Review of Tang Da Wu’s solo exhibition Heroes, Islanders. Published in The Star, 19 Feb 2006.

Tang Da Wu Heroes Islanders

CREATING something usually starts with a gesture. Novels begin with the first keystroke of a keyboard, paintings with a flick of the wrist (or pushing the button of a spray can – gestures being as myriad as the whims of artists).

Walking into Tang Da Wu’s Heroes, Islanders on exhibition at Valentine Willie Fine Art, Kuala Lumpur, I see a body of work that is an accumulation of gestures in their most simple and powerful form.

Tang Da Wu’s (b 1943, Singapore) artistic practice spans some 20 years of provocative and poetic gestures. He is known for his confrontational yet humorous performance pieces that address the conditions of urban society and environmental degradation.

In response to the Singapore Government’s clamp-down on performance art in 1994, he attended the opening of the government-sponsored Singapore Art 95 where he shook hands with then President Ong Teng Cheong while wearing a jacket with “Don’t Give Money To the Arts” embroidered on the back. His gestures, while direct and idealistic, are not without wit.

Although Tang’s practice is no longer centred on performance, the works in his current exhibition retain the suggestion of energetic and vital action. Heroes, Islanders is an installation of ink paintings on paper. These paintings were created not by carefully controlled brushstrokes, but through an intuitive process that included the scooping and pouring of ink on dampened, handmade sheets.

Unlike traditional Chinese ink paintings, these works are far from precious. Yet the sheer simplicity of the process and materials allows the gestures of the artist to become the art. The paintings as objects are merely a trace, a documentary of a series of actions sustained over time.

If actions speak, then what are the subjects that emerge from this process? As the title suggests, they are faces of Tang’s heroes and islanders – portraits that are personal, societal and metaphysical.

I use the term “portraits” here as loosely as possible, because they do not appear to depict specific persons. The flow and bleeding of ink have distorted the physical individuality of these faces yet brought to the fore characteristics with which we as an audience are intimately familiar. We can pick out expressions of indignation, confusion and sadness as well joy, exuberance and innocence. Taken in their entirety, these works serve as a portrayal of Singapore’s human condition.

An “intuitive” way of making art can be problematic. It can elevate the artist to tortured, heroic genius, in which every odd splatter of paint is ripe with metaphysical innuendo. But in Tang’s case, the spontaneous or chanceful gesture is not used as an artistic end in itself. We are not pushed to find some deeper meaning in a meaningless blob, but to reflect on the different methods an artist uses to translate what he or she perceives into statements that enchant or captivate us. In Heroes, Islanders, Tang’s use of simple gestures to create potent forms is in utter sympathy with the dignity and honesty of his subjects.

If Tang’s initial process is characterised by instinct and intuition, then the final process of installation in the gallery constitutes a very conscious act. This body of works is actually an on-going project initiated in 2003. The artist has produced well over 150 ink paintings to date. For Heroes, Islanders, Tang selected a number of works to be installed in specific ways. The paintings are mainly arranged in a series of groups, each with a title indicating a certain narrative, such as Get Ready St ValentineThe Supreme GameBumiputera, etc. A few works, like the lovely and expressive Golden Handshake, stand by themselves.

This act of grouping frames the works so that Tang’s essentially poetic and painterly gestures become pointed – they act now as a comment and reflection on society and self.

In The Supreme Game, for example, the paintings have been laid out in three levels, one above the other. Each level seems to indicate a different layer of society. The faces that occupy the top level loom large and imposing, and authoritative cultural emblems nestle among them, like the ubiquitous Esplanade and former Supreme Court (soon to be turned into an art museum). Those in the middle appear abstracted and ponderous. In contrast, the figures at the bottom level are distinctly youthful and lively. Tang offers no judgment, for they are all depicted with the same charm. Indeed, it could be said that these characters define each other, that they all define The Supreme Game, and one day the youthful will morph into the authoritarian, much as ink morphs into shapes on paper.

The strength in these works lies in their accessibility. This exhibition is particularly trenchant for Malaysian audiences who love to hate our neighbours across the Causeway. We are presented with a very human face of Singapore society, one that does not quite reflect the shining metropolis we have come to know, yet that unmistakably bears the effect of this rapid development – it is a face that wears disenchantment, fortitude and hope.

In this sense, it is not very different from our own. The way these works have been contextualised calls for a gentle rustling of our own societal views. Bumiputera, for example, portrays people from the village of Hougang in Singapore. Far from condos and credit cards, their emblems are a hoe, a community well, banana leaves and buckets. In Tang’s work, it is the people who give meaning to this label “People of the Land”, not the other way around.

Taking in the variety, vitality and energy inherent in these paintings, it becomes clear they are a collection of sensitive and deeply felt gestures, the marks of an artist living and breathing close to the ground. Although the jigsaw-like way in which they have been assembled on the wall to form narratives seems slightly uneasy – lacking the immediacy and element of risk suggested in their initial creation – this gives function to Tang’s form. It is supple, potent work that is as alive and human as the people and places of Singapore.

‘Tang Da Wu: Heroes, Islanders’ is on exhibition from Feb 8 to 25 at Valentine Willie Fine Art (1st Floor, No. 17, Jalan Telawi 3, Bangsar Baru, KL). For details, contact the gallery at 03-2284 2348.

Sharon Chin is an artist who also writes about art. She studied at the Victorian College of the Arts in Melbourne, Australia, and has been living and working in Kuala Lumpur for the past year.