The Personal and the Political in Sharon Chin’s “Letters to What We Want”
Review by Lim Jack Kin

One of my favourite, weirdly-specific subgenres of art is “People dealing with the personal cost of forces way beyond their control”: things like Fear and Misery of the Third Reich, Bertolt Brecht’s collection of short plays set in 1930s Germany that contains such agonizing vignettes as a couple arguing over whether their missing son has turned them over to the Nazis, or Honeyland, a documentary about a lonely beekeeper living in an abandoned mountain village who struggles with capitalism, ecological destruction, and a failing harvest. You can show me casualty numbers, world maps, tell me about heroes and monarchs and prime ministers and how they fought (or ignored, or inflamed…) the great tragedies of human history, but I’m always going to be drawn to the stories of ordinary people, caught in the midst of huge moments in history, just trying to survive.

That’s why I’m fascinated by Sharon Chin’s Letters to What We Want. It’s a series of letters that Chin publishes on her blog, sourced from friends and people in her personal circle, and prompted by one question: “What do you want? In 2021 and beyond?” In return, she sends them a print from her Country Musik: Movements collection, and we see a picture of it at the end of the letter, often on display in the recipient’s home. It makes for a wonderful back-and-forth conversation, and an intriguing continuation of Chin’s earlier work, stretching back to 2019.

That was the year she unveiled In the Skin of a Tiger: Monument to What We Want (Tugu Kita) at the Singapore Biennale, a participation performance and installation composed of 13 solid-coloured banners in geometric shapes, quilted from salvaged political flags that were discarded after an election that already feels like a lifetime ago. These banners were arranged in a specific configuration, one that Chin says sprang up in her mind as “kind of a download.” “It arrived quite intact,” she says. “This number of shapes, in this specific arrangement.” With members of the public asked to sew on these banners together across two different events, the exhibit embodies an optimistic, collective spirit in honour of GE14.

Letters to What We Want has its origins in a larger 2019 project, commissioned for the Singapore Biennale. Photo from artist’s website.

Throughout our chat, Chin would compare her work to music, particularly jazz, though I feel that if Tugu Kita were a song, it would be something anthemic. Communal, friendly, hopeful. A protest song or sports chant that you’d sing at a large gathering, back when you could have large gatherings.

Cue record scratch and a different song. “2020 rolled around, and I started having this feeling that I wanted to play around with the composition [of the shapes]. It’s this idea that the music is changing, and I wanted to tune in,” Chin says. And with that, work began on the 20 prints that make up Country Musik: Movements. Made using collagraph printing on Thai mulberry, each piece takes the original 13 shapes and reconfigures them into 20 different variations, abstract and mysterious and arising from an initial composing period before the actual print.

“[The images weren’t] really predetermined,” she says. “There is intention, but it’s more like music. Not so much like, ‘Oh this half-circle looks like a moon’, it’s a little bit more abstract than that.”

Even so, the final prints do have a vaguely representational quality to them. It speaks to a Rorschach-test-like quality in the work that I almost see forests and windows and ladders to heaven in Country Musik: Movements. Seeing these shapes in a smaller size and with wildly subjective visual interpretations all adds to the feeling that as the artist’s project evolves over time, it’s becoming much more personal and intimate. Here, we’re moving away from the feelings of collective hope, and into the depths of the singular and the individual, which makes the perfect backdrop for the next part of the project.

Country Musik: Movements, forms the crucial link between Letters to What We Want and In the Skin of a Tiger: Monument to What We Want (Tugu Kita). Image from artist’s website.

When the prints were complete, Chin reached out to a number of friends (with her selection process neatly summed up as “going by feeling”), asking them to contribute a letter to the project in exchange for a copy of a Country Musik print (they were asked to choose a number at random, deciding which print they received).

There’s a lot of freedom involved in how her friends could choose to respond. “You can use your real name, a pen name, or be anonymous, and anything goes,” she told them. “I’ve been surprised by pretty much all of them [...] there’s this uncertainty of like… are they gonna fuck me up by sending a really troll-y letter?” Chin laughed.

In actual fact, the letters have all turned out to be entirely sincere, incredibly intimate, and absolutely unique. There are lists, poems, heartbreaking personal stories, confessionals to inanimate objects. People talk to her about diamond rings, about the altars they set at home, about exhaustion and loneliness and political dissatisfaction. Halfway through a binge-read of them all, it becomes clear almost all of them are tinged with the bitter experiences that 2020 brought with it.

Caught in the hurricane of a political crisis, a global pandemic, lost jobs, lost relationships, and lost opportunities, Chin’s friends aren’t heroes or monarchs or prime ministers (unless some of those anonymous contributors are being seriously low-key); they’re ordinary people, trying to carve out individual hopes and dreams from a forest of uncertainty, and that’s what makes their stories so compelling. When they can no longer look away at the political realities that loom over them, the contributors to Letters to What We Want decide to look inwards instead, and share what they see with the rest of us.

As a work of art, it lends a level of narrative and provenance to Chin’s ongoing practice that keeps it relevant and engaging across two dizzyingly eventful years. The artist is constantly reinventing her work, remixing those visual themes to draw out more and more meaning as their context changes. As a historical record, I don’t exaggerate when I say these letters should be added to an archive for their significance; when we unearth this project decades from now, we’ll marvel at this portrait of how 2021’s inhabitants thought and felt.

Finally, as a personal exercise, it’s deeply intimate, for both Chin’s contributors and for Chin herself, who gives us an insight into the captivating milieu of friends who form her circle. At a time where in-person exhibits are still risky, it’s this intimacy that she hopes “approximates the intimacy of viewing art together in the same room”, and it easily achieves that, and more.

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Lim Jack Kin is a participant of the CENDANA - ASWARA Arts Writing Mentorship Programme 2020-2021.

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