From Words to Pictures: Art during the Emergency

re-examining our art heritage

From Words to Pictures , strategically timed to coincide with the nation’s celebration of independence day, presents another interest in local art history, delving in the lineage of recent exhibitions like Errata (2004 at p-10 and NUS Library, 2005 at National History Museum at temporary site Riverside Point), and the accompanying segment of Documenta Archives (2007 at NMS). It seems to have caught on the trajectory of the earlier art historical exhibitions and documentations, putting the Singapore Art Museum’s collection into a sizeable context to consider art that sits uncomfortably on the fringe of the nation’s autonomy and independence – whether to call these as unique Nanyang art,  could be a matter of National interest and sovereignty today, less so in those days when political, economic and social needs came first.

The title of the exhibition, From Words to Pictures, suggests a shift in thinking about art: text/theory before pictures. Logically speaking, the appreciation of the artwork should come first, impressing oneself with formal aesthetics nicely framed with bits of paint on canvas, before forming any opinion, let alone write about it. Like the old saying, “a picture is worth a thousand words”, impresses the nuances an image communicates, possibly more than black text on paper. So why start with words? Or is the curator re-tracing the accounts of the curators of Errata, giving sustenance and credit to social realistic art of the 50s and 60s? Or is the title suggestive of a textbook approach to giving the art authority and recognition to naturalised Singaporean artists?

The art exhibition can broadly be divided into 3 parts: a section of colour-photocopies of 50s local art magazines, catalogues and related publications (mostly in Mandarin) coupled with video interviews of prominent local artists Ho Ho Ying, and Lai Kui Fang of their impression of society in the 50s; secondly, a section on artworks, studies produced by artists belonging to the Singapore Art Society and the Equator Art Society; thirdly, a contemporary artwork by visual artist Michael Lee.

The 3 sections are held loosely together by the relation of events in a timeline, and the promotion of an art identity for the purpose of nation building: publications that called for Singaporean art, artworks by local art clubs, and Michael Lee’s deconstruction of the intent to build a National Art Museum in 1959. The latter a bold inclusion to breath currency into the need to reframe our understanding of art policies and dynamics of 1959, and perhaps see the relationship of nation building and ‘art building’.

The exhibition as a whole had too much information presented, and I can imagine it would only go down as well as a trip to then ‘Discovery Centre’, for National Education, and less for art appreciation. The comparison to Malayan art was mere paper play, as we can only see one side of the coin, one side of the fascinating artwork that was made during this period of uncertainty. We can only imagine the kind of works the National Gallery of Malaysia would put together to give the exhibition the physical and pictorial balance it requires to be objectively critical.

The exhibition also suggests the importance of art societies, relevant only in today’s context as afffective, recreational and less contemporary then one can imagine. Nonetheless, there is still relevancy in understanding the changing and shifting roles of artists’ groups. The effective parallels of then Equator Art Society, and Singapore Art Society we can see today are the independent run spaces such as Your Mother Gallery, and artists’ initiatives such as PKW, pockets of bundled non-NAC funded independent pen-sized studios, p-10, against the global backdrop of independent commercial galleries pushing new art and artists. Artists too, see strength in numbers. However, ironically, artist-run spaces and initiatives seldom last decades, as a Malaysian artist Huang Shaobing once joked that artists can only run-down spaces, as they lack the administrative urge to engage in meaningful, effective and productive audience development programmes, elaborate volunteer schemes and actions that benefit the community which the art space inhibits like successful art institutions do. An artist’s primarily function or aim, debatable, is to make art for selfish or unselfish reasons, not ‘sell’ art or engage thoroughly in the peripheries of art administration.

While the exhibition was arranged as objectively as it possibly could, there are two moments where it felt too contrived or self-gratifying that we had art at all, during a period of tough economic nation building.  Could art be wielded like a trophy, paraded like a cultural trait as effectively as …? Incidentally, I cannot name any cultural traits that was uniquely Singaporean in 1959.

The first moment, where Lai Kui Fang mentioned in the interview that he was the only one to record the Bedok floods on painting, and coupled with the fact that the exhibited painting Bedok Flood is a copy/re-enactment of an earlier painting suggests the complexities of writing and re-writing histories.

