3 April - 27 April 2019

This April, Artereal Gallery is proud to present a solo exhibition of new photographic works by Ben Ali Ong. Known for his black and white photography practice, Ben Ali Ong has established a reputation for creating bodies of work which juxtapose brooding dream-like imagery alongside minimalist abstract pieces defined by their poetic restraint. Often blurry, grainy, scratched or heavily distorted through darkroom processes – Ong’s pictorial choices appear to be made completely at random, creating a disjointed and surreal narrative.

In an era dominated by Instagram and snapchat filters, a world in which photoshopped images have become the norm, Ong’s works are part of a lineage which celebrates and explores the magic and mysteries of film, where manipulation is an experimental process that emerges from scientific experimentation within the confines of the darkroom. In creating recent works, Ong has embraced the imperfections and flaws inherited when working with old and expired vintage film – the happenstance marks of mould, scratches and dust indirectly documenting the passage of time.

Preferring the artworks to speak for themselves, Ong presents each new body of work in a manner that allows the viewer to construct their own self-reflective linkages, meanings and interpretations. This idea of the viewer as a narrator, or someone cast in the role of a decoding sleuth, is concurrent throughout all of Ong’s works and is inspired by Surrealist film and writing. The notion of the artwork being an open-ended fragment with multiple arrangements as well as the potential to convey a subconscious, or spiritual source.

The inherent allure of Ben Ali Ong’s photographs stems from the psychological pull which draws the viewer into each work. Ong’s work has an underlying sense of anguish and sorrow (perhaps even horror) which clings to these black and white photographs. The shadowy, brooding drama and chiaroscuro of the artist’s work captures the delicate interplay between lightness and darkness in a way which acts as a visual metaphor for the vagaries of human existence; alluding to the idea that the beauty and fragility of life are inseparable from the horror and sorrow which accompany it. The resulting emotional pull resonates with and touches some deep inner core which resides within all humanity, transporting us away from our everyday existence. In this way, Ong’s photographs, which are at once both beautiful and frightening, achieve a timeless, unknown, almost half forgotten quality or existence which touches upon ideas of life, death and morality.

“Black and white photography is abstract and symbolic, one can simply say it is a dream world” 

– Daido Moriyama

In the artist’s own words:

This new and untitled body of work was made with 35mm black and white film. In creating these works I have used various techniques to manipulate the images such as altering the chemical process during development, shooting with expired film, and deliberately using film that had mould on the emulsion. Some of the rolls of film which I used are incredibly rare and sought after – dating back to as early as the 1950’s. 

The resulting marks and etchings are intended to create a dream-like, slightly removed world, where the focus is on mood, metaphor and feeling – as opposed to the more typical notion of photography being a recording of reality and truth. My aim was to subvert the traditional boundaries of the photographic medium. To embrace the textural element of photography, and in particular of film, and thereby celebrate and utilise its shortcomings and faults. But to do so in a controlled manner. To achieve a balance and elegance amidst the abstraction and chaos.  

Having studied photography via what was at the time the most highly regarded technically based photographic course, the aim was always to hide these traits. For example I was taught to not show too much grain, to not show any traces of uneven chemical markings on the negative, to have everything in focus, and to not alter the scene which we were recording but instead to focus on accurately documenting the truth. 

These classical notions of the photographer bearing the responsibility to not ‘lie’ and document things ‘as the eye sees’ have always been something I have purposefully set out to subvert. 

Being heavily influenced by film noir as well as poetry, my aim is to create a sense of the surreal and to create photographs which hold the mystique of an underlying cryptic narrative which the viewer can never quite make out. I purposefully integrate aspects of the real and the imagined, realism with abstraction, to create works that are beyond the usual photographic classifications. In doing so I hope to free the viewer of the burden of a photograph which is tied to a specific or particular time and place. To free the viewer to look inwards and create their own narrative and arrangements of the works. To achieve a meditative sublime state by presenting a frenetic, dynamic approach to image making.

I have been told there is a darkness that is both physical and psychological within my works. This was never intentional. I have battled with this darkness and contradiction within my own self my whole life. It is confronting to know that this manifests itself in my art practice, but at the risk of sounding pretentious I think that art should always carry the soul of the creator. I hope that in this sense the work is a success. These broken, rough and blurred black and white photographs are very much a mirror of my hidden inner self. 

The titles of each work are a combination of fragments of my own writings and journal entries, mixed with quotes from books, movies, poems…the world around me. Some have been diluted so much I am not even able to quote the original source or remember which parts are my own or borrowed. The aim with the titles is to further emphasise the notion of poetic, open-ended fragmentation within the works and their presentation and help spark a feeling or mood in the viewer which influences the way they view the works.

Ben Ali Ong (2019)

Ben Ali Ong has been exhibiting in solo and group exhibitions for over a decade and has been a finalist in many prestigious photographic awards including The Josephine Ulrick and Win Schubert Photography Award, The Redlands Art Prize, The Olive Cotton Photographic Prize, The Moran Photographic Prize and the Blake Prize. His work has been exhibited as part of solo exhibitions at the Queensland Centre for Photography, the Powerhouse Museum in Brisbane and as part of curated group exhibitions at Stills Gallery, Viscopy Galley, the National Art School Gallery, the Gold Coast Arts Centre, Mosman Gallery and Gosford Regional Art Gallery. His work is held in numerous corporate and private collections.


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Max Lawrence White
3 May - 25 May 2024