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Present Imperfect: Looking into the Soul of the Chinese Ceramic Seal at Oh Chai Hoo’s Marks on Earth at iPRECIATION

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Situated in the far west of Singapore, Jalan Bahar is far-flung and mosquito-ridden. But what I’m doing here makes it well worth a visit: I’m here to learn how to create ceramic seals from artist Oh Chai Hoo, whose decades-long exploration of this unique art form makes him the one to learn from.

Those familiar with the history of seal carving will know that seals are i) traditionally carved into natural stones such as soapstone; ii) used for official reasons and; iii) that the carvings typically bear the users’ names and designations of authority. But the wild and experimental ways in which Chai Hoo approaches this traditional art form imbue his creations with a distinctly contemporary quality.

From the uncommon choice of ceramic as a medium, to his innovative sculpting, glazing and firing techniques, to his incorporation of humour and visual puns, every aspect of his seal carving practice demands a closer look. Lucky us, that we were able to do so at Marks on Earth, his latest solo exhibition at iPRECIATION which exhibited a dazzling array of 120 of his ceramic seals.  

Exhibition view of some of the 120 ceramic seals on view at Oh Chai Hoo’s Marks on Earth at iPRECIATION, which ran from 8 Nov to 2 Dec 2021. Image courtesy of iPRECIATION.
Oh Chai Hoo, Direction of the Wandering Wind 風流浪的方向, 2021. Image credit: iPRECIATION.

I’ll make no secret of the fact that I’m enthralled by Chai Hoo’s work. I’m simply taken by how this self-taught artist manages to masterfully combine calligraphy, seal-carving and ceramics – each a traditional art form with its own rich heritage – and distill moments of poetry from it.

In Art Forum gallerist Marjorie Chu’s words, “Chai Hoo is a scholar artist who excels in all levels of his artistic scholarship: calligraphy, sculptural forms, seal carving and handling of ceramics, especially in understanding of glazes.”

Many of his works also resonate in how they portray our human existence as being fragile, fraught, yet somehow still worthwhile.

So when this opportunity to learn from the artist presented itself, I jumped at it. From sculpting to glazing, raku firing to seal carving, the two-day workshop covered, in broad strokes, many of the processes that the artist undertakes to create the intricate works on view at Marks on Earth. Perhaps more importantly, they also gave me the chance to learn more about the artist’s approach towards his art and life.

With deft hands, the artist demonstrates the basics of how to manipulate the clay to sculpt a ceramic seal. In the foreground are some of his own pieces that have already been through the firing process.
Plucking a rock from the nearby garden, the artist shares how he uses found objects from nature to create the organic textures in his work. I borrow his techniques to create a series of my own ceramic seals (which, for better or for worse, ended up looking like fan art of Chai Hoo’s work.)

Distilling the melancholy of human existence 

But first, let’s take a closer look at some of his works at Marks on Earth. Each of the 30 works in the main gallery comprises three parts: calligraphy, the sculptural seal itself, and its imprint. The calligraphy features excerpts that Chai Hoo has selected from writer Chow Yian Ping’s essays. He explains that he is drawn to her work because of how they express essential qualities of the human experience.

One such example is A Sweet Moment 一抹香 which, roughly translated, reads:

“When the time comes and I cannot find your footprints on the sand, would my tears fall as the breeze blows, or would I sing happily to the blue sky? Every one of us was once the wind beneath someone’s wings; a sweet scent passing through someone’s life. At the moment that our paths crossed, we changed. Perhaps one day, this world will end.”

The ceramic seal, stamped imprint, and calligraphy from Oh Chai Hoo’s A Sweet Moment 一抹香, 2021. Image courtesy of iPRECIATION.

I’m told that Chow’s writings are not always so melancholic, but you might think otherwise if your first (or only) encounter with her writing is through the artist’s lens. His choice of excerpts tend to foreground a sense of loss and fragility that seems to be inherent in human relationships. That said, the mood is not monolithically pensive. Moments of lightness are interspersed throughout, such as in Like a Tree 如果是一棵树 (2021):

Oh Chai Hoo, Like a Tree 如果是一棵树,2021. Translated, the text reads: “In the afterlife, if you became a tree, would the love of your past life travel through thousands of miles of drizzling rain to see you? Or would they become a tree, to stand tall beside you so that one day your branches and leaves might entwine together and embrace. No words were said, and you both were proud, but neither ever giving up on relying and searching for each other.” Image courtesy of iPRECIATION.

Looking closely, one notices that the artist has embellished the character for “rain 雨” with more droplets than it requires, as though to emphasise the strength of the storm:

Close-up of calligraphy in Like a Tree 如果是一棵树,2021.

It’s a light-hearted gesture that capitalises on the pictorial nature of the Mandarin script to create a visual pun. In doing so, the artist creates a delightful contrasting cadence to the more stoic and romantic sentiments expressed in the text itself.

Expressing a full spectrum of human emotion

The other 90 of Chai Hoo’s ceramic seals form one collective series, which the artist has created over the past 18 years. Taken together, there is a full spectrum of emotion and experiences encapsulated in these blocks. From the contemplative to the sorrowful, amusement to exasperation, they are a record of Chai Hoo’s years through the vagaries of emotion that he has felt and then memorialised in stone. 

