This May, National Gallery Singapore presents Something New Must Turn Up: Six Singaporean Artists After 1965, the first-ever joint exhibition comprising six solo presentations that explore the diverse artistic practices of six post-independence Singaporean artists: Chng Seok Tin, Goh Beng Kwan, Jaafar Latiff, Lin Hsin Hsin, Mohammad Din Mohammad, and Eng Tow.
Launched on 7th May, the show offers an in-depth and comparative examination of how these artistic innovators broke new ground and contributed significantly to the development of Singapore’s modern and contemporary art in the post-independence era. The exhibition also marks the first join exhibition between the six artists, as a means of showcasing our local art history, and their incredibly diverse and pluralistic methods of artmaking, from early digital art, to incorporating practices and beliefs such as silat and printmaking.
Featuring over 300 artworks and more than 100 archival materials and objects spanning across decades and disciplines from collage, printmaking and installations, to batik, cloth and digital art, the show provides a rich visual experience that demonstrates the breadth and depth of the artistic practices of post-independence Singaporean artists.
The exhibition’s title, Something New Must Turn Up, is taken from Ho Ho Ying’s preface for the inaugural Modern Art Society exhibition catalogue in 1963. Says head curator Dr Seng Yu Jin, also National Gallery Singapore’s Deputy Director (Curatorial & Research): “When Ho wrote this, he was thinking of the prevalence of realism and impressionism and how they’ve already done their tasks, and how it was up to our artists to create something new and different.”
Heeding Ho’s rallying call, artists explored the role of art in the development of a nation’s cultural identity, resulting in the multidisciplinary and experimental approach to artmaking that characterised post-independence Singaporean art and marking a new chapter in Singapore’s art history.
“The second part of the exhibition’s title, Six Singaporean Artists after Merdeka, references the year 1965, which was an important and pivotal year for us, due to the cultural anxieties surrounding what the ‘Singaporean identity’ would be for this newly independent country,” he adds, referring to our island city-state’s period rapid urbanisation and internationalisation.
“This is also the first ever joint exhibition featuring all six of these multidisciplinary artists, and it serves to showcase our art history, and highlight their work. These artists were chosen for their diverse backgrounds and pluralistic artistic practices, from Mohamed Din Mohamed’s practice in silat, traditional healing and music, or how Chng Seok Tin extended her printmaking into installation art. All of this serves to raise awareness of these six artists, including three women artists, and to really show how artists have shaped and played such an important role in the cultural identities of Singapore.”– Dr. Seng Yu Jin, Deputy Director (Curatorial & Research), National Gallery Singapore
The expansive solo presentations will also provide audiences with a deeper understanding of how this group of artists actively expanded the boundaries of art in post-independence Singapore through innovative artistic practices and techniques that pushed the envelope on Singapore’s modern art and contributed to the development of Singapore’s contemporary art.
Through the exhibition, audiences will not only be able to draw connections between the artworks and developments in Singapore’s history and cultural identity in the post-independence era, but also to their own life through themes that remain resonant today, such as art and wellness, an individual’s relationship to nature and the loss of the country’s heritage due to rapid urbanisation and economic growth.
Dr. Eugene Tan, Director of National Gallery Singapore says, “Building on our previous exhibitions on Singapore artists in the 19th and 20th century, this show reflects our commitment to growing scholarship around Singapore artists in the post-1965 years and raising awareness of their critical contributions to not only the development of Singapore’s modern and contemporary art, but also the construction of Singapore’s cultural identity at a pivotal moment of the country’s history.”
“In learning about how the artists strove to be continuously “new”, we hope audiences gain a better understanding of the important role art can play in society in contributing to nation-building efforts, and in reflecting the zeitgeist of the times.”– Dr Eugene Tan
Mr Yuen Kuan Moon, Group CEO of Singtel, the Lead Partner for the exhibition says, “As a champion of the arts, we’re pleased to support these post-independence artists whose pursuits were crucial in shaping the cultural identity of our fledgling nation. We hope visitors will be inspired by their innovation and experimentation when capturing the spirit and history of Singapore in those early years.”
