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When Ruben Met Jason (and Tracy)

I recently attended the second session of Audience with an Artist, which is a monthly artist talk programme organised by the Singapore Arts Club (SAC). This ongoing series was first launched in August 2018, and each session sees two contemporary artists coming together to speak a little about themselves and what they do.

As the name suggests, the programme is conducted in front of an audience, with a moderator present to help move the discussion along. The SAC’s intention is to connect artists with people who may not be from the arts community—people just like me.

Held at Gillman Barracks to coincide with its 6th-anniversary celebrations, the second of these events was moderated by  Tracy Phillips, director of creative agency Ppurpose and local It-girl. She facilitated the discussion between Jason Lim, an established ceramicist and performance artist with nearly three decades of experience, and Ruben Pang, a young painter who, despite his youth, has already held several solo exhibitions all around the world.

From left to right: Tracy, Jason and Ruben

If it was the SAC’s intention to present a contrast between the two artists, it succeeded beautifully. Jason and Ruben were like yin and yang. The former, with his clean-shaven head, gentle smile and self-deprecating humour, exuded an almost Zen-like quality when he spoke, while Ruben, with his provocative speeches and serious philosophies about life, was a riot to listen to.

In a span of two hours, the pair openly shared their inspirations, aspirations, vulnerabilities, and their thought and work processes. From the commercial aspects of their trade to their opinions of other artists, there was nothing the artists wouldn’t share. I had, by the end of the session, a sense of having witnessed something surprisingly intimate. Ruben had at one point, perhaps realising his own candour, said: “Nothing [said] here will be taken out of context, right?”

Like with other artist talks, we started off conventionally enough. We discovered that Jason gets inspiration for his performance works (which are a time-based kind of art), from static images in his head. Ruben, by contrast, is inspired by moving images from films he has seen or books that he has read.

The audience also commiserated with the duo over the realities of being full-time artists in Singapore. Said, Ruben:

 “In terms of infrastructure and to have the agency to make works, you’re quite set [in Singapore]. To thrive as an artist and to have a career to live off [here], that’s a different thing.”

Just like old friends, we were able to listen in on their insecurities. Jason shared that,

“Sometimes you see other people’s works in big shows and you feel they don’t deserve to be in them. But then you aren’t in the big show yourself, and you start to wonder why. That’s when our anxieties start to creep in and we become less confident in our work. We break down bit by bit until we start not to want to work so much anymore.”

Jason Lim, Balancing the World (2016). Locally, Jason is better known for his ceramics than his performance art. His ceramic works are more often sculptural rather than functional. (Image courtesy of Jason Lim)

We also heard about their success stories. Jason commented:

“When I perform, and everyone is together with me during the duration of the performance, I feel this is how my performance becomes successful. Because we shared time together. I feed off [the audience’s] energy and I give it back to them through my work.”

Jason Lim, Under the Shadow of the Banyan Tree Part 2 (2018). This performance work by Jason took place over the course of six days and went on for six hours each day. Clay was used to recreate the forms of the banyan tree’s aerial roots. (Image courtesy of Jason Lim)

There were interesting titbits gleaned like Ruben’s preference for the straight-talking world of the army, where he was conscripted as a soldier for two years, as compared to the fine arts world where people tend to be less forthcoming (“I prefer a snake I can see”), or Jason’s comical reasoning for why he doesn’t prepare his materials for his performances until the very last minute (“My luggage isn’t big enough”).

Regardless of their many dissimilarities, both artists found common ground in the notion that political and social messages have no place in their art. For Jason, this was just a natural transition having gone through a phase of politicising his works when he was younger. At the time, he was mainly performing overseas and eventually realised it wasn’t meaningful to air Singapore’s “dirty laundry” outside of the country. Now, he creates works for their aesthetic value.

For Ruben, he prefers his paintings to be “sophisticated entertainment” and doesn’t see how his life experience accords him the right to speak for anybody.

Eromenos – Role Reversal (2016). Ruben describes his paintings as looking like plasma: “The thing about plasma is also the malleability of it. Paint is very malleable and it takes such a long time to dry; it can shift at any point in time.” (Image courtesy of Ruben Pang).

One of the more noteworthy topics raised in the evening was about how the artists wanted people to interpret their art. This is something which I’ve always wondered about. Having virtually no art background to speak of, I’ve always felt wholly inadequate in art galleries and museums. My thought process goes something like this:  What exactly should I be seeing in this installation? Is everyone understanding this piece the way Im understanding it? No wait, I dont actually understand this at all!

Jason reassures us—me—that he doesn’t care how others interpret his art:

“When people ask me what my work is about, I throw them back the question and ask them what they see. They will tell me all these different things and I’ll just go, ‘Exactly, that’s what this is all about!’ What they see is what it is. The different interpretations that people can come up with add so many more meanings to my work. I would rather have that, than impose one way to see it.”

Ruben was no less encouraging:

“If you’re not from the arts, your opinion matters. You’re welcome to have a judgement. I hope at the end of it, after any sort of engagement with the arts, what you walk away with is self-knowledge. And that’s an artistic way to live your life.”

Ruben Pang, Light and Divine Winds (2016). Ruben’s paintings take on an ethereal quality, with their bold but fluid strokes and kaleidoscopic brush of colours. (Image courtesy of Ruben Pang)

Save for a short question-and-answer segment towards the end, the entire session had mainly consisted of the audience listening while the artists talked.

I had come into this expecting something more like a conversation with input from the audience. However, despite the seemingly passive role I was cast in, I appreciated that it freed me to focus and reflect on what the artists had shared. Besides, real listening can never be strictly passive anyway.

As I walked home, armed with a new perspective about artists and the art world—well, mainly that not everyone in it is a pompous prick—I allowed myself to believe that perhaps I too had undergone an artistic journey during my brief time at the SAC.


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