Ben Ali Ong
Posted: 16 May 2012 | By: Jane Somerville
Ben Ali Ong’s photographs evoke a romance of another time. The imagery in Songs for Sorrow (2010) and Ballads of the Dead and Dreaming (2009) depict opulent interiors, birds soaring against ominous cloudy skies, desolate woods and faces blurred through movement. The imagery is hazy and dreamlike with heavy shadows alluding to old master paintings of Caravaggio or Goya, which Ong cites as an influence for their use of dark subject matter and dramatic atmosphere.
The Sydney-based artist was born in Singapore, his father is from Malaysia and his mother is Persian. He moved to Australia at the age of four but, due to his father’s work in the hospitality industry, his family moved back and forth between South-East Asia and Australia every couple of years until Ong settled permanently in Sydney with his sister when he was fifteen years old. He became interested in photography at high school and completed a Diploma of Photography from Ultimo TAFE in 2004. The diploma gave him a grounding in the technical aspects of his chosen medium and this is combined with his own interest and research into the traditions of painting.
Ong works in series and the individual photographs are numbered. Within each series landscape, portraits and interiors are juxtaposed and the order in which the works are placed within the gallery proposes multiple narratives. Ong explains: “I try to convey a sense of mystery through the ambiguity; I think when things are too literal they can be a bit dry or clinical. I like to have a loose narrative that lets the viewer go on a bit of a journey, to concentrate not so much on the literal meanings of the works … instead on the emotive aspects and how they make you feel.”
This emphasis on the emotive and metaphoric has been a longstanding fascination for Ong. The artist has been interested in all things otherworldly from a young age. He was obsessed with becoming an astronomer as a child. Like the astronomers who looked to the stars to find meaning in their world, Ong is interested in how mythology tries to make sense of the universe. His photographs, however, don’t intend to represent or document the real word. For Ong, “Each work is a performance, a visual fable that finds its truth in imaginative resonance rather than hard evidence.”
In a sense, Ong’s work is located within a pictorial tradition of photography opposed to sharply focused documentations of reality, time and place. Ong’s images are always in black and white. Faces emerge from darkness, features blurred, looking askance and sometimes a little possessed. Of interest again is painting, in particular Francis Bacon, whose distorted faces were inspired by photographs of Eadweard Muybridge’s figures in movement. Ong’s landscapes and seascapes are brooding and desolate — and birds are a reoccurring feature. He is interested in what birds symbolise within ancient mythology; they were icons of power and freedom as well as being a link between the human and the divine world. Through his open-ended narratives, Ong captures “feeling, memory, connection and loss”.
As well as the painted image, Ong’s work is also heavily influenced by film noir, the surrealist films of the 1920s and early photographic processes. For Ong it is the imperfections inherent in these processes, which is what he seeks to recreate in his own artwork. “All the imperfections associated with the early processes of those mediums, they are so beautiful. The texture and grain of the film, the blurriness of the lenses, or the patchiness of the etchings and prints.” His images all derive from photographs he has taken himself on 35mm film and which are then blown up to 100 x 120cm. The result amplifies the soft graininess of Ong’s images. To enhance the feeling of timelessness, Ong sometimes shoots through a foggy lens. He also manipulates the negative by lightly sanding it, or sandwiching it with others.
Currently at work on a new series titled 1000 Years Beside Myself, Ben Ali Ong finds inspiration in the everyday landscape and city. The new series will build on the moody surreal feeling of previous works and will feature his first full nude figure which, like previous portraits, seems to be suspended in darkness with the outline of the form recalling a landscape. Other images in the series depict a head of an eagle — a symbol of power and authority — alongside a serene seascape which looks like an old image from a postcard. The series will be exhibited at Tim Olsen Gallery in 2012.
In the collection of Queensland Centre for Photography.
Images from top:
Ben Ali Ong, Songs for Sorrow #8, 2010, C-type photograph, 80 x 120cm.
Ben Ali Ong, 1000 years beside myself #06, 2011, pigment print, 80 x 120cm.
Ben Ali Ong, 1000 years beside myself #02, 2011, pigment print, 80 x 120cm.
Ben Ali Ong, Ballads of the Dead and Dreaming #10, 2010, C-type photograph, 90 x 135cm.
Ben Ali Ong, 1000 years beside myself #1, 2011, pigment print, 80 x 120cm.