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A Crash Course in “Something New Must Turn Up” – Goh Beng Kwan

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Geomancy (c. 1980s) by Singapore Artist Goh Beng Kwan

What does being ahead of your time mean? National Gallery Singapore’s recent exhibition, Something New Must Turn Up: Six Singaporeans After 1965, seeks to answer this question by spotlighting six artists working in post-independence Singapore who were luminaries of their zeitgeist. This expansive exhibition (which actually functions more like six solos) highlights how the diverse practices of artists Chng Seok Tin, Goh Beng Kwan, Jaafar Latiff, Lin Hsin Hsin, Mohammad Din Mohammad and Eng Tow were influential precedents in the Singapore arts scene.

Never heard of the artists before, or feeling bewildered and unfamiliar with this history? Don’t fret – in this series, we bring you through a quick crash course on each of the innovative artists in the exhibition, and take a closer look at one of their ground-breaking works.

Goh Beng Kwan: Nervous City

Who is Goh Beng Kwan?

A key figure in Singapore modern art, Goh Beng Kwan is known for his contributions to collage and abstraction. After having studied under Nanyang Artists Chen Wen Hsi and Cheong Soo Pieng, he was one of the earliest post-war artists in Singapore to be educated in the United States in 1962. There, he was exposed to American art movements such as Abstract Expressionism and mixed media and collage techniques, and was significantly influenced by his experience living in the Big Apple.

Upon returning to Singapore in 1966, he turned to art to express his feelings about Singapore’s rapid urbanisation and development as a newly independent nation. Goh’s practice, spanning over eight decades, drew directly from his cultural, social and lived environments. His distinct artistic style was in turn a big influence on later generations of mixed-media artists in Singapore.

Installation view, Goh Beng Kwan: Nervous City. Image courtesy of National Gallery Singapore.
Installation view, Goh Beng Kwan: Nervous City. Image courtesy of National Gallery Singapore.

What is his work about?

For many of us, the frenetic nature of urban living and the cosmopolitan energy of city centres are not unfamiliar. When I was in London for my studies, I was struck by how parts of the city felt just like Singapore. But back in the 1960s when Goh went to New York City for his studies, he was taken by how “nervous” the city was, with its fast-paced and congested streets – a stark comparison to Singapore back then. He sought to translate his sensorial and visceral responses to his paintings.

Returning after his studies, he saw how Singapore’s vision to become a ‘global city’ with a rapidly growing international economy was yielding similar movements in modernisation and rapid urban renewal. His paintings and collage works attempted to capture what he saw as a disappearing local cultural heritage, and contained a certain nostalgia for what used to be.

He also looked to his Chinese and Peranakan cultural heritage to develop his own artistic identity, incorporating culturally-specific visual language and materials into his mixed media works.

Goh Beng Kwan's Urban Renewal (Sun and Moon) 《市区重建  太阳与月亮》(c. 1970s) is an aerial perspective of the Chinatown district. Image courtesy of National Gallery Singapore.
Goh Beng Kwan’s Urban Renewal (Sun and Moon) 《市区重建  太阳与月亮》(c. 1970s) is an aerial perspective of the Chinatown district. Image courtesy of National Gallery Singapore.

How does he make his work?

First exposed to collage during his studies in the United States, Goh was taught by well-known American painter and collagist Leo Manso to experiment with the inclusion of materials from his surroundings into his paintings.

The act of collage (from the French coller, meaning to glue or stick together) involves cutting and pasting different materials onto a single surface, assembling them into a new whole. Goh often combined collage techniques with expressive painted strokes. He created imagery that was both abstract, and yet referenced the physical world, using collage to allow spontaneity and immediacy in his artistic expression.

Homage to Manso (1964). One of Goh Beng Kwan’s earliest collages, the materials include rice paper, oil paint, rag, tissue paper, metal plate, sand and glue.
Homage to Manso (1964). One of Goh’s earliest collages, the materials include rice paper, oil paint, rag, tissue paper, metal plate, sand and glue.

His later works incorporated a wide variety of materials such as rice paper, tea packaging, pieces of fabric, bamboo, newspaper, and even medical charts. To Goh, these objects were strongly connected to Chinese culture, but were also mundane objects from his everyday life. He was interested in transforming them through collage and paint techniques, to form visually rich surfaces imbued with new meaning and interpretation.

Which work stood out to me?

Upon first glance, Goh’s works follow the same nostalgic path that many students who studied abroad at that time did – pursue a Western education, return to Singapore, and undergo a process of looking back to their cultural roots, lamenting the relentless march of urban progress, and yearning for an ideal, romanticised, pre-industrial past.

Yet we mustn’t forget that the 1960s was really the beginning of Singapore’s transformation to what we know today. Speaking about the destruction of many buildings that were being replaced by newer, modern ones in the name of redevelopment, Goh says, “I think many artists, including myself, felt this loss deeply.”

We also see Goh attempting to reconcile American models of artmaking such as Abstract Expressionism and collage, with a strong desire to find his own voice and style that would eventually come to define his individual aesthetic.

Geomancy (c. 1980s), Goh Beng Kwan. Image courtesy of National Gallery Singapore.
Geomancy (c. 1980s). Image courtesy of National Gallery Singapore.

Perhaps a work that best encapsulates this is Geomancy. Dated to the 1980s, this mixed-media painting visually references the luopan compass used in Chinese geomancy, or as you might know it, feng shui.

Beyond mundane objects from Chinese culture, Goh was also interested in Chinese cosmological traditions, and of course, feng shui is a key Chinese practice in which the forces of qi or energy are used to harmonise one’s dwelling. The luopan is used for this very purpose, and typically has markings to help determine the precise direction for a structure.

Up close with Geomancy.
Up close with Geomancy.

In Geomancy, Goh layers rice paper, Chinese tea paper packaging, fabric, string and soil with dramatic swathes of red, white and black paint to evoke the four quadrants of the luopan and associated Chinese rituals.

While it comes across to me as slightly dated and orientalist today, Geomancy is typical of Goh’s style, in which the interplay of abstract forms, expressive colour and collaged textures blur the distinctions between art and everyday objects, expanding the boundaries of the forms that artmaking could take at that time.

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Curious to see more of Goh Beng Kwan’s works? Something New Must Turn Up: Six Singaporeans After 1965 runs at National Gallery Singapore until 22 August 2021.

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