Two Originary Moments: Conceptualism and Performance in Singapore
Cheo Chai-Hiang, 5′ x 5′ (Ao Tou, Another Source), June 2005, enacted in Tong An, Fujian province, China. Image from Asia Art Archive.
The year is 1972.
Singaporean artist Cheo Chai Hiang, then a student at Birmingham Polytechnic, submits the following for consideration to the local Modern Art Society’s annual show: instructions, via mail, to draw a square measuring 5′ by 5′ at the juncture between a wall and the ground, with the inscribed figure resting partially on each surface. The work was to be titled Singapore River.
It was rejected.
Art historiography, like other forms of narratives, has its heroes and its privileged moments, and Cheo’s instructional painting is frequently cited as one of the first examples of conceptual art by a local artist — a gesture of “emptying out”, as one commentator puts it, a common iconographic motif, an act of exhumation for a subject increasingly seen as sedimented in layers of uncritical reiteration and pictorial cliche.
Singapore River (2006), Cheo Chai-Hiang, at the Telah Terbit show at the Singapore Art Museum. Image from Universes in Universe.
Of the iconic stature of the Singapore River as an artistic subject, Kwok Kian Chow writes in Channels and Confluences:
The Singapore River was a favourite subject for the watercolourists. Gog Sing Hooi noted:
Members of the Society are inclined to paint with realism and local flavour. The Singapore River once played an important role during the days of entrepot trade. Not only has it economic value, it is also an excellent subject for the artists’ drawing board. The busy tongkang traffic, the old terrace houses lining its shores, combined with the characteristic bridges spanning the river, all culminate in a picturesque Singapore landscape. This scene is also a source of inspiration to many an artist. Alongside th river which bustled with activity, there are shady passageways and a sparkling clean food centre. It is an ideal place for sightseeing and a place where artists gather; members of the Singapore Watercolour Society are its regular visitors. Come Sundays and members would be seen setting up their easels along its banks. By mid-day, the majority would have shuttled back to the river-side. After lunch, they would produced their newly completed works for their fellow members’ appraisal. At this time, a group of young watercolour enthusiasts would turn up and quietly observe these experienced artists at their work and discussion.
By the 1980s, painting the river had become such a convention for the watercolourists that they took offence at an exhibition entitled Not the Singapore River organized by Arbour Fine Arts, a private gallery which showcased younger artists. The exhibition fea-tured [sic] the works of Goh Ee Choo, Oh Chai Hoo, Yeo Saik Goon, Peter Tow and Katherine Ho. “Not another painting of the Singapore River, please; Or Chinatown in watercolour, or shades of old Singapore; You can’t tell one artist from the next because they all use the same theme,” Lim jen Howe of Arbour Fine Arts was paraphrased and quoted as saying in The Sunday Times. Watercolourist Ong Kim Seng … responded to the exhibition:
It is an effective title, but I am very concerned if it indicates that we are getting tired of our source of nationhood, the Singapore River, and that artists, especially the younger ones, are discouraged or refrain (sic) from painting it … Many artists, including those who have taught some of the artists who will be on show, have painted the river, depicting it in a style that is distinctly Singaporean … Riverside houses, the bridges that span the river, and the tongkang, now resettled to brave the wind and wave at Pasir Panjang, form scenes that amount to emblems of our country – they have appeared in our postcards, tourist posters and even our currency notes … If the clever title is there because the artists need a change in expression, a change in their publicity – then I ask, why at the expense of the Singapore River?
Responding to the Singapore River versus Not the Singapore River debate, Teo Eng Seng created The Net: Most Definitely the Singapore River … in the same year (1986). The work is an installation comprising a net with “paperdyesculpt” sculptural elements. Teo’s work is a powerful proclamation that, with deep respect to the social and historical significance of the Singapore River, the responsibility of the artist in portraying and manifesting the spirit and life of the Singapore River must include innovation in the very medium of representation itself.
(Kwok Kian Chow, Channels & Confluences: a history of Singapore art [Singapore Art Museum, 1996].)
Cheo’s piece was not realized till recent years, remaining for some time entirely in the realm of the notional. In other words, conceptualism in Singapore may be traced to a postulatory work of art, conveyed by proxy from a foreign country — and a former colonial power, no less.
Perhaps an apt analogy for the local visual arts scene in a pre-Tang Da Wu era ?
Originary moment no. 2: at an outdoor exhibition of his own work organized by artist Tan Teng Kee, he sets a sculptural piece alight, an act which, according to some, inaugurated in a single gesture performance art in Singapore.
Or did it ?
