8 – 30 January 2022

Opening Hours:
Tuesday – Sunday, 10.30am to 7.00pm

Free Entry.
List of Artists  
Song-Ming Ang
Genevieve Chua
Amanda Heng
Lai Yu Tong
Lim Yew Kuan
Ruben Pang
Anthony Poon
Shubigi Rao
Jeremy Sharma
Guo-Liang Tan
Tang Da Wu
Tay Ining
Ian Tee
Teo Eng Seng
Youths In Balaclava
Zulkhairi Zulkiflee
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Origin Stories

Curatorial text by Ian Tee

With youth and its various associations as a curatorial framework, ‘We’re Young Once’ is an exhibition that gathers significant early works by Singapore artists across generations. For me, it is a show about the artistic journey and the fact that every artist begins from somewhere. By focusing on this formative period, I hope to propose a new lens to consider Singapore art history that upends conventional chronology and is also distinctly non-hierarchical. At its core, ‘We’re Young Once’ is a show that explores what it means to be a young artist. I had two key criteria for artworks in the show. They need to be representative examples of the artist’s early practice, and speak to the theme of youth in general. Provenance is an important consideration in my selection process and each piece points to a significant milestone in the respective artist’s career.

Time and Dis(place)

Lim Yew Kuan’s ‘War and Peace’ opens the exhibition with what seems like a call to arms. In the centre of this monumental painting is a hand which points to the viewer. There is a traffic light rising from behind, as if to ask: which direction are you headed? Lim’s patchwork of iconography is a snapshot of the global issues of its time including in Singapore with the 1954 Anti-National Service Riots and 1955 Hock Lee Bus Riots. In 1956, Lim founded the Equator Art Society, an artist group known for representing the realities and struggles of the masses. One year later in 1957, the artist painted ‘War and Peace’ and thus, embedded in the painting is a sense of urgency and social consciousness, beckoning one to take action at these flashpoints.

Lim Yew Kuan, 'War and Peace', 1957, oil on canvas, oil on board, 182 x 122 cm.
Lim Yew Kuan, 'War and Peace', 1957, oil on canvas, oil on board, 182 x 122 cm.

The hand also features prominently in Amanda Heng’s ‘Lost’ (1989). Executed simply in the three primary colours, the impact of its imagery is forceful. Against the bright blue background is a large yellow hand which wields the Chinese ink brush like a knife. The word “Lost” is written in red. The 1980s was a period of systemic change which affected not only the education curriculum but also the civil service at large. The painting expresses Amanda Heng’s sense of displacement, even uncertainty for the future. Crucially, ‘Lost’ was painted in The Artist Village (TAV) studios in Lorong Gambas, and is one in the set of only four oil on canvas works Heng ever painted. It is also a historically significant example of artistic production born out of the dynamic environment in TAV.

Amanda Heng, 'Lost', 1989, oil on canvas, 162.5 x 122.5 cm.
Amanda Heng, 'Lost', 1989, oil on canvas, 162.5 x 122.5 cm.

In contrast with ‘War and Peace’ and ‘Lost’, Guo-Liang Tan’s Flower paintings stand out for the lack of identifiably “Singaporean” subject. The floral arrangement floats in a field of colour without a vase. They are strange images that call to mind 17th-century memento mori paintings or Impressionist still life works. Yet, they seem to reject the vivid virtuosity of these predecessors, and instead teeter towards abstraction in their economy of marks. For Lim and Heng, their choice of imagery addresses explicitly the issues of the day, therefore pinpointing a specific time in Singapore history. Tan’s stance is one of ambivalence towards many things, “including being an artist and being in Singapore.” Through these artworks, all three artists were reflecting on their time and place in the world.

[left to right] Guo-Liang Tan, 'Untitled (Stalker)', 2009, oil and acrylic on canvas, 45.5 x 53 cm; 'Untitled (March)', 2009, oil and acrylic on canvas, 40.5 x 48 cm; 'Your Lovely Head', 2008, oil and acrylic on canvas, 45.5 x 50 cm.
[left to right] Guo-Liang Tan, 'Untitled (Stalker)', 2009, oil and acrylic on canvas, 45.5 x 53 cm; 'Untitled (March)', 2009, oil and acrylic on canvas, 40.5 x 48 cm; 'Your Lovely Head', 2008, oil and acrylic on canvas, 45.5 x 50 cm. Image courtesy of the artist and Art Agenda.

