I came across my ex-teacher Iskandar Jalil the other day. The quiet art activist who would send our shoddy work flying from the third storey studio of our campus (I’m sure others would have other endearing ways of remembering him). He also happens to be Singapore’s master sculptor of ceramics and a Cultural Medallion winner.
“So are you still painting?” he asked as we queued for nasi padang at Jalan Kandahar.
Ya, I am!
“Use a very big canvas lah, or do an installation piece, or do something controversial!”, he sneered softly.
Okay… ((where is this heading?))
“That’s what young artists now do to get attention. They either create over-sized paintings, or do installation art or do something controversial.”
Well sir, I recently saw a couple of works at an exhibition that have naked female bodies and cropped-off male heads and they generated a lot of discussion. The execution wasn’t spectacular or ground-breaking. But I guess in a clean and safe environment like Singapore, where we don’t really have anything substantial to argue about, nudity and sex becomes controversial. For me, I want my art to be conceptual and make a point… but not necessarily controversial.
“You know, when young Singaporean artists do conceptual work, their work is usually not good… cause you don’t know what the hell they’re trying to say”
Bah, but then sir, they say a lot of bull. Yes sir, yes sir, 3 paragraphs full. Just that whatever they say in writing is not reflected in their works.
“Hah, and that’s what the galleries and the curators want, concepts. And the art suffers. Because the concepts are not strong. What do you want to drink?”
“Dua teh-o, satu chendol! Get your food… I’m paying”
Mr. Iskandar Jalil is never short of opinion. That’s why some people don’t like him… and why some really do. He’s one of my best teachers.
So how do I create a strong concept and make a point? How do I stand out as an artist here? Poor me… no oppression, no suffering like my fellow artists in other countries. So what do artists in Singapore talk about to make a mark? Shall I use nudity to create a stir? Is ethnicity a tool? Should I talk about gay or sex issues like a lot of plays are doing now? That will make me appear open-minded and progressive won’t it?
Or maybe I should just forget about the whole conceptual thing and just create beautiful paintings. Happy-happy stuff like cats or something. Or just use bright colours and create an abstract painting with a title like “The Enlightenment”. That should look good on the wall of a multi-million-dollar apartment in a downtown condominium.
Or maybe I should just use my creativity and speak from the heart. Even if it doesn’t sell.