For Autograph’s commissioning project Critical Times: Dialogues in Contemporary Photograph, artist Sim Chi Yin has created a new series of work. "The suitcase is a little bit rotten" uses new and found imagery to speculate on the potentialities of transgenerational memory and inheritance, between the artist’s socialist grandfather – a political activist in British Malaya executed for his politics during the Cold War – and her son born in London at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Here, the artist speaks about the commission with Autograph curators Renée Mussai and Bindi Vora and using the archive as a precarious site for photographic time travel to explore issues of childhood, trauma, futurity and the long legacies of colonial violence.
Renée Mussai (RM): Thanks so much for working with us on this artist commission, Chi Yin. To begin with, would you kindly share your experience of making a new body of work for Critical Times – Dialogues in Contemporary Photography, and how the commission has impacted on the development of your practice?
Sim Chi Yin (SCY): I am very grateful to have had this commission and to have been able to collaborate with Autograph to make this work – to me, it afforded an opportunity to push my artistic practice into other modes of making: developing this project enabled me to explore and experiment with more speculative and fictive realms. As someone who previously approached making work from a strictly documentary background, I have always questioned how heavy handed [my] artistic interventions should be, especially when using the work of others as source material. Throughout this process, I have become a little less shy, I suppose, about adding elements to found imagery, about remixing, making things to my vision and narrative. It feels like a new chapter of making.
RM: Would you say this approach is different – amplified or magnified perhaps – in “The suitcase is a little bit rotten”, in terms of your artistic interventions and how you have worked with archives in the past?
SCY: It is a progression from my last work, Interventions, on colonial archives where I rephotographed archival prints, using light to create a seepage between the verso and recto of the prints – a kind of in-camera collaging, if you like. The new series is an evolution from this earlier body of work, where I am also using glass as surface but now remixing existing historical images with sometimes unclear provenance, creating an odd sense of authorship for me. There’s also a link to my earlier work Remnants which worked with the idea of the land as an unspoken archive (of a never-declared war) and the hauntedness around sites of memory from this conflict. In a similar way, many of the landscapes shown in the lantern slides in this new work have a certain otherworldliness about them. And in fact, oftentimes, it was only in recopying the slides on my high-resolution camera and then working on them digitally on a large screen that I noticed human figures I had not seen initially. They were like ghosts who I would suddenly, belatedly see. And once you see them, you cannot un-see them. Granddad and Lucas (my son) are also sometimes apparition-like in that landscape. I wanted to create a sort of chronotopia – a collapsing of shifting of time and space, from literary theory – and to travel Granddad and Lucas in and through these spaces.
RM: Could you speak a bit about the title of the work and the idea of a chronotopia – how that speaks to different configurations of time and space [in language and discourse]. This sense of travelling through different image vernacular worlds is explored imaginatively throughout the series... through these residual openings that allowed you to move deeper into speculative visual fiction realms.
SCY: The title “The suitcase is a little bit rotten” comes from a line that came out of Lucas’ mouth recently – as he’s two years and four months old. It was bizarre and seems, to our adult minds, an incongruous conflation of ideas, but it’s also bemusing in a poetic way. I’ve put it in quote marks to suggest that it was spoken. For me it suggested the idea of travel, but also portends that something is a little off, mystical, or mysterious about the journey... I set out to create a displacement of sorts in time and space – a chronotopia where we don’t really know where we are and where temporality is slippery and non-linear.
There’s also the idea that history is not linear but perhaps moves in circles. As Ocean Vuong writes: “Some people say history moves in a spiral, not the line we have come to expect. We travel through time in a circular trajectory, our distance increasing from an epicentre only to return again, one circle removed.”¹ And then there’s the concept of “fate” in Chinese culture -- 缘 or 缘分; yuánfèn, sometimes translated as "fateful coincidence”. It’s the idea of destiny or that what goes around, comes around. Sometimes if you meet someone who feels like a spiritual connection, you’d say you and that person have a lot of yuánfèn. I have often felt that if my granddad had not been executed for his politics so early, we would perhaps have been kindred souls in real life... and with the birth of Lucas, I’ve been wondering what those connections are between and across the generations.
"I was trying to find a visual form to deal with this notion of transgenerational inheritance […] I was interested in the histories, experiences, gestures, and inclinations that a human being comes into the world with."
