by Christina Arum Sok
“The arts humanize the curriculum while affirming the interconnectedness of all forms of knowing. They are a powerful means to improve general education.”
The importance of arts education cannot be more emphasized; perhaps this comes across as preaching to the choir amongst this audience, but it seems timely to look back on the strides made in arts education in Singapore as we celebrate the nation’s Jubilee anniversary.
As a vital part of public education, the arts not only elevates students’ perception and understanding of the world around them, but it also expands and complements their views on traditional academics. The arts are indispensable when it comes to creative expression of emotions and passions, as well as stretching the consciousness to explore new ideas and moreover being open to other cultures. While providing avenues of unique self-expression and reflection, the arts also stretch students’ abilities to challenge their intellect and seek diverse ways of knowing. Thus, needless to say, the arts are a fundamental and integral part of a child’s holistic learning process. The arts also bring tremendous and inexplicable joy to every aspect of our lives that help to boost self-confidence and provide a level of maturity and self-awareness.
Despite the inherent benefits and necessity of arts education, it was not always an integral or widely available part of the education system in Singapore. The arts have been known to be a lesser priority, as schools emphasize the more ‘serious’ subjects like Mathematics, English and Science. Of course more recently, there have been significant investments into developing and prioritizing the arts infrastructure with the School of the Arts that caters for promising young talents, which feeds into the local tertiary art schools such as LASALLE College of the Arts and the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts that have existed for decades. However, the challenge of today’s art teachers, who are not in these specialty art schools, are to continue to stay relevant with contemporary arts practices, promote the importance of arts as part of a holistic learning experience, and inspire students to exercise their creativity and nurture their innovative spirit.
This year’s exhibition, the 4th edition of annual exhibitions organized by the Singapore Teachers’ Academy for the Arts, is titled a…edge, a curious title with multiple meanings. At first glance, it appears to be a string of letters and obviously just an acronym for ‘Art Educator’s Developmental & Generative Explorations’, but then the actual word ‘edge’ brings to mind several different connotations. As art educators strive to be cutting-edge and push the envelope as both educators and practitioners, they are constantly balancing between two different modalities, negotiating boundaries between their prescribed roles. In another sense, ‘edge’ suggests being on the periphery of the center, which is sometimes the perceived notion of art teachers being outside of the professional art circuit, not being able to keep up with the competitive edge. Whether art teachers are on the circumference of the art scene, or bouncing back and forth between the perimeters of educator and practitioner, it is exhibitions like a…edge that provide the platform for exploration and practice-led research.
Following the three previous exhibitions that prompted art teachers to reflect on keeping a balance between their own art practices and teaching practices; to engage in dialogue and collaboration; and most recently, to seek hybridization of ideas in developing artworks, the fraternity of art educators have been challenged to refresh their technical skills, expand their creativity and develop artworks truly at the edge of their artistic practice and research. In light of Singapore’s 50-year modern history, a…edge with its playful ellipsis suggests the collision and merging of the past, present and future continuum, as art teachers are encouraged to reflect upon, celebrate and anticipate the history and future of arts education in Singapore, their individual art practices and the continued trajectory of the arts scene in Singapore.
The ellipsis, represented by three consecutive dots, seems to be an appropriate continuation from the last three exhibitions, as if this edition will strive to fill in some blank and be the expression of what has been unspoken, or a venture into territories unexplored. Depending on the context and usage, the ellipsis can suggest a leading statement at the start of a sentence, represent the omission of a thought/statement, or signal a pause or even an uncomfortable silence. The prevailing emotion associated with this punctuation is one of melancholy and contemplation. As such, the art teachers have been invited to ponder and reflect on their individual or collective past, present and future, delving into expressing what is omitted, left unsaid, or conceivably hope of what will be and everything that is in between, demarcated by the mere…
The curatorial decision to include diverse practices and mediums in this exhibition was a conscious effort to embrace the ‘…’ or ‘in between’ practices in visual art, purposefully selecting works that encompass different mediums, incorporate multiple dimensions and explore less conventional practices. Working with limited space, the proposals were carefully considered to allow for innovative display, given that a large number of works involve installation or video, requiring more exhibiting room. Therefore, the total number of works exhibited this year has come down. It is these 31 unconventional and daring artworks, selected from over 70 submissions, that are a testimony to the diversification and innovation of today’s art teachers’ practices.