The second came when I noticed the 3 foot tall, self-portrait plaster sculpture, Lee Boon Wang standing in deep thought with his finger raised to his chin, with paint brush in his other hand, staring at the National Language Class (1959) by Chua Mia Tee. Maybe it would have been easier to get access to an interview with the artist, or wife about the painting, then to force the kind of relationship between another artist (Lee Boon Wang) and the mentioned painting. Perhaps more than words need to be put together, playing on the social realist element of our art history and placing a place marker to Singapore artists making similar social statements. Perhaps than it could relate to the audience better, and seeing art history not just in neat clunks and chunks, but a flux of events that are not necessarily linear nor geographically local.

Singapore Art Museum
24 Aug 2007 – 31 Oct 2007

Curator’s Introduction to the ExhibitionJoin the curator, Seng Yu Jin as he provides interesting insights into the exhibition that examines and questions a turbulent period   of Singapore and Malaya’s histories – The Malayan Emergency- which lasted from 1948 to 1960. This exhibition shows how   artists in both Singapore and Malaya were actively involved in the creation of a Malayan culture and identity in the pursuit of   independence through their art making and artistic activities.

2 responses to “From Words to Pictures: Art during the Emergency

  1. Hi Kok Boon,

    Thank you for the review. There are many points you raised that we can take up but I’ll only touch on a few more interesting ones as there is too much to write.

    You wrote, “While the exhibition was arranged as objectively as it possibly could, there are two moments where it felt too contrived or self-gratifying that we had art at all, during a period of tough economic nation building”. You go on to cite Lai Kui Fang and Lee Boon Wang’s works as examples. I will touch on Lai Kui Fang’s Bedok Flood first.

    You make the assertion that Lai’s re-enactment/copying (I prefer your term, “re-enactment” because it acknowledges the emotional complexities involved when he re-interpreted Bedok Flood. My only regret was to miss the opportunity to document the whole process) is, in your words, “too contrived or self-gratifying”. There is, however, no explanation as to why this is except that he claimed to be the “only one” who painted this subject in his interview. This hardly amounts to self-gratifying but a statement of fact to his knowledge. It is too harsh to label him as “self-gratifying”. At least you recognized that Bedok Flood as “a copy/re-enactment of an earlier painting suggests the complexities of writing and re-writing histories”. I applaud you for seeing this.

    On the point of arranging (I do not know if you differentiate between “arranging and curating” exhibitions but I certainly do. If the term “arranging” is intentionally used to mean a mere selection of objects into categories, I will have to take you up on that point. But I will leave this one out and assume that you think that this exhibition is curated, not just “arranged”. The point I wish to raise is objectivity. You seem to be of the impression that this exhibition seeks to be objective when the oppostite is true. And it is in this regard that I am terribly disappointed in your reading of the exhibition in such simple terms. This exhibition locates art making in a particular context, the Malayan Emergency (1948-60). It prompts audiences to read the artworks produced in this period in this context and thus cannot be objective. If I were to be objective, I would not have adopted the curatorial strategy of selecting such a specific context like the Malayan Emergency that is itself such a loaded term. You might have confused “objectivity” with an obsessive desire to present historical materials chiefly in terms of texts and images (photographs) to audiences to “re-create” the atmosphere through sound, texts and images. Such an approach seeks to open up different paths for audiences to understand the complexities of cultural production in a tumultuous period. Slippages into other contexts such as Decolonisation, Cold War, Nationalism, Communismand the Anti-Yellow Culture Movement occue even as me, as the curator had seelected the Malayan Emergency as the context for this show. It would have been interesting to discuss how such slippages occur, which challenges the curator’s reading of the exhibition.

    I’ll take a side-track and address your comment on your inability to “name any cultural traits that was uniquely Singaporean in 1959”. You are definitely spot on here. You can’t because it was a Malayan culture that the peoples of Singapore and Malaya were aspiring towards. That’s why we have Chua Mia Tee’s Epic Poem of Malaya not Epic Poem of Singapore. The whole exhibition was held together by the desire for Malaya, and Malayan culture, not a Singaporean culture. A Singaporean culture/identity discourse happened only after 1965 when the malayan project was dead and buried. Talk to people who lived through this period and you will know how traumatic that was. Art critic Marco Hsu who wrote A brief History of Malayan Art in 1963, translated by Dr Lai Chee Kien was one such intellectual who never came to terms with this sudden cultural and political break in 1965.

