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The pilgrim’s progress

Discovering a celebration of life in the Tin Mine and other places.
By Noelle Lim

 

IN HIS TINY living room of stacks of books, Eric Peris steals a glance at the portraits of his departed parents and sister. ‘I have a lot of expectations to live up to,’ he says. His parents were well-known artists who allowed him ‘a free hand,’ but told him never to ‘lose the name’.

Peris is a devout Sinhalese Buddhist and only son of royal artist, O Don Peris. He has spent his career living up to the family reputation. ‘To them, maybe I have achieved something,’ he hazards a guess. ‘I think I’ve done it – and then I find errors. That’s your teacher.’

At 74, Peris is indefatigable. He was honoured this year by the National Visual Arts Gallery for his contributions to photography; his works continue to find favour with major institutions and collectors. In July, he presented Earth, Water, Sky, a series of black and white landscapes for Sutra House.

ERIC PERIS BY SORAYA YUSOF TALISMAIL

Peris is modest, and he is an outsider. As an art form, photography is traditionally viewed as requiring less skill than painting, and the landscape is a deeply unfashionable subject in the intellectualised world of contemporary art. Peris transcends such mundane considerations, arresting the viewer’s attention before drawing her in with curiosity. The landscapes are glorious, their subtle beauty so sensitively drawn. These are places for all time.

‘Cameron Highlands’ (1981) is one such work that expresses his philosophy of human-scale. The casual viewer notices the rolling hills first, but for Peris, ‘If it was not for the two little roads down there, the picture wouldn’t mean much to me. The two footpaths tell you there are human elements.’

In ‘Rice Bowl of Malaysia’ (1980), farmers work the paddy fields. The scene was taken while he crisscrossed the country by train and taxi. (Appropriately, for someone who might be at the vanguard of the slow art movement, Peris does not drive.) ‘Farmers know what to do’, he says, referring to the instinct to tend the shoots of life.

The Tin Mine Landscapes, his exhibition at Shalini Ganendra Fine Art earlier this year, is about spent earth, extracted of its content. It was with his father that he became acquainted with the humanity in landscapes, disrupted by economic activity and restructured by nature. Nature is forgiving and patient, he observes: ‘When you go, weeds, water lilies will grow, and there will be fish, plants and shrubs.’

Laterite Dunes, Ed. 10, C-Type digital print

Laterite Dunes, Ed. 10, C-Type digital print

Peris’ work is ineluctably affected by his upbringing. He chose his family over monkhood as a child – he had wanted to care for his parents – and remains deeply interested in Buddhism and zen philosophy. He eschews the linearity of western philosophy for a visual language rooted in the local but nevertheless accepts the contributions of the western photographic tradition ‘for their society’. ‘They were purists,’ he says of the post-second world war pioneers whose works followed photography rules – but ‘it’s not about the camera, but your mind.’ Peris only uses a compact camera.

Langgar, 1984.

Langgar, 1984

‘You’re doing it because you want to share this with someone else,’ he reminds. Despite suggestions from his clients to raise prices, Peris sticks RM1,800 for a piece of his work: ‘I’m happy with this. I’m not here to do business. The moment you think of the dollar, your creativity ends.’

 

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