An Elephant, a watch tower, and an abandoned table. Upon entering, three large photographs. The elephant seems to be coming out of a forest, against a bluish night-sky. An instant shot. The watchtower is set against a morning sky, trees and plants coming out of the roof and windows. Apparently, it is not in use anymore. There is a strange peacefulness about both scenes. The table seems to have been abandoned just minutes ago; the chairs point to different directions just as the former sitters might have left. In the back one sees a kind of kitchen, the table is set in front of wooden wall closets, a working barrack possibly. There is a sense of human presence despite their apparent absence. All images carry a radical immediacy. In the background, one hears singing voices, the Internationale and unfamiliar songs. The voices seem broken and weak, yet lively.
Sim Chi Yin’s solo exhibition One Day We’ll Understand at Zilberman, Berlin, addresses the 1948-60 guerrilla war in British Malaya, an area today belonging partly to Malaysia and Singapore. Communist soldiers who had fought against Japan in WW II now engaged in the struggle against British Colonialism. Employing detention, deportation and deliberate starvation, the British colonial power cynically termed the conflict “The Malayan Emergency”. Born in Singapore and having personal references to the conflict, Sim Chi Yin started investigating the subject in 2016. The highly diverse exhibition material testifies to a likewise artistic and scholarly approach.
The second room gives a sense of a studio: A long black table on trestles is placed diagonally in the middle of the room, on the wall behind a white board with eight mounted slides on it. Between the motifs and the frame is a transparent area creating an unusual and interesting visual experience, a … The slides show landscapes and what seems to be war scenes, men with rifles at a drench or behind a canon, burning ruins and four young men, seemingly prisoners. On some of the images one finds hand writing or stamps, mirror-inverted as if printed on the other side.
The table in the middle hosts a long white paper on which small texts in Asian and Latin letters are printed, quotes and extracts from email-correspondences.
“We were dedicated to revolution, to overthrowing British Imperialism, to take revenge for the hard-toiling populace.”
“I just knew that Communism was about liberating humanity … Participating in revolution was to try to liberate poor people. What’s not good about that? If it wasn’t good, I wouldn’t have joined it. I have no regrets.”
“I loved the thrill if being at war. I felt very uncomfortable if I didn’t get to fire a gun. I was a hunter. How many people did I shoot? Now I can’t count it all clearly anymore … The worst fear is hunger.”
The quotes belong to deportees and exiles whom Sim Chi Yin interviewed during her research. Next to these sporadic photographs again showing what seems to be a prisoner, the reproduction of a graffiti, an elegantly dressed man with a camera and various men behind a flag with a single star. As before, the combination of words and images constitutes a human element in this inhumane subject. Whether the images form a visual, and thus more easily to be imagined counterpart to the texts, or whether the texts give voices to the images is hard to tell. And possibly not of relevance.
In the last room one finds a tower-like structure of two TV-monitors and several photographs on the wall. The images show separated objects: a rusty gun, a folded green shirt, a listening unit, an ammunition vest, a prosthesis. The objects are personal belongings – ‘left-overs’ – of Sim Chi Yin’s interview partners. Set against a white background and mounted slightly off the wall the images receive a showcase character. Despite their rather disturbing content, the images are esthetic, lively, personal – playful. The two monitors show two videos of elderly people singing. Their heads are set against a white background, their voices deep and calming. The singers seem thoughtful yet at the same time relieved to pronounce – as if carrying out a duty. A group of three elderlies resemble school children being tested, by times forgetting the words and going over into a melodic humming.
The voices form a continuous soundtrack to the exhibition. A softness wrapping the viewer while seeing the works. It is this softness, fondness which characterizes Sim Chi Yin’s approach and the works alike. Despite the horrific subject, there is a human touch in all the works in the exhibition: the left chairs, the personal objects, the written testimonies. A persistent twist from a war-historical to a personal – human –perspective.
Thus, this exhibition works on different levels: rational apperception and feeling; images, text, sound, moving images. The diversity, considered display, and outstanding quality of all the works constitutes an institutional character in its best sense. And a show truly worth visiting.