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From the onset Ng Eng Teng envisaged a collection of his art works in the National University of Singapore as a dynamic, expanding entity; that is to say, it would be enhanced by the addition of recent productions selected from his atelier periodically, thereby altering the parameters of its constitution and content. In realising this aspiration, he has donated 173 items (see catalogue for details), produced between 1991-1998. Taken together with the initial donation, the Ng Eng Teng Gallery houses 933 artefacts spanning 43 years of sustained creative practice. By any reckoning this is a formidable repository, in terms of its material range.
The enhancement is not to be measured only quantitatively. Having said this, it must be remarked that while an extensive collection may not feature works that are exemplary in each and every instance and equally, it nevertheless constitutes a valuable archive. In doing so, it offers fertile material grounds for advancing close-range, connected modes of viewing; in doing so, it enables constructing detailed, nuanced readings of the growth of a single artistic practice considered in all particulars.
The enhancement has qualitative dimensions as well; it affects the apprehension of Ng Eng Teng's art and of its history. The addition of recent works immediately extends the chronological span, stretching it forward into the present; hence, the collection attains validity in current terms and engagements. What is more, the collection is stamped with a marked sense of presentness. These are valuable gains as they enable viewers to cultivate appreciation of the dynamics of continuity as well as deal with such departures into fresh directions as might appear.
The appearance of new works will naturally draw attention to them, i.e. to their newness; yet, while interest is rained on them and attention is levelled at understanding them, the matter is not confined to involvement with the new per se. For the addition of recent works affects ways in which earlier compositions are seen and ascertained; the scope and tenor of history are altered. These outcomes are vividly demonstrated by Constance Sheares in her essay, and by Eng Teng and Sheares in their conversation, which constitute the principal texts in this publication. In her appraisal of the recent works, Sheares takes considerable pains to trace the intricate, subtle lineage of some of these productions; consequently, fresh interpretations of earlier compositions are brought into relief. In this way too, the new, as marking a departure that genuinely is different, is given requisite accreditation.
Similarly, in their conversation, Eng Teng and Sheares weave complex networks whereby the present and the past are linked in varying degrees of connectedness. What transpires are notions of history that are fluid and which are pertinent to the creative process. From these accounts, the lifelines of themes and forms appear staggered, jagged and unpredictable; there is no assurance of continued longevity for any of them. For instance, the mother and child theme which is cherished, for which Eng Teng is renowned, and which is assumed as possessing a perennial force, vanishes in the l990s. Ciment fondu, the artist's preferred material and with which he has shaped a distinct sculptural language, is set aside for eight years.
Between 1991-1998 Eng Teng has devoted his attention chiefly to the production of ceramic sculpture and in reviving his interest in drawing; the latter was largely abandoned in the mid 1960s. In both instances, the focus is on the human figure. This is not altogether surprising, as the figure is central in Eng Teng's art. Yet, the recent works exemplify a heightened intensity, a compact distillation of conceptual and formal elements hitherto not encountered in his work. In these respects, the new compositions can be seen to mark a radical shift in the treatment of the human figure in Eng Teng's practice. It is for these reasons that Bodies Transformed is the title for this publication, and in large measure propels the design of the exhibition.
In appraising these compositions Sheares, while pointing to their antecedents in earlier works, emphasises that they are the outcome of an expanded, enriched imagination, manifesting itself with a force not encountered in the past. The resultant works are forceful yet suggestive. Sheares describes them succinctly and subtly: "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."
This sense of ambiguity or resistance towards a finite identity or meaning can also be read as symbolising the radical transformations that the body is subject to, today. I have in mind transformations arising from the vast technomedical and related industries, the outcome of irreversible alterations to ecological systems, as well as the impact of expressions of fundamental beliefs and value systems. In these circumstances, the body can no longer be conceived as an unchanging, sacrosanct entity; even as it is engaged in these transformations, it also resists them. The bodies in Ng Eng Teng's art are also symptomatic of these transformative processes.
The current project would not have seen the light of day without Ng Eng Teng's participation. The generosity underlying his donation has already been acknowledged and is here underlined. His intention to continue enhancing the collection can only deepen its scope while serving to illuminate the interpretation of his practice in fresh and unexpected ways. As before, Eng Teng has also been generous with his time and knowledge of his practice, especially the material and technical parts, which have been vividly recorded in his conversation with Constance Sheares. For all of this, the Gallery registers its appreciation.
Constance Sheares served as the curator of the Ng Eng Teng Gallery between 1997-1998. During her tenure, she has facilitated the inauguration of the Gallery and secured for it sound curatorial grounds. For the present project, she undertook painstaking research and documentation. Bodies Transformed, in its published and expositional forms, bears the hallmarks of her rigorous endeavours.
Last updated: 11 January 2001