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Visual Arts

Insights: Chiew Sien Kuan

On the use of readymade objects in art


Published: 22 Sep 2021

Time taken : ~10mins

Chiew Sien Kuan is keenly attuned to changes in our urban environments and how city dwellers respond to this constant flux. His practice is concerned with the impact of economic progress, urbanisation and technological development on our sense of reality. His exhibition A Little Love Story in Singapore at the Esplanade Tunnel imagines and reinterprets different aspects of modern Singapore’s development in its early years through assemblages and mixed media paintings. In this interview, Chiew shares about his relationship with the readymade objects he has collected over the years, his working process and how he gets creative inspiration.

You have accumulated a lot of objects and materials over the years. What is it about these objects or materials that draw you to them?

My father was a carpenter. This gave me the opportunity to have hands-on experience with furniture-making since I was young. Additionally, I majored in painting at Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts (NAFA) with a minor in sculpture. After I graduated, a few friends and I rented a shared studio space at Seletar Camp. We started collecting found objects from our surroundings and I began making three-dimensional works. I also experimented with carving and creating assemblages.

Over the years I became interested in objects that have history. Even now I do not really like new things. I am drawn to objects with age. In the past, objects and materials are made with hard work and have better quality. Nowadays, we tend to buy cheap, mass produced products. As they are cheap, we may only use them once and not hesitate to throw them away. I find this wasteful. If you make a tool well, you can use it for life.

You can also learn a lot from things found or bought at flea markets. I used to go to the former Sungei Road market to look for items. These objects have their own stories. They are not just functional but aesthetically beautiful as well. I would go online to research on objects to learn more about how and why they were made. I will buy things that have already been around for a long time. An existing hammer is actually good enough. We do not need to produce more hammers. However, I will say that I am not a very environmentally-conscious person. It is the shape, colour and age of an object that attract me first, and not because I am thinking about sustainability or protecting the earth.

Your artmaking process involves bringing found objects and materials together into assemblages and then repurposing them in other assemblages. Could you share how this approach came about?

Aesthetics is an important consideration when I put an artwork together. The age, texture, colour and form of the objects I use in a work have to match each other. There will be a moment when everything comes together. I will not force the objects together to achieve a certain shape or design. The meaning behind the work will emerge later as you discover more about the artwork. The objects would be collected over 10 years but making the work could take around two to three weeks. Even after I have finished making a work, it may take some time for it to be resolved. The work is only completed when it is acquired by a collector because I can no longer make any changes to it! However, there will come a time when it is completed and you can stop.

Many people are drawn more to my assemblages than my paintings. There is something in my assemblages that speak to them. These assemblages have to speak to me first. When they are shown, they may then resonate with the viewer and perhaps transport them to a fantasy world. There could also be a humorous or playful element in them that captivates viewers.

Installation views of <i>A Little Love Story in Singapore</i>, Chiew Sien Kuan, 2021.

Could you share the inspiration behind the exhibition "A Little Love Story in Singapore"?

It all started with this poster for the movie A Little Street in Singapore. This led me to research on other movies made in the West which featured Singapore. I discovered the movie Road to Singapore, which was made in America in the 1930s. The symbol of the guitar, which is featured extensively in this exhibition, was inspired by this poster. I see musical instruments as symbols of romance and I find the form of the guitar alluring. It was interesting that this movie is about Singapore even though it was probably shot in Bali. The movie is centred on the love story between two sailors and an Indian girl. It inspired me to feature the guitar and the tabla, an Indian percussion instrument, in the exhibition. I sourced for second-hand guitars online. Some of the guitars are over 100 years old and others were made in the 1960s. I had to restore them and even redesign some of them as they were too old.

There is also a poster for the song Along the Road to Singapore which is based on the movie of the same name. This song mentions a few places found in the city. I started to imagine how the city would have been organised and what you would see as you walk down its streets. There would be a city square, the Parliament House, the High Court, police station, military headquarters, airport, train station, harbour and the chapel. Working with the linear structure of the Esplanade Tunnel, I recreated another street that runs through the city. This is a street that viewers can experience and through this, create their own love story of being in at a place at a particular time.

Image of Chiew’s studio.

You have described the artist studio as a "city culture machine". Could you tell us more about this analogy?

I only began owning my own studio after many years of art practice. Prior to this, I would use the workshop in the art school I teach at during my free time. For me, an artist's studio has three zones: one for working, the other thinking and one for making. The studio is a place where you can think and calm down after a busy day in the city. A city is like a machine that keeps people busy and moving. In the studio, your soul, spirit and mental state can immediately be at rest. To me, it is a space for making and healing. Although the rent for my studio is high, I save a lot on medical fees! My studio has an ecosystem of its own. In a way, I have stopped producing new things. I will use whatever I have in my studio or revisit a past work and refine it further.

Check out Chiew’s exhibition, A Little Love Story in Singapore, at the Esplanade Tunnel from 6 Sep 2021 to 2 Jan 2022.

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