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Visual Arts

Tan Swie Hian

One of Singapore's most prolific and acclaimed multidisciplinary and multilingual artists.

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Published: 12 Oct 2016


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I create to show how a free mind functions. To me, it is like a hummingbird flying forwards, backwards, sideways, as it soars, swoops or remains stationary in the air. Art could be the rainbow that leads to the ultimate great white light of man and the universe.

Tan Swie Hian is one of Singapore's most prolific and acclaimed multidisciplinary and multilingual artists. A self-taught poet, philosopher and artist of a variety of mediums, Tan has received recognition across his varied creative output. Described by Time magazine as "Singapore’s Renaissance Man" in 2003, Tan has received many international honours, including being named as an Officer of the Ordre national de la Légion d'honneur. In 1987, Tan received the Cultural Medallion for his contributions to visual arts in Singapore.

Born in 1943 in Pulau Halang, Indonesia, Tan Swie Hian moved to Singapore with his family at the age of three. He attended the Chinese High School for his primary and secondary education, and went on to Nanyang University, graduating with a BA in Modern Languages and Literature in 1968. Throughout his school days, Tan would pursue his creative passions, picking up knowledge and teaching himself as he went along.

That same year, Tan began working at the French Embassy as a press secretary, starting what would be a 24-year career as an attaché with the embassy. The year also marked the debut of Tan as an artist as he published his first Chinese poetry collection The Giant with the support of Liang Meng Kwang of Nanyang Siang Pau. The Giant was a collection of modernist Chinese poetry that was considered to be more avant-garde than any of his peers, and it was within the literary sphere that Tan would first gain recognition.

Tan would go on publish 25 more collections of poetry, essays and fiction, and become a Chinese translator of several books, including those of English author Aldous Huxley, Romanian author Marin Sorescu, Russian author Vaslav Nijinsky, and Indian philosophers such as Ramana Marhashi and Jiddu Krishnamurti. For his efforts as a poet and writer, Tan received the National Book Development Council of Singapore Book Award in 1978, the Singapore Chinese Literature Prize in 1998, and the Marin Sorescu International Poetry Prize for two consecutive years in 1998 and 1999.

In 1968, Tan became the first Singapore artist to create cartogravure when he created his first cartogravure Four Geese. In 1973, he held his first solo art exhibition Paintings of Infused Contemplation at the National Library. That same year, Tan became a Buddhist and discovered meditation. This provided with him a new insight into his worldview and would have a profound impact on his art, infusing his creations with a rich sense of spirituality, creative freedom and simple elegance. But this was not to be apparent until his next exhibition in 1978 as Tan spent the next four years in deep contemplation, embarking on a quest for inner discovery.

Tan experimented with creatively expressing himself through a variety of artistic mediums, and worked freely between mediums and styles, often combining and merging them without constraint. The influence of Buddhism in his art is most clearly seen in his use of poetic expressions known as fables, an allegorical form found in Mahayana Buddhist scriptures. Though rooted in Chinese language and culture, Tan’s work also expressed ideas of both Eastern and Western philosophy. His artistic expression would similarly expand beyond the limits of any one medium and genre, combining such disparate disciplines such as painting, sculpture, Chinese calligraphy, printmaking, seal-carving, and even dramatic performances.

Tan received international recognition for his art through many honours and exhibitions around the world. He was selected by the United Nations along with 97 other artists to illustrate a new edition of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1998, received the World Economic Forum Crystal Award in 2003, and was named as an officer of the Ordre National de la Légion d'Honneur by the Government of France in 2006.

Described as "Singapore's Renaissance Man" by Time magazine in 2003, Tan also received recognition at home. He received the inaugural Excellence for Singapore Award Gold Medallion in 1996 and the Pingat Jasa Gemilang (Meritorious Service Medal) in 2003. In 1987, Tan received the Cultural Medallion for his contributions to visual arts. Tan’s multicultural contributions also received recognition in the form of the Pingat Angkatan Pelukis Aneka Daya by the Association of Artists of Various Resources, the Kala Ratna Award by the Singapore Indian Fine Arts Society, and the Singapore Ramakrishna Mission Award.

Tan currently continues to create art across disciplines, spending his afternoons meditating and chanting, and his nights painting, sitting cross-legged on the floor of his studio. His art can be found on Singapore postage stamps as part of the Singapore Post Art Series, and in Chinatown MRT Station where The Phoenix's Eye-Domain, an installation consisting of a mural and a Chinese poem Couplets on Chinatown, can be found.

For a comprehensive listing of Tan Swie Hian’s artistic work, please visit tanswiehian.sg.

Timeline

5 May 1943

Born in Pulau Halang Indonesia.

1946

Moved to Singapore.

1958 to 1964

Attended Chinese High School, Singapore.

1965 to 1968

Attended Nanyang University. Graduated with BA in Modern Languages and Literature.

