Working With Intuition

First Art Council by Tang Da Wu (Photo by Ashley Ler)


Walking through the maze that is the Goodman Arts Centre, I finally arrived at block B where the exhibition “First Art Council Third Chapter: Waiting” was held. However, the doors to the gallery were locked and as I spoke to the security guard at the entrance of the Arts Centre, he told me to beware of a “crazy old man” albeit “a nice guy”, that was none other than the artist, Tang Da Wu.

Eventually, with the help of the guard, we found Tang Da Wu and I entered the exhibition with excitement. The first impression was a distinct sense of disappointment however – the gallery looked incomplete and was a mess.

Tang Da Wu was there though, and through speaking to him, I learnt that the exhibition was still in the midst of completion. This was the 28th of March, the work was expected to be completed on the 5th of April, although the advertisements for the exhibition stated that it began as early as 20th March and that it would end on the 9th of April.

One painting stood out. It seemed to be a tribute of some sort to Vincent Van Gogh’s style of painting where emotion was a primary focus, and it was created spontaneously to release emotions.

by Tang Da Wu (Photo by Ashley Ler)

In painting this particular work, Tang Da Wu explained that any focus on content was deliberately avoided. Instead, Tang Da Wu painted based on his personal and intuitive feelings at a particular moment of time, with an awareness of the contextual surroundings, that included not just the building, but the people who were there to observe. Da Wu went on to say that the painting is only relevant in the context of the place where it was painted, as it signifies a particular feeling he had in that moment and when removed from its context it would become meaningless.

I then began to understand why this exhibition was taking so long to complete. Tang Da Wu explained that he preferred to do everything by himself, little help was accepted from contractors and so on. Tang Da Wu explained that the difficulties he encounters in his work as well as the pain he has experienced in his life, serve as important sources of inspiration. He welcomes them for they motivate him. He went on to show that how the wood that was used to support one of the paintings which spanned over four metres was attached by himself.

by Tang Da Wu (Photo by Ashley Ler)

In this painting, he’s painted Van Gogh’s chair in the middle and surrounding it are the faces of Van Gogh himself, Joanna who was Van Gogh’s sister-in-law, and a mother and daughter who Tang Da Wu explained were representatives of the public who benefitted from Van Gogh’s work. This painting summarizes the concept of this entire exhibition.

Joanna Van Gogh, who was Vincent Van Gogh’s sister-in-law as mentioned, was determined after Vincent’s and his brother, Theo’s death, to show the world Vincent Van Gogh’s work. As she succeeded in garnering attention for his work, there emerged potential buyers of Vincent’s art work. Joanna however, refused to sell these paintings, claiming that they belonged to the Van Gogh family only. And according to Tang Da Wu, this is admirable for she was “not tempted by money” and in respect for her, he called her the “First Arts Council”, also the name of this exhibition.

After this encounter, I did some research on the artist and found out that Tang Da Wu is one of the pioneers of Singapore contemporary art. He studied in the UK and returned home in the late 70s, where he worked in many different media, including performance, often exploring social and political concerns in his art. He was a founder of The Artists Village in the late 80s, a place where a generation of younger artists discovered a voice, many of them under the mentorship of Tang Da Wu. He has been a controversial and somewhat enigmatic figure.

I returned to the exhibition in the early afternoon of the 5th of April where Tang Da Wu himself told me that the opening was at 7pm that day. He had neglected to tell me that on my first visit, so I was too early. Having already made prior appointments that evening, I scheduled to return the next day. This disorganization and the inconvenience caused, elicited some frustration.

Finally, on my third visit on the 6th of April, I arrived with much relief to a gallery that was officially open for viewing. Again, I was met with a sense of disappointment as I saw how the exhibition appeared relatively sparse. The number of works remained the same as I’d seen before, but the first painting that he’d told me was painted intuitively had been removed, and a new one of similar style was displayed. I assumed that this was painted at the opening to mark the celebratory event.

The installation was pretty intriguing however. It seemed created as a tribute to Van Gogh and his influence, in a Singaporean context. Enclosed by transparent plastic walls with a supporting frame painted in yellow to signify the yellow house which Van Gogh lived in in the later part of his life with Gauguin, was a body-sized figurine. A palette of yellow paint was displayed in one corner, which according to Tang Da Wu, signified the chrome yellow that was discovered as a pigment during Van Gogh’s lifetime that “drove him and many artists crazy”.

A chair, which Tang Da Wu told me was the actual chair that Vincent Van Gogh used, and did very much resemble the one that was in the painting of Van Gogh’s room, was displayed near the palette of yellow paint. This was where Van Gogh’s power emitted from, Tang Da Wu told me.

The banana trees and the red thread that was tied to it and extended over to a figurine spoke of the local context. Banana trees are believed by Asians to attract spirits, and in the past, people would tie red thread to the trees and extend them to their windows so that they could invite the spirits to their homes or any desired locations to ask them for supernatural intervention in their lives.

The figurine holds on to a pair of scissors in his hand, behind his back. The figurine seems to represent Van Gogh himself, and the red thread from the figurine to the banana trees is the connection that Tang Da Wu believes Van Gogh had with spirits. The scissors in the figurine’s hand represent what Tang Da Wu sees as Van Gogh’s desire to be freed from this connection with the spirits.

First Art Council by Tang Da Wu (Photo by Ashley Ler)

As I left the Goodman Arts Centre for the third time, I felt that I had left the exhibition, more enriched in knowledge about the art and the artist’s work process. Admittedly, I was disappointed by the disorganized manner in which the exhibition was held, as well as by the limited number of artworks that were exhibited, because the ones that were on display were intriguing and seemed to promise a rich source of ideas and creativity from where they came from. Still, this visit enabled me to view the world of Vincent Van Gogh through a local artist’s eyes and has certainly provoked me to think deeper about the influence of artists and their artworks. It lent insight into how an artist’s influence can be so far reaching. Through this visit, I learnt more specifically about an artist’s work process, and saw for myself the many progressive stages of an artist’s work. I am filled with respect for the dedication that Tang Da Wu puts into his work and look forward to attending more of his future exhibitions.