Dead but alive by Jasjit Kaur and Angelina Chia
By moving beyond traditional mediums of painting and sculpture, art teachers have embraced technology and delved into the medium of video art, most definitely an ambitious medium to master. Despite the challenges, these artists have molded the medium to fit their aesthetic. In a stop motion video, Dead but alive, Jasjit Kaur and Angelina Chia explore the changing forms of non-living materials, manipulating the substances to portray a living state. A macro-lens captures materials such as iron fillings, soap bubbles and ice-cubes at high shutter speed, following which 8,000 to 10,000 photographs were then thread together, frame by frame, as a stop motion video. At such close proximity, the materials’ texture and every molecule is magnified; what is escapable to the naked eye is poignantly distilled in the camera’s frame. As the materials gradually transform and transfigure with the influence of nature’s invisible forces – time, motion and space – the raw beauty of these forms come alive, giving light to what exists in the unseen realm, of how inanimate objects are also in constant flux. This work poetically suggests how all matter is in fact alive; it just takes a discerning eye to recognize.
Nocturne by Joyce Teo and Joanna Ng
In Nocturne, Joyce Teo and Joanna Ng distill another perspective on the environment around us. This delicate video work explores the different faces of the Night, seeking an adventure through its countless possibilities, through well-lit HDB estates, remote walkways under bridges to empty park benches and quiet parking lots. A silence pervades all of the scenes, creating a sense of unity between the disparate locations all around Singapore. Yet the silence is not a ringing silence of emptiness or eeriness, but rather a silence that is filled with much life, perhaps it is a silence of ‘…’. Though the work begins in the midst of an encounter with, or departure from, human presence, as the work progresses, the element of human presence is entirely removed. Despite the absence of humans, it is in this ‘void’ that life is evoked. In fact, life is suggested through the ambient background noise that is familiar to those who dwell in a bustling cosmopolitan city that never really sleeps, as well as the existence of cars, lights and even the appearance of a tame cat, unperturbed by the proximity of the camera lens. The Night comes alive, as the lives we live are seen through a changed pace and alternative angle; nonetheless, instead of darkness, there is much light, as the human presence is undeniable.
In addition to video works, there are several works of photography and digital illustrations included in a…edge. While the video works discussed gave breath to inanimate objects and nature’s elements, these photography works touch upon a sense of nostalgia, related to the past and themes of childhood. Wang Mo’s My world… is one such work that paints a dream-like dimension, as he falls down his own version of Alice’s rabbit hole. Mo animates the dreams he has, as he vacillates between the fine line that separates ‘reality’ and the dreamscape; in turn, he raises curiosity as to what is real and what other realms exist, defying logic and blurring the senses. The photographic element for him represents ‘reality’, while the illustrations with ink and paint are figments of his imagination. The illustrations venture beyond truthful perspectives and factual representation, as he plays with color and storytelling, inventing new characters and architectural elements. It is in the midst of fantasy that creativity comes alive and the artist’s inner world is exposed to the public world, encouraging our inner child and dreams to be unleashed and sought. The connection between what we perceive to be real and what seems to be in our minds is a subtle relationship that we negotiate and rationalize on a daily basis.
Childhood dreams by Erman Abu Bakar
Aesthetically similar to My world… is Erman Abu Bakar’s Childhood dreams. As the title divulges, Erman digitally illustrates his own dreams as a child – of wanting to be a pilot, an animal trainer and a chef. In front of what appears to be a convenience store with the familiar coin-operated children’s rides outside, there are two kids seemingly engrossed in their own world of make-believe and play. With the use of bright colors, the focus is drawn on this play scene, as if they are standing in a parallel universe, where the shop is a faint memory of what they left behind. Using a fading technique and the contrast of bright, carnivalesque colors to the dim, monotone background, the artist is able to achieve a juxtaposition of the two different worlds – one of commerce and reality, and the other of endless possibilities and fantasies. The kids are transplanted into a dream world where the tiger from the coin-operated ride comes alive and miniature planes take flight out of their hands. Beyond the light-hearted, whimsical fun of child’s play, the overall poignant message is how we as adults choose to go through life – whether we let our dreams fade or we pursue them with passion through thick and thin, unrelenting like when we were naïve children filled with tenacity and fervor.
