art-making itself, conjuring both the act and sensation of physically cutting the skin. Do you keep your process of skin gathering a mystery only to be unravelled in the viewer’s imagination or would you be willing to give us some insight?
Ezzam Rahman: It is a monthly grooming process just like how we trim or cut our hair, shave (this or that), snip away our fingernails just to keep ourselves presentable! I have always been a person who cannot keep my nails long, and the hardened, dead skin on the soles of my feet makes me really uncomfortable. There is no real mystery, it just so happened that I ended up collecting the skin and nails. I do have to agree that the act of cutting and peeling of skin is performative and I really enjoy the curiosity I am getting from the audience, especially when they are trying to picture how thick the skin on my feet is! I prefer to leave that to their imagination for now and not to give it out too much…
Nicola: On the subject of cutting the skin, there is a real duality set up between pain and beauty here. Do you see this act on yourself as linked to destruction, human fragility, or even self-harm? Or perhaps more to do with altering and (literally) sculpting our ‘imperfect’ selves into something new? These are two of the many thoughts raised in my mind when I walk through Here’s who I am, I am what you see.
Ezzam: It is so weird that I’ve received such feedback and comments on how the work speaks about pain. Maybe I am too used to the action of peeling and collection that it numbs me. Of course, I still do cut myself and I have ended up hurting and bleeding. But over time, I am now careful or skilled enough not to hurt myself as much. I know not to cut too deep and when to stop. This work is really about the little things we neglect along the way. How we leave traces behind such as hair, fingerprints our dry skin…etc. Our bodies always reminds us of where we have gone wrong, they give us clues and hints, from the colour of our bodily wastes to the odor that evaporates through our pores.
Nicola: Ephemeral suggestions of fingerprints and toe prints feature in both works, and traces of other bodily fluids also become part of Allow me to introduce myself, which is a performance-based installation with the artist ingesting and exhaling talcum power, and interacting with the space to leave traces of the artist’s presence. Is there a strong link for you between the concepts of touch, intimacy, fingerprints, and individual (genetic or personal) identity?
Ezzam: Yes, I like the idea that we constantly leave traces. I watched a documentary once on Buddhist monks in Tibet, how they would pray on the wooden floors and over time, the colour of the floor changed and became dark due to the long period of praying bodies repeating the action. The connection between the ‘body’ and ‘material’ co exists in the same space. It is an intimate connection, but yet that moment of real time, real space only takes place at that specific relevant ‘nowness’. Hence once you miss the action, what is left are just relics as evidence of an action.
Nicola: Observing the Allow me to introduce myself performance space, many layers become apparent. The reflection of viewer in the window, the faces of strangers and silhouettes on the other side of the glass box, the handprints of the artist which you must look through to see inside, and of course the performer (or the ‘relics’ of performance when the artist is not there) inside the space. Again with this work, the audience’s eyes are focusing back and forth between many traces and levels of detail, which in a way is part of the the viewer’s interaction in this performance.
How did people react to it – did the intimacy draw them in or repel them away? Did the performance take the direction you expected?
Ezzam: This performance is challenging for sure, I proposed six performances once a month until the end of the year and each presentation is a two hours durational piece. It is not easy to be in the same space and facing the same materials over and over again. Yet at every presentation, I have received different reactions. Some stayed longer, almost until the end and some left after two minutes. Each time I gagged on the powder, I could hear the audience reactions from inside the glass space. Every presentation is different but there will be similar actions that reoccur like leaving handprints on the glass panels and the blowing of the powder. I can only picture the ideas in my head but it is hard for me to predict the outcome.
Nicola: The icon of a flower can represent many things from beauty, nature, sexuality, the feminine, to the fleeting moment… and even existed as a language of symbols to express emotions and intensions in the Victorian times – was there a reason you were drawn to this form? What does it mean for you?
Ezzam: In 2014, I presented a series of animal fossil-like sculptures made out of skin commissioned by the Singapore Art Museum for a show called Unearthed, and it was appropriate to touch on the subject of flora and fauna. I liked that these flower sculptures had seductive characteristics which allowed the audience to take a second look after reading the explanations, and how they managed to change the audience’s perspective on looking and viewing things in detail. Why flowers? They are pretty!!! HAHAHAHA! I also like to challenge myself on how much I can mimic nature although they may look like ‘real’ flowers, each flower is actually a fantasy made-up creation with very little reference to the actual thing.
Nicola: Being selected as a finalist also saw you gaining a curatorial mentor in Twardzik Ching Chor Leng. Tell us about the process of exhibiting work at SAM – was exhibiting in a museum show a different experience for the artist? How did the presentation, placement, curation etc develop?
Ezzam: I have to say this, I have the BESTEST MENTOR EVER!!! It is an honor to have a second eye especially from someone like Leng who was also a fellow alumni of President’s Young Talent back in 2009. She completely knows what it’s like to go through what I am going through, and guess what, we exhibited in the same room too! Purely by coincidence! Leng is such a sensitive artist who understands materials and to get a fellow sculptor / installation artist to guide you, what else can I ask for? She is a sister, a mother, a fellow comrade and an artist I really look up to. She listens to my problems, gave great suggestions, and she was always there for me when I needed help. There were times that I had doubts, when she motivated me to continue and fight my own personal demons. I am also privileged to get a chance to work with the curatorial team from SAM. From the amazing production and installation team to the curators, they are always there for me to entertain my enquiries and as promised, SAM have given me a platform to realize a series of works that I have always wanted to create.
Nicola: Finally, a big congratulations to you Ezzam, it must have been some journey to get to this point in your life and artistic practice. How does it feel to be a finalist?
Ezzam: Thank you! I am truly humbled, blessed and honored! I still cannot believe it, (Pinch me already)! After 15 years as a working artist and to be given such acknowledgement is truly an honor. This can open so many doors for me in the future but, I definitely take this as a ticket to creating more works. It is not only a great artistic exposure for me but for SAM to take a risk and a gamble on an artist like myself is really a humbling experience. For me as a nominated artist, it is not about winning or losing but it’s an opportunity to realize works in a larger scale.
Nicola: Ezzam Rahman thank you so much for your heartfelt, energetic and enlightening answers! I encourage our readers to visit the exhibition until 27 March 2016.
The President’s Young Talents recognises and supports promising Singaporean artists below the age of 35, whose practices chart new dimensions in Singapore contemporary art today. This year’s artists are: Ang Song Ming, Bani Haykal, Ezzam Rahman, Loo Zihan and Ong Kian Peng.
Artist Ezzam Rahman will be performing his work, titled Allow me to introduce myself, monthly at SAM at 8Q from October to December 2015 on the following dates: 9 October, 13 November & 11 December, 6.30pm – 8.30pm