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Visual Arts

Insights: Re-THINGing Gesture in Contemporary Sculpture Practice

Nine Singaporean artists reflect on sculpture as a medium


Published: 13 Dec 2021

Time taken : ~10mins

Co-curated by Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay and Sculpture Society Singapore (SSS), Re-THINGing Gesture in Contemporary Sculptural Practice presents the works of nine Singaporean artists Stephanie Jane Burt, Ezzam Rahman, Michael Lee, Vincent Leow, Lim Soo Ngee, Ivan David Ng, Sai (aka Chen Sai Hua Kuan), Grace Tan and Wang Ruobing. This piece distils the sources of inspiration behind the artists’ works in the show. 

Stephanie Jane Burt

I was interested in how the girls in the film The Virgin Suicides directed by Sofia Coppola would signal their distress. This was shown through the clutter of feminine objects found in their households, namely frays of ribbons and torn up fabrics. The frame is suspended at an angle to give the installation a notion of fragility. The colours are pastel, much similar to the girls’ bedrooms as depicted in the film.

Ezzam Rahman

they'll love me when i'm dead is inspired by the gestures that one gives to the departed. Flowers, in general, have lots of connotations, symbols and meanings. For this work, I focused on the simple gesture of the flowers we use whenever we lose someone, and researched the different types of flowers related to funerals. This form of gift-giving as an act of kindness became the focal point of the work. I also drew reference from the 1300s Black Death plague. As there were insufficient fresh flowers to be presented at wakes, women crafted bouquets out of old leather coats and boats, which were reused for multiple funerals. As a man, I wanted to take up the role of a flower maker and picked up (self-taught) sewing skills from my mother. Through the process, I had experienced the meticulous process of making these flowers, and I imagined the love and effort those Victorian-era women put into making such flowers. 

In terms of the presentation of they'll love me when i'm dead, I wanted the flowers to float and was trying to avoid familiar ways of presenting from my past works. I also did not want the flowers to be enclosed in acrylic or glass boxes. I noticed that funeral flowers were often presented on flower stands and drew upon that to design these clear modular stands, which could easily be moved and placed apart or together. 

Michael Lee

In Objects of Convenience, I investigate gestures not of artists but the users of their art. How do audience responses to art reveal the human condition, expectations about art, and reality?

My chosen blasé attitude towards how sculptures are physically treated in public space in Singapore requires putting aside any moralising or sentimental lens. This approach allowed me, hopefully, to see things more clearly.

As it turned out, by tagging specific actions or reactions of the human users on local public sculptures, I have created a small ‘poem’ for each case in question. Void of details like names and titles, these abstracted words open themselves to interpretation. Both the stencil format of the work and their casual placement on L-hooks spell convenience.

Each of the 20 stencils is a snapshot of each public sculpture’s life history. The eventual grayscale scheme chosen allows the work to take a backseat in a large group exhibition of three-dimensional art pieces. As the selected wall for my work lies at the end of the gallery, this allowed my work to recede into the background, much like a supportive friend.

Perhaps artworks, artists and audiences are all convenient objects, existing to serve some purpose, which may not be entirely our own. And we may do things, and do things to things, not because of conscious intention but because it’s possible. I say this without regret or resentment.  

Vincent Leow

In The Framer's Table, Vincent Leow delves into his long-standing interest in the notion of loss, examined through the tools of artmaking and art production. The work comprises a large table used by an art framer who recently closed his business. Utilised by the framer for decades, the table's surface is etched with traces that bear the marks of time and wear. By rotating the large table and laying it on its sides, Leow turns this salvaged object into a sculptural work. These enshrouded undertones of loss are extolled further through scorched wood that lies following the work. The Framer's Table gestures towards processes of renewal, wherein the loss of an object's original function gains new meaning through its treatment, composition and processes of recontextualisation.  

Lim Soo Ngee

The materials in the work speak for themselves. The chengal timber was salvaged from a machine used in a rubber manufacturing factory in Malaya in the 20th century. Through years of wear and tear, marks made by the machinery have retained their history on the wood. Every groove and speck of dust carries fragments of memories from that era. Artists are powerless when facing a "piece of history”.

When a piece of “material” is moved to a specific site, it becomes an exhibit. 

Ivan David Ng

In two works, Everyday mysteries and Who made this?, Ivan David Ng explores conceptual and practical approaches to gesture by focusing on his own locus of creation, which is often motivated by the act of harvesting. Amassing materials from various contexts and later manipulating and assembling them is a central tenet in his practice.

Everyday mysteries consists of harvested items with various provenances. Some are banal (picked-up plastic oddities and plant matter), while others have charged histories (soap bar from North Korea or a pebble from Xinjiang). Ng bathed these items in a resin pool hosted by a wooden structure/vessel constructed from Singapore wood, with the wooden vessel serving as an important metaphor for Singapore. All these items somehow found their way to Singapore, and the land of Singapore functions as a sort of catchment for them. This piece also questions—Where did these things come from? How did they get here? Who made them? Do they hold any secrets? What new stories are they telling together? The gesture of harvesting puts these disparate provenances and stories together.   

Who made this? is a harvest of gestures. It highlights the many gestures employed by the artist in creating a sculpture, quietly recorded in the manipulation of the materials. These gestures include strenuously lifting, laborious coiling, gingerly aligning, furiously compacting, quickly applying and many more. The various components and materials were pre-created in the studio and assembled on-site reflexively. 

Sai (AKA Chen Sai Hua Kuan)

This series of sculptures by Sai is created out of readymade objects that we often see and use in daily life. Sai sets them up in quirky and unexpected situations using strategies of humour, contradiction and irony. Items like the electrical multi adaptor and pencils have been rearranged and adapted into new configurations that challenge conventional associations with utility and cast new light on the materials that he works with. By using his distinctively witty visual language to give new purpose and agency to seemingly mundane objects, he endeavours to prompt the audience to reflect on the relationship we have with the items that fill our daily lives. 

Grace Tan

Comprising two rectilinear Carrara marble blocks arranged as an L-shaped structure that partially envelopes a heap of loose marble dust, n. 365 – two slabs and a mound on a plinth reflects Grace Tan’s long-standing interest in materiality. In this work, Tan adopts the notion of "material gesture" in her creation process. By working with the Carrara marble's inherent qualities, she unearths the particularities of this natural material, mined from the eponymous region in Italy. With minimal human intervention in its construction, the freestanding and self-supporting assemblage is held in place by the laws of physics echoing its physical realities.

In choosing to work with Carrara marble, Tan also references the long-established associations of the material in classical figurative sculpture. However, by composing unworked blocks of Carrara marble and detritus, she strips the medium of its formal conventions and connections to reveal its intrinsic gestural and material potency.

Wang Ruobing

Three Planks (Sampan) is inspired by the form of sampan, the simple flat-bottomed Chinese and Malay wooden boat, which was often used for transportation in coastal areas or rivers in the past. The name sampan first came from the original Cantonese term for “boat” and gained much popularity with the Indonesian folksong Dayung Sampan and its Chinese version Tian Mi Mi 《甜蜜蜜》 in Southeast Asia. I was intrigued by the sampan’s historical, cultural and social references and hence adopted its form in my work. 

Check out Re-THINGing Gesture in Contemporary Sculptural Practice at Jendela (Visual Arts Space) from now until 2 Jan 2022. 

An interview with curator Tan Yen Peng
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