As art teachers experiment with and explore new mediums, they challenge their capabilities and exceed their expectations in surprising ways. Beyond video and photography, this year’s exhibition includes more than 9 works ranging from installations, assemblages, readymades to interactive and performative pieces.
Dear Jane… with love by Eileen Ong
Eileen Ong’s Dear Jone…with love functions as both a visual eulogy and a sentimental dialogue with an old friend. At the same time, it is a cathartic process for the artist, as she sets her childhood friend’s spirit free, letting go of the grief and pain she kept within her over the years. When dealing with loss of loved ones and tragedy, it is more often than not we are at loss for words. How do you express and communicate the feelings of agony and mourning? It seems contrived to attempt to put words to the emotions felt during these types of experiences. In this assemblage work, Ong uses a red paper burner, commonly seen during Chinese festivities like the Hungry Ghost Festival, to burn the letters she had written to her friend. These letters, though unread by Jone, were part of the healing process for Ong, as she grasped on staying connected. With the intention of burning these letters, the artist is hoping to dematerialize them, as a signal of passing them on to the other world, to reach the final destination where Jone rests. This work is a subtle yet powerful representation of emotions and states, inexplicable. Furthermore, it gives a physical dimension to the unseen link between life and death. Visually there is something ominous yet fortuitous, as contact is attempted with the afterlife.
[ back + forth ] by Nurul I’zzah Bte Basiron
Creativity 101 by Liao Ziyan
Ironically, an expression of creativity comes in the form of assemblages made up of readymades, challenging the traditional notions of creativity and what can be classified as ‘unique’ or ‘authentic’ art. Both Nurul I’zzah Bte Basiron’s [ back + forth ] and Liao Ziyan’s Creativity 101 toy with the creative process in art making. Using science and laboratory props as a metaphor, Basiron makes an inquiry into how art educators can innovate and continue to develop new, meaningful forms of engagement to nurture creativity in a systematic, scientific manner. Perhaps there is no formula, as she is trying to hint. Is that not the blatant difference between science and art, after all?
Meanwhile, Liao appears to be continuing the traditions of Duchamp’s Fountain, in a tongue-in-cheek work that takes us back to forms of tactile learning of the early childhood days. Liao questions whether or not creativity can be taught; in some sense, imagination is inherent and instinctive, rather than it being acquired. Therefore, Liao returns to the first stages of the learning process, using the yellow rubber ducky as a visual device to conjure up the connotations of babies and toddlers, in effect shedding light on learning through play. Both works challenge the audience and fellow art educators to re-think and reflect on notions of creativity and methods in which students are guided and nurtured to progress and mature in the arts. There obviously is no one path or straightforward answer, and this is the constant balance and negotiation that needs to occur to forge a thriving atmosphere for students to express themselves.
If I were…I would… by Jasmine Wong
As a way of inviting audience participation – a co-creation process – Jasmine Wong’s If I were…I would… is an interactive work with the use of technology. Wong also takes the idea of creativity and pushes it further, asking the audience to stretch their minds and imagine what they would do and who they would be, if they had the privilege of choice. Like a voting ballot, the audience is asked to fill out a card, filling in the blanks to If I were… I would…, which is then compiled and put on display on an online domain of the same title.
Trace by Siang Yu Tan, Grace Ong and Lorraine Choong
Creativity multiplies when collaboration occurs, and an instance where this can be seen is in Trace, a time-lapse work by three artist-teachers, Siang Yu Tan, Grace Ong and Lorraine Choong. Not only is this work collaborative, but multi-disciplinary, as they have put together a video work using time-lapse photography, and also include a performance on the opening night of the exhibition, which is then videographed and put on display after the opening. This work investigates human’s relationship with land, in how we impact our environment through urbanization. The three artists collaborate to trace their individual ideologies of development, as they construct their own landscape in an act of convergence and negotiation, as they draw with charcoal on paper. By performing this drawing collaboration, for the second time, during the opening of a…edge, the trio re-traces their mental urban landscapes, and while their physical presence will not remain throughout the duration of the exhibition, the completed canvas and the recording of the performance, which is projected alongside the canvas, will be a re-creation of a new landscape that merges different moments of time and space.