The exhibition is held in the Singtel Special Exhibition Gallery, which is comprised of three separate exhibition spaces. Each space holds two solo presentations, with artists brought together in consideration of their shared interests in concepts as well as materials. Pairing artists together also allows for a comparative approach, allowing audiences to make connections between the artist pairings and across the exhibition as a whole, while enhancing the understanding of how this generation of artists are significant in art history.
The exhibition is split across three galleries. The first, Gallery A, places the spotlight on printmaker and multidisciplinary artist Chng Seok Tin, and Mohammad Din Mohammad who worked at the intersections of art, music, traditional healing and Malay martial arts. The pairing explores how both artists drew upon spiritual and non-Western knowledge systems in conceptualising their art.
Chng was often inspired by Buddhism and the I-Ching, the Chinese foundational text for Daoist and Confucian philosophical traditions. This was evident in works such as Variations on I-Ching, which references the text as a way of life that reveals humanity’s moral and ethical dilemmas.
Take for example Variations on I- Ching, where each of the 64 squares on the canvas corresponds to a hexagram in the ancient Chinese divination text I-Ching, also known as the Book of Changes. Chng began incorporating the philosophy of the I- Ching into her work while she was in New Mexico State University, and even consulted the text herself to resolve personal issues. In 1992, Chng decided to mount the squares on a black and white canvas, symbolising the interplay of chance and the Taoist concept of balancing yin and yang in life.
Some of our personal favourite artworks include Chng Seok Tin’s Tied Up, which depicts her signature kim-chiam (golden needles) in her prints on bright red strips of cloth. While it is a traditional Chinese ingredient, she learnt how knotting each piece of kim-chiam for cooking would allow her to produce animated figures, almost like tiny men. This is also reflected in works such as Kim Chiam Code (2006).
Chng’s work wasn’t always appreciated however, such as her first solo exhibition in Singapore in 1979. Inspired by the landscape of Hull, she distilled the unfamiliar contours of British terrain into austere, monochromatic forms. These were criticised for being inaccessible and less than pleasing to local audiences, and needed to instead create work reflecting the social reality of Singapore.
Likewise, Mohammad Din Mohammad, a Sufi mystic, developed innovative approaches to painting and installation in order to address the spiritual and physical ailments arising from the struggles of urban life – a concept that feels especially pertinent in these times.
Not only was he a silat master; but also a collector of SEA cultural objects, and would often work across multiple mediums, from painting to theatre, with the exhibition unravelling all these complexities. These converged in fascinating ways, and he even ended up dabbling in making traditional medicines, applying such arcane knowledge into his art, and connecting and networking throughout Malaysia, with silat masters as his guide.
It is the mystical system he uses to guide his work, using the self as a means to think through his artistic process. Constructing talismans and considering the symbolic meanings of colours and materials, we see this in works such as The Pyramid of Soul: Celebrating Alif, an installation that celebrates Mhd Din’s love for ‘Alif’, the first letter of the Arabic alphabet. The 5m by 5m installation includes materials such as driftwood and wild rattan, with over 200 dehusked coconut shells and a wooden base lined with wayang kulit. It is almost a shrine and homage, seething with magical energy.
With religion and spirituality such a core part of his practice, we see him go beyond ‘Alif’ to the rest of the 28 Arabic letters, expressing the Sufi longing for love and beauty in the world. Spirits of Freedom represents that search, where the words here are taken from the Quran. By being aware of the words and the visuals, it becomes a multidisciplinary work, that constitutes zikr (remembrance of God). Mhd Din himself said: “Zikr is religiously considered to be the ultimate connection to God. It is my personal hope that it will spark the sense of closeness between mankind and God.”
In Gallery B, artists Goh Beng Kwan and Eng Tow are paired together for their artistic sensitivity to the use of materials such as Goh’s use of everyday materials in his collages, and Tow’s cloth works. Key works include Goh’s Urban Renewal painting series, which documents the architectural changes to Singapore’s urban landscape as a result of its transformation into a developmental state, and the attendant loss of heritage and culture from the demolishment of historical buildings – a theme that still resonates strongly today.
