Group Show Featuring Aiman Hakim, Alvin Ong, Esmond Loh, Eugene Soh, Jing X Hu, Koh Liang Jiang, Ryf Zaini, Sheryo, Yanyun Chen, Yeo Jian Long
11 - 29 March 2015
by Jennifer Anne Champion
When I was young, I’d play a game. The game had only one rule: Keep your eyes open for as long as possible. I’d sit under windows, watching dust motes catch the light. Each blink meant shutting off. Missing something important. If I missed something, I lost the game. Later I learnt that dust was made of discarded bits of people that could get stuck in yours eyes. After that, it became more important to arrow in on a single particle that interested me, following its trail to wherever it landed.
The past is falling all around us.
Consciously or unconsciously, we leave behind pieces of ourselves – artifacts – for someone to find. What is less apparent is what to do with the pasts of time-travelers. The little histories that we could never have lived through. This is the underlying challenge 10 artists face in Fresh Takes presented by Chan Hampe galleries – How to approach what is temporally secluded from experience? What liberties does one take with what was? How broadly or narrowly does one apply one’s vision with respect to another’s?
Art-making is a game. The players make up their own rules.
This sense of the ‘game’ is apparent when critics speak of play in an artwork – experimentations with light, colour, stroke, subject matter, medium, technique – to produce emotive narrative effects. It is also possible to see any artwork as a game in and of itself completed. InFresh Takes, one sees each of the 10 artworks as a finished chessboard where each player, past and present, is guided by his or her own rules.
There is also an element of individual guiding principles in the selection of who they will play with. The featured artists – Aiman Hakim, Alvin Ong, Esmond Loh, Eugene Soh, Jing X Hu, Koh Liang Jiang, Sheryo, Ryf Zaini, Yanyun Chen, and Yeo Jian Long – each chose a work from the National Collections to respond to. Their choices range from a 17th century Sino-Turkish Huqqa pipe to contemporary artists such as Jimmy Ong and Ian Woo.
Some artists like Alvin Ong, Esmond Loh, and Yeo Jian Long sought artists whose visual aesthetics they find an affinity with in their own practice. Some such as Ryf Zaini sought artists whose social ideals appeal to them. There are elements of deference in this approach. However, few artists in this series can be said to have made a complete homage, as in the case of Jing X Hu and Eugene Soh who chose source works by Cheong Soo Pieng and Chen Chong Swee, pioneer artists of the Nanyang Style.
Of the Nanyang style, art historian Kevin Chua has pointed out an idyllic absorption in the depiction of subjects, related to the fateful visit of some Nanyang School artists to Bali back in 1952. Chua notes: “It was a journey that famously rejuvenated their painting... Bali represented a paradise closer to home... [I]n the midst of the [Malayan] Emergency, one could say that the middle-class in Singapore needed such a redemptive notion of paradise.”
Traces of the Nanyang thrust into the paradisal are also apparent in the work of Jing X Hu and Eugene Soh although their narrative concerns have changed. Jing X Hu’s Painting with Mending Netscertainly maintains a certain pastoral fiction. But unlike the source work by Cheong Soo Pieng (Mending Nets), its nude caucasian female figure and tea cups tell a decadent story.
Eugene Soh’s controversial work Returning From The Sea based on Chen Chong Swee’s work of the same title made in 1972, also appears to only nominally make use of Chen’s composition as a frame on which to impose Soh’s own narrative. And yet Soh’s unsettling fantasy reworking of the tragedy of AirAsia flight QZ8501 – a happy tableaux of tourists enjoying the sea – could be taken as an attempt at recovering a certain sort of Elysium.
Moving away from redemption and back to the earlier metaphor of these works as chessboards, exciting matches have been played between source works and artists of differing mediums. Matches played by Aiman Hakim, Koh Liang Jiang, Sheryo and Yanyun Chen come to mind.
Both Koh and Sheryo selected artifacts from the 17th and 19th Century respectively. Koh’s resulting response to an elephant-base huqqa water pipe is a ruinous karst landscape of relics – resembling a scene out of Aladdin’s cave rendered in ink and paper. The ghostly outline of the huqqa pipe itself forms a distant mountain in the right-corner of the work. Koh’s meditative response contrasts with Sheryo’s energetic fusion of traditions past and present. Taking on an Indonesian deity figurine thought to be used for protection of the household, Sheryo’s relic is riotous and irreverent – a door god brandishing an umbrella astride his pet merlion in flip-flops.
Hakim plays a much more abstract game. Pulling away from Jimmy Ong’s She Love The Hardest (1996), Hakim’s mastery of oils and subject matter is certainly fresh and deeply personal, but perhaps so individuated it takes little from Ong as a source work.