RM: You mention birthing your son and commemorating your grandfather: I recall notions of inter-generational trauma were at the core of your initial ideas for this artist commission, and the desire to explore how experiences and memories are both held within the body and passed on through the body...
SCY: Yes, I was trying to find a visual form to deal with this notion of transgenerational (not just inter-generational) inheritance – beyond just trauma. I was interested in the histories, experiences, gestures, and inclinations that a human being comes into the world with. My entry point was indeed the trauma I was looking at, in terms of recent popular literature around how trauma is known to pass on to the third generation. As I read, I became more interested in a wider array of things that pass unspoken from generation to generation. While pregnant, I was deep in the research and colonial archives digging up pictures, films and histories of the anti-colonial war in what was then British Malaya – the war through which my paternal grandfather was deported and eventually executed for his socialist politics. I’ve been interested in the idea of exposure – what was Lucas exposed to already while in my womb? What did he come into this world with, what was already inscribed in his body? I became interested in the ideas that our family trees could be made up of not just strictly from who came before and after us, but that the experiences and memories of each generation could also be part of that tree, of what is called a genosociogram. As Anne Ancelin Schutzenberger writes in The Ancestor Syndrome: “The dead pass down to the living... We continue to chain of generations and, knowingly or not, willingly or unwillingly, we pay debts of the past: as long as we have not cleared the slate, an ‘invisible loyalty’ impels us to repeat and repeat a moment of incredible joy or unbearable sorrow, an injustice or a tragic death. Or its echo.”²
RM: Could you elaborate on the magic lantern slide library you acquired as part of the research, and how these material objects resonate with you?
SCY: I collected magic lantern slides from the late 1800s and early 1900s depicting landscapes in Malaya and southeast Asia. Many of the slides carry within them the detached gaze of the colonial camera and anthropologist. I have repurposed them for my narrative. I use the magic lantern slides as a site of time travel, both backwards and forwards for these two people at the centre of the series’ narrative – a portal to try and imagine my Granddad and Lucas inhabiting the same time and space, as it were. Maybe it is not fully resolved yet, but I felt I was getting somewhere when I started to dislodge, or suspend, myself and perhaps the viewer, from a strict time-space realm, and open up these possible avenues of exploration in the visual.
Bindi Vora (BV): Through the interventions you made with these magic lantern slides, did you ever consider your grandfather and son could meet in the same visual plane to connect these transgenerational histories and lineages?
SCY: At the beginning, I did think about whether they could meet in the same slide, but in the end, I decided against it because I thought that might be a little too much... There is something kitschy in the lantern slides themselves, their hand-tinting and their illustrations. I think it is enough that Lucas and Granddad inhabit the same landscape, and we can leave the rest to imagination. As you might recall, when I started doing this work, my art-making was split into two different strands: I was photographing Lucas’ skin and then collaging light-shadow images that fascinated both him and me, but then I began focusing more on collecting and remaking magic lantern slides. My interest in magic lantern slides stems from the fact that the British had used them as a way of documenting the British Empire and educating people about them: in a series of geography lessons and educational lectures, to teach students both in the metropole and in the former colonies, about the colonies. I was interested to see whether I could use or subvert the technology that was used in a certain way to speak about the Empire in the past for my own purposes in the present, so I began to research magic lantern projectors and magic lantern slides that depicted the landscape of Southeast Asia and Malaya, specifically from the early 1900s. What happens if Granddad appeared in this landscape? What happens if Lucas appears in this landscape? These early stages of research were very exciting, where I was in my own head a lot and I was very absent-minded about everything else... I think I almost forgot to cook dinner for the family on a couple of those days, lost in a creative impulse to try and do this, to create these composite pictures.
" was interested to see whether I could use or subvert the technology that was used in a certain way to speak about the Empire in the past for my own purposes in the present"
BV: It was a breakthrough moment, so to speak, with the project where all these ideas you were exploring began colliding together. If we circle back to the notion of speculative fictions – some of the slides you were sourcing transcended the figurative – and delved further into the celestial. What was it about these slides in particular that emphasised the fictive narratives you were trying to evoke and why?
