Framing and Enframing
Thoughts on Recent Works by Ng Joon Kiat
I visited Ng Joon Kiat at his housing board residence in Bishan (Singapore) on two occasions, in order to view his recent paintings and assist in preparations for exhibiting them. The first was in November (2006) and the second in January in this year. These visits were long in their coming, having been proposed a number of times earlier and repeatedly deferred. Well, they were made. On both occasions Joon Kiat appeared, perhaps understandably so, edgy. He fretted to ensure that materials were sufficiently ample, available and engaging; sufficiently also to spur some discussion of interest.
Sitting on the floor, he relayed pictures towards me by carrying them from their perches on chairs and constructed supports set along one wall of the sitting room. Each picture consisted of a modest-sized canvas, stretched over a frame that was not physically visible but whose function was palpable and present. The pictures were easily portable.
Joon Kiat showed each one of them deliberately; he did so by aligning it horizontally for viewing, so that I had to bend forward, stoop, in order to see it; no, not so much to see as to pore over the picture surface. What is more, each of these surfaces does not bear customary marks that constitute a painting; marks that are variously registered by a brush or a comparable device or a staining apparatus. Here the surface of each picture is encrusted with thick layers of oil pigment, which appear as poured and then as settling into somewhat irregular formations. In some presentations, the pigment covers the entire surface and more, dripping over the picture’s edge and colonizing the sides of the stretched canvas. In others, the pigment appears as confined in a sector, usually towards a corner or an edge, as if like a stain and a scab, while the remaining surface is left unencumbered; it asserts itself as a primary, pristine plane.
Not surprisingly these pictures – there are fifteen of them – have pronounced gross density, weight and gravity, to extents not customarily encountered in painting as such. Not encountered, that is to say, as salient or formative criteria for weighing significance in and of a painting. The material properties are ostensive; they determine the facture of these productions, experientially and discursively. So much so, Joon Kiat includes weight as a necessary, formal attribute in declaring the dimensions of these compositions.
From a folio lying on the floor, sheets of evenly sized paper are pulled into view. On each a mélange of grid-like, blocked graphic formations are gathered towards the centre of the surface; they often overlap one another and are oriented in multiple directions. Patches of pigment are brusquely brushed onto the precincts boundaried by these arrangements, appearing as erasing existing inscriptions or representations. In some of these compositions, wiry lines turn in on themselves, spinning into cocoon-like clusters and then wispily trailing towards the paper’s edges but never reaching the boundaries. Joon Kiat designates these as drawings and maps. Seen in this light, the imagery may be read as volatile, skeletal representations of terrain or locations, whose measure and command are severely destabilized. These are antithetical to worldviews represented by maps.
Drawing attention to such attributes is to touch on some of the iconological dimensions of these drawings, and of the paintings as well. These matters surfaced during our discussion. There also arose topics related to materials and processes, to the display and seeing of the pictures as an exhibition and to their prospective reception. These pictures cannot be encountered with a disinterested gaze. They entail invasive scrutiny that can only be maintained through the proximity of bodies. In these circumstances, how are institutional protocols for framing artifacts as works of art to be affected? How are institutional protocols for enframing the share of beholders to be safeguarded? How are these frames to be rendered flexible and fluid? And so on. Joon Kiat appeared to relish dealing with the complexities and challenges that these entailed.
When the painted works are approached with symbolic frames, they point to scopes of seeing that are weightily circumscribed. For even as Joon Kiat sets out to free seeing from institutional conventions of beholding, these paintings resist anarchic treatment. That is to say, their reception is not without purpose or volition; it is directed and grasped. As objects they are obdurate, in your face; materially and symbolically they are existent. Yet, they are not only all or any of these. In poring over them from above, in scrutinizing the wrinkled, caked dribbles of pigment, in squinting at the surfaces raised in relief from angled positions set along edges impressed by the pictures’ invisible frames, the beholder intervenes. Now, the beholder and the paintings generate mobile, kinetic patterns of yielding relationships. These relationships hold so long as the two (i.e. the painting and the beholder) are held as sufficiently distinct from one another.