Perhaps the most thoughtful of the potentiality between different mediums is Yanyun Chen who utilizes charcoal on paper in response to Latiff Mohidin’s Two Standing Figures (1968) made with oil on canvas. Chen makes full use of the two-dimensional aspect of drawing over painting. The immediacy and control of her line-work is a boon compared to the challenges of using oil which limits an artist’s decisions based on drying time. Her choice of monochrome also makes one focus on the compositional aspect of the figures – their clarity is managed alongside chaotic interlocking of limbs. The struggle at the centre of the work – the gripping hand of the feminine figure on the left – symbolizing both force and restraint. Like Mohidin, Chen resolves the work with a solid background. Yet the work in its totality is not just using its source. Chen is deliberately leaving an artifact meant for Mohidin. The chessboard that does not say, “I have won.” but “Thank you. I have learnt.”
Ultimately, the games we play speak more about who we are and what we believe in than who we play against. Each artist has taken a vantage point that is entirely their own. Alvin Ong’s work in response to Chua Mia Tee’s Epic Poem Of Malaya (1955) brings this point home.
Chua who belonged to the Equator Arts Movement produced work informed by Singapore’s rapidly changing socio-political landscape, before the internet and it’s fast-paced photographic reproduction. The result is a painting made with deliberation in its technique and composition, anxious in its insertion of the message of awakening Malayan consciousness through the stirring performance of poetry-reading. It is a fine study in photo-realism without necessarily beingphotographic – its narrative exists outside of life because of its intent at idealist aspiration coupled with foreboding. It is a deep irony that Chua’s deliberate work is now reproduced on our local currency given what was then, rightly or wrongly, interpreted as a communist motivation.
In contrast, Ong’s work In Search of Tanah Airku – ‘tanah air’ meaning ‘homeland’ and ‘-ku’ being a suffix for ‘mine’ or ‘my’ in Malay – is made with hasty brushwork. It is as if Ong is trying to quickly pin down a scene that could very much exist in current street life. The drips recall raindrops sliding off a bus window as one observes an excavation. In this sense, Ong – like Chua – absorbs the viewer into the narrative, even if behind glass. But his message works more like a riposte to Chua. It does not have the aspirational idealism of Chua’s work. The orange tape and the crowd gathered suggest something of interest recovered, yet that piece of home is absent. The Malay phrase ‘tanah airku’ is also suggestive – ‘air’ taken separately means ‘water’. Ong seems to suggest that by digging wells into identity, we may not be prepared for the spring of emotion that follows our discovery of its presence (or absence). As Ong points out in his artist statement for this exhibition, we are “living with contradictions of the remembered and deliberately forgotten.”
It is also important to note that Ong – and all 10 artists featured – are producing art in a time of impermanence brought about by the prevalence of digital technologies. Information, like dust, floats about us and passes much more quickly than it did before. The artist of today may not be able to cope with the deluge of all the particles, and this too has an effect on the approach to art-making. A greater prevalence of ambiguity, abstraction and touch-and-go connections has appeared in modern art and culture. It is a vantage point that comes from being new-born – in the context of our time. To blink in this age, is perhaps not to admit that things are moving too quickly but to acknowledge that fidelity is irrelevant.
 “南洋” (Nanyang), meaning “Southern Seas” in Chinese, was a term first used in the late 1920s to signify contemporary Chinese literature based on Malayan subjects. The term has since been used to encompass a broader scheme of regional culture and artistic identity associated with émigré Chinese artists in Southeast Asia, many of whom were associated with the Nanyang Academy of Fine Art in the 1940s and 50s.
 Chua, Kevin. “Painting the Nanyang’s “Public”: Notes towards a Reassessment” from Eye of The Beholder: Reception, Audience, and Practice of Modern Asian Art, ed. John Clark, Maurizio Peleggi and T.K. Sabapathy. Sydney: Wild Peony, 2006. (pp. 75-76)
 The Equator Arts Society was an artist’s group created in 1956 that held regular Saturday painting sessions at their premises in Geylang. The associated artists from this group were strongly influenced by the socio-political events of their time, not least to do with education and labour issues. They sought to forge a national identity in art through the promotion of a social realist aesthetic. The group co-organised the island’s first National Day local art exhibition in 1960, sponsored by the Ministry of Culture with the support of the then-leading leftist People’s Action Party.
By 1965, the projection of nation-building had changed and the group came under fire. In 1968, the group’s sixth exhibition was forcibly closed down by the government. Alicia Yeo Kay Ling writes, “The new PAP-led government was now on a quest for stability and its focus was on harmon[y]. Hence, social realist art with with its radical nature lost its favour.” (Yeo, Singapore Infopedia article, National Library E-Resources) The group disbanded in 1972, amidst rumours of being a front for communist activity. The group’s former members continued as practicing artists and in 2013, staged an exhibition at Artcommune.
Jennifer Anne Champion is a performance poet and writer