Sang Tong

by Simon Gregg, Curator, Gippsland Art Gallery

Saturday, 12 April, 2014

Only through a concerted effort does Samantha Everton, in her current series Sang Tong, reveal the impossibly rich tapestry of colours and forms that children have the ability to see without even trying. As adults we forget that children inhabit their dreams; for them the world is full of magic and wonder and possibility—a limitless arena through which to live out their wildest imaginings.

It is appropriate this series should be titled Sang Tong—‘the Boy with the Golden Shell’. Derived from an old Thai folk tale, Sang Tong was born into royalty but abandoned and later adopted by a giantess, who disguised herself so that the boy would not feel like an outsider. The ploy worked until he was 10 years old, when he found out that he was adopted and set out to explore the world. Wondering through the giantess’ palace, Sang Tong discovered a range of magical objects, includes a pair of shoes that enabled him to fly.

Sang Tong found a well of silver and gold. After lowering himself into it, he emerged with a beautiful golden body, however he also found a magical mask which disguised him as an ugly person. He later encountered a princess, who saw past the mask to fall in love with the beautiful man within.

Everton draws upon elements of this folk tale to illuminate the fantasy worlds of each child. That the children have themselves been born in Thailand but adopted by families living in Melbourne lends the series an immense poignancy. The imagery that accompanies each child was chosen by Everton based on their individual personalities, which she has come to know intimately over the last two years. She says ‘I have tried to bring their inner world and personality to life in each photo’, adding that ‘I want viewers to feel drawn in to the story, but I like it to be open-ended, with a sense of incompleteness or mystery that leaves people wondering what happens next’. The veil of our abridged adult vision is lifted and we are immersed within fields of unfolding colour and spectacular drama, where animals, children and objects float as though guided by some unseen cosmic force.

Each of these complex and charming images is a photographic tour de force—all the more so for their being elevated above process and composition, to make us forget we are even looking at a photograph. The process by which each work is composed is itself dramatic, and involves painted canvases and props, suspended objects, children on a high glass shelf, and the artist herself, poised with camera in hand, harnessed to a cherry picker some six metres above the set. But all this is forgotten as we disappear into a world of wondrous delights, led by a seer-child whose own inner life is our only means of orientation.

In this way Everton uses the camera—usually at the service of the real—to access the ‘unreal’. She refers to these scenes as ‘magic realism’, a self-contradicting concept that somehow synthesizes into perfect harmony within each image. Importantly there are few specific cultural references; there is no sense of western art dogma being imposed upon eastern traditions, but instead we enter a kind of pre-cultural realm, where notions of society and culture are unformed and play second fiddle to the power of childhood adventure.

‘I do like my images to tell a story’, Everton admits, but they do much more than this. Sang Tong series taps into a collective unconsciousness that spans continents and centuries. The works whisper of classical children’s book illustration, and of fables, folk tales, and nursery rhymes, without losing any of the sophisticated visual integrity for which Everton is renowned. Indeed, they propose a way forward by moving inward, by tickling our own malignant impulses for fantastical play and dreaming, as a means of enriching the physical world that we all inhabit.