1968

Published first poetry collection The Giant, with support of his editor Liang Meng Kwang of Nan Yang Siang Pau.

1968 to 1992

Press Secretary, French Embassy, Singapore.

1973

First art exhibition Paintings of Infused Contemplation, National Library, Singapore.

Became a Buddhist. Took a four-year break from creating art.

1977

Resumed creating art.

1978

Received Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, Government of France.

Held exhibition of oils, Chinese inks and calligraphy, Gauguin Museum, Tahiti.

1984

Received Book Award, National Book Development Council, Singapore.

1985

Received Gold Medal, Salon des Artistes Français, France.

1987

Received Cultural Medallion for contributions to visual arts in Singapore.

Received Pingat Angkatan Pelukis Aneka Daya, Association of Artists of Various Resources, Singapore.

Elected as correspondent-member of Academy of Fine Arts, Institute of France. First and only Southeast Asian artist to receive the honour.

1988

Received Kala Ratna Award, Singapore Indian Fine Arts Society.

1989

Received Chevalier de l’Ordre Nationale du Merite, Government of France.

1993

The Tan Swie Hian Museum, Singapore’s first private museum, established by Tan Tien Chi.

Published Selected Works by Tan Swie Hian, a five-volume collection.

1995

Received International Artistic Paragon Award, Federation of Chinese Cultural Revival Movement and Society of Chinese Painting, Calligraphy and Seal-Engraving, Taiwan.

1996

Received inaugural Excellence for Singapore Award Gold Medallion, Singapore Totalisator Board.

1997

Received Special Award of the inaugural Four Seas Chinese Literary Gleanings, China National Radio, Beijing, China.

Received International Creative Grand Master Award, Federation of Chinese Cultural Revival Movement and the Society of Chinese Painting, Calligraphy and Seal-Engraving, Taiwan.

Received Singapore Ramakrishna Mission Award.

1998

Selected by the United Nations with 97 other artists to illustrate a new edition of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights for the 50th anniversary of the United Nation’s adoption and proclamation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Received Marin Sorescu International Poetry Prize, Romania.

Received Singapore Chinese Literature Prize, Singapore Literature Society.

1999

Received Marin Sorescu International Poetry Prize, Romanian Academy and National Theatre in Craiova, Romania.

2000

Named first Honorary Citizen of Huangling County, People’s Government of Huangling County, Shanxi, China.

2001

Construction work commenced on The All-Wisdom Gardens: Tan Swie Hian Earth Art Museum in Qingdao, China.

2002

Received Seoul International Calligraphy Gold Medal.

2003

Received World Economic Forum Crystal Award. Had works exhibited in Davos, Switzerland.

Received Pingat Jasa Gemilang (Meritorious Service Medal), Singapore.

Received Honorary Degree of Doctor of Letters, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore

Participated in Instant is a Millennium: A Musical Conversation with Tan Swie Hian with Singapore Chinese Orchestra, Singapore Arts Festival 2003 gala performance. Poetry, art, costumes and set design by Tan Swie Hian.

The Phoenix’s Eye-Domain, an installation that includes a mural and a Chinese poem called Couplets on Chinatown, is unveiled at the opening of Chinatown MRT station, Singapore.

2004

Received Lifting up the World with a Oneness-Heart Gold Medallion from United Nations Meditation Guru, Sri Chinmoy.

2005

Received Nanyang Distinguised Alumni Award.

2006

Named as an Officer of the Ordre National de la Légion d'Honneur, Government of France.

Paintings and sculptures featured on stamps as part of the Singapore Post Art Series.

2 Dec 2012

Acrylic and oil painting When The Moon is Orbed is sold for $3.7m, making Tan the most expensive living Singapore artist.


TributeSG

TributeSG celebrates the arts community’s most senior members, and those who have made a lifetime of contribution to the arts. These artists, administrators, educators, patrons, and champions include many Singapore arts pioneers who laid the foundations of the vibrant arts and cultural scene we enjoy today. The many profiles in TributeSG let us into the minds and worlds of these pioneers, and help us understand our shared arts heritage. When we revisit their works and rediscover their journeys, we learn where we came from and how we came to be. Collectively, their stories tell the tale of the making of a nation’s artistic identity.

In putting together this collection, the TributeSG team consulted an external advisory panel, consisting of Arun Mahiznan, Choo Thiam Siew, J. P. Nathan, K. K. Seet, Kwok Kian Chow, and Iskandar Ismail. Those selected to be profiled in TributeSG met one of the following criteria: they were at least 60 years of age as of 12 Oct 2016, or deceased, or had received national recognition in the form of the Cultural Medallion. This journey of arts archival officially came to a close on 12 Oct 2016, after four years of extensive research, interviews and collation of information graciously provided by the TributeSG pioneers, their families and peers. TributeSG also benefited from enthusiastic help from like-minded friends and organisations who supported Esplanade’s cause—to remember, honour and celebrate Singapore’s arts pioneers.

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