Local conceptual art pioneer Cheo Chai-Hiang tells Gwen Pew why one of his controversial conceptual works is finally getting a show.
27 Jul 2013: Hailed as one of the pioneers of the local modern art scene, Cheo Chai-Hiang, 67, has never been one to shy away from difficult topics – or to accept the status quo of art or society. ‘I don’t like comfort zones,’ he says. ‘[The main purpose of my art] is to generate questions.’
In 1972, the local artist provocateur famously submitted a proposal to the Modern Art Society, Singapore (MASS), which depicted six connected lines that formed two rectangles between the wall and the floor, titled ‘5’ x 5’ (Singapore River)’. It was rejected – in part, perhaps, because the country wasn’t ready for such conceptualist works at the time.
‘Back in the ’70s, art practice generally consisted just of paintings done in a particular way – they had to be in oil or watercolour, painted on stretched canvases and hung on the wall. There were very few sculptures or other art forms,’ Cheo explains in a soft, steady tone, his accent reflective of the many countries he has lived in.
Determined to challenge the trend, he says he created ‘5’ x 5’’ as a ‘naughty gesture to ask why art cannot exist on the wall as well as on the floor’, and to blur the line between ‘sculptural painting and painted sculpture’.
‘If you join the top two corners [of the work] with the bottom two corners, it actually forms a 3D shape,’ he says. ‘Its subtitle is also important as the Singapore River became somewhere people would go to paint, and a lot of them were not even clear why they were there. It just became a pretty picture [without real meaning].’ Almost 40 years and a number of awards and residencies later, Cheo himself had pretty much forgotten about the work, until Louis Ho, a guest curator at Sculpture Square, decided to spotlight it for the gallery’s first edition of Iconocast – a new series of exhibitions that seeks to deconstruct an iconic artwork each year. Titled A Void: Returning to the River, the upcoming show’s centrepiece will be a 5×5 sq ft projection of Cheo’s hand-typed original artistic manifesto for the work, had his proposal been accepted by MASS.
‘It’s essentially a one-man, one-object show,’ explains Ho. ‘Cheo’s proposal was realised for the first time only in the last decade, some 30 years after he initially formulated it, but I’ve only ever come across mentions of it in art history texts. I’ve never seen a physical manifestation of the work, a fact which perhaps speaks volumes. It really is semi-invisible, on numerous levels. In that sense, Cheo’s work deserves to be re-examined, and it needs to be reintroduced to a new generation of audiences.’
‘A work of art should always be something that is capable of provoking questions in an interesting and creative ways,’ suggests Cheo. ‘One of the first things the audience should try to figure out is what sort of questions the work attempts to provoke. How were these questions relevant 40 years ago? And are these questions still relevant today?’
Still active and controversial as ever, Cheo will also display several new works in bronze at The Substation in a show entitled Little Thoughts… Teasing the Wind from Four Directions (16-25 Aug). One piece in particular is a signboard with the words ‘bao bei wang le’ (‘A Network of Treasures,’ or, as Cheo puts it, ‘A Network of Pricks’) inscribed on it. It references a work that he originally displayed in Malacca (where he currently resides) last year, which consisted of a cluster of 101 bronze phallic sculptures symbolic of thebao bei (‘treasures’ – a euphemism for castrated penises) referenced in Kuo Pao Kun’s 1995 play, Descendants of the Eunuch Admiral. The piece was later censored as sponsors deemed it too sensitive. Cheo also ran several workshops with local school children to introduce them to conceptual art ideas and some of the tools they can use, the results of which will be displayed at The Substation show.