Singaporean photographer Alvin Ng is drawn to that which cannot be seen; folklore and mythology, philosophy, mysticism and fundamental truths. It’s a tall order to capture these things on camera, untethered as they are to the physical world, yet Alvin’s photography, often hand-manipulated, is imbued with the feeling of being touched by something Greater Than.
Ahead of this year’s Photo London, where his work has been selected to appear as part of Lensculture’s Critics Choice category, we found out more about the ideas behind Alvin’s artistic approach.
I found my visual language very recently. The photography I was doing before was very lifestyle, very editorial. I don’t resonate with that. So I tried to let my inner-child play around. I’m still in the process of finding out who I am as an artist, but my work now explores this union between past, present and future. The past in the context of mythological stories, the present in terms of my environment now and who I interact with, and the future for technology.
To understand how I narrate everything–– elemental, ephemeral concepts––actually has got a lot to do with the concept of Samsara itself. Samsara is essentially the life and death cycle of a particular person, but in a context where time doesn’t exist as a very linear form. It’s more a cyclic nature. Within that primary cycle of how you are born and how you die, you also exist within other realms. We’re in the human realm but there are others too: demi-gods, gods, high gods, animals, plants, ghosts, hell… So within our present moment there are other realms existing too, both concurrently and non-concurrently.
It’s a way for me to understand the particular meanings of these teachings. For example, there are demi-gods called Asuras, they’re very fiery spirits. How do I describe a fiery spirit? You don’t know how gods are, in nature, they’re very elemental, they can’t exist in anything but they can’t exist in nothingness as well. How do I capture that? With fire, light, symbols of purity and holiness, decadence, surreality.
Light is abundant, it consumes everything. You don’t really see it’s there, but it’s there. And it can be guided. The light source exists as a way to see the world, so I don’t mind if it’s natural or artificial. Light to me is something that radiates from you, me and all of the living things here and beyond. But it is not individualised, but rather an element of nothingness [or impermanence]; in a way, it’s something that is everywhere and nowhere at the same time, everyone has it, but no one owns it. It’s also a guiding light [like the light from the Promethean fire] to explore new ways of interpreting complex, mythological stories and beings, and it can also be a harsh, all-destroying source which can overwhelm your work-in-progress and destroy whatever belief systems you have.
To describe it using cosmic explanation; we’re all made from the elements of an ancient star, and the light of that star is carried on within you. Some of us pulse vibrantly, some weakly, and like the cycle of life there are the births and deaths of stars.
I’m a big fan of archeological documentaries. The National Geographic channel’s Lost Treasures of Egypt, I can binge in one go. Then those stories become like pixie-dust which I sprinkle onto the big picture. I love to work with old doctrines of life and old philosophies, or things which I was exposed to a long time ago but have long forgotten about… the way the past informs our future and our decision-making.
The way I understand and interact with light in my works, is very much how an astronomer interacts and maps the universe using his telescope, and in that map exists ancient stars, middle-aged stars and young stars. From that map, he then unifies the stars of different ages to form constellations, or stories if you will.
My interest in mythology isn’t confined to one particular culture or history. I explored Roman gods and goddesses in Ovid’s Fasti. When I was in Italy I had Ovid’s poems with me as my physical guide. I like to go wherever the wind blows. I have travelled a lot, but I can be anywhere if there’s a sense that I’m connecting with who I am, if my inner-child is free to do what he wants.
As told to India Birgitta Jarvis. See more of Alvin’s work via his website, Instagram, or catch him at Photo London from 11-14 May 2023.