Nanyang Artists

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    T.K. Sabapathy

    Cbc.g C h On g S w

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    r, and alsongruencethewaserstood theaffectivecists in thet..s that after aediateart meaninginged beyondlinks thever, and-spondenceulated orthatrive du~tion[ectives forowsisaected towardsonnousandnwould haven g tonot art.rk y erlingtheHowever, I'e disclosingdote whichclosure.ie artins Malaysia.re-course onilavsia ines:Wewereiitfalls in.e in an- ss w ecourse beganIiry, In 1975,~group of:5in Finelarked that it.rudy ofoty.He:hewAmoldthe objective,ke place untilvea truesuch as theselyto inhibit[ criticalndythedes it fromby rigorouscase?Is the-rigiblym art not be1 are at the.n, and inous and yet.ome tovas deemedil lenable mely argument.

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    The really bristling element inDuchamp's remark was the implicat ion thatthere is no absolute, immutable, timelessaesthetic value for a work of art outsidehistory. 'What is one to make of this? Is it amysti fying way of either abandoning art atthe door of history for having been aprodigal infant, or making exaggeratedclaims on behalf of history? Neither isthecase.The distinction that Duchamp makesbetween art and history has to do withdifferent contexts. When art is made new,we are made new with it. \X'ehave a sense ofsolidarity with our o w n t ime, and of psychicenergies shared.and redoubled, which areindescribably satisfying. The transferenceto the realms of history entails ways of seeingthat are based on other and fresh expectations.As the work of art becomes increasinglypubl ic, with constant , repeated viewing andreviewing, its existence and effect areapprehended not in condit ions of isolationbut in ever-changing arrangements, and inclusters of interlocking connections. Ielievethis is a sensible reading of the implicationembedded in Duchamp's remark. Byentering the context of history, the newlycreated work is launched into orbits l inkingit with other, already existing works,possessing kinship arid shared purposes. It isin these circumstances that value, meaning,structure and purposes are I2roposed and, .'argued for..Seeing.riow, becomes cognitive, .self-conscious and relational. I believe thatthe way is now open to diarrjI[~ctioI1i inwhich critical histor ies of modern ar t can beshaped, It is taken that a work of art hasqualit ies and structures that are distinct; . itsmaking and meaning are, however, boundup with culrural, social and economicmovements of its t ime as well as beinginfluenced by both artistic tradition andaesthet ic ideology. The task of the crit icalhistorian isto identi fy new concepts as theyare generated byartists, help determine thevalue of new things by assigning them to aplace in our general structure of values, andarguing for that disposition.'Approached in these ways, distinctions

    can be made between history and pastness,thereby removing the inhibit ions that vei l thes tudy of modern art. Critical historians areconcerned with the s tudy of processes andstructures which lead to the understandingof the enduring values and purposes of art.The apprehension of art can then be seen tobe capable of support ing a commonlanguage, a shared undersranding and acommunity of values. In this enterprise thecrit ical historian, like the artist and theviewer, is a participant in the cultural actionof his time.I have brought into focus the dominantpract ices in the cri tical srudies of modem

    art, briefly examined their assumptions,proposed alternate ones and sketched a

    frame consisting of ftesh objectives andprocedures. The intention is not to offer anew theory of or a polemical discourse onhistory and criticism. Far from it. TI.eintention is to jolt those who are engaged incritical activity in Singapore into examiningthe validity of criteria and methods whichare in vogue, in interpreting and explainingart. It is to make a plea to delineatefoundations of cri ticism that will lead tosensible, intelligible apprehensions of a workof art, thereby relating the art ist to his work,to his audience, and to history. The desiredend isto develop particular formulas foranalyzing culrural phenomena, for explainingchange, for assigning value. It is thereforenot sufficient to rely solely on formalanalysis which does not lead to verifiablestandards of measure, however useful it maybe in describing the mechanics ofcomposit ion. Neither isi t il luminating tocouch evaluation in terms of transience andchange without demonstrat ing these asdynamic notions of artistic traditions andaesthetic ideology. Critical activity has to be #directed towards illuminating the work of ar t in all its dimensional existence. I trust that inaddressing these issues, I have not abusedthe invitation to contribute to thispublication. I should think not, for if I havefelt the pulse of modern ar t, it has thensignalled to me the message that a societyfounded-to promote.it-is vit~lIr~cmceinedwith and involved-in critical 'enterprise. 2 .FinallyI rerum to Ducharnp's notion of

