Crisis of Monumentality: Made/Remade/Unmade

Featuring Boo Sze Yang, Tang Ling Nah, Tay Bak Chiang
Curated By Seng Yu Jin

18 January - 17 February 2013

The "Crisis of Monumentality" is a historical reference to the standing of monuments over the last century as the physical and symbolic manifestation of political and religious control and power over the collective memory of social groups and nations. This exhibition searches for new concepts, forms and sites of the monumental that examines the anti-monument, cities as monuments, collective memory, commemoration, and the eternal.

These artists' practices, rooted in the diverse practices of painting, charcoal, and Chinese ink, share a re-thinking of monumentality and how it relates to their art making through their lived experiences in the Asian context. They share a deep concern of new visual strategies of monumentality, and how they are made, remade, and unmade in different social and cultural contexts...


By Seng Yu Jin

The mention of monuments brings forth images of obelisks, the pyramids, Taj Mahal and other grandiose, huge, solemn, elitist, ideological and enduring statues and buildings. Monumentality aligns itself to the aesthetic concept of the sublime imbued in the collective memories of the heroic and epic that are firmly lodged within these physical models. The crisis of monumentality refers to the European avant-gardist attack on monuments that were regarded as the physical and symbolic manifestations of political and religious control and as the admonishment of the common people silenced in awesome and inhumane buildings in public spaces.  However, the avant-gardist rebellion against monumentality in architecture and art revealed hidden monuments of modern architecture, concretised in the monumental modern projects envisioned by Le Corbusier. The crisis of monumentality today can be used to describe the bad standing monuments have over the last century as the physical and symbolic manifestations of political and religious control and power over the collective memory of social groups and nations. This exhibition searches for new concepts, forms and sites of the monumental that examine the anti-monument, cities as monuments, collective memory, commemoration and the eternal.

The three artists Boo Sze Yang, Tang Ling Nah and Tay Bak Chiang, whose diverse practices and mediums are rooted in oil painting, charcoal and Chinese ink respectively, share a rethinking of monumentality and how it relates to their art-making through their lived experiences of contemporaneity in the Asian context. I draw attention to the artistic approaches of these three artists, whose artistic practices can be described as rooted in contemporaneity even though they use what are considered ‘traditional’ materials, such as oil paint, charcoal and Chinese ink. Contemporaneity refers to a self-reflexive awareness and criticality of the present conditions in art, with affiliations and affinities that are transient, fluid and constantly shifting in their negotiations with what currently matters in all worlds of human existence, which include the social, political, economic and cultural.

Artists who immerse themselves and work in contemporaneity have a keen sensibility towards a transcultural world that is interconnected, global and constantly changing both synchronically and diachronically at the same time. A diachronic analysis examines a subject over an evolutionary period of time historically, while a synchronic analysis limits its concerns to a particular point in time as if time is frozen for study. A contemporaneous approach uses both diachronic and synchronic analyses to study contemporary issues and subjects to understand why something is relevant and meaningful to the present but also adopts a historical distance and broader contexts to reveal the changes that have occurred, allowing for different perspectives on how we understand time from the historical and tradition to the modern and contemporary.

The crisis of monumentality is one aspect of contemporaneity that these artists have explored in a sustained manner in their artistic practices. They share a deep concern with new visual strategies of monumentality, and how they are made, remade and unmade in different social and cultural contexts or diachronically, as well as question how monumentality remains meaningful and relevant to the contemporary in a synchronic way, revealing a sensitivity that brings new ways of seeing monuments that are imaginary or mental constructions of humans in time, and space. It is this very mental construction of the monumental, born of the imagination of human civilisation, rather than the physical notion of monuments embodied in its awe-inspiring architecture, that is in crisis today. It is the dearth of imagination in monumentality as a concept that calls for our attention and brings us to this crisis, which Boo Sze Yang, Tang Ling Nah and Tay Bak Chiang engage critically in this exhibition.

Boo Sze Yang heralds the new monuments of Asia epitomised by megamalls and massive shopping arcades that have sprung up in Asia, be it in Seoul, Singapore, or Taipei, fuelled by booming economies and a concomitant rise in consumer spending. This group of paintings by Boo forms part of his The Mall series. His painterly meditations of the interior spaces of shopping malls reveal the grandeur of these spaces as the new monuments of Asia, but also question them at the same time through sketchy brushstrokes that loosen and unbind, in tension with the desire of architecture of the monumental to join together and bind. Tensions arising from loose brushwork that unbinds and from the architecture that seeks to bring unity are seen in Taipei 101 #1. The image of the shopping mall as a stable monument is intervened by loose and dripping application of paint that slips between solidity and fluidity, as if the monument itself is melting from the present into the ruins of the past simultaneously. Shopping malls have replaced the religious monuments of the past, such as churches and temples, as the epicentre of cities. Churches used to form the centres of European cities. A city was laid out like a wheel with spokes radiating from the church at the centre glorifying God while functioning as a signpost for visitors to come to the city and bask in the architectural magnificence of the church. Commerce and monuments often went hand in hand, with marketplaces near churches to ride on the high human traffic for business. Shopping malls today have replaced marketplaces and churches in prominent locations in the city, each new mall seeking to supersede earlier ones with grand architectural statements such as vaulted ceilings, light-emitting-diode (LED) lights and site-specific artworks, each claiming to be a holistic lifestyle destination where its followers could live, play and work in one place. The glorious shopping mall has been transformed into a microcosm of the metropolis.