These are not isolated, unprecedented moves; they do not claim for Joon Kiat’s practice a singular status. Cultures that produce painting periodically turn on that very practice, scrutinizing, revising, altering its premises and sometimes subverting or even lampooning its validity. In Singapore and in Southeast Asia, the seventies was a decade marked by reflexive gestures and strategies pitched along these very trajectories.
I draw attention to two of them, not to distract attention away from Joon Kiat and thereby devalue attempts to appraise his work. On the contrary, I do so to prospect critical and art historical registers along which such appraisals can be advanced requisitely or pertinently. Writers from Singapore (and in Southeast Asia) all too conveniently defer to Euroamerican theoretical constructs and art historical precedents as exemplars, for discussing art and artists here. This is undertaken largely in an unmediated tenor and in virtual ignorance of critical histories of practices here. Attempts to locate Joon Kiat’s practice and to claim significance for his artwork have also to pay attention to art here. Let me move on to the two citations.
In 1972 Cheo Chai-Hiang dispatched an artwork from England to Singapore by post. It consisted of a set of instructions to the Modern Art Society here, to draw a square five feet in dimension, sited partially on a wall and partially on a floor, bearing the title Singapore River. By this gesture, the constitution of a picture as a painting, featuring an intentionally composed aesthetic image bearing an inimitable authorial hand or touch is emptied and invalidated. The submission was, unsurprisingly, rejected as it was deemed as unaesthetic. (Anti-aesthetic! Interestingly, Chai-Hiang installed his Singapore River as a neon-lit exhibit in the 2006 inaugural Singapore Biennale, in the Singapore Art Museum. It was vandalized and subsequently reinstated, an outcome that remains unremarked upon.) While recognizing Chai-Hiang’s intention to interrogate prevailing premises of painting in Singapore as commendable, the Modern Art Society was of the opinion that the submission lacked aesthetic content, sufficiently.
Towards the end of the 70s and the beginning of the 80s, Teo Eng Seng famously declared that he would discontinue his practice of painting pictures, for the reason that it no longer sustained him as vital and valid, considering his location. He had in mind that category of art claimed as painting in the Euroamerican tradition. He marked his discontinuance by jettisoning the material base of painting as he knew it. He discarded oil and pigment that are industrially manufactured in Europe and in the U.S.A., whose chromatic values or properties are set in accordance with readings of ‘the northern light’. In their stead he employed pulp that he laboriously concocted by mixing paper with organic dyes. This was painstakingly applied on surfaces, assuming shapes and forms that appeared as raised in relief. Eng Seng designated his processed material and the process of fabrication as paperdyesculp. The pictures (yes, they were stretched and framed) presented scarred and striated imagery, analogous to geological despoliation. These compositions were produced during the years when urban development and construction in Singapore entailed massive blighting of prevailing topography and demography.
In his endeavour to redefine painting as art, Eng Seng employs new material as the medium, material that he manufactures from material gathered from his living environment. Joon Kiat, on the other hand, persists with oil as the primary medium, literally pressing it towards provoking fresh, even startling considerations of the constituents of a picture and of the import of painting as an art practice.
In works that are collectively designated as Land, the gravity and mass of the pigment serve in consolidating the imagery as materially embodied. Seen within this frame, there is no room for illusionism. The materiality of the paint resists or refuses such propensities; indeed, and at one level, the materiality of the paint, which is palpably insistent, represents its own physical properties. We could depart with an impression that in these productions, paint is paint; just that!
We do not, however, leave as merely having encountered a tautology. This because the iconology of these paintings, their symbolic compass or pertinence is, in my view, premised on anticipations that we see them as landscape pictures. Viewed within such frames, the prospect of land, signified by the materiality of paint, is seized as availing location or locatedness. The matter does not end here, though. Joon Kiat seeks, nay desires, the beyond; even as the beyond is, as he says, occluded from his living. He pictures the beyond as the horizon. In truth, this is not surprising. Representations of land/landscape define the visible, the here and the concrete, by invoking its concordant other, namely: the liminal sphere, i.e. the horizon.
For Joon Kiat, the horizon as a visible and yet ungraspable entity is occluded from his living environment. He apprehends it only through televised imagery. The land paintings may well be the outcome of this absence. They are hard-won images. As objects they are wrought by material that is ostensive and they claim sensually existent presences. Their symbolic compass, however, signals vulnerable and indeterminate conditions.