CYS: The celestial slides that also appear in the narrative are astrological images of the moon and space shot through telescopes in the late 1800s. They were sourced from various places in the US and the UK. I saw many parallels between the astrological and the in-utero worlds. Another aspect was collecting and remixing – forming new narratives using slides from disparate sources. I also acquired works from the Malayan Information Agency, which was the British government’s propaganda arm around its colony of Malaya from 1928-1952, as well as from the Methodist Episcopal Church of New York who had produced lectures to train missionaries getting ready to be sent to Southeast Asia to spread the word of God. The latter slides depicted various countries around Southeast Asia, and also contained maps which showed a superimposition of the terrain of the United States onto the Malay Archipelago – probably to show a comparison of size but unwittingly also speaking to the ideas of conquest and colonialism.
BV: Chi Yin, would you be able to tell us about why Malaya is significant in the wider context of this work?
SCY: This exploration forms part of a new chapter in the ongoing, now decade-long work that I have been making around my family history and the anti-colonial resistance war in what was then known as British Malaya. Between 1948 and 1960, a 12-year war was fought in present-day Malaysia and Singapore, where there was a local communist insurgency against British rule. This was termed the “Malayan Emergency” by the colonial authorities – they never declared it a war in part to keep their much-prized rubber and tin supplies in Malaya insured.
My grandfather was involved as a journalist and political activist – he was a socialist and he was arrested very early on in the war and deported by the British to China. I have been unearthing his story for the past ten years or so, because for some time he was completely forgotten by his own immediate family. The heartbreak and shame that came with his execution led his mother and wife to ban my father and his four siblings from ever talking about him again. He is not memorialised even in a photograph in the house, or on my grandmother’s grave stone. I started this excavation of his story 60 years after he had died and been written out of the family history, conducting oral history interviews with his contemporaries, retracing his life and steps in Malaysia and China, and doing broader archive research – all this has ended up being part of my art-making in recent years, as well as an on-going practice-based PhD. “The suitcase is a little bit rotten” is the latest project in this long-term multi chapter work, that draws on this history connected to Malaya.
BV: Would you be able to tell us more about your grandfather? He was not only an important figure with/in the political history you’ve described but also within your familial ancestries.
SCY: I knew very little about him initially. In the first photograph I saw of him, he wore a camera around his neck, and I was immediately intrigued by the fact that I had – by that point – spent almost 15 years as a photographer and a journalist, and yet I didn't know there had been another photographer and journalist in the family. He was a young socialist journalist and educator in northern Malaya at the end of the 1930s into the late 1940s – he really was an archetypal, educated Chinese intellectual at the time. There were many people like him deeply invested in a more equitable society, those who were called ‘progressive’ – with the term used in a way not too dissimilar to how it is used in the Western political spectrum. And as far as I have been able to piece together, I think he was a committed socialist and perhaps an underground communist of some sort. He was a school principal of several Chinese schools, and chief editor of a leftist newspaper in 1946, in Perak, northern Malaya.
He was arrested in mid-1948 when the British declared emergency rule in Malaya, during one of the first waves of arrests and eventually he was deported to China in early 1949. The story becomes a little clearer once he arrives in China because there are records in the Chinese archives: he joined a Chinese communist guerrilla army unit near our ancestral village, and then met retreating nationalist soldiers towards the end of the brutal Civil War being fought between the Chinese Communist Party and the nationalist Kuomintang. He was later executed as a prisoner of war, for being part of the communist army. He was only a small character in this big war and in the time of a global Cold War... but through him, we can see the story of many [others] of his generation.
RM: Thank you for sharing this with us, Chi Yin. I would like to return to your family in the more recent past and in the present: your son Lucas was born during the pandemic in London, and his birth is intimately connected to the memory of your grandfather both through his name, and to the experience of pregnancy and ideas around the perceptions an unborn child may experience, the sensations which might be transmitted, through the skin, through the body, from mother to child: light, knowledge, etc – and how this relates back to the very medium of photography, and the lantern slides and their particular use value / purpose – for instance, in relation to visualising colonial violence in Alice Seeley Harris’ humanitarian photography campaign in the Congo in the early 1900s, powerfully administered via magic lantern slide lectures.
SCY: I was thinking a lot about Lucas being born at the peak of Covid deaths in London – and our traumatic birth experience – for months we couldn’t get him a birth certificate because the local council was issuing only death certificates. And of course, during his conception and incubation I was mired in the histories of this anti-colonial war, and looking at the images my granddad left behind, including what was likely the very last photo of him – his prison photo shot by the British, with him holding a clip board with his name romanised into English, with a detainee number and a date. His eyes had lost the lustre they had in the previous pictures I’d seen. But there was something in that picture that connected it with the image of a 3D scan of Lucas in-utero. And that led me down a path of thinking about the connections between the two of them.