While changes in the development of monuments from churches to shopping malls take on a diachronic approach, Boo questions its relevance to contemporary society synchronically. In The Star Vista #1, the vastness of space held by massive vertical columns and escalators that heroically thrust upwards create a new spiritual experience, with sacred light emanating from above like the Pantheon in Rome. Boo’s earlier House of God series exploring the interior spaces of cathedrals highlights the similarities rather than the differences brought about by change. The use of monumental space itself has not changed that much. While cathedrals have magnificent spiralling stairs, shopping malls now have escalators to transport worshippers. The Shoppes at The Palazzo, Las Vegas, USA brings attention beyond our consumerist society today and harks to the future with its circular bands resembling futuristic spaceships. This painting asks: What future holds for the human desire for monuments―from churches of the past that glorify gods, to the modern glass-clad skyscrapers and massive suspension bridges, to the shopping malls that demand that every moment of our life is devoted to them?

Tang’s commitment to charcoal whether on paper or in the form of installation remakes the monumental by taking on an anti-monumental position, drawing on her own individual rather than collective lived experiences of spaces she has encountered. In Looking Out of Admiralty, the outward absence of humans in the ubiquitous Housing and Development Board (HDB) flats, which are possibly the most prominent piece of architecture in Singapore housing the majority of Singaporeans, challenges the power of monumentality to subsume the individual. The absence of people provides us with meditative geometric spaces that evoke moods of lightness and gravity through places of light and dark. At the same time, this absence creates loneliness and alienation that call for the return of human presence. The subtle shifts in tonal gradations of light and dark that slip in and out of focus intervene and humanise the monumentality of HDB flats by breaking their massive form, thus undermining their grandeur and authority.

Remembering Vargas and Viewing Platform (Inspired by Hysan Place, Hong Kong) make an interesting comparison. Remembering Vargas elevates what is a common flight of stairs as a point of visual interest by heightening the atmospheric intensity of the space using achromatic colours like black and grey. Achromatic colours are colours without dominant hues that adsorb or reflect wavelengths of light equally. Using achromatic colours creates a sense of gravitas, even in a simple space like a staircase without any ornate decoration. In contrast to Remembering Vargas’ simplicity, Viewing Platform intrigues the viewer with its geometric forms and intersecting lines that monumentalise the complexity of structures that we often overlook and which support buildings that constantly break new ground in civil engineering. Both works propose different ways of reinventing how we think of monumentality from the perspectives of space and colour.

Monumentality in Chinese ink painting traditions is rooted in the monumental landscapes of Fan Kuan, whose Taoist principles of being one with nature led him to depict the inconsequence of human in the face of nature’s immensity. Tay reinterprets the painting convention of monumentality in his stone series, intersecting the idea of the mountain and rock gardens with history, Taoist philosophy and nature. His treatment of scholar rocks draws from the history of Chinese gardens, symbolising virtue, strength, stability and endurance. The scholar rock in Chinese gardens is the central element prized aesthetically in terms of its texture, form and colour. Tay plays with the scholar rock as a motif in Ruins. The monumentality of the scholar rock in both the Chinese way of gardening and Chinese ink painting traditions is reinvented as he captures the aesthetics of the scholar rock in its texture, form and substance, but challenges the strict adherence to how scholar rocks are placed by introducing the element of chance in his rock formation. The monumentality of his rock formation in Ruins undermines the desire to recreate natural landscapes in carefully composed scenes akin to a Chinese hand scroll landscape ink painting. The aesthetic criterion that scholar rocks should appear solid to denote stability is undermined by the cracks in Ruins suggesting the fragility of these rocks. Tay employs history in how rocks have been depicted and symbolised in Chinese gardens and pictorial traditions, and relates it to contemporaneity by critiquing how these idealised scholarly traditions are disconnected from real social and political conditions today.

Seen in this context, Fading and Warped reveal the crisis of monumentality in its assumed desirable human values of stability, endurance and virtue. The indistinct rocks in Fading make visible the weaknesses of rocks and what it stands for. The gradual erasure of these rocks reveals the futile attempt to mimic the power of natural mountain ranges in Chinese gardens. In Warped, the solid form of scholar rocks is replaced by a twisted form. Both Warped and Fading deconstruct and lay bare for us to explore the multiplicity of meanings of rocks beyond its traditional symbolic meanings, from which one can better understand the stone and its relationship with the order of things determined by the boundless creativity of nature that can never be structured and monumentalised.

The crisis facing monumentality is engaged by the three artists in different ways. Boo questions the shopping mall, which is impossible to ignore in Singapore, as the new monument that celebrates the hallowed culture of consumption, compared to the grandeur and cultural significance of the monuments of the past. Tang reminds us that monumentality does not only exist in its physical manifestations by expanding on what constitutes the monumental from the tangible to the intangible. New ways of experiencing monumentality are proposed by Tang, to move beyond it as a way of establishing political authority and manifesting social order by the ruling elites, and to shift to individual and personal aesthetic encounters with the monumentality created by space, geometric forms and light. Tay reveals the multifaceted nature of the rock by stripping it of its monumentality in the traditions of Chinese ink painting and Chinese gardens, and by revealing its inherent fragility. Seen collectively, these three artists have proposed different and fresh ways of rethinking about and representing monumentality in terms of its aesthetics, architecture and symbolic meanings, thereby invigorating and breathing new life into how we understand monuments that reveal so much about those who make them.

Seng Yu Jin is a Lecturer in the Faculty of Fine Arts, Lasalle College of the Arts for the Master of Arts in Asian Art Histories and Fine Arts programmes


  • Boo Sze Yang
  • Tang Ling Nah
  • Tay Bak Chiang

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