Stories: Tang Ling Nah
Someone is celebrating a holiday, in a muted after feast fullness you let sink in the way skidded stones submerge slowly. I’ve forgotten the occasion, I only know this because there are homemade decorations dangling at their door, I can’t remember the last time I saw joy greeting me understatedly, shrugging off the fact that it’s only Wednesday. There’s something about the neighbourhood that warms up to me without needing to extend a handshake, the lift up to Ling Nah’s floor glides along like a sleigh.
I don’t see any of Ling Nah’s neighbours, but everyone’s home seems set to welcome, there’s a silver table with four chairs mah-jong style laid outside, they are settled and cleaned, ready for a round. Actually, when was the last time I saw my neighbours ever doing anything outside? Washing their cars or getting the mail pretty much sums up their animation for me, they are…well, irrelevant in my daily hemisphere, torpid as naked mannequins. A space is brought to life by the counter pieces we are within it. When I see her work hung on the walls, they are like stockings on Christmas Eve. Ling Nah is in the middle of it all, not craving any festivity because these were already gifts. This is the activated C Studio, her fondly dubbed home paying homage to her pharmaceutical background before she traipsed into art full time (C for carbon in the periodic table). There’s more at the back waiting to be unwrapped when she guides me to bookshelves, talking about previous shows that have ineffably happened, stacked like prescriptions Mary Poppins would dispense. She gives me catalogues to Drawing Out Conversations: Eight Slangs (2008), Here, There, Nowhere (2007),Send Me An Angel (2007). Two out of three are unopened. I’m really tempted to leave them as they are, but I open the last one anyway out of impish curiousity. It’s shiny! I almost trill, but luckily I compose myself and tell her, “It’s beautiful.”
Nevertheless, I understand she is clear about what she wants me to receive. The vortices in her works tessellate discordantly, there are still artifices in unassuming nooks and crannies. They are streamlined like a dancer’s leg, solid at the calf and thigh, tensed in the few seconds a dancer’s move is swiftly nipped, tucked. You’ll miss it if you blink, the rhythms are lawn clippings flying out in the air, sharp for a brief split, then fallen to the ground. It’s even more elusive when it’s charcoal, because charcoal is the tendon controlling a limb. What do you do when you lose grasp of it? It can smudge either haphazardly or coquettishly. It is a rather unpredictable tether. But given the right nudge, you can possess a smoky, film noir on paper. It is this tangent that Ling Nah hones in on, she’s also acutely aware of movement and its domino combustion from ebb to flow. Having danced a quarter of my life, it seems familiar to trace steps to her work.
I’ve had toe cramps countless times, and that alone hindered the way I could salvage a choreography. Asking Ling Nah about her diagnosed sciatica (pains going down the leg from the back as a result of an impinged spinal nerve) is proving more unnerving for me than she can imagine. She has good posture today, but it’s a chapter I think she’d prefer letting known for another day because it’s easy to have a single ailment pervade one’s entire presence. It’s even easier in this day and age, when our bodies are entities to alteration and stigmatization.
Ling Nah is slim, wand-like and springing in step, perhaps that she knew when to inhabit the muscles deemed defunct by professionals - she skipped surgery and opted for physiotherapy. It’s an apt meditation, she’s done work in several places as they were about to be remodelled into something else. By pairing an audience’s gaze to hold the artist in site and spontaneity, massaging the creative smidgen in a space so that it can coax its toes back on pointe.
Come to think of it, I do remember the last time I saw understated joy. There was that time someone’s mother cooked us a glorious salmon, pink at a push of a fork, cheese and basil coupling on the surface of piping hot skin and flesh. That’s a few days before I met Ling Nah, I wonder what her definition of that sort of joy is because her work is sneaky in narrative, but it’s telling that she has pure rapture when she documents and exhibits. She tells me that she was part of a Channel NewsAsia documentary in 2011, where she was sent to China to teach youths living in the mountains about making art (with charcoal, primarily). As an investigative writer, I have to verify that that’s not as tacky as my explanation. So I ask to see footage. She’s sifting through old CDs, there are cassette tapes shelved, photo albums guarding muses. She is a delightfully sentimental hoarder, so I’m inclined to believe her anyway. She can’t find the disc which showed her teaching, but she found the one that followed her going back to check on one of her pupils, a shy boy of sixteen sent to work as a woodcarver’s apprentice. When the footage slides in, the screen shows Ling Nah in a bandanna, walking to the woodcarver’s house, Luo Sang, the boy, greeting her respectfully. She is worried that his progress is stunted, it’s lonely being a woodcarver’s apprentice eight hours away from home, where your main company is a shaggy puppy and wooden figurines. I come to realize how beauty can be very remote. It’s captivating when seen, despondent when immersed in its shrouds.
She spends a few days with him, they are cordial in their interaction, but he’s excited to learn from somebody and Ling Nah is an artist who is willing to aid him in tampering, not perfecting. It’s a prelude to watch them part, where they exchange gifts. She gives him a book of illustrations by Jimmy Liao, a Taiwanese graphic novelist. Luo Sang gives her a drawing of a Buddhist deity. It plays out in front of me, because that drawing is behind me as we speak, on the wall with her works. Jimmy Liao’s book is handed to me to turn the pages, a copy for her own keepsake. It’s a wistful retrospective; Ling Nah returning to the measured longing of the city she is used to, growing up in neighbourhoods where you forget your holidays, with the neighbours you don’t see celebrating, to hang up a present from someone she might never meet again.
All images courtesy of the artist unless otherwise stated.
Tang Ling Nah is a Singapore-based artist and independent curator. She is inspired by urban transitory spaces, and creates charcoal drawings, book art, installations, performances and videos to explore buildings, places and architectural spaces as communicators of stories about life. Her recent installation-cum-performance deals with architectural space, movement and drawing. She produced and performed Drawing Parallel with her team in 2014 at Aliwal Arts Centre, Singapore, and Milling with Care in 2015 at The Mill, Singapore. She completed the E|MERGE Interdisciplinary Collaborative Residency 2014 at Earthdance, Plainfield, Massachusetts, where she explored a drawing- and movement-based performance inspired by Eadweard Muybridge’s photographs with theatre practitioners and dancers. She is the Artistic Director of theDrawing Out Conversations exhibitions series that explores contemporary drawing. It has been presented in Hong Kong, Singapore and Taipei.
Euginia Tan is VADA’s 2015-2016 Curator. She has published three collections of poetry and is completing her first play. She is interested in the notion of stories (within stories, within stories) and how much of these are lost, or can be resuscitated, when converted into various other multi-disciplinary platforms. Euginia also graduated from Curating Lab 2014.
 Conceptualised and produced by visual artist Tang Ling Nah, Drawing Parallel consists of an ephemeral paper installation cum movement-based performance. It examines the medium of drawing as a verb; the act of making marks on a surface in relation to movements performed by the human body in everyday life. The ‘drawer’, that is the performer, ‘draws’ on surfaces using actions related to the idea of 'cleaning’, such as erasing, mopping, peeling, scraping and wiping and tearing which create marks on surfaces or in space. The performance is a collaborative project with dancers Eng Kai Er, Adele Goh and Bernice Lee; sound/music designer Ho Wen Yang and violinist Audrina Goh, as well as lighting designers Jim Chan and Suen Kok Khuen. Video-documentation can be seen here.