Better dead than...
amps attempt a sketch of Soo Bin...ehem, so did renowned artists Chen Wen Hsi and Ye Qian Yu, albeit without photoshop. heh.
...be alive without art - or more accurately "要艺术不要命".
Those were the words Teo Han Wue (executive director of private museum Art Retreat) used to describe Chua Soo Bin who, in the 80s, spent several years, money and over 200 rolls of film photographing 14 renowned Chinese ink masters, despite the intervention of a major illness.
I admit both J and I had little knowledge of thse 14 artists, but Soo Bin has always intrigued us. So we made time this afternoon to be at the Singapore Art Museum where there was a forum and exhibition on Soo Bin's portraits of the renowned Chinese artists, and the launch of the 2nd edition of his book.
But first, who is this Chua Soo Bin? And why did he so intrigue us both?
I know him to be the owner of Soobin Art Gallery, a gallery that has consistently showcased leading contemporary art from China. But according to L&G, Soo Bin has always been a strong supporter of young Singapore artists as well - offering them his warehouse space for storage, and more often than not, collecting their works. More recently, we learnt that Soo Bin is actually an accomplished photographer himself. In 1988, he received the Cultural Medallion for his contrbutions to photography. And last, but certainly not least, superficial amps are most impressed by how cool the elderly Soo Bin looks (on the cover of his catalogue, he wears a really amazing pair of spectacles) - stylish in an understted, even somewhat untidy fashion.
fan girl Y getting an autograph (the words are in the images below)
After the talk, I think our admiration for the man was deepened. He did not spout any grand theories about art, nor did he exclaim the difficulty of the shoot, the complexity of techniques employed. He merely described each artist and his approach in photographing them - not as they painted, but in the context of their loves, idiosyncracies and daily lives. He impressed us with his modesty, his quiet dedication. He impressed me most with his understanding of what was valuable about art itself - not the art, but the life lived. His portraits of these ink masters showed that these were indeed masters, not only because their art was accomplished, but because that accomplishment grew out from the way they conducted their lives - their conversations and relationships, their indulgences and discipline.
composite images of signing, autographed book, forum and Soo Bin by J
The title of the book and exhibition <留真> is therefore apt (the literal translation of "留真" would be something like "the real/honest truth that is left behind"). To Soo Bin's credit, these portraits of the artists, all now dead, are indeed instances of a certain truth or even innocence they have left behind. There is a portrait of an utterly disciplined Chen Wen Hsi before a small fire, where each day he would burn up paintings he was not satisfied with. There is a moving portrait of fiery, passionate Ye Qian Yu (known for his love of dance and his paintings of traditional dancers), composing his last calligraphic work on his decision to 封笔 (literally to "seal the brush/pen", i.e. stop painting). In this portrait, his gaze is distant and still.
Perhaps Mr Teo was not quite accurate after all in pronouncing Soo Bin to be "要艺术不要命". These portraits show instead how inextricably the two are bound - the man/his life and his art.
Thus inspired, we went next to the Utterly Art gallery in Chinatown to see Wong Shih Yaw's latest and 5th show Out of the Grey. Wong is a "veteran" from Tang Da Wu's Artists' Village, and though it was only in the last 2 years that we've noticed his works, we've come to enjoy his classic illustrative style, and the refreshingly unfashionable and unapologetic moral and religious direction of his later works (ah, so tempted were we to purchase a painting today, having missed the show last year!). And there, we again saw the works of an artist whose life and art serve something or someone beyond themselves.
J and I have had a couple of conversations wondering how art figures in God's plans, or vice versa. I guess one answer I got from that exhibition was "none - art does not need to figure." In a twist of Mr Teo's words abuot Soo Bin, this is a case of "Better be without art than be without God." Yet Wong's works also demonstrate that it can - that art can be a powerful illustration of the struggles man face - Christian or not - on this earth, as well as equally powerful expressions of God's saving grace.
Seeing that all this does seem a little heavy for April fool's day, I think I'll just get myself to bed now. If you have survived reading this far, you may want to check out Wong Shi Yaw's blog "Sealed Man".