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Eng Teng attributes the inspiration for his Torso-to-Face sculptures to his life drawing, stating, "I have benefited from it in that it has given me a new theme -- the Torso-to-Face series which came about from doing life drawings. Of course, I wasn't consciously expecting this to happen when I first got back to life drawing. But at each session I see an image of the face looking at me from the body, and this impression gets more intense each time. But how do I solve it, how do I utilise this idea?" The answer to his question lies partly in drawings such as Torso-to-Face, 1997 (Fig. 54), in which the abdominal muscles have been rendered to look like a hooked nose and the sexual organs like a mouth with protruding tongue. The imagery suggested in such drawings "did not take concrete form until about 1994, when the Torso-to-Face series began to appear, one piece after another."
This series shows a somewhat perverse tendency for turning a universal theme upside down. It spelt the beginning of a new phase in the artist's work where metaphor is the key element in his juggling with the identification of the essential features of the human body, his exploration of their placement and his untiring quest to re-define his subject, and finally his desire to understand the idea of transition and transformation. Is Minnie Mouse, 1993 (Fig. 55), for instance, a head with breast-like ears or an inverted phallus? One often wonders whether these references are intentional or unconscious on the part of the artist. What is for sure is that these works examine each distinguishing feature of the head and the torso, and then recombine them in such an absurd way as to stretch the limits of the imagination.
Explaining how he created the first pieces from this series, such as Face, 1994 (Fig. 56) and Torso, 1994 (Fig. 57), Eng Teng says, "The whole thing started with drawing the nude, and each time I draw I see a face in the body. That was the very start of it." It takes very little for these sculptures to be read both as a head and as a body. The head has assumed attributes associated with the torso and vice versa. They become transformed into a hybrid, a combination of both but neither one nor the other. They evoke the fantasies of Hieronymus Bosch and the Freudian obsessions of the surrealist artists, especially Magritte (whose painting, The Rape, 1934, also features a face-torso image).
Once more, by means of its title, the sculptor gives a clear indication of how each sculpture is to be understood - as a head minus the body or as a body minus the head.
The idea of metamorphosis had been adopted by the Surrealists who were interested in dreams and the subconscious. It allowed them to break down the barrier between the physical world and the world of our minds. Eng Teng was never himself a Surrealist but saw that metamorphosis occurred in any case during the making of his sculpture. When he starts on a work he has only a vague idea of what it might be. As he works, one shape instinctively follows another until the final form emerges.
Out of a single idea, he produced Rat, 1995 (Fig. 58), Sharp Eyes I, 1995 (Fig. 59) and Big Nose, 1995 (Fig. 60), explaining, "Big Nose has already been abbreviated to just a nose and the two eyes, and Rat is actually a follow up from Big Nose. While working on Big Nose, I thought, why not stand it upright, it might also be interesting. That was how it developed. Rat, in fact, is a face. It was created in the Year of the Rat and, short of a better title, I called it 'Rat'! To me, titles are mainly for identification purposes, so don't read too much into them." In these works, Eng Teng merges the freshness of a child's vision with the sophistication of a modernist's approach to form and content. Their surfaces demonstrate how important the exact texture or finish of an object is to him. Some of the details of his imagery can produce a shock reaction or a sense of unease.
Hands, which play an expressive role in Bewitched, begin to reappear in 1995 in I Spy II, 1995 (Fig. 61) and My Veil?, 1995 (Fig. 62). Truncated at the wrist and seemingly over-sized, they emphasise or draw attention to certain details of the sculpture, such as to the eyes/breasts in the former and to the veil in the latter. The former figure appears as though it has an outer skin with apertures specially cut out to expose the eyes or breasts within.
Through posture and gesture, My Veil? asks questions about the role of certain women's attire today. Eng Teng's strategy as an artist is skilful and intelligent, and succeeds in prompting conceptual questions about a complex subject although he stresses that his work is not in any way making a statement, political or social. This item of clothing is suggestively shortened to expose the lower half of the torso/face, so it is no longer concealing what can be considered the more private parts. Eng Teng explains, "There are a few works on veiled faces, inspired by the outlawed Al-akram movement in Malaysia. Years back, I would see a few of their women in our MRT train, all in black, including veil, gloves and socks, leaving only the two eyes visible. They can look at you, but you only see their eyes. I feel at a disadvantage. This sort of feeling started me off on the veiled figures."
So, in spite of the apparently light-hearted imagery in Eng Teng's work, there is often an underlying intensity and seriousness of purpose. He took the ambiguities of Surrealist imagery to produce some memorable and poetic pieces which were inspired by a personal kind of humour and sexuality. They are more ironic than joyous or carefree, stage masks with a peculiar life of their own, or some special kind of caricature, in which reality is in the process of becoming metaphor.
This surrealist metamorphosis takes on a different meaning in Masked in Blue, 1996 (Fig. 63) and Surprised II, 1997 (Fig. 64),where the ironic accents are reinforced by the expressive use of colours. They were inspired by the way reproductions of nude figures in magazines are censored by blacking out or masking over the vital parts. These creations have delightful fantasy and wry humour and a directness which has become a rarity in contemporary art. Surprised II is an expression of the artist's reaction to the heavyhanded censorship of nudity which to him possesses no obscene overtones at all. Two hands now make their appearance, their gesture emphasising the look of amazement in this work. In I See!, 1997 (Fig. 65), they sensuously encircle the breasts, in such a way as to draw attention to the nipples/eyes peeping between the fingers.
Break Out, 1996 (Fig. 66) belongs to an equally enigmatic series, the Liberation series, about which Eng Teng comments, "I think I have to keep it still a secret. It's something very personal which I suppose in years to come, will be revealed, just like my illness, tuberculosis. I am surprised you have noted it. It has very deep significance for me. This Liberation series is about not being able to get away yourself, you know, you can't get out of being what you are. So, there is a little mystery here!" Although Eng Teng offers us no clues to interpretation here, the fact is that he is an unusual artist in the current scene, for his independence and for the extreme confidence with which he employs his creative talents.
One is tempted to see Eng Teng's art as autobiographical, as an expression of his personal involvement in the perpetual structuring of the physical body which is essentially the image or scheme of himself. His thoughts revolve around the relationship between body and soul, conjuring up work that is filled with spatial vitality, ironically witty and deliciously evocative but also serious, involving a constant process of metamorphosis which challenges the spectator's perception of appearances. The fruit of his inner exploration, the works in this exhibition are a memorial to the genius of this artist who dares to make irrational thought real and concrete.
Constance Sheares. Bodies Transformed: Ng Eng Teng in the Nineties. Singapore: NUS Museums/ National University of Singapore, 1999.
Last updated: 11 January 2001