This document is part of a joint project of the NUS Museums and the University Scholars Programme, National University of Singapore. This image and accompanying text appears here with the kind permission of the NUS Museums. Note: click on any of the pictures in the following text to obtain additional information and larger images, which take longer to download.
'Poetic object' is a term commonly applied to sculpture which suggests some kind of forgotten function or has a hidden or obscure meaning or symbolism. It is used here to describe those enigmatic improvisations to which Eng Teng has given allegorical meaning not immediately apparent even from their titles, or which contain a strong element of whimsical fantasy and visionary expressionism. Some of them were inspired by world events which had made a strong impact on him whilst others are ideas derived from literary sources. Water Drops, 1991 (Fig. 1), for instance, may be interpreted by the uninitiated as an abstract rendition of rain on a mountain slope, but was in fact inspired by a Chinese poem on the subject of tears which may be those of joy or of sorrow. So, instead of a mountain, it suddenly assumes the shape of two tear drops on a face looked at in profile.
The Fan, 1991 (Fig. 2) and Blue Ribbon, 1991 (Fig. 3) have formal links with the earlier Clouds over Mountain series (Figs. 4 and 5) which is characterised by irregular wings or flanges, usually perforated and striated, and disposed on either side of a central column. About The Fan, Eng Teng comments, "We often use fans, either folded ones or the open fans. We use them to cool ourselves, but we also use them to make a fire. So, on one side of The Fan there are two drops of water to symbolise coolness, and on the other a little flame." It is, in fact, a highly personalised symbol of the balance of opposites, the positive and the negative aspects of human nature which often exist, paradoxically, side by side.
Fallen Crown, 1991 (Fig. 6) represents the fall of the mighty. The artist quips, " I suppose nobody stays up there forever, one day he has to step down. So, symbolically, when you are up there, you wear a crown, and when you are no more there, it is like a falling crown!" This is one of the artist's prized pieces because it is the result of a complex ceramic procedure which would be difficult to reproduce successfully. First, the crown with the crystal blue glaze was fired to 1,200 degrees. Then around this form was wrapped a white clay shape with a metal ring and wire embedded in it. When dry, the clay is burnished and the whole biscuited at 1,000 degrees. Finally it was pit-fired to about 1,000 - 1,100 degrees to obtain the flashes of pink or red and the smoky black. The remarkable beauty of its colours and the smoothness of its finish add to the elegance and density of this piece.
Peace Time, 1993 (Fig. 7), composed of contrasting rounded or oval shapes within a rectilinear grid, is ironic in meaning. "There is a kind of bullet shape on a semi-circular form, and then the whole is contained within some extruded geometric clay grid which resembles a cage. It has a 'camouflage' colouring like that on our army uniforms, but this is in very bright colours. I call this Peace Time, for in peace time, all war weapons are 'caged', temporarily held in check, put there to be used at any time." A commentary on the conflicting aspects or inconsistencies of present-day existence, it belongs to Eng Teng's War and Peace series of which Portrait, 1986 (Fig. 8), with its bullet-like forms, is an earlier example. Apart from this series, political overtones are rare in his work.
The artist has painted on his ceramics before, but Peace Time is the first piece on which he has applied oil paint so extensively and vividly, and the first in which colours play such a positive role in its imagery. All his ceramics have a strong surface interest, largely because clay retains the impressions of the artist's handling. For him, mark-making or texture is paramount because he always intended these objects to be handled rather than just displayed.
In House on Rock A, 1994 (Fig. 9), clay is also treated differently in various areas, forming interesting textures and colours. "It was inspired by the tragic collapse of a condominium in Kuala Lumpur, the Highland Towers, on 11 December 1993 that claimed 48 lives. It reminded me of a verse in the bible about building your house on rock." This work, which has links with Peace Time in its use of contrasting organic and geometric forms, combines several techniques. It was assembled from coiled and extruded forms, glazed and decorated with molten glass.
Acrobat, 1994 (Fig.10) is quite extraordinary in the way it records, like a camera-still, a stage in the transformation of clay into fluid, human form. It suggests the slow process by which an artist, like Pygmalian, breathes life into inert matter. The final shape has yet to emerge, giving the viewer room for all sorts of conjecture. Arch-shaped, it starts off as a cylindrical column (the hair?) which slowly transforms itself into a female figure bent backwards gracefully. Or is it the other way round, the figure beginning to dissolve and melt into a lump of clay? Though there is a strong suggestion of movement, it has more to do with symbolising creative energy than with anything actually physical. The sophistication of the form is masked by its simplicity. In spite of its contemporary Rodinesque appeal, it is strangely archaic in its uncanny reminiscence of the images of bull-leaping acrobats in Minoan bronze-age frescoes.
Garden of Eden, 1994 (Fig. 11) followed Acrobat and is more complex in form. It depicts the union of two figures at the point where their arms and heads seem to merge, forming an arch. It is as though the subject only emerged as the artist was working on it. Its title suggests links with Adam and Eve, 1988 and his other biblical subjects, such as Prodigal Son, 1980 and Head of John the Baptist, c.1960-61 which is one of his earliest sculptures. Formally, however, Garden of Eden is uncharacteristic of his work in that it is balanced on four points, with its mass concentrated at the top instead of the base of the sculpture. Eng Teng explains that it is "a combination of two figures, in this case, linked together. The composition is unusual. Normally, I have a bulbous form at the base which stands by itself. In this case, it is supported by four legs, so the structure is different. It is like Acrobat, in which the figure turns, arching backwards and balanced on three points - the hair and two legs. Garden of Eden has four points, standing on four legs, so it has a more floating form, rather than being bottom-heavy. You know, a lot of my works are bottom-heavy, they are trying to get out from the earth, but this one is sort of tip-toeing on the earth."
Constance Sheares. Bodies Transformed: Ng Eng Teng in the Nineties. Singapore: NUS Museums/ National University of Singapore, 1999.
Last updated: 11 January 2001