Installation view of the series of 90 seals, which line the four walls of the inner gallery. Image credit: iPRECIATION.

Many pieces contain a diaristic element. For instance, Hoping to meet often in leisure 但愿无事常相见 (2013) was carved on the 21st day after a dear friend of his had passed on. While the warm brown tones of the pit-fired seal connote the sombreness of the occasion, the ornate script that the artist has chosen for this carving uplift the words with a sense of elegance.

To me, it is not only the words that convey Chai Hoo’s regard for his friend and hopes of reuniting with him one day. The bridge-like form of the seal and the curlicue script each add a different dimension of emotion to the piece.  

Hoping to meet often in leisure 但愿无事常相见 (2013), one of 90 ceramic seals in a series. Despite the small scale of each seal, the specificity of the artist’s aesthetic choices conveys volumes.

By contrast, other works express emotions of a very different timbre. The carving on Shortsighted and with grass-like hair 目光如豆,头上长草  (2013) depicts a cross-eyed, stumpy-headed caricature. The artist cheekily remarks, “I carved this to insult someone.” Read in tandem with the form of the seal, which resembles a stack of books in an officious-looking jade glaze, this piece seems to imply that no amount of studiousness can improve this certain someone’s empty-headedness.

Shortsighted and with grass-like hair 目光如豆,头上长草  (2013).

Whether by way of visual puns, contrasting aesthetic elements or complementing text with texture, the relationships between the components of each work make them greater than the sum of their parts.

Soul of the seal

It thus goes without saying that there is much to pay attention to despite the relatively small scale of each work. Every seal is a miniature sculpture with its own unique visual qualities, and each piece of calligraphy expressively captures the artist’s headspace at the time of writing with their idiosyncratic brushstrokes.

The artist at work, imbuing the miniature ceramic sculpture with what he considers to be its ‘soul’. Image credit: iPRECIATION.

To the artist, however, the essential element – what he considers to be “the soul of the seal” – is ironically the one that remains obscured to the viewer: the seal carving. It can only be perceived indirectly, through the scanned imprint that is displayed underneath the seal.

“A miniature world resides within this square of the seal,” Chai Hoo explains. “It is this selected fragment that contains the essential element of the text, and it has the ability to fire up your imagination or understanding of the text.” As such, one question that has been plaguing the artist is how the works might better be presented so as to afford the seal carving a more central place of importance.

The imprinted carving is often obscured by shadow, such that the calligraphy and sculptural seal occupy the forefront of the viewer’s attention.

Although he has yet to find a satisfactory answer to this question, Chai Hoo is happy that he was able to share the traditional arts that he’s so passionate about with a wider audience, through Marks on Earth.

iPRECIATION Gallery Manager, Brian Foong, echoes this sentiment, noting that “the audiences were fascinated by how the exhibition was curated and presented… Many new visitors who visited the show were referred by their friends, and we are delighted to welcome them to the community.”

A bridge between the traditional and contemporary

It makes me think of the artist’s reflection: “In recent years, I’ve started to have this realisation that my role is like that of a bridge builder. I’m able to build connections that enable others to explore further possibilities in the traditional arts, whatever that may be. I’m happy to be able to do this.”

Chai Hoo is currently the Vice-President of Siaw-Tao Chinese Seal Carving Calligraphy & Painting Society, an independent art organisation devoted to encouraging an appreciation of the aforementioned traditional techniques. In this role, he organises exhibitions and conducts skill-sharing sessions such as the one that I attend.

“True perfection encompasses imperfection” 

I am working on shaping a block of clay when the artist walks past. He regards the piece for a moment and suggests, “You might want to stop here. It has an interesting shape that is unlikely to come by.” A few days later when we chat at his home studio, we revisit this notion of knowing when to stop.

“It’s important to know when to quit when one is ahead,” Chai Hoo says. “I am not pursuing perfection, because the perfection that we seek cannot be found in this world. The Taoists believe that perfection lies at the 70% mark, rather than 100%, because true perfection encompasses imperfection.”

The artist’s work desk. Image credit: iPRECIATION.

Though Chai Hoo identifies as a free-thinker, he is no stranger to Buddhist and Taoist philosophies of impermanence, change and being present in the moment. They underlie his creative processes, which are very much driven by intuition and spontaneity. “As the Buddhists put it, our thoughts are seldom an unending flow, but a series of broken snippets. They speak of living in the moment: this is how I approach my work,” he shares.

“This is why I don’t plan my compositions beforehand when I paint. For that same reason, if my knife slips and breaks a line when I’m carving my seals, so be it. I wouldn’t try to repair it, because it’s simply a consequence of the moment; how it was meant to be.”

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Marks on Earth was on view at iPRECIATION from 8 Nov to 2 Dec 2021. The series of 90 seals will be on view in the inner gallery until 31 Dec 2021. For more information, visit: https://www.ipreciation.com/marks-on-earth

Quotes from the artist have been translated from Mandarin to English.

Feature image: Portrait of the artist in his studio. Image credit: iPRECIATION.

The artist at work. Image credit: iPRECIATION.
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