Subculture

Zulkhairi Zulkiflee is a lens-based artist whose practice explores the notion of Malayness through the racialised Malay body. His works ‘Happy Birthday (Cake)#2’ and ‘You Fool’ provide a layered perspective to the theme of youth. They appropriate elements from a set of photographs belonging to the artist’s father which were taken in the mid-1980s. In ‘Happy Birthday (Cake) #2’, Zulkhairi removes the cake at the centre of the celebration and re-surfaces it materially by printing the photo on a cake box. The work is a documentation of male friendship that “resists homogenous conceptions of racialised men”. The accompanying LED text ‘You Fool’ references a handwritten note on the back of one of these aforementioned photographs. Playing with the homophone “youthful”, ‘You Fool’ points to vigour and recklessness as characteristics of young people.

[left to right] Zulkhairi Zulkiflee, 'You Fool', 2019, LED light on acrylic, 43 x 77 cm; 'Happy Birthday (Cake) #2', 2019, digital print on cake box, 104 x 73.5 cm.
[left to right] Zulkhairi Zulkiflee, 'You Fool', 2019, LED light on acrylic, 43 x 77 cm; 'Happy Birthday (Cake) #2', 2019, digital print on cake box, 104 x 73.5 cm. Image courtesy of the artist and Art Agenda.

While Zulkhairi engaged with his family archive as an approach to self-representation, Genevieve Chua adopts the language of cinema in her photographic series from 2009 ‘Raised as a Pack of Wolves’. As its title suggests, the work is premised around a fictional narrative of feral children left to fend for and find others like themselves. The “wolves” are performed by androgenous, queer-identifying girls whom the artist met on the streets or through blogs and friends. Like Zulkhairi’s works, the idea of community and visibility are key in the ‘Raised as a Pack of Wolves’.

Genevieve Chua, 'Raised as a Pack of Wolves', 2009, digital photos. Image courtesy of the artist.

Shifting from representation of youth subcultures towards having their presence felt in the gallery, Youths In Balaclava (YIB), is a design collective and streetwear brand that started when its founders were still in secondary school. Their work is characterised by a self-taught DIY aesthetic, and underlying commentaries about growing up in Singapore. Exhibited is a set of 10 masks, each representing a member of the collective; as well as ‘Twisted Paradise’ (2022) a terrarium-like sculptural display. The display’s design nods to Singapore’s geography as an island within a larger archipelago. Housed within various islands are prototypes and archival materials which tell the story of the brand and its evolution.

Youths in Balaclava, 'Twisted Paradise', 2022, foam fillers, moss, wood, water and prototype accessories, 107 x 123 x 77 cm.
Youths in Balaclava, 'Twisted Paradise', 2022, foam fillers, moss, wood, water and prototype accessories, 107 x 123 x 77 cm. Image courtesy of the artist and Art Agenda.

Skies and Stars

Within the context of the exhibition, there are works that contain symbols pointing to the idea of a journey, of movement and taking flight: the open road, a pair of shoes, the sky, and stars. ‘405012008’ (2008) is one of Ruben Pang’s earliest paintings, which precedes the development of his recognisable style and hyper-saturated palette. It features a highway, marked by harsh streaks of white that cut diagonally across the painting. These sharp horizon lines suggest a sense of velocity in the otherwise moody scene.

Ruben Pang, '405012008', 2008, oil on canvas, 100 x 170 cm.
Ruben Pang, '405012008', 2008, oil on canvas, 100 x 170 cm. Image courtesy of the artist and Art Agenda.

‘未成年’ belongs to the first suite of Target paintings exhibited at Ian Tee’s debut solo exhibition ‘SWEET DREAMS’ (2019). A pair of weathered Converse sneakers are hung off the work, as a nod to Vincent van Gogh’s 1886 painting ‘A Pair of Shoes’. Ian Tee’s sneakers are tied together by their laces and dangle in a manner that recalls the practice of shoe-tossing or shoefiti (shoe + graffiti). Though the motivations behind this act is varied, it is generally regarded as a rebellious gesture, resulting in the laced shoes hanging off high places such as on power lines, telephone wires and old trees.