In a literal sense too, I’ve tried to restitute granddad’s memory in Lucas’ name and person. When Lucas was born, we felt it was important for him to have a Chinese name. Usually, in a Chinese family, there is an ancestral character common used in the names of all the children born of that generation, but because of the Cultural Revolution in China and because my extended family in China had not preserved the genealogy book, they did not know who the generational / ancestral character was... hence I decided to invent one, and so I took the character from his great grandfather's name; my grandfather's name. I used the word ‘Yi’ which in Chinese means resolute and determined.
So, yes, you could say that this was an act of resurrecting granddad's memory in the embodiment of Lucas. I was also very conscious of exposing Lucas to these histories and memories, because during the very final weeks of my pregnancy, I was in the process of finishing a body of work in the archives of the British Library and the Imperial War Museum. I spent hours standing in front of at a light table looking at all these negatives and prints from their photographic collections around Malaya, with this big pregnant belly. And it made me wonder about exposing my unborn child to images of death, destruction, war, and colonialism. At the time I did not really have a way of translating that into words; I think we won't know for a while what that means, what the impact might be – the question of exposure to photographic light, photographic histories, and the gaze... they become loaded with multiple readings and meanings, and also a way of making sense of the other: these lantern slides come with so much ‘othering’, in terms of this kind of photography.
BV: It’s a reimagination of ancestral lineages through these fictive lines of enquiry you have created in “The suitcase is a little bit rotten”. I want to pause on the fragmented photograph of your grandfather. Why was this sentimental object important in the narrative you wanted to evoke in this work but also the wider context of this photograph specifically?
SCY: The last known photograph of granddad was made by the British in prison, presumably just before deportation. There are tonal similarities between them, but to me there is something resonant about those two faces... they somehow speak to each other. Although it is not a post-mortem photograph as such, it captures / foresees a death somehow – while the other precedes a birth. There is something resonant about those two images of a birth, and a death. I suppose they were the inspiration and starting point for the series.
BV: Aside from the historical aspects, with regards to the use of the magic lantern slides and their materiality, what is interesting to me also is the insertion of the figures: once you know you are looking for Lucas and your grandfather – you become attuned to locating them in these pictorial spaces. But they blend in so well, especially in relation to what you were saying around speculative futures and this merging of past and present. What might it mean for Lucas as he grows up and he begins to understand more about his own family history?
SCY: I did not intervene physically with every single site, and consciously left some of the slides as they were originally, without inserting their presences. In a way I am projecting and imposing this onto Lucas at this stage, because he may well not be interested in this family history when he grows up... But I think what is interesting about this work, and where it departs from the previous bodies of work, is the futurity aspect – there is a kind of potentiality and futurity, that was not present in the previous chapters of this project. So that aspect is very exciting to me as well.
RM: To me, what you describe here is also a mode of working in a space of healing, one that is perhaps imbued with a sense of hope and possibility. And as you just said, potentiality – an embrace of ancestral archival pleasure, and an attempt to move beyond past traumas, perhaps?
SCY: Yes, there is certainly much more hope here than in previous series – I really value the direction of this new body of work: it is so easy to get trapped in excavating painful pasts. What does one do with it? Where does the possibility of repair and restitution reside? This is obviously connected with the fact that I have just had a child and am thinking more consciously about the next generation, and moving into a more fantastical, almost whimsical space, where this is more room artistically to play within – to get away from the strictly historical, or the historical specificity of this period and instead explore more universal questions. What do we come into this world with? What do we do with this heritage? Some people believe that family trees should not be drawn merely based on who came before and after us but include the experiences and the traumas that we experienced in our lifetimes as well... this raises a lot of questions, and I think there is so much more potential to find some form of resolution – or not – if we investigate this more imaginative, fictive, whimsical space. It has been a very liberating exercise, to make this work. So, thank you.
RM / BV: Thank you. Such a privilege and pleasure to think with and work with you, Chi Yin.
¹ Vuong, O. (2019). On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, London: Penguin Press, p.27
² Schutzenberger, A. (1998). The Ancestor Syndrome, UK: Routledge, preface p. xii
A new commissioning project working with three mid-career artists responding to critical geopolitics of our time through photography.Find out more
Sim Chi Yin's work speculating on the potentialities of transgenerational memory and inheritance
Blue Trees [and other archival light forms], by Nina Mingya Powles
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