Miraculously healed true believers, baptisms conducted only in the ocean, an imam wearing a ‘God helmet’ – these are all scenes from Tristan Cai’s project, ‘Tales of Moving Mountains: Why Won’t God Go Away?’. The series, which represents the local artist’s ongoing fascination with religion, has earned a spot in the Open Call for this year’s Singapore International Photography Festival (SIPF) – one of 50 projects, selected from a field of over 750 entries, that will be on display throughout the festival from 5 October-17 November.
‘I’m interested in how the religious experience today has been transformed, and how it’s influenced by the different things we see or encounter,’ says Cai, 27, who is currently pursuing an MFA at the San Francisco Art Institute. He was also selected for Objectifs’ Shooting Home mentorship programme in 2007, and went on to graduate from NTU’s Fine Arts Academy with a major in photography and digital images in 2011.
He says that he sees himself ‘more as a conceptual artist instead of a photographer’, and that his religious images are merely one facet of his personal research into religion. ‘It’s research-based art,’ he explains. ‘I really see my images as artefacts for my research purposes – the photographs are almost secondary to the research that I’m doing.’ In addition to the still images, the project also incorporates documentary videos and installations.
Themes of religion have been prevalent in most of Cai’s work, including a previous inclusion in 2010’s SIPF entitled ‘Physical Realities of Death’, which was based on several found photographs which Cai re-created by finding an actor to portray the subject in various stages of his life and death. Likewise, the title of this year’s entry is taken from a phrase in the Bible, while the subtitle deals with a question Cai faced throughout his research.
One of the most striking images from the series deals directly with the issue. Both an imam and his followers are wearing God helmets – a device, Cai explains in the caption, that was invented by neuroscientist Michael Persinger and designed to stimulate religious or supernatural sensations in the wearer. ‘His theory was that all these feelings were nothing more than magnetic waves in the subject’s head,’ says Cai. ‘So one question is: why can’t we eradicate religion from our society, given all our technological advancements?’
Here Cai tells us more about the ideas behind some of the images in the series.
‘For a Better Tomorrow #2’ For these shots [with the “God helmets”], I explained the concept to the people at the mosque and I got their consent to do the shoot. I think they were interested in the idea of this, they understood that religion – theirs in par ticular – isn’t always por trayed in the way it’s supposed to be, which is also another focus of my project. This is the actual imam of the mosque. I also shot this series at a chapel and at the Singapore Myanmar Temple, and found it pretty amazing that these groups were open to this. Getting permission to do it was a very long process, not only with the people themselves, but the leadership of the church or group. I also have a shot that was taken from the window during a prayer session – the mosque was very [particular] about not intruding, so I was shooting from the outside. There are three people in the shot wearing the device; most of them were just really concentrated in their own prayer and didn’t notice. I shot the imam after the prayer, so he was quite tired, but still up for taking the shot – I just had him stand the way he stands when he is really religious.
‘Woman Healed of Limping Caused by Cerebral Palsy’ This photograph was taken at a faith healing rally in Bedok – it’s one of the few images in the series that’s not re-created or staged. These healing rallies are becoming increasingly popular; they have regular ones about once a month. I’ve had friends coming from both extremities of Christianity, so I found that extremely interesting. I had a few friends who were members of the church who invited me, and other friends who weren’t believers but wanted to check it out. ‘There’s a video that accompanies this photo – this woman was actually healed during the event. I guess on the one hand, it was surprising – but I did a lot of research before the rally, and the ones I’ve been to aren’t that extreme compared to some of the ones I’ve seen in my research.