Marcel heijnen photo by bassam jabry in SingaporeThis photographer has been stuck in a two metre-high drain canal, once.

“Recently, I descended into a dry drain canal in Tampines because of the wonderful textures I saw (on its walls),” shares Marcel Heijnen. “By the time it got dark I realised it was not as easy  to get out of a canal. Luckily I eventually found a rope to pull myself out with!”

How did this Dutch photographer even get into such a situation? To start with, Heijnen photographs buildings but not as they are: he photographs their reflections, layered on old walls instead.

Heijnen would hold a piece of glass against a weathered, peeling wall and then photograph that wall with reflections of neighbouring buildings cast on it.

Heijnen’s third and biggest solo exhibition opens at Galeri Utama at Fort Canning Park on June 1.

Here, Marcel Heijnen shares his fascination with ever-changing cities, reflections and music; this photographer and visual artist is a musician too.

How it started
Heijnen shares that his ongoing Residue photo series began from “a habit of shooting reflections in windows” and a “longstanding ‘obsession’ with texture”.

Details like these do matter to this artist: before he got started on photography, Heijnen was a graphic designer.

“At the same time I was getting interested in Buddhist philosophies, particularly about impermanence,” says Heijnen. Residue, in essence, was the end result of these ideas and habits: “everything just ‘clicked’ together in my work.”

He had also shot these photos in response to rapidly changing cityscapes, like in Singapore.

“This city seems to be perpetually under construction,” comments Heijnen, who has now lived in Singapore for over 20 years. “And the speed of it seems to be accelerating. As a foreign comedian once said about Singapore: ‘It’ll be really nice when they finish it’.”

But Heijnen doesn’t begrudge the benefits of these changes. As he writes in his artist statement, “everything is in continuous flux and actually, there is beauty and comfort in that realisation.”

Beauty in the everyday
His photos are “about finding beauty in everyday life, in the things that we take for granted,” explains Heijnen.

As Heijnen observes, “(t)here are plenty of visual works featuring picturesque streets of shophouses in Chinatown, or ‘glorious’ stock images of Marina Bay” which do look more or less similarly composed.

In contrast, Heijnen thinks that few would “focus on HDB blocks, where over 80 per cent of the population live in”. To him, these residential blocks “form more of a visual identity to Singapore than the skyline of the central business district.”

This photographer does have specific locations in mind for his photos, to best bring out the contrast of the old and the new in the city. Heijnen keeps an eye out for industrial estates located close to residential areas: “there, I can find both the textures I need (on old walls) and the reflections of (newer) HDB apartments.”

Earthbound by Marcel Heijnen in Singapore Earthbound by Marcel Heijnen in Singapore

(L-R): Blemish (2011) and Earthbound (2012) by Marcel Heijnen.
Earthbound was shot in the aforementioned canal in Tampines, Singapore

The result: almost painterly photos that bear mere outlines of buildings. It’s as if we get a glimpse into the future, when the new buildings of our present have aged, are abandoned and become only the “residue” of what they once were.

It’s an awareness of impermanence, an inevitable decay of everything and anything, over time; even tall and mighty concrete buildings.

That perfect shot
There is neither “digital trickery” nor the use of double exposures in his work, says Heijnen. These are unedited, single shot photos captured with well, extra effort and attention to light and reflections.

“If I come away with just one great work from a shoot, I’m happy,” says Heijnen. These days, he tends to stay within one location for each shoot, even if he has to wait all day for the right lighting conditions. He would then take multiple shots of the same spot, in different angles and photography settings.

New at this exhibition: Heijnen’s photos of Fort Canning
At his latest exhibition, site-specific photos by Heijnen have been commissioned to echo the gallery’s location at Fort Canning.

Shot at Fort Canning, these new photos have “more trees than buildings” and look more “abstract” as a result. Heijnen was intrigued by the walls of Fort Canning Green as a Christian cemetery used to be located there: he found “embedded gravestones” on its walls amazing to photograph.

But Heijnen does admit that he still prefers to photograph residential buildings. To him, these feel more representative of modern city life and its fast-paced changes; these are the very places that us city-dwellers work, live and play in.

Next photo destination: Chongqing?
“There’s such massive urban development going on (in Chongqing),” says Heijnen. So a trip to that Chinese city is definitely in the plans.

The photographer does enjoy sourcing for locations in new cities: Hong Kong, Jakarta and Chinese cities like Fuzhou are some of his favourite photography destinations.

Post No Bills by Marcel Heijnen, in Hong Kong 2011 Patina by Marcel Heijnen in Singapore
(L-R): Post No Bills (2011) was photographed in Hong Kong, while Patina (2011) was shot in Jakarta

One of his most memorable photo shoots took place in China’s Fujian province, “where a local student took interest (in his shoot).” The friendly student had asked to be involved in his shoot: he would hold the glass panel for Heijnen, suggest possible locations while trying to “practise (speaking in) English with me.”

The photographer is a musician too
Marcel Heijnen Residue album
Heijnen had released an album, also titled “Residue” in 2010.

“Actually, ‘Residue’ was the title I picked for the album first,” says Heijnen. “I was working on the songs and the visual artworks simultaneously and the title seemed to fit the visual works really well too.” He adds that he’d picked one of his photos as the album cover (featured on the right).

His music deals with impermanence on a “much more personal level”: Heijnen lost both his dad and grandmother in 2004 and in that same period, his close friends had also experienced major setbacks and losses in their lives.

He thus started on songwriting as it “is a wonderful way of dealing with and documenting emotional periods in your life.” Personal reflection, through songwriting, “has a healing effect that I’m grateful for,” continues Heijnen.

So, what’s up next for Marcel Heijnen? He’s planning to integrate music into his upcoming projects more often.

“I’m starting a brand new gallery concept, an art space (that is) being defined still, as we speak,” says Heijnen. “I hope to feature both great visual art by up and coming artists as well as small intimate music performances.”

Marcel Heijnen’s Residue 2.0 opens at Galeri Utama from June 1 to 29.


Address: 70 River Valley Road, Singapore 179874. Opening hours: 2 to 9pm on Wednesdays to Fridays, 12 to 6pm on Saturdays and Sundays. For more information, visit www.marcelheijnen.com and www.facebook.com/GaleriUtama.