First Art Council by Tang Da Wu

For the children, our pride, our future

I have seen the evocative new works by Tang Da Wu twice, once at Valentine Willie Gallery at Tanjong Pagar and again at Goodman Arts centre galley. The first, at the opening and witnessing artist Ben Puah as an unusual candidate for Guest-of-honour, giving his short but heart-felt speech and second, over a cup of coffee with the artist, surrounded by the works.  In the space between the two visits, I brooded over the significance of several ‘gestures’ in the installation. I call elements in his installation ‘gestures’ because they resemble actions in his performances, each with specific meaning and intentions.  The second visit yielded much insight, which filters into my description of the artist’s intent behind gestures of the installation.

First Art Council, may first seem odd and cryptic to those unfamiliar with Tang Da Wu’s enigmatic, magician’s flourish. Why hang slanted paintings, display a monumental painting that refuses to be hung, hang an upside down chair, crowd a room within a room (a transparent ship-like room structure with thick, perspex sheet walls), reference cliches of Van Gogh and dedicate the entire installation to all art teachers and the Singapore Teachers’ Academy for the Arts? The answer may well lie in the chalk scribbles, child-figure plaster sculptures, and figure of artistic influence (and he will deny this), the artist is.

Beginning by decrypting the title,”first art council” possibly refers to a fictitious or mythologized return to a blank slate, a challenge to policy makers to re-examine their arts policy not from an adult economical perspectives, but from an educational perspective – stealing a slogan from the Ministry of Education, a perspective that is ‘best for our children, best for Singapore’. Historically, artists such as Joan Miro, Jean Debuffet like Tang Da Wu and many others,  believed that Children are natural artists. From an educational standpoint (unaware to the artist), philosophers like John Dewey have advocated for Creative Self-Expression, and some educators led mistakenly to believe that children are best left unguided by any formal schooling. Children’s art, innocence and naivety were regarded, or mistaken by some, for pure aesthetic and Art. However, what Dewey meant was children can harness their experiences, putting themselves entirely in the process of making.  Children naturally exude creativity, knowing no biggie rules to break, and expressed themselves freely through doodles if they are permitted and guided to do so constructively. The large ink paintings represents the formation of creative selves, illuminated by facial features that form from the seemingly random ink splotches. From another angle, they resemble magnificent waves, not unlike those depicted by Hokusai. Gazing at these canvases or papers are gratifying in a mysterious way, like peering out the window on a pouring day, barely making out the silhouettes. The starring dragon and phoenix hidden in one of these large paintings, represents the guardians of children. Similarly, the “Jaga Anak Baik-Baik” (loving and caring) portrait paintings by Jeremy Hiah serve as  images of deified bovine door guardians to the exhibition,  protecting the exhibits and watching peacefully over the visitors.

The yellow iron structure intentionally resembles a ship and a room. It is an exhibit for our examination. One child figure intentionally resembles Degas Ballerina figurine, staring defiantly or perhaps longingly at the hand-made paper costume; the other continues to play, scribbling chalk which vaguely reads “Give me back my future”. Both figures are decidedly ghostly and identity-free, so the viewer may imagine themselves or their children in such a situation, wondering, hoping, sailing somewhere, anywhere. The future, if we live long enough to see it, we would like to believe, are in our adult hands. The paper costume represents play and childhood. We can easily imagine that  children today are scuttled to enrichment classes or cram school for math, english and science because parents who could afford these believe they are giving their children a head-start in a high strung, competitive world. In most cases, the arts become marginalized in a schedule packed with tuition. The wild yam plant is destined to perish or be discarded by the end of the exhibition. Though not intentional, it could symbolize the futility of this arbitrary future, unless something is done about it.

The chair, is similar to the one depicted in Van Gogh’s Chair (1888). The reference to Van Gogh and Impressionism signified the canons of Western Art.  By hanging the iconic chair upside down, the artist wanted the viewer to interrogate these canonical influences, turning them on their head and viewing them with a fresh perspective. Impressionism became the scapegoat because Impressionists artworks are often regarded the most widely reproduced images of Art. Ask any schooling children if they can name any artwork, they would probably name an impressionist artwork.

The dedication of an installation to art educators was no mere coincidence. Herein lies a challenge by the artist, to educators and parents to steer the future of our children, by bringing play and creativity back. A simple task, if only parents ordered our priorities with developing the whole child in mind. But the artist might be preaching to the converted, moreover, art educators are often constrained by their circumstances. But aren’t we all constrained, in one way or another?

An avant-garde artist and inspiration to many, Tang Da Wu’s latest refreshing installation First Art Council, scores a few first – large scale, a wet-on-wet ink technique last seen in the head series; a contemporary artist recognizing the work of art educators in Singapore;  the largest stretcher assembled locally and held by tape. In the second exhibition, the artist took the shrewd decision to banish the canonical Van Gogh chair, and other references to Impressionism. This to me, is already taking matters into our own hands and a step in the right direction to establish our pride, our future in local art.

First Arts Council by Tang Da Wu@VWFA Gallery
Next Chapter: First Arts Council by Tang Da Wu @ Goodman Arts Centre Gallery

Valentine Willie Fine Art Gallery, 5 – 28 Aug 2011
‘Jaga anak baik-baik’, Goodman Arts Centre Gallery, 8 – 14 Sep 2011

Recommended Further Reading:
Press Release by VWFA: http://www.vwfa.net/tangdawu

Lee Wen’s article, The Aesthetics of Didacticism on First Art Council: http://republicofdaydreams.wordpress.com/2011/08/07/the-aesthetics-of-didacticism/

An interview with the artist on one of his earlier works: http://www.drawingoutconversations.com/

Kwok Kian-Woon, The Stakes in Contemporary Art: Tang Da Wu’s Artistic Practice as Exemplar, Moving Worlds: A Journal of Transcultural Writings, Vol. 10, No.1, 2010, University of Leeds, http://www.movingworlds.net

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This text was edited and posted much later than intended. The author apologizes for the lateness.

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