    I disagree with your comment that this exhibition “would only go down as well as a trip to then ‘Discovery Centre’, for National Education, and less for art appreciation”. This is connected to my earlier points on my own obsessive nature to curate an “historical” and thus “contextual”exhibition and detracts from the usual “hang paintings on the wall” categorised into themes that you might be a fan of. It is a serious attempt to contextualise an exhibition to offer new readings into the artworks produced through the lens of the Malayan Emergency. I only hope that audiences will be critical enough to ask: Why did artists from the Equator Art Society and the Singapore Art Society paint in such different styles, subject and had such different audiences coming to their exhibition (you can see that from the video projections in the “pictures part of the exhibition, galleries 2.7 and 2.8)? To put it most simplistically to cut the long story short, did artists from Singapore Art Society (consciously or unconsciously) play a role in the British Grand Design (plase read the exhibition catalogue for my essay on this) and thus painted subjects that were mostly apolitical, dealing with “pretty idllylic landscapes of idealised kampongs feeding chickens blissfully unaware of all the violence happening around them during the Malayan Emergency? I have not been to the Discovery Centre but my guess is critical engagements involving questions of Malayan culture and identity connected to politics will not be raised. The Grand Narrative (and you are a teacher so you should know more than me here) of the history of Singapore tends to be post 1965. That is probably why you were looking for a Singaporean culture while a Malayan culture is foreign to you. That’s because Malaynisation does not fit neatly into how the history of Singapore is taught in schools, which this exhibition is trying to change in its own small way.

    Finally to the last point of interest. Lee Boon Wang’s Before the Moment of Creativity (创作前的思构). There is some errata here we need to clarify. It is my fault for not making it crystal clear in the exhibition as I used only the label below:

    Lee Boon Wang 李文苑
    Before the Moment of Painting 创作前的思构
    Plaster of Paris 熟石膏雕塑
    82 x 26 x 25 cm
    Collection of Artist 画家自藏

    You probably assumed that the sculpture is a self portrait of Lee Boon Wangwhen it is actually Chua Mia Tee. That’s why it is Chua Mia Tee who is looking at his own work, National Language Class. Not Lee Boon Wang. And it was my curatorial decision to place this sculpture as Chua Mia Tee is looking at his won work with his back facing his teachers (Chen Wen Hsi, Georgette Chen, Cheong Soo Pieng, Chen Chong Swee and Liu Kang) at the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts (NAFA) where he graduated from and taught briefly at. We, of course, all know that Liu Kang never taught at NAFA but he was influential nonetheless. Chua’s back is facing them because he (and this is probably true for the Equator Art Society artists) has chosen to create a Malayan culture from a “bottom-up approach” i.e. from the working classes, the proletariat if you want. This was quite different from most of the artworks shown at the Singapore Art Society Annual exhibitions that seem to show a desire to create a Malayan culture through cubist idioms(Cheong Soo Pieng’s Chinese Girl), stylization of form (Cheong Soo Pieng’s Indian Men with Two Cows) and so on.

    And lastly (this time it’s really lastly), you conclude, “Perhaps more than words need to be put together, playing on the social realist element of our art history and placing a place marker to Singapore artists making similar social statements. Perhaps than it could relate to the audience better, and seeing art history not just in neat clunks and chunks, but a flux of events that are not necessarily linear nor geographically local”.

    This exhibition, I reiterate is not only about Singapore but Malay. It is my failure as a curator to make that known, especially since the timeline was shaped like Singapore, thus giving a wrong impression. The artists during the Malayan Emergency did not see themselves as Singaporeans. They were Malayans and didn’t have to flash their passports to cross to either side of the causeway. Thus, this exhibition crosses territorial bondaries (Singapore and Malaysia today) and hope to let audiences know that Singapore and Malaysia were culturally connected in the 1950s. I do not know how you came to the conclusion of this exhibition showing history in “neat clunks and chunks” as you never explained but audiences are challenged to think in certainly non-linear terms. Cultural history, unlike political history tends to be synchronic rather than diachronic. That is why the 1965 break was extremely traumatic. Many artists carried on regarding themselves as Malayans after 1965 but its is probably not so today.

    I enjoyed writing this response and I thank you for giving me the opportunity to. It is important to read the exhibition brochure, which is available at $15 from SAM’s museum shop. I hope, as I have previously indicated to you, to give you a copy of the exhibition catalogue. Many things I wrote about here are explained in the curatorial essays and two other essays I wrote for the Singapore Art Society and the Equator Art Society. I salute you endeavours to write on art when there is scant critica writings still. Please continue the good work that you have done so far.


    Yu Jin

  2. Pingback: Art Exhibition “From Words To Pictures: Art During The Emergency” at the Singapore Art Museum (2007) « 郑文彬的画作

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s