Rhythms of marine life

Published : Dec 05, 2003 00:00 IST



Tay Kiam Hong's Chinese ink paintings on marine life reinterpret in remarkable ways the visual experience of pictorial space through the abstract rhythmic patterns on it.

TAY KIAM HONG is a versatile senior artist of Singapore. The range of his interests over the past three decades includes ceramics, acrylic transparent sculptures, Chinese ink painting and currently interior design. His "Underwater Series: An exhibition of contemporary Chinese paintings of marine life", was held in Singapore from October 5 to 13.

The 55-year-old artist's Chinese ink paintings on marine life challenge the over-determined notions of representation and abstraction that rely largely on familiar art historical narratives. The works do refer, at the outset, to the easily identifiable marine creatures on the one hand and to certain formal abstractions, on the other. However, the emphasis is not so much on the visible physical details of these living beings as on the patterns, rhythms and traces of their movement or even the lack of these: their still, playful, floating states of being are as important to these works as their dynamic marine life.

Similarly, abstraction in this case is not a reductionist rendering of the visual reality despite an obvious stress on the pictorial elements of tonal values, visual rhythm and compositional judgment. On the other hand, it represents the subtle, unseen motion that is an essential part of these creatures. Hong's works privilege the ways in which such acts of representation and abstraction are rather open-ended in art practice.

The artist brings to life the marine world more through his subjective painterly decisions than through direct references to the visible reality. The creatures become mere brush marks, almost pretexts to articulate the indefinable space. This leads him to trap the abstract motion itself. The viewer traces a visual rhythm that is sometimes easily identifiable, often broken and at other times rather subdued. The artist shapes the amorphous negative space through the subtle, though identifiable, forms of the busy marine life. The latter, in turn, transforms the surrounding spatial vacuum into either land or sea.

Tay Kiam Hong refers to the show as "an exhibition of contemporary Chinese paintings of marine life". The compositions, to be sure, are around the sea horses that "change colour to camouflage", the just-hatched baby turtles that "instinctively scramble towards the sea", the luminous squids that "travel gracefully in large groups" and so on, as Kiam Hong says in the accompanying catalogue to the exhibition. He reinforces the representational attributes of these images by leaving the background overpoweringly blank.

However, on a closer look, these deceptively straightforward representations reveal a striking irony. They betray a shift of focus from the objective facts of life to the vitality of their subjective forms, from the subject referred to the abstract experiences they evoke. The ways in which the artist depicts and positions the myriad underwater creatures in the works suggest perpetual motion. The compositions are rendered more complex through certain ambivalent directions implied in this movement.

`Sea Horse' suggests a directional thrust from the bottom left towards the centre before the creatures move gently to our left and disperse gradually, as they proceed upwards. As if to reinforce the point further, two of the sea horses, quite exclusively placed at the top, look in opposite directions. The painting recalls the rhythmic patterns of a narrative scroll through the ways in which it traces the migration of a group of creatures. Their heads and tails continue to throw hints about where they are headed at the particular moment in which the artist has placed them. However, neither their path nor their destination is clear in the infinite space that envelops them.

`To the Sea' further elaborates on this overwhelmingly expansive and blank space. The turtles reveal anything but a focus. Their shifting attention effectively suggests an infinite, unfathomable space that they occupy. Each of the six turtles in the composition seems to move almost sideways in an indeterminate trajectory. Such unpredictability in the movement of these creatures renders the spatial disposition of the very forms accidental and arbitrary.

`Single Puffer' exemplifies this aspect of Hong's works quite directly. A single puffer floats quietly towards a set of underwater weeds. But the puffer and weeds propose a conflict in the potential associations that the viewer may find between them, placed as they are in one composition.

Considering the fact that both the weeds and the puffer share the same water, the viewer is invited to assume that the fish is headed towards the weeds probably to nibble on it. However, the puffer may as well be floating free towards nowhere in the infinite space of the underwater world, after having had its fill. Similarly, the picture space is not neutral despite a sense of vacuum conveyed by the background. It is a throbbing stage on which the dramatic though subtle, motions of the marine life are enacted.

In `Windchime-7', for instance, a cluster of sea horses playfully rests on the delicate ropes of a tiny wind chime. It is a rare moment of tranquility that contrasts with the restless marine life. The work reveals the ways in which certain moments of inaction are after all manifestations of play.

Tay Kiam Hong's new works are remarkably fresh in the ways in which they reinterpret the visual experiences of pictorial space through the abstract rhythmic patterns on it.

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