Goh Beng Kwan is still active today, and has been through countless experiences in life, from the Second World War to his move to New York City, to witnessing the assassination of JFK on television. Much of his life was shaped by constant change, experiencing the twin forces of industrialisation and urbanisation, taking inspiration from both his background in Chinese calligraphy and exposure to American modes of painting, leading to his belief to in constantly pushing boundaries and responding to the environment around him.
“As a student in New York, it always felt like such a big, developed city compared to Singapore, and it was very nourishing to my art by being exposed to so many galleries and artists. It’s a ‘nervous city’ because of the feeling I felt while staying there, with so many feelings lodged in my nerves.”– Goh Beng Kwan
Audiences can also look forward to Eng Tow’s meditative works, which require viewers to deliberately slow down and observe minute details. In By The Fireflies’ Light, Tow continued her explorations into the concept of the infinite and the fluid through a series of ink, watercolour and acrylic brush works. These works signal a departure from the meticulous constructions of her earlier works. Absorbed by the velvety smoothness and depths of Chinese ink, Tow was drawn towards a freer expression.
Eng Tow’s Saffron is a massive acrylic work on a woven cloth relief that seems to dwarf the viewer in its size, but in fact, offers a microscopic view of the details one observes when looking closely at a saffron plant.
Similarly, if Eng Tow’s Grains of Thought look familiar, then you might have either seen it at the Asian Civilisations Museum before, or even Jewel Changi Airport. The two stone-like sculptures seem to levitate above the ground and cast shadows on the ground. Yet they represent a staple in every Asian household – grains of rice. Through this installation, the humble grain is magnified to represent the significance of rice.
Finally, Gallery C pairs abstract painter Jaafar Latiff and interdisciplinary artist Lin Hsin Hsin, for their use of technology in innovating alternative ways of making and thinking about art, which was in line with the move towards automation and computerisation in 1980s Singapore. Jaafar’s solo presentation traces the artist’s trailblazing approach to painting in the batik medium. Audiences will discover how he had pushed the limits of conventional techniques with innovative methods through decades of rigorous self-study and experiments. For Jaafar, his works are a trademark of his era, and very rational in their approach, as indicated by how each one is indexed and titled with a number. Jaafar often took inspiration from his life as an educator, and in fact, his choice to dabble in batik work stemmed from a class he was tasked to teach. Likewise, with the rise in tech and computer work, he decided to study it intensely, and ended up becoming one of the earliest Singaporean artists to attempt and explore computer art.
His Vision series expresses the chaotic energy of urban life during the mid-1980s, a period of rapid development in Singapore. Jaafar’s acrylic paintings are characterised by a sense of movement, reflecting his ability to express himself more freely in acrylic. In contrast, Jaafar’s batik paintings seem constrained by the labour of the process. In the above work from Jaafar Latiff, whose title remains unknown, the batik painting bears resemblance to Jaafar’s Wandering series, with its abstract yet graceful figures and vibrant colours offering fuel for one’s imagination.
Meanwhile, Lin Hsin Hsin’s training in mathematics and computer science informed her artistic practice since the 1970s, and led her to write her own equations and algorithms to develop new digital methods of art-making. Lin never did train like other artists, with her background leading her to constantly break new ground. As a self-described digital native, she has always been oddly prescient of tech trends in her computer aided design, and was certainly years ahead of her time.
In Conversation, we see Lin’s enduring fascination with the solar system manifest in painting about the laws, mechanics and phenomena of outer space. This particular piece explores man’s dialogue with the cosmos, with the blue hues representing the atmospheres of icy hostile planets. As a frequent visitor of planetariums, Lin has always been fascinated by outer space, and constantly tried to reach this final frontier, at least through her art.
Each solo presentation will be accompanied by a publication that will be available later this year. They offer a critical examination of the artist’s engagement with concepts such as multiculturalism, developmentalism and modernisation in post-independence Singapore. Visitors can also experience the exhibition through English-language audio tours voiced by each solo presentation’s respective curators, available on the Gallery Explorer app. The audio tour is also available in Mandarin, Malay and Tamil.
There will also be talks and tours led by the curators and artists for those looking to gain deeper insights into the artists, their works and their influence on Singapore’s art, history and cultural identity in the post-independence era.
Something New Must Turn Up runs from 7th May to 22nd August 2021 at National Gallery Singapore. More information available here