Poetic Metaphors: Sculptures by Ng Eng Teng

Constance Sheares

Sculpture -- the creation of solid forms occupying, invading space, the imaginative transformation of inert matter into semblances of life -- has fascinated Ng Eng Teng from the very beginning, and although the subject was not taught at the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts during his studies there from 1958 to 1961, he made terracotta figurines which he fired at the Jurong Brickworks and the now-defunct Alexandra Brickworks. Indeed, he was about the first, together with Cheong Soo Pieng, to produce studio pottery in Singapore. At the same time he learned the technique of casting in ciment-fondu from Jean Bullock, a British sculptor who happened to spend a few years in Singapore in the late 50s and early 60s.

Ng studied pottery design at the North Staffordshire College of Technology in 1962-63, and studio ceramics and sculpture at the Farnham School of Art in Surrey in 1964. He then worked as a designer at the Carrigaline Pottery in Country Cork, Eire, until his return to Singapore in 1966.

On his return Ng set up a ceramic workshop and began teaching pottery-making. After a brief stint as a visual aids officer with the International Planned Parenthood Federation for Southeast Asia and Oceania, he marked his resolution to concentrate solely on sculpture and pottery by holding a one-man exhibition in 1970.

The present exhibition celebrates the twenty richly productive years Ng Eng Teng has devoted to sculpture since that date.

Ng has worked with all sorts of materials, including stone and metal, but he prefers clay because it offers the challenge of direct and immediate manipulation of material, ciment-fondu because although it chips and cracks easily it can be readily repaired and, more recently, bronze because of its malleability and durability. His main source of expression has always been the human figure, and even his abstract works are experiments based on elements of the human form. Indeed, throughout his career Ng seems to have kept two distinct styles going side by side -- rounded, biomorphic forms portraying human conditions such as motherhood, or mental states such as fear; and angular or geometric forms, reminiscent of metal sheets, pipes or beams, abstractions of the human figure but often imbued with a distinct sense of humour.

Early works such as And Eve was Created (1970), Reclination (1970) and The Price of Motherhood (1972) show Ng working mainly in the imaginative, figurative tradition of Moore and Epstein, but striving to find new and Asian ways of interpreting these eternal, traditional themes of the mother-and-child and universal or primeval man and woman. He appreciates the psychological and emotive function of the human form. He is inspired by nature but rather than copy it mindlessly he wants to use his observations of nature to give expression to his personal vision. He tries to make his works seem bigger than they really are by tapering them sharply towards the top, thus imitating the fore-shortening that creates the illusion of height. As for the rotund nature of much of his work, he explains that with clay the sphere is physically the strongest and most stable shape, adding:

......... After training in ceramics my sculpture naturally took on rounded forms which people tend to associate with symbols of fertility, but for me the sphere is just a natural and satisfying shape. (Excerpts)

Ng Eng Teng occasionally digresses into formal abstraction reminiscent of Brancusi and Manzu, both sculptors he admires. Torso (1972, one of a series of floor rockers, low and earth-bound) and Chip off the Old Block (1976) are among the most remarkable of his works of this period. Although inspired by industrial building materials such as steel piping and girders, they are essentially concerned with universal human conditions which have already been interpreted in countless ways throughout the centuries. Yet they possess a refreshing originality, partly the outcome of an unusual combination of representational form with abstraction. The vein of lightheartedness is deliberate as Ng believes in injecting an element of fun or playfulness in his work to make it more accessible to the public.

During the 1980s Ng Eng Teng consolidated and added depth and dimension to the personal style and iconography he had developed in the 70s. Refugees (1981) and Brown Eyes> (1986) belong to the category of geometric abstractions. The former is strictly frontal and faintly cubist in the cut-out flatness of the overlapping figures, poised in flight. It has a suggestion of latent energy as well as a disquietening sense of distress and urgency. Brown Eyes, on the other hand, is full of fun. It is an abstract, witty and symbolic rendition of the human head. Ng explains:

This work stands apart from the rest in that it combines parallel, flat planes with curvilinear contours to create a head which is both geometric and organic. It is an interplay of lines, angles and planes. The mobile eyes are two brown spheres attached to the ends of a steel rod which is balanced on the bridge of the nose. I would like to develop a series on those principles using welded aluminium sheets. My current work, although organic in form, is getting flatter, probably as a development from Brown Eyes. The latter is also a deliberate elaboration on the role of space in sculpture. The cut-outs or spaces invading the sculpture play as positive a role in the conception of the work as the solid forms. They echo and reinforce the profile of the work. (Excerpts)

This series of abstractions culminates in the large commemorative Spirit of Man (1984), a pair for the departure hall of Changi International Airport's Terminal I and Portrait, a symbolic outdoor work commissioned in 1988 for the World Invitational Open-Air Sculpture Exhibition at the Seoul Olympic Sculpture Park. The latter comprises three bullet-like components, roughly textured and brilliantly painted.