Grow by Lim Hui Chi
In the midst of new media, performance and installation, there are a number of compelling paintings and drawings that are refreshing and inventive in their own techniques of storytelling. These selections are certainly not the run-of-the-mill images, but rather, images that are surprising and stem from the stretches of the creator’s imagination. Grow by Lim Hui Chi is an oil on plywood that is reminiscent of classical Italian painting styles. Though an image conceived from Lim’s imagination, the message and representation of this work is grounded upon Singapore’s education system. The tree that is growing throughout the buildings, weaving in and out of the hill-like structure, is a portrayal of the reach of education. It is a subtle depiction of Singapore’s assembly line style system that filters students through the pipeline – from the primary schools at the bottom, all the way to the top of the hill, dotted with skyscrapers, designating the CBD where successful graduates flock towards, to begin ‘ideal’ careers. Lim inconspicuously remarks on the state of the education system, whether individual and unique needs of students are actually met, or if the ‘system’ has forced everyone into prescribed moulds of conformity or marginalization.
Thrust upon by Jeanne Ng
Trying to make sense by Gabriel Cheong
In other paintings of similar themes, Jeanne Ng’s Thrust upon… delineates the pressures and burdens we bear as we progress through life, while Gabriel Cheong’s Trying to make sense is an allegory of the so-called ‘dog-eat-dog’ world. The headgear extending from the figure in Thrust upon… symbolizes the worries inherent in each and every one of us. However, Ng chooses to use flowers as a manifestation of the various experiences of life, with gears and clocks harmoniously embedded in the bed of flowers, elucidating the unavoidable passing of time, day by day. Thrust upon…’s desire to depict time and give form to intangible states of being or emotions, are in line with the desires of other works such as Nocturne and Dear Jone…with love, previously discussed. Concurrently, Cheong is satirizing the competitive, chaotic lives we live, filled with uncertainty and insecurity, yet, with a good-natured sense of humor – a reminder for us to keep ourselves in check and take life with a grain of salt, because at the end of the day, c’est la vie.
Untitled (Sold) by Karen Yeh
To humorously anchor the exhibition, Karen Yeh’s intervention work titled Untitled (Sold) acts as the missing link, unassuming yet witty. Without being aware of the stealth position and intermediary role of this work, it would go easily unnoticed. However, the purpose is not to hide Untitled (Sold); rather, it is to bring it to the forefront of our gaze, to make us aware of the concept of value and its subjectivity within the art world. Yeh employs the easily recognizable orange adhesive dot to demarcate the works that have been ‘sold’, which in the setting of an art teachers’ exhibition, provides a playful dialogue that delves into a slightly heavier topic of art and commerce vis-à-vis arts education. One is filled with the glitz and glamour of ‘celebrity status’, while the other remains in the shadows, dutifully educating and nurturing today’s youth.
It is these adventurous discussions and insightful articulations of the unspoken or neglected issues that incite further probing of the status quo, propelling arts education in Singapore to the next level of innovation and openness. The arts become a platform that embraces multiple methods of enquiry and learning, signaling a benchmark for other educators in different fields. In reiterating the limitless value of art, both in life and in education, we also reignite our own creativity and ability to see the world around us through multi-colored lenses.
¹Charles Fowler is an arts practitioner and educator who authored the book Can we rescue the arts for America’s children?.
Further reading about his education philosophy:
Christina Arum Sok is an Asian art historian, independent curator, writer and tertiary educator based in Singapore. She has a bachelor’s degree in Art History and English from Columbia University in the City of New York and a master’s degree in Asian Art History from the School of Oriental and African Studies (University of London). Her curatorial practice and research focuses on modern and contemporary Korean and Southeast Asian art, as well as cross-cultural exchanges, cultural globalization and multi-disciplinary collaborations. Her current projects include curating the 2015 exhibition programme for the Visual Arts Development Association (VADA).