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Visual Arts

Chua Boon Kee

A fusion of philosophy, culture and modern sculpture


Published: 16 Oct 2019

高瞻远瞩 (foresight) is a traditional Chinese phrase, which means that when individuals stand on higher ground, we have the greatest foresight of everything that we do. Similar to Western visual representations of this concept, I have a strong affinity towards eagles and what it symbolises, and I chose the eagle. Through a more abstract approach, I used steel to construct it. It is perched atop a tree, one wing placed higher than the other, as though it is trying to balance itself. At the highest points, winds are strong, and the eagle uses its wings for balance from time to time, which allows it to look even further ahead.

Title of artwork: A Fine Day After Rain
Medium: Found objects (old kopitiam chairs)
Date: 1 – 28 Sep 2003
Location: Esplanade Concourse

Title of artwork: 春晓 Spring Coming
Medium: Grapevine and timber
Date: 12 Jan – 22 Feb 2009
Location: Esplanade Concourse

Title of artwork: Happy Family of Five, 开心家庭
Medium: Forged Copper
Date: 21 Jul 2012 – Present
On permanent display at the Esplanade Forecourt Garden

Title of artwork: In the Affairs of Cats and Dogs, the Government’s Involved and So Shall We, 猫狗的事,政府管了,我们也管
(part of 13 Steps project)
Medium: Cast Resin, spray-painted (red & white)
Date: 11 Oct 2012 – 1 Jan 2013
Location: Esplanade Concourse

Title of artwork: 驰骋万里, Gallop to Great Distance
Medium: Grapevine and metal
Date: 4 Jul – 28 Sep 2014
Location: Esplanade Concourse


Title of artwork: Foresighting《高瞻远瞩》
(part of 80by80 group exhibition)
Medium: Stainless steel (Grade 316), wood
Date: 13 Oct 2017 – 3 Jan 2018
Location: Esplanade Tunnel

Singapore artist Chua Boon Kee graduated from the Baharuddin Vocational Institute in Singapore in 1973. Following a long career in engineering that included in its latter stages part-time involvement with sculptural projects, Chua became a full-time sculptor in 1996.

Chua has since created over 20 private and public commissioned works. These include his Chinese calligraphy series, metal series, scrap metal series and human sculptural series. Since 1998, Chua has also explored diverse themes using various forms of traditional materials from wood and stone to new industrial materials like metal and resin, with his experiences with industrial materials influencing his artistic output.

Constantly venturing into new artistic realms, his works are widely known for the modern stylisation of sculptural language with traditional and cultural elements. One of Chua’s earlier works, A Fine Day After Rain—the title coming from a Chinese idiom meaning “fine weather after the rain”—highlights the artist’s enlightened approach to interpretations of the traditional. For this work, Chua chose to use recycled materials, some 20-odd old kopitiam chairs from the 1950s discarded by a Chinese association. The chairs were stacked up one after another in a deliberate manner to present an intrinsic depiction of the form and fluidity of poetry.

From fusing Chinese culture and philosophy with modern sculpture, Chua is also particularly known for his Chinese calligraphy-inspired sculpture series. An example is 春晓 Spring Coming—a classic Chinese term interpreted in a contemporary environment. The exhibit featured densely twisted organic grapevine branches that resembled Chinese calligraphic letters dangling from the Esplanade Concourse rafters, creating linear columns of three-dimensional Chinese characters to welcome spring.

Such themes, displaying a thoughtful rootedness to Chinese culture and customs, were also prevalent in 驰骋万里 Gallop to Great Distance (a Chinese idiom meaning “gallop to great distances and develop one’s talent and ability freely”), an art installation of nine stylised horses sculpted from gnarled grapevines that were gently twisted and woven, an acknowledgement of sorts to the then Year of the Horse in the Chinese Zodiac.

The weaving of the grapevines, like 春晓 Spring Coming, was reminiscent of Chinese calligraphic brush strokes. The grapevines were held up by metal wires instead of being placed on conventional pedestals, creating a kinetic and poetic beauty that provides a twist to traditional calligraphy. 驰骋万里 Gallop to Great Distance demonstrated that certain entrenched beliefs can take on new artistic interpretations like how Chua’s unorthodox choice of technique and medium creates a modern sculptural expression.

