Light / Dark mode

The Majulah Series: Monkeying Around with Artistic Licence

Imitation is often said to be the best form of flattery, but where does one draw the dividing line?

This was a question that I asked myself when I looked at  Chan Hampe Galleries’ exhibition Monkey Business a couple of weeks back. The show was made up of works by artists Samuel Chen and Justin Loke of Vertical Submarine and sought to satirise forgeries of paintings by Nanyang artist Chen Wen Hsi, who was famed for his depictions of gibbons. Here’s an example of what Chen Wen Hsi’s gibbons look like:

The real deal

The humour in the exhibition was evident. The gibbons portrayed did ridiculous things that Chen Wen Hsi’s gibbons would never have engaged in – like buying Toto, commuting on the MRT and gambling with cards.

commuting 2016 jpg
Commuting (2016)
Lottery (2016)re

The fine Chinese calligraphy that adorned the works translated into incongruously jarring vulgarities, such as “Stupid monkeys only know how to drink and gamble”.

Check out this bunch of gangsters:

Fighting I (2014)

What does one make of a show like this?

Well, I loved it.

Chen Wen Hsi’s gibbons are a real landmark in the roadmap of Singapore’s art history. The very fact that they are capable of being parodied, speaks to the sophistication of our art space and (I think anyway),  cements Chen’s position, as a Singapore art pioneer. To go even further, the fact that the element of parody was significant enough to be appreciated by local viewers, speaks volumes about the increasing awareness of Singapore’s art history amongst the general population. The themes of the show were equally important and represented what we love best about art – its ability to provoke thought while entertaining through wit and beauty.

The very title of exhibition adds another level of satirical resonance – Monkey Business it may well be, but gibbons are of course apes, not monkeys.

The relaxed terms of reference cheekily mirror the concept of counterfeit art works – they are almost the same in many ways, but not quite, unless viewed with an expert eye.

We had heard anecdotally that not everyone appreciated this homage to fakes – the view being expressed that the show was disrespectful to Chen Wen Hsi’s legacy.

Was it though?

One on hand, we think it certainly thumbs its nose at elite concepts of exclusive artistic ownership. As the artist Samuel Chen himself observed:

“I find it a little arbitrary, to say that if the strokes in a painting are not done a certain way, then the piece is not by Chen Wen Hsi. As someone who paints, I know that my strokes can change because of my mood and temperament.

I have also seen a few of these Chen Wen Hsi fakes. I feel that they are actually very good works. I think that one should just enjoy looking at pictures for what they are and not who painted them.”

The question of artistic merit being tied to a “brand name” is not a new one. If two artists painted the exact same gibbon, but one artist happened to be Chen Wen Hsi, is it not unfair that Chen’s work would be lauded simply because of his past history and reputation?

Perhaps as a statement in support of this line of thinking, and as a nod to the many “faceless” forgers in the market, Samuel Chen and Justin Loke refused to name the artists of the individual art works in Monkey Business (even to buyers), requiring that the exhibition be generally attributed to them both.

On the flip side of things, why shouldn’t Chen Wen Hsi’s gibbons be more well-regarded in the art market? He was a true Singapore art pioneer, and part of the seminal group of Nanyang artists. Arguably, his brushstrokes come replete with the abundant history of his groundbreaking art practice. Thus, even if his work should happen to physically resemble a forger’s work, the two works can never be judged as equal, simply because the forger is not Chen Wen Hsi.

This argument is perhaps easier to make with an artist such as Chen Wen Hsi, whose physical mastery and seminal contributions to Singapore’s art practices cannot be denied. Consider someone like Damien Hirst, whose spot paintings appear to sell purely on the back of his reputation and branding (i.e. he doesn’t personally create the works). How do we then separate the influence of the art market from the intrinsic value of a work? And yet, if the thinking is that art is meant to be consumed, is such a separation even significant or valuable?

The question of influence and inspiration, bleeding into barefaced thievery, is not a new one in Singapore art. Earlier this year, the local press picked up on supposed “copies” of Singapore artist Jane Lee’s works, featuring squiggles of paint, the layering of which was meant to create a fabric-like effect.

Jane Lee’s work Coiling V (Image courtesy of the Straits Times)
A work similar to Jane Lee’s, executed by Monica Delgado (Image courtesy of the Straits Times)

Jane Lee herself, upon viewing the similar work created by Manila-born Delgado, had remarked that she had felt “really angry”, commenting that:

“When I saw them on Instagram, I felt I was looking at my own paintings.”

