Made whilst living in Yangon, Myanmar, Jerome Ming’s new series, Oobanken, derives from the artist’s early interest in built structures and interventions. As a new photobook from MACK, the images combine fragments of personal history, memory and imagination.
A: How does your personal history inform the structures you create and the scenarios you photograph? What is the process of translating these events into images?
JM: My work is embedded with a personal narrative. I reference my childhood in Africa and my observations of the environment within which I grew up. With Oobanken, I sometimes reference personal histories, however, the motivation was to deal with the present moment. A tower-like structure is featured a few times. In the past I have made several life-sized towers which partly relate to childhood and the exploration of sculptural forms.
When I was a boy, my family once lived between the general hospital and the mental asylum, and opposite our house in the middle of a sisal (agave) plantation was the main prison in Zomba, in Malawi. Everyday, prisoners — sometimes shackled — or patients from the asylum would pass by our house heading to the main road. On one occasion I ventured to a high point of the plantation to look into the walled prison. I had these huge binoculars I used for bird watching and crouched on the ground. I peered into the courtyard where I imagined the condemned prisoners might be executed. But I found that the plantation extended within the walls; prisoners were tasked to make rope from the fibrous strips of the dried sisal plant. Being a kid, I associated rope as a tool — perhaps a means to escape from the prison, but also for hanging. The concept of making something appear playful yet having this uncertainty about it — maybe innocence mixed with a slightly ominous feeling — is what I have taken on board into my artistic career, into sculpture and photography.
To establish a scenario there has to be relevancy, a reason, and not just that it makes an interesting image. I like to work with preconceived ideas that can expand and find different directions through the construction of a photograph. Part of the experience of making Oobanken was to open myself up to this approach of seemingly random events.
A: How does sculpture and the act of making inform your practice?
JM: When I started making larger life-sized structures, usually in site specific locations, these were temporary and never thought of as permanent, until I realised that by photographing them I could keep them. It is a whole other language. I was drawn to this simple concept 30 years ago and it remains. Oobanken is in some ways a “permanent” sculptural object that reflects my early approaches to making art.
The act of constructing has always been a part of my practice. I am not sure if what I make is sculpture, but I like it as a medium. Sometimes the act of making is far more significant than the outcome itself. The idea of something constructed by hand also has immense appeal as it is through touch that we remember. Maybe it is this connection to photography that interests me, as we often use the image to recollect. With sculptural photographs, there’s only one perspective, you can’t walk around it.
A: How has your background in photojournalism influenced this book?
JM: I learnt how to read and construct particular types of images through my experience in photojournalism. This probably had some indirect influence on the book, in terms of visual literacy, but essentially Oobanken is far removed. I employed a very different approach, but I do recognise that the access granted to places working as a photojournalist has contributed to my practice, particularly having primarily focused on Southeast Asia and China for close to 20 years. Photojournalism was my life for a longtime and it was not just about making images. It was a lot of time absorbing and trying to understand what was going on around me.
A: What is the relationship between truth and fiction in the series?
JM: The truth is my vision. The staged scenarios have a tendency to be seen as fictions. Part of the language of this new book is to question the duality. I think there is a universality about what is conveyed in the images which the viewer can connect on an intimate level. There is a veracity with which I made the objects, created the scenarios, and lived in the location where all of this was done. The events happening around the time of the works were real; things happened. The pictures do not tell you this directly. Even the title is named after a bird which was always present when I made the work. I never documented it, but it existed. What lies beyond the edge of the frame is anyone’s guess. All we are presented with is what hasn’t been deleted to create content and that’s all we’ve got to work with as a viewer. I also made the photographs with a view camera so composing the world of Oobanken was done upside down through the viewfinder. It presented me with a fiction by the camera, but it doesn’t take anything away from my intent.
A: How is the experience of Yangon, Myanmar, reflected in the book?
JM: From the outset, the series was never going to be about Myanmar or Yangon. It was circumstantial that I happened to be living there at the time. The same sensibilities would have emerged, though possibly with different forms and structures if the project was located somewhere else, like where I live now in South Africa.
My experience of the city and the wider country actually goes further back, and stems from having already lived and worked mostly in Southeast Asia. I experienced Myanmar during repressive times and when I was living in Yangon the future was a mixture of optimism and uncertainty. The scenarios presented in Oobanken convey something of these ambiguities.
A: Can you explain how the project connects to your wider body of work?
JM: I have found a platform, the photobook format, which challenges the way I choose to work. Since completing the series, I have continued to approach subsequent projects with this type of conceptual framework and intent. I see my work as having consistency, yet remaining divergent, open to new challenges.
Find out more here.
Lead image: Jerome Ming. Image from Oobanken (MACK, 2019). Courtesy of the artist and MACK.