    -" art and hj.story;;n dojng so I '3!ish'!9P'O ' i :n~out that forty years and more have passed byin the story of art in Singapore. I use theword story loosely, even hopefully, because ithas yet to be told. (Or should I say stories!) Ibelieve the contexts in which criticalhistories can be written have emerged. Forexample, the recently concluded programmesfearuring the' pioneer artists of Singapore areundeniable evidence of the existence of suchcontexts. One need not, of coufse.beconstrained by the assumpticns underlyingthese programmes. The ASEAN'SYmposiumon Art and related fields, inaugurated in 1981and convened annually, isalso a potentialsource for contexts. These are grounds thatliedormant; they await prospecting. At thisjuncture it wi ll be worth remembering thatthe history of ar t is not devoted merely to thecommemoration of the great, old or dead. Itis also devoted to the srudy of a whole rangeof art works, the conditions under whichthey were made, for whom, how valued,how received and understood. These areproper concerns of historians and cri tics, burnot JUStto them. Artists are also vitallyinvolved with thern.!It is on the basis of the last mentioned

    issue that I wish to consider the Nanyangartists, who are recognised as being amongthe innovators of modern art in Singapore.These artists not only created works of art

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    but engaged in a variety ofcumulatively make up the Jedifice of the art world. Iof these aspects and illustrsactions, beliefs and anxienparticular to art ists in Sing;shared bythose living and,countries in Southeast AsisWill focus on artistic traditiideology ..4I will undoubtedly be piprocess I hope to unearth r

    be, subsequently, shaped ato illuminate paths along"histories can be composed.

    II In the ear ly months ofof art enthusiasts met t,feasibility of establishing aart in Singapore. A leadingdiscussions was Lim Hak 1arrived from China where :educated in the Fuchow A t : .graduating had taught at tlof Art and the Chi Mei Comembers in the group, chitwere alumni members of tIinstitutions in which Hak 'teacher. They had consideiof establishing an academydissuaded because neithernor the men existed.: -' -. , E n te r. lr im -H ak T a i, ageexperienced in reaching, irprogrammes in art educariby a consuming vision of tsignificance and role of arta ca:mlytic force in the discd~'8sion was made in favo:academy. 'Later in that sandingy room in the vicinityWorld Amusement Park, Iothers began teaching art.enrol lment consisted of foAnd so the Nan-yang Yi-sAcademy of Fine Arts) waHak Tai assumed the dualand principal, remaining ihis death in 1962.5It was the first acadernjSingapore and unti l 1966

    institution for students fr cwishing to pursue an edue50s and 60s, the Acadern;centre for art activity in hiof the most significant andirections in modern art iMalaysia was shaped in tla direction enl ivened by~artists and which, unti l rhcontinues to be influentiaways. 6It must appear prepost

    academy in the fore-frontinnovation and progress.conception of the dynarnand of the new are antagr

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    Ig Sa o Pieng~Resting, 1953

    rgo Girl in Re d Sarong, 1953

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    ~ presence and principles of the academy. In e m oti on al n ee ds o f a t hr ob b in g c it y"this sense the emergence and perpetuation of In any art context there are artists who by~ the avant-garde issketched in terms of a a combination of imagination, perseverance,i sequence of dramatic conflicrs between consistent effort and purposeful use of skiIls eI innovating 'heroes' and academic 'villains'. and resources produce works which instigateThis isan enduring feature of the myth of new values and fresh visions. There weremodem artists and art. A sober reading of such individuals who, during the years n, ideas, policies and values in developed before the Second World War and after i t, n~ systems of art illustrates a different picture, gravitated to Singapore; many of them C tfnamely: the particular form that independent became teachers in the Nanyang Academy.~ movements assumed was largely determined In addition to Hak Tai there were Cheong c c~~ OJ~ by academic standards. The quest for Soo Pieng, Chen Chong Swee, Chen Wen I suiii originality was shared by artists of different Hsi and Georgette Liying Chen - whoIpersuasions, but viewed differently. joined the academy at various times between J arInOriginality was regarded by all artists as 1946 and 1953 - who attained this stature. devaluable and fundamental to a work of art." To this group must be added Liu Kang who, at's At the time of the founding of the although not a teacher in the academy, was \Nanyang Academy there did not exist any associated with it and shared aims similar to petrarecognisable system of art in Singapore. Art those who were in it. These are the Nanyang "h.acriviiyc~imed on individuals who were artists