Ian Tee, '未成年', 2019, acrylic, target paper, sneakers and meat hooks on destroyed aluminium composite panel, 120 x 90 x 12 cm.
Ian Tee, '未成年', 2019, acrylic, target paper, sneakers and meat hooks on destroyed aluminium composite panel, 120 x 90 x 12 cm. Image courtesy of the artist and Yavuz Gallery.

Shifting one’s gaze from the road to the skies, the Kite series is Anthony Poon’s first major body of painting which he began during his studies in the United Kingdom. On view are four Kite maquettes made between 1969 and 1971. Their aerodynamic forms draw inspiration from momentous Apollo 11 moon landing in 1969 as well as the motifs on traditional Malay kites. Painted in punchy colours, Poon’s complex tessellation of triangular forms evoke a sense of rhythmic propulsion as the viewer’s gaze move in and out of bands of colour. This exploration of light and the optical effects of pattern would become a hallmark in Poon’s career.

[left to right] Anthony Poon, 'REVO-SQUATRI', 1970, gouache on hardboard, 30 x 45.5 cm; 'SQUATRI', 1970, gouache on hardboard, 30.5 x 46 cm; 'Untitled', 1969, gouache on hardboard, 30 x 45 cm; 'AWVA', circa 1969-1971, gouache on hardboard, 28 x 30 cm.
[left to right] Anthony Poon, 'REVO-SQUATRI', 1970, gouache on hardboard, 30 x 45.5 cm; 'SQUATRI', 1970, gouache on hardboard, 30.5 x 46 cm; 'Untitled', 1969, gouache on hardboard, 30 x 45 cm; 'AWVA', circa 1969-1971, gouache on hardboard, 28 x 30 cm. Image courtesy of the Estate of Anthony Poon and Art Agenda.

Jeremy Sharma’s ‘Soma’ and ‘Kala’ (both 2014) continues this theme of flight and lightness. The two works are from the artist’s ‘Terra Sensa’ series, which made its debut in the 2013 Singapore Biennale. They are based on his research into pulsars, remnants of collapsed stars which continue to emit an electromagnetic pulse. This data is first visualised into a three-dimensional model of ridges, peaks and valleys. Next, a computer-controlled router would mill into this form out of a block of high-density polystyrene foam. Just as artists began embracing new synthetic polymer paints in the 1960s for its flatness, 3D modelling and robotic milling are processes commonly employed in industrial design and architecture. However, the poetry behind such use of technology is vital. Fundamentally, these works express mankind’s preoccupation with the sky and stars, and the possibilities of what lies beyond.

[left to right] Jeremy Sharma, 'Soma', 2014, high density polystyrene foam, robotic milled, 180 x 90 x 20 cm; 'Kala', 2014, high density polystyrene foam, robotic milled, 180 x 90 x 20 cm.
[left to right] Jeremy Sharma, 'Soma', 2014, high density polystyrene foam, robotic milled, 180 x 90 x 20 cm; 'Kala', 2014, high density polystyrene foam, robotic milled, 180 x 90 x 20 cm. Image courtesy of the artist and Art Agenda.

Iconoclastic Processes: Reinvention, Destruction

The works of Teo Eng Seng, Shubigi Rao and Lai Yu Tong are united by their idiosyncratic treatment of paper as a material. They are united by their idiosyncratic treatment of paper as a material. Teo’s ‘Emperor’s Choice’ is a significant example in the artist’s turn to the medium of paperdyesculpt, and was exhibited in his 1981 solo exhibition at Alpha Gallery. When broken down into a base material, paper pulp becomes endlessly malleable medium for painting, sculpture or even installation art. Hence, the work represents a spirit of youthful experimentation and re-invention.

Teo Eng Seng, 'Emperor's Choice', 1981, paperdysculpt on canvas, 142 x 176 cm.
Teo Eng Seng, 'Emperor's Choice', 1981, paperdysculpt on canvas, 142 x 176 cm. Image courtesy of the artist and Art Agenda.

While Teo looks at the material potential of pulp, Shubigi Rao is more interested in pulp as a verb rather than a noun. To pulp a book is to strip it of its cover and dissolve its contents. ‘The River of Ink’ is an installation from 2008 consisting of hundreds of hand-drawn and hand-lettered books which are doused in the same black ink used in its creation. Rao describes it as “an exercise that emphasises the futility of preservation in the face of cultural genocide”. Presented first in the artist’s Masters of Fine Arts graduation show in 2008, ‘The River of Ink’ is a foundational piece in her long-term research into the history of book destruction and other forms of oppression.