Even government institutions it seems, are not immune from the vagaries of notions of appropriation. Last year, SportSG made a “goodwill payment” to Singapore artist Lee Wen for creating a public  installation in the Sports Hub for the Southeast Asian Games, that very closely resembled Lee’s previous work Ping Pong Go Round.

Lee Wen pictured with his work Ping Pong Go-Round at the Singapore Prudential Eye exhibition in 2015 (Photo courtesy of Marina Bay Sands & Channel News Asia).
The round ping pong table displayed at the Singapore Sports Hub (Photo courtesy of the Straits Times)

(The matter was eventually resolved amicably. In a particular stroke of public relations genius, the final settlement package with Lee Wen  involved the production of another edition of Ping Pong Go -Round, to be produced to Lee’s specifications and to be donated to a museum).

The theft of an artist’s ideas and techniques is no doubt deplorable. However, it cannot be denied that both Ping Pong and Delgado- Gate were instrumental in drumming up publicity for both Jane Lee and Lee Wen, and in a way, crystallising their relative positions as artists of eminence.

In any event, the crux of the issue is this – who can really claim to have a monopoly on ideas? In Lee Wen’s case, arguments were (rather insultingly) made that a horseshoe-shaped ping pong table was such a “simple” and generic thing that it could easily be copied. Similarly, Jane Lee’s circular constructs, are essentially just that. Circular structures on a flat surface. Does it then make sense for her works to command five-figure sums, while similar pieces made by an unknown artist languish in obscurity? Perhaps it does, if one agrees with prominent gallerist Sundaram Tagore who observed that:

“(Jane’s) works are the result of years of study, experimenting, practice and struggle. It is not a simple thing to create ground- breaking work such as hers.”

In a similar vein, a collector of Jane Lee’s art, Mr Jackson See, commented that:

“A lot of people copy Jane Lee’s style even in graduation shows.”

He agreed that in the Delgado instance, there were too many “striking similarities” but also noted that:

“if you are no good, no one copies you”

He then added that serious collectors will always be able to tell an original from a copy.

To take a rather more cynical view of things – collectors would make claims of superior knowledge, wouldn’t they?

Would they not be personally interested in ensuring that the “authenticity” of an artist’s work is given prime importance, in order to protect the value of their own investment? Is the Emperor really wearing any new clothes at all?

Perhaps the monkeys had it right all along, in that any art acquisition is really no better than a gambler’s punt:

gambling I 2014.jpg
Gambling I (2014)

How does this bring us back to Samuel Chen and Justin Loke’s monkey-gibbons?

Well – the exhibition makes us think about all of the above, doesn’t it? It makes us consider what really draws us to pieces of artwork. Is it intrinsic aesthetic beauty and conceptual thought, or is it a fancy brand name?

If you enjoyed Monkey Business, while smugly subscribing to the former line of thinking, well, think again – because haven’t Samuel Chen and Justin Loke just appropriated an aspect of Chen Wen Hsi’s own hard-won reputation for their own financial gains?

Because art is such an intensely personal thing, perhaps the most honest way of appreciating an art work is to simply recognise your own vested interest and be straightforward and authentic about it. If you want it primarily for investment purposes because you find that a particular body of work is valuable in the art market, then own that approach (so to speak!) and be transparent about it.

Surely, there’s no need to encroach on other players’ domains with pretensions and allusions to the inherent artistic brilliance of your choice? Similarly, if you’re a curator striving to achieve ground-breaking new approaches in artistic experimentation, don’t peg the value of your show to the prices that the works could fetch, because your aims are not fundamentally concerned with monetary returns.

I’m not sure how realistic this approach could be, given the way that the various realms overlap and inform one another, but the counterfeit monkeys sure got me thinking about these big issues. Truly, I could analyse this exhibition to death.

What did I love best about the show though? It sure made me laugh.

Gambling II (2016) – We’re told the lovely calligraphy on this work reads as “fucking monkeys only know how to gamble“. (Image courtesy of Chan Hampe Galleries)

And really, any art work that can so elegantly include “f-words” in its aesthetic rendering, gets our (pruriently Plural) vote of approval!

Support our work on Patreon