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The Majulah Series: Unearthing Tang Da Wu’s Earth Work

So we kicked off the month of August with the PluraList to celebrate Singapore’s 51st anniversary of independence, and the theme of Singapore -related art carries on with our Majulah Series. It’s Plural’s nod to a few things we’ve found interesting about Singapore contemporary art, and which we hope you’ll love too.

While we generally don’t like to talk about shows that you won’t be able to visit for yourself, Tang Da Wu’s Earth Work which showed at the National Gallery Singapore (NGS) from 22 January 2016 to 29 May 2016, is one of the exceptions to the rule.

It’s an important show quite simply because Tang is an important Singapore artist with a great deal to say. Whether you agree with the state of arts censorship in Singapore or not, Tang was a real trailblazer in his day. A founding member of The Artists Village in the late 1980s in Singapore, Tang created an innovative and experimental sanctuary for artists when there were very few safe spaces for such expression. The Artists Village saw the development in Singapore of innovative new art forms including installation art, performance art and video art.

Those of you who remember Singapore in the 1980s and 1990s, will recall the surge towards economic growth and the upward spiral into the shiny metropolis that we are today. To set the scene a little, Singapore’s  founding father Lee Kuan Yew had made an infamous comment in 1969 that “poetry is a luxury we can’t afford”; which arguably, succinctly summarises the  subsequent attitude in the country towards the arts.  One has to appreciate that a declaration by a child in the late 1980s, that he “wanted to be an artist” would likely get him kicked out of the house.

Kids had to be doctors, lawyers, engineers or accountants; to aim for that office job in our air-conditioned nation, and that was that. Not that there was anything wrong with our economic development (the fruits of which we continue to enjoy today), but in the chase for the material it was only inevitable that a few things got cast by the wayside.

What the job market might have looked like in Singapore, in the 1990s

Fast forward more than 2 decades, and here we are now. The NGS behemoth has sprung forth from the former Singapore Supreme Court and City Hall buildings, and the art world has become rather more known and accepted in Singapore .

Consider then Earth Work, a show in which Tang displays works of art in the form of circles of earth and vestiges of colour from a now re-developed piece of land in Singapore. The original works were made in 1979 when Tang returned to Singapore from his studies in the United Kingdom. He discovered a vacant plot of land near Ang Mo Kio that was soon to be redeveloped for public housing, and decided to use the land in creating various artworks.

How does he do this? In a way that’s really pretty awesome.

In the works  The Product of the Sun and Me and The Product of the Rain and Me, circular patterns form a passageway of sorts, leading an exhibition viewer directly into the gallery space. In The Product of the Sun and Me, the work consisted of ten wooden square boards covered with mud. Tang placed rice paper on top of the board and drew circles in black ink on them. These were then left to bake in the sun, and when the mud cracked, it formed a pattern of fissures across the surface of the boards. In The Product of the Rain and Me, Tang drew circles on the boards using glue. The rain then washed away all the mud that wasn’t covered by the glue, leaving behind thin circles of soil.

(i)  (Left) The Product of the Rain and Me; (ii) (Right) The Product of the Sun and Me

Here are some more works  in which mineral pigments from the earth are used as “paint” on paper, and which are  pretty self –explanatory in their titles.

We don’t need to buy expensive paint from art shops,  just take from the ground and it’s permanent 
One Hundred Per Cent Old Earth Nos. 1 to 7

Tang has often downplayed and even decried the aesthetic value of artworks, commenting publicly that:

An artist should introduce to others what he sees and learns of something. His works should provoke thoughts, not to please the eyes or to entertain, much less for decoration.”

That being said, it’s hard to ignore the haunting beauty of a work such as the Gully Curtains.

Gully Curtains (hanging)

These were the first works to be created in the empty field. Tang had hung pieces of cloth in a gully in the field, with the shortest piece of cloth at the shallowest end, and the longest piece at the deepest end. On each piece, he used black ink to mark out the depth of the gully. The clothes were then left in the gully for 3 months, entirely exposed to the natural elements. What resulted was muddy water stains developing on the cloth, with the “sun, rain, wind and soil becoming the paints of Tang’s new palette”.

The erosion stains on the cloth pieces are yellowish, red and rust-coloured, and are framed by dark ink outlines, reminiscent of traditional Chinese ink paintings. Singapore’s landscapes of course, have no mountains, but Tang’s approximation of them through the utilization of their geological opposites (i.e.  gullies, or holes in the ground), presents a clever reversal of stereotypical  assumptions about Singapore’s geographical makeup, perhaps recalling a time before  urban redevelopment levelled the few remaining hills in the country.

The exhibition was simple and clean. The neutral beige-brown tones of the walls and flooring of the gallery space – whether intentionally or not – mirrored the neutral colours of the artworks in the exhibition. The collective effect was calming and evoked a sense of Japanese Zen aesthetics.

It also provoked other kinds of thoughts.

Particularly, what qualifies a space as being worthy of conservation? The irony in this exhibition is multi-dimensional. Presumably, a space such as Tang’s empty field would certainly not come within the scope of the Singapore authorities’ priorities for conservation, not being of apparent historical importance.

Put another way, what is the value to Singapore, of a single empty field, which  happens to resonate with one Singaporean artist? So what if Tang had grown familiar with looking upon the field, during his trips home from overseas? Does anyone really care?

Well, in this case, the NGS cared!

Clearly, also, the hundreds, if not thousands of visitors who must have walked through the exhibition.

In the pursuit of any collective good, the preferences of the individual must rank second, and yet, all collectives are necessarily composed of individuals. Through Earth Work, Tang upends these distinctions by taking his individual affinity for a plot of vacant land, and propelling it into the collective consciousness of all viewers of the exhibition. What then of other pieces of vacant Singapore land that have slipped unnoticed (by important artists, or otherwise)? Are they any less valuable without the transformative power of artistic adaptation, or endorsement by an institution such as the NGS?

To summarise, the Earth Work show was essentially the deconstructed remnants and echoes of a field re-constituted as “art”, which was found worthy enough for display in an institution of national importance–an institution which had itself escaped the very same fate of physical re-development, that Tang’s field was unable to!

Add to that bewildering dichotomy, the fact that the original Earth Work show had been shut down in 1980, after merely 3 days as no one could understand it; and you’re left with a mess of contradictions that provoke deep thought about the state of Singapore art and society.

I think however, that the little story below summarises it best:

When I visited the show, I had a casual conversation with a gallery attendant in the exhibition room. (As an aside, always chat to the gallery hosts – they have listened to a million docent tours, are probably bored and are full of interesting information).

My gallery host told me that a soil relief in the first square in the series of The Product of the Rain and Me had been unwittingly kicked over by a visitor, which had then resulted in one of the circular reliefs collapsing inwards. Upon receiving the news, Tang had apparently requested that the work be left to remain as it was – in its damaged form – as he felt this added a new dimension to the show.

The Product of the Rain and Me, with a soil relief partially destroyed by an exhibition-goer.

To me, this hushed bit of gossip was a great summary of the clever themes and concepts behind Earth Work.

The show pushes the boundaries of what “art” is and rather poetically challenges viewers to consider their own interaction with the works exhibited and the ideas conveyed. Indeed, one man’s worthless circle of dirt to be knocked down without care, is another man’s version of high art.

Rapid urbanization may be the holy grail to some in Singapore, whereas to others, the echoes and memories of an empty field of red earth may be just as valuable. Modern society may well have developed socio-political institutions to determine the relative validity of these competing norms, but in Earth Work, the power is cleverly and thoughtfully left in the hands of the viewer.

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