Shubigi Rao, 'The River of Ink', 2008, hand-drawn books dissolved in ink, 140 x 140 x 17 cm. Image courtesy of the artist and Art Agenda.

Lai Yu Tong’s ‘Newspaper Paintings’ sets out with a body of work concerned with the overproduction and overconsumption of images. His intervention is simple. He paints over printed texts and graphics with white acrylic paint, until a desired composition is achieved. At times, this results in unexpected relationships between the images “found” on a particular newspaper spread. With its surrounding text removed, these images are taken out of context and float, both in terms of how they appear and are understood by the viewer.

Lai Yu Tong, 'Newspaper Paintings', 2018-19, exhibition view in 'We're Young Once', Art Agenda, 63 Spottiswoode Park Road, Singapore, 2022. Image courtesy of the artist and Art Agenda.
Lai Yu Tong, 'Newspaper Paintings', 2018-19, exhibition view in 'We're Young Once', Art Agenda, 63 Spottiswoode Park Road, Singapore, 2022. Image courtesy of the artist and Art Agenda.

Value and Void

‘We’re Young Once’ concludes on an introspective note, with three artworks that grapple with artistic labour and the value of art. In the work ‘Justin’, Song-Ming Ang spent three months practicing to replicate the popstar Justin Bieber’s signature. This arduous process is documented on a stack of practice sheets which the artist presents through a revolving slide projection. The artist complicates the way we think about value, especially as it relates to authenticity, uniqueness and skill.

[background] Song-Ming Ang, 'Justin', 2012, exhibition view in 'We're Young Once', Art Agenda, 63 Spottiswoode Park Road, Singapore, 2022. Image courtesy of the artist and Art Agenda.
[background] Song-Ming Ang, 'Justin', 2012, exhibition view in 'We're Young Once', Art Agenda, 63 Spottiswoode Park Road, Singapore, 2022. Image courtesy of the artist and Art Agenda.

‘Sweet Naked Potato’ is the fourth iteration of Tay Ining’s series of ‘Naked Potato’ works which began in 2015. Coming from a family which runs a metal fabrication workshop, Tay’s decision to use the potato as a subject is one that cheekily blends life and art. Made out of mild steel which begins to rust once the work is made, these metal potatoes challenge one’s expectations about the value of a work of art and its permanence. Ironically, the rustier it becomes, the closer it resembles a real potato.  

Tay Ining, 'Sweet Potato; Naked Sweet Potato', 2022, russel potato, mild steel, stainless steel in galvanised steel and glass casing, 110 x 110 x 11 cm.
Tay Ining, 'Sweet Potato; Naked Sweet Potato', 2022, russel potato, mild steel, stainless steel in galvanised steel and glass casing, 110 x 110 x 11 cm. Image courtesy of the artist and Art Agenda.

Finally, Tang Da Wu takes this question of value into a broader philosophical discourse. ‘Useless Things’ is the artist’s first important body of work which he made while studying at Birmingham College in 1971. Tang taps into his Chinese heritage with a reference to Laozi’s ‘Tao Te Ching’ Chapter 11, which meditates on the idea of emptiness or void. Tang illustrates this concept by literally filling up the empty spaces in everyday items such as kitchen utensils, ladders and even the space where one sits in front of a desk,  thus rendering them “useless” things.

On Curating from an Artist’s Perspective

Circling back to origin stories, I believe in the necessity of sharing these narratives because they demystify the artistic process and give context to the journey each artist has to take. For me, the exhibition is not only a reflexive look into my own position as a young artist, but also an assertion of agency. As the curator, I am conscious of creating a non-hierarchical framework because the treatment of artists in intergenerational exhibitions are often unequal. By delving into the provenance of each work, I hope to foreground the lived experience of these artists, their concerns, as well as the networks and conditions in which they operated. It is about honouring these micro-narratives and carving out a space to imagine such curatorial possibilities.

Browse the exhibition e-catalogue here.

Installation view in 'We're Young Once', Art Agenda, 63 Spottiswoode Park Road, Singapore, 2022. Image courtesy of the artist and Art Agenda.

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Exhibition Details

8 – 30 January 2022

Art Agenda
63 Spottiswoode Park Road, Singapore 088651

Opening Hours:
Tuesday – Sunday, 10.30am to 7.00pm

Free Entry.
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