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Ng Eng Teng is a fiercely independent and prolific artist, creating more than 300 sculptures over a span of forty years, from monumental public works in ciment fondu to life-sized or smaller sculptures in bronze, ceramics and ciment fondu. This does not take into account the other categories of work, particularly the functional wares, maquettes and drawings produced in such quantities since the start of his career that only a rough guess at their numbers can be made. This show, Eng Teng's tenth one-person exhibition, features about fifty sculptures and thirty drawings, all created since 1991 and presented by the artist to the National University of Singapore in order to bring his donation of 760 works in 1997 up-to-date. Whereas the gift is an indication of the overwhelming generosity of his nature, the works themselves consolidate his position as a leading sculptor in the region by demonstrating his extraordinary ability to endow imagination and inventiveness to art. Eng Teng continues to surprise with his impressive ability to create new forms and volumes, never looking back but delving into unknown areas where he previously had not ventured, even when dealing with familiar subjects. Humorous, ironic, ambiguous, rich in erotic connotations and full of poetic presence, these extraordinary works substantiate his position of prominence in contemporary sculpture .
The human figure remains Eng Teng's principal source of inspiration and, no matter how abstract, his works, from the earliest, tentative explorations to these mature, masterful creations, always retain some link with figuration. They can be classed into a number of categories, most of which are familiar to viewers who have followed his career because he tenaciously explores familiar themes, particularly the female figure, which his fertile imagination transforms into the most unexpected and surprising images.
Whilst entirely consistent with his earlier work, they reveal a far greater imaginative freedom than he has ever shown in the past. The metaphoric force of these strongly figural and humorously fanciful works lie in the fact that they invoke associative connections, but at the same time refuse to confirm them. Each work has many possible readings, one leading on to another. They hide as much as they reveal, serving as containment as well as projections, and provoking the lively engagement of the imagination.
Certain themes, like the torso and the head, have continued whilst the mother and child is abandoned, together with functional ceramics. Drawing seems to have helped him over a transitional phase from the late 1980s to the early 1990s, from a concentration on ciment fondu and bronze casting back to working with ceramics, from more straight forward representations to an idiosyncratic abstraction. It is, for him, a medium of rediscovery, leading to new subject matter and an invigoration of creativity.
In his manipulation of his material - clay - he demonstrates how skilful he is in testing it to its limits and how much he enjoys it. His work of this peris emphatically volumetric. Indeed, in most of these works he emphasises the fundamental nature of the sculptural act of making and shaping volume by manually working it up from the solid lump into the hollowed round. This process-based technique has resulted in sculpture which is immediate and vivid. The forms are filled out from within, expanding with life as they grow and take shape .
The capacity of Eng Teng's art to make references to the body also depends on his awareness of texture and colour as much as techniques. Following his impulse to roughen or burnish, to indent or inflate, to glaze or paint his sculpture, he has created images that are entirely and inseparably linked to his medium. Colour is neither local nor literal, but is expressive and part of the whole emotional integrity of the sculpture.
Although it is impossible to compartmentalise his work (and, for that matter, that of any other artist) because one work naturally follows upon another, each containing the germ of the next, I should like to classify Eng Teng's mature sculpture into the following categories for ease of analysis: poetic objects, seated figures, heads, torsos, drawings and the Torso-to-Face series. There is no cut-and-dry separation between the categories as, for example, a number of the poetic objects could legitimately be classed as torsos, if I had not considered their allegorical content of greater significance than their physical form.
Constance Sheares. Bodies Transformed: Ng Eng Teng in the Nineties. Singapore: NUS Museums/ National University of Singapore, 1999.
Last updated: 11 January 2001