........ to denote the contradictions or duplicity of man. The topmost component has two mouths, one crying out for peace, the other for war. The subject concerns the conflicting tendencies in man, for good as well as for evil. (Excerpts)

Waiting (1983) and Modesty (1986) rank high among the more organic or biomorphic works of the 80s. They have metaphorical meaning and show the development of a personal style in the use of characteristic postures. They are composed of rounded and curvilinear elements, pierced or cut away in parts. But the drastic abbreviations and truncations do not hinder the expression of stoical resignation in the former nor do they detract from the Oriental concept of decorum and morality implicit in the latter. Indeed, the omission of parts of the body seems to enhance and focus attention on the sentiments portrayed in these works. Ng does not shrink from revealing personal feelings, in fact he often emphasises them by exaggerations of posture or expression. Fright (1979) and Bored (1988), for instance, are powerfully dramatic personifications of not uncommon psychological states.

All the works touched upon so far are in ciment-fondu. In 1987 Ng Eng Teng took up bronze casting in collaboration with his friend Ron Gomboc in Perth, Western Australia. Not surprisingly, he began to make use of he human figure in a new way because material inevitably dictates form to a certain extent. Ng has always used the human figure as poetic metaphor and to express man's psychological states as well as his vulnerability, but with bronze he is able to convey human attributes with even greater directness and elaboration. Formally, bronze permits him to create greater contrasts of surface textures, details and geometrical tensions than ciment-fondu. His first bronze piece, Looking Ahead (1987), already exploits some of the compositional complexity, dynamism and sinuousness possible with cast bronze but physically impractical with clay or ciment-fondu.

Now he was able to create forms balanced on a point by connecting with a screw the earthy bulk of the torso to the upper arm and head which ends dramatically in exaggeratedly attenuated fly-away hair.

Ng tests the malleability and strength of bronze in his most recent works which were cast in Thailand. Distortions and elongations feature prominently. Ng explains the way he works and the playful ambiguity in Oh, My Head! (1990):

Distortions come about unconsciously in the course of working out the balance of my compositions. For instance, I devise long arms to counterpoise a squat torso or a slender neck to off-set an elaborate coiffure. In Oh, My Head! the back of the head is elongated into a fish-like shape ........ The inspiration had come from a fish I saw being scooped out of the nearby klong as I was modelling this piece. (Excerpts)

At present Ng is fired by the compositional flexibility which bronze is able to offer, creating iconic works like Madonna and Child (1990) which tapers from a bulbous base to flat and elongated forms towards the apex. There is a tendency to move away from the organic and biomorphic to the more linear and geometric, from solid volumes to a variety of forms interpenetrated by space. But no matter what its formal character or material composition, Ng's sculpture embodies his concern with themes of identity and belonging, of basic human feelings and states of mind.

Ng Eng Teng's work enhances and renews tradition. It is a search for metaphor and meaning as well as formal originality, even in the 70s when sculpture tended to eliminate theme. In today's post-modern yearning for tradition, roots and continuity it has finally assumed the significance it rightly deserves. In the last few years the figure in one form or another has regained a place in sculpture. With it has come a clearer sense of subject matter and an awareness that sculpture can reflect not only the immediate experience of artists but also the society in which they find themselves. Other sculptors in Singapore have sought to break new ground by using new materials or a non-objective idiom, but none has been as successful as Ng Eng Teng in expressing basic human sentiments and relationships in terms of the human figure.


Poetic Metaphors, Sculpture, ng eng teng, Singapore, 1991, pp. 1-4

Excerpts from an interview with Ng Eng Teng on 6 July 1990, to be published in Change: 20 Singapore Artists -- A Decade of Their Work (edited by T K Sabapathy and S V Krishnan), Singapore, 1991.

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Last updated: 11 January 2001