Emil Goh – The Art of the Ordinary of Mr. Everyday

by Ooi Kok Chuen – Malaysian Journalist

Emil Goh

Emil Goh has a way of making us more aware of what are perceptibly mundane things in everyday life, as if there were some heroic quality in the passive and the inert. How the many things we treat as mere objects or commonplace actions can in moments of sentimental introspective, mean something and something much more.

Who says that the everyday things that one does or see can't be a source and even theme for art?

Didn't Andy Warhol deify in "posters" blans soup cans, which have become a virtual collector's goldmine? What about Carl Andre's art of stacked firebricks? Jean Michel-Basquait overfed his drug addiction with his glorified graffiti, and on a more macabre note, Damien Hirst has made a fortune from carcasses in formaldehyde.

On the city sidewalks, Emil Goh was a serial "collector" of images of people doing ordinary things whether at work or at leisure, or of the food culture or new lifestyle products. It's odd that we need someone to show us how ordinary we are, and that there's beauty in the ordinary and that we needn't be apologetic about it all, and that yes, the world really belongs to Mr Ordinary – not the so-called movers and shakers.

Most of the subjects are from his perambulations on the sidewalk of Seoul, where he had been based for five years before his untimely death. Emil Goh was a citizen of the world, a traveller in search of ideas, urban thrills and life.

He has had exhibitions, solos and groups, all over the world, some of his work being in multimedia format. In his photography and video works, Emil Goh also shows an eye for oddities and the witty. His last entry, on September 4, 2009, was on a strawberry and green tea combo ice-cream being served at Myeongdong, in Seoul, which can be viewed on his web blog http://www.ficker.com/photos/superlocal, under his Flicker pseudonym, "superlocal".

Emil knows every nook and corner to get the tastiest this-and-that wherever he is anywhere. This, you can put it down to his Malaysian roots – his mother, Sylvia Lee-Goh, is an established artist of Peranakan (Nyonya-Baba) heritage – known for the unique mixed Malay-Chinese culinary concoctions and eclectic cultural style. His photography genes were probably inherited from his father, Xavier Goh, who ia an avid travel and ornithological photographer.

His usually unadulterated pictorial album connects Facebook-like in a personal one-to-one way, in the global trend of sharing and interconnecting called social networking. Banal as the photographs may seem to many, they do connect and elicit responses as can be seen by the numerous comments he receive from total strangers.

To some other netizens who know his internet junkie only as superlocal, the name conjuring up some kind of zany cyberspace super-hero, his latest entry in his web-blog would be avidly followed like a daily to-do list.

With some 6,232 images mostly about ordinary things, it can get to be a chore plodding thought the apparently inconsequential and ho-hum things in life such like his photos of bookcovers, signages, typical things inside underground fast-trains or at airport halls and mostly at eating places and shop fronts and therein lies the rub. Life’s like that, as Bobby McFerrin’s a capella song advice goes, “Don’t Worry, Be Happy!”.

Big Cities, they tend to swallow you up. It’s tough for one to find one’s identity and to stake a presence. But hey, being in a crowd, even in a MRT, is about a celebration in itself, of people going here and there, always on the move, whether on appointments, for work or leisure.

His work also show up an insatiable curiosity of life, and a great love of it. It speaks of a love to share his art and ideas over a cuppa. That is a living organism that is dynamic and can be incremental. It’s all part of the real-life proliferation, and how the cyberspace world, with its stills and moving images and transformed and dislocated reality, exists in parallel vein with the real world, and how the lines between living reality and the e-reality have become a confused blur.

His other best known project is, of course, his MyCy Series of digital prints which exposed his friends’ real and cyber living space, creating little soap operas and interfaces in a virtual world called “minihompy”(a mini homepage). In the Internet-driven parallel world, what you do in your little private cubicle is everybody’s business. You are never, never alone. He had bee also a participant rather than just a voyeur, creating an animation reality vis a vis the real.

Besides curating other artist’s exhibition especially when he was in Australia, Emil Goh has his own phalanx of video installations.

Do they, would they, know that he is a triple degree-holder? Firstly, for Psychology (that explains his well-thought-of, even strategised marketing of ordinary images) at the Newcastle University in Australia. Then, for Photography and Sculpture at the Sydney College of Art? He won the New South Wales Ministry of Arts scholarship to study for this Masters in Art from the Goldsmiths College in London.

That he had taught for two years at the Hongik University and was guest critic at the Interior Design Department at Konkuk University and was a guest professor at the Industrial Design Department at Kyunwon University?

It was at his artist’s residency at SSamzie Space Seoul, which was extended and sponsored by Oz Art, Australia, that he fell in love with seoul and deciding to stay put there. He also had residencies at the Hayward Gallery in London, Hong Kong University and the Chinese Art Centre in Manchester.

Emil Goh was also the Seoul editor for the Theme (New York) and the Inside (Melbourne)magazines. In Australia, he co-founded the Asian-Australia Artists Association which set up the ground-breaking Gallery 4A in Sydney. His projects in Seoul included Second Hotel, mmmg and Umbrella Taxi. Down Under, he hailed as an exciting emerging artist in the New Media Art tradition set by “pioneers” such as Susan Norrie, the New York-based Tracy Moffatt, Mike Parr and Patricia Piccinini (Australia’s representative at the 2003 Venice Biennale).

And as part of the Sydney Biennale 2004, the Performance Space invited him to do a special work, together with Shaun Gladwell and Kate Murphy. His solos were at the ArtSpace in Sydney, the Contemporary Art Centre of South Australia in Adelaide, the Kren Hamilton Gallery in London and The Factory in Seoul.

He had more than 70 exhibitions all over the world including Art Gallery of New South Wales, the Malaysian National Art Gallery in Kuala Lumpur, the Laforet Museum Kokura and the National Gallery of Poland.

His notable exhibitions included the Jakarta International Video Art Festival on 2005, Face To Face – Portraiture In The Digital Age (The Witney Family Gallery), Living Roon public art programme in Auckland, New Zealand in 2005; and Drawing: Light.

His works are collected by, among others, the Australian Artbank and Parliament House in Canberra. Emil Goh belongs to a techno-mediated generation on the 21st Century Nam June Paiks.

Emil Goh's works truly touch on the pulses of the contemporary everyday life. Why is it that the real heroes always die young?