Aside from the use of traditional materials, Chua also continues to work with new industrial materials such as various metals, copper and resin. He explored the abstraction or simplification of form in Happy Family of Five (开心家庭). Carved from a large block of forged copper from China, Chua formed abstract figurines, to resemble a family portrait.

Presented in traditional naturalistic style, Happy Family of Five was commissioned in conjunction with Esplanade’s 10th anniversary celebrations in 2012, and situated in Esplanade Forecourt Garden, where families and friends gather.

In 2018, in conjunction with Esplanade's 15th anniversary, Chua was one of the 38 Singapore artists invited to create a unique piece of art out of a wooden frame measuring 80cm x 80cm for a group exhibition titled 80by80, featuring the artists who have journeyed with Esplanade over the last 15 years. It was the very first time that Esplanade held a public online auction for these 38 artworks, where all proceeds went to Esplanade's free programmes, including the centre's visual arts exhibitions. Chua’s artwork was titled Foresighting 《高瞻远瞩》 and it represented his interest in cultural symbolism. Chua decided on using steel, a material he worked best with, while drawing inspiration from a traditional Chinese phrase, presented through the symbolism of an eagle.

While challenging himself to develop new themes and explore the use of more materials, Chua has also expressed interest in addressing contemporary issues and concerns through his works.

In the Affairs of Cats and Dogs, the Government’s Involved and So Shall We (猫狗的事,政府管了,我们也管) was a project which comprised 200 life-sized resin sculptures of cats and dogs, modelled after actual animals and painted in the national colours of red and white. The exhibition addressed the theme of animal welfare, in the hope of creating awareness of pet abandonment and the growing stray population in Singapore. The project was also part of Esplanade’s 13 Steps visual arts initiative project sponsored by City Developments Limited where Chua’s work emerged as the overall favourite proposed artwork out of four.

I was inspired to do In the Affairs of Cats and Dogs, the Government’s Involved and So Shall We in 2012 after reading about an incident that took place in the same year, in which a puppy was found abandoned at an HDB void deck. A lady, worried that the dog would starve, came by daily to feed it in the hope that a new owner would come by to adopt the stray puppy. A few days later, it was taken away by the SPCA, which informed her that the dog would be euthanised if it was not adopted within a month. I hoped for the exhibition to increase public awareness of stray cats and dogs in our communities.

In a continuation of this theme, Chua also introduced a different treatment in the stylisation of form in his work, to have a home. Comprising 120 fiberglass sculptures of cats and dogs, the installation explicitly addressed the way the stray animal population in Singapore is managed through neutering, whilst emphasising the idea of giving a homeless animal a home. The forms and structure of the animal figures were deliberately made less realistic than the sculptures in In the Affairs of Cats and Dogs, the Government’s Involved and So Shall We.

Chua says, "With to have a home, I wanted a more general representation of cats and dogs as well as to introduce the Trap-Neuter-Release-Manage (TNRM) programme…It is different from the previous installation, in that to have a home can be considered a more focused treatment of the issue. The cartoon-like style allows for distinctions of colour, the distinction between clipped and unclipped ears, as well as a representation of the percentage of the ideal sterilisation rate projected by the TNRM programme. It strengthens the message of the exhibition."

The observation of culture and environment is essential to Chua’s artistic interpretations using the language of sculpture, with his works often reflecting the juxtaposition of modern and traditional, the stylised abstract and the sensible actual.

Visual Arts at Esplanade

Commissioned, curated and thematically developed by our Visual Arts team, Esplanade's quarterly exhibitions feature established and emerging artists whose contemporary Asian artistic expressions not only chronicle the issues and sentiments of the region, but also offer vital insight into the complexities of our changing cultural landscapes and identities. These shorts essays and interviews act as complementary material to the exhibitions, allowing for a richer and fuller perspective on the artists and their practice.

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