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A Crash Course in “Something New Must Turn Up” – Lin Hsin Hsin

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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.

Lin Hsin Hsin @speed of thought

Who is Lin Hsin Hsin?

To be perfectly honest, it’s hard to tell who Lin Hsin Hsin is. Whilst researching for this article, I feel like I have a better idea of who Lin Hsin Hsin claims to be – an “IT visionary and inventor” 20 years ahead of her time, “pioneer” in the use of digital media in art-making, setting up the “first virtual museum in the world”, among many other grandiose claims.

At best, they are dubious claims; at worst, completely misleading and fallacious. For example, it’s questionable what Lin’s “museum” entailed beyond a run-of-the-mill website. It’s possible that in the 1990s, this was the height of technological innovation and there was some conceptual ambiguity in interpreting digital space as a museum. Lin’s museum had some consideration of spatial navigation through clicking links and pages, with ‘spaces’ such as a café, gallery, theatre and shop (populated with her artworks and poems, of course).

On the other hand, it would be stretching the definition of a museum. Furthermore, to say that her website established in 1994 was the “first virtual museum” is not entirely accurate either. Other similar “online museums” such as the Museum of Computer Art (MOCA) was founded in 1993, while the WebMuseum, Paris was also established in 1994.

Lin Hsin Hsin Art Museum | Wayback Machine 1997
A screenshot of the Lin Hsin Hsin Art Museum as captured by the Wayback Machine in 1997. Image credit: Lin Hsin Hsin via Wayback Machine.

What do we really know about Lin? Well, she was academically educated in mathematics in NUS and received a postgraduate degree in computer science at Newcastle University, England. She also trained under Nanyang artists Liu Kang and Cheong Soo Pieng, and studied music, printmaking and papermaking. Like the other artists in the exhibition, her works spans multiple mediums and techniques, with the exception that she approaches artmaking through the lens of technology and computing.

The exhibition at National Gallery focuses on her earlier works from the 1970s to 1994, comprising oil paintings and paper-based works, while also showcasing some of her later digital works. It must be noted that the artist expressly requested that no photography is allowed in the exhibition, for fear of intellectual property and copyright infringement. Hence, this article won’t feature any photographs from the show, beyond the few official media photos. Interestingly, her birthdate is also not listed in the exhibition, related to Personal Data Protection Act concerns – yet a quick Google search reveals that she was born in 1952. It stands to reason then that her purported “digital innovations” back then perhaps were relatively new developments in Singapore’s art scene, such as digital painting in 1994 and web art in 1996.

At the same time, I can’t help but question how many of these are nice-sounding labels that make the works sound grander than they actually are – for example, Lin’s so-called invented genre of “In-Camera Paintings (ICP)”, “highly abstracted images [made] by moving the camera in a choreographed manner” with “no extra hardware or software, but simply the scientific principle that light is colour”, simply amounts to shaking the camera whilst taking a photo, resulting in a blurry, abstracted image. However, for the sake of this article, I’ll focus on Lin’s earlier paintings rather than her digital works, which reflected a thoughtful and sensitive treatment of the medium of oil painting.

What is her work about?

Lin’s earlier works and paintings were concerned with philosophical notions of time, space, movement, and the fleeting nature of human existence. In particular, her enduring fascination with the solar system and outer space manifested in a series of 20 captivating paintings from the late 1970s to early 1980s, titled Man & His Universe. They explored the laws, mechanics and phenomena of planets, galaxies and the cosmos, and they attempted to capture otherworldly atmospheres and the infinitude of the universe.

Man and His Universe (1982) | NGS
One of the few photos we have from the show, Conversation. Man and His Universe (1982). Image courtesy of National Gallery Singapore.

However, I highly recommend going to the exhibition to see another painting titled Solar Emission (1982) (which I don’t have a picture of) ­– in a similar fashion, Lin skillfully incorporates torn jute with textured, painted surfaces, evoking the tumultuous terrain of extra-terrestrial atmospheres, interstellar clouds of dust and gas, as well as intense radiation and energy from the sun.

Many of her paintings, such as The Computer as Architect (1977), depict elements from computing and software parts, claiming to have predicted the role of computers in architecture (and heralding modern day computer-aided design, or CAD systems). Others, such as Distillation of an Apple (1976) claims to have visualised the construction and usage of the Apple computer before its invention. Make of this what you will – beyond the titling, her paintings drew inspiration from the visual forms of early computer circuit boards and CPUs.

How did she make her work?

Although Lin worked across various mediums, the bulk of the earlier works were oil paintings in which the paint was delicately applied, rendering it translucent and ethereal. Manipulating oil paint on canvas to look like watercolour, Chinese ink, pastel and charcoal, her works also often included other materials such as torn jute or canvas, where various reliefs were created to convey density and texture.

Lin Hsin Hsin @ the speed of thought | NGS
Exhibition view of Lin Hsin Hsin @the speed of thought. Image courtesy of National Gallery Singapore.

In the mid-1980s, Lin’s interest in the complexities of three-dimensional art led her to sculpt with paper. A series of relief collages, constructed with strips of torn painted paper, express her interest in creating a sense of movement and rhythm. From her Aqua series, Lin manipulates the paper’s surface and tactility in order to suggest waves and flowing water.

Lin’s later digital works in the 1990s used digital technology and mathematic equations to generate artworks that mimicked conventional artistic mediums such as pencil and pastel. She also composed music and wrote poetry with digital music tools and self-written programmes.

Lin Hsin Hsin | Dendrogram
Exhibition view of Lin Hsin Hsin @the speed of thought. Image courtesy of National Gallery Singapore. In the exhibition, a data visualisation of all the subjects that Lin has ever attempted in her practice is mapped in a dendrogram (right).

Which work stood out to me?

Ahead of Time (1991) from Lin’s Time series reveals Lin’s enduring interest in the notion of time. It also formed the basis of her exhibition, From Time to Time at National Museum Art Gallery Singapore and a volume of poetry with the same title, both in 1991. As an abstract concept, how did Lin consider what time looks like and what visual forms it might take?

Lin Hsin Hsin | Ahead of Time, 1991|NGS
Lin Hsin Hsin, Ahead of Time, 1991. Image courtesy of National Gallery Singapore.

One considers historical time and memory, time that has passed. Then again, the straight arrow of linear time is one that is operational in our everyday lives, but one can speculate if, indeed, time only marches forwards. Perhaps it’s about the speed of time – like the title of the exhibition, speed characterises technological innovation, accelerated progress and being ahead of the curve.

Ahead of Time (1991) suggests an abstract visualisation of this sentiment, evoking a flurry and dynamism of movement. Her other paintings in the Time series, titled Layers of Time (1989) and In Appreciation of Time (1991), are also expressive interpretations of time’s complexities.

Lin Hsin Hsin | In Appreciation of Time (1991) | NGS
Gallery view – on the right is In Appreciation of Time (1991). Image Courtesy of National Gallery Singapore

At the end of the day, after viewing the exhibition and reading more about Lin, I feel a stronger resonance to works in which Lin didn’t stake her claim for digital innovation. In fact, it’s in her philosophical and contemplative paintings which I find a deeper and more genuine connection. In Lin’s expressions of the vast infinitude of cosmological time, and her evocative renderings of outer space and otherworldly phenomena, we inhabit but a small blip in time and space in the endless void of the universe. Terrifying? Maybe just slightly. But a truly universal and enduring reflection that will stand the test of time.

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

Update as of 6 Aug 2021: Please note that Solar Emission has been replaced with another work, Asteroid, but both paintings are from the same series of works, Man and His Universe.

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