According to T. K. Sabapathy:
In 1979, Tan Teng Kee organized a “picnic” in the grounds of his premises. It was in effect an exhibition of his paintings and three-dimensional works; he decided to present them in an informal manner. Among the paintings was one titled The Lonely Road which was 100 meters long; it entailed twenty-four hours of continuous work before being completed. Tan offered to cut The Lonely Road into manageable pieces in accordance with the wishes and needs of prospective owners. The climax of the picnic was the incineration of one of his three-dimensional constructions; this was a surprise. Hitherto, Tan’s practice had been directed towards the production of works which were tangible and durable; in this instance he embarked upon an action which completely undermined and obliterated the existence of a work as an object. As a phenomenon it is singular in Tan’s artistic career and unique in the story of art in Singapore.
(T. K. Sabapathy, “Sculptors and Sculpture in Singapore; An Introduction” in Sculpture in Singapore [Singapore: National Museum, 1991], pp. 9 – 29. See p. 26.)
Elsewhere though, artist and art historian Ray Langenbach calls this into question:
The exact time of arrival of ‘performance art’ in Singapore is contested. T. K. Sabapathy points to an action by the sculptor, Tan Teng Kee in 1979 in which the artist held an outdoors picnic to sell paintings and sculptures. At the end of the day he incinerated his three-dimensional constructions. Tan’s work, however, was a one-off event. Although it echoed Gutai, Concrete art and ‘happenings’ of the 1950s-70s, no claims for the introduction of a new form were made by the artist, and it was not followed up by other such actions …… The next historical recording of a work which was advertised as a ‘performance art’ event was Five Performances presented by Tang Da Wu at the National Museum Art Gallery in 1982, which most emphatically marked the arrival of performance art and earth art.
(See Langenbach’s as yet unpublished PhD dissertation, Performing the Singapore State 1988 – 1995, available for download from ADT.)
Local artist Lee Wen concurs. In the Future of Imagination 6 catalogue, he remarks that it is the idea of Tan’s undertaking of self-destruction that remains a potent symbol for local performance artists:
Tan Teng Kee’s Picnic event of 1979 was cited by veteran art historian TK Sabapathy as the first evidence of performance art in Singapore …… It is hard to believe these actions amounted to a work of performance art as Tan did not continue his explorations in performance but became known to us as a sculptor. However the image of an artist destroying and burning his own painting and sculptural creations seemed like an appropriate one for the beginning of performance art in Singapore.
(The catalogue is available for download here.)
A more recent interview conducted with the artist by Sabapathy, however, puts paid to those doubts. In his monograph on Tan, published in 2000, Sabapathy specifically addresses those issues, and Tan even uses the term “happening” for the 1979 exhibition and subsequent artistic bonfire:
In 1979 when you were living in Normanton Estate, you held a gathering, or a party, which was unique and which projected art and its reception onto an enlarged environment. You produced a painting which was one hundred metres long; it was cut up and the pieces sold to the requirements of the collector. And then a sculptural form was put to the torch and burnt. I have discussed this in some of my writings. Could you describe your thinking at the time you held this gathering ?
Actually it was not only an exhibition of sculpture but also of painting. It was a happening. I had just moved there and at the back of my house, there was a ground the size of two football fields. I tried to make use of it as my works were getting quite big. I needed a big space. The hundred metre painting could be displayed in this open field. People could walk its entire length and see it. I built a bamboo structure to hang the painting and I had enough space to display the sculpture. At that time, it was customary to open exhibitions at 5 pm, and one hour later, the sky would turn dark. I tried to design a centerpiece for the opening; inside it, I put a torch and wrapped the whole piece with newspaper. Some of my students helped me. the source of the fire could not be seen; the whole sculpture seem [sic] to explode, suddenly, unexpectedly. Nobody knew what was inside the sculpture. The newspaper wrap-around, on its own, was new and very abstract. The whole centerpiece was held together by twenty-foot high poles. I designed it such that when the fire started, the poles would burn and fall backwards and outwards. There was sound, light, and human beings; it was an exciting happening. Everybody gathered around the fire. It was a kind of celebration. The sky turned dark and the people did not want to go home. The fire sculpture turned into another form, radiating light. We got chairs and sat around it and there was a party. That was happening.
What about the hundred-metre long painting ? Did you produce the picture all in one day ?
I did it at another place two to three weeks earlier. When I unrolled and displayed it at the happening, a reported asked me for its price. Of course, nobody would buy it, as it would be impossible to display. So I said that you can cut the length you want. Choose the section you want, whether one or two metres, and I’ll cut it and you pay for the length you have chosen. It was all cut-up and sold.
(See T. K. Sabapathy, Tan Teng Kee : an overview, 1958-2000 [Singapore: Sculpture Square, 2001].)
Tan’s designation of “happening” may perhaps be a retro-projection, a declaration of intent in hindsight, but Lee Wen’s observation that the relevance of the event lies in its symbolic force hits the nail on the head.