Mankind As Jigsaw

Chia Wai Hon

Ng Eng Teng who has won several awards for his contributions to art in Singapore, including the recently conferred 1990 ASEAN Award, is one artist who never rests on his laurels. He is always searching for new ideas, innovating and experimenting with materials to gain deeper insight into a consistent theme that he has been working on since he began his art career. The theme is Man himself. Eng Teng pursues his research with a singleness of purpose which is to give a fresh reading to what he has done before. That is why he is such an interesting sculptor to watch and to follow because he can always be depended upon to come up with something refreshing and original.

The sculptures in this show cover the period 1973-90. The exhibition also includes 35 pieces of ceramics and a larger than life size portrait of the late Sultan of Pahang, Sultan Abu Bakar, This exhibition is a rare opportunity for art lovers to view a wide range of Eng Teng's work. For the sculptor himself it is a pause in his illustrious career to look back and assess what he has accomplished so far.

1973 was the year of the Middle East oil crisis when Israel and Egypt went to war causing an escalation in oil prices that had worldwide impact. Eng Teng, who is ever alert to world events, was quick to respond to the sociological and economic issues of the day. For him the oil crisis centered on the oil pipelines representing the uncertainty of world politics just as it is happening again today in the Gulf crisis. Amidst these, there reigns supreme the Mother and Child symbol of universal love offering hope of a return to sanity and brotherly love among nations.

Eng Teng began his tubular series seeing into the pipeline various possibilities for his Mother and Child theme. The gentle curve of a pipe is enough to evoke an image of a mother gently rocking her baby to sleep, or playing with her two children, the naughty one balancing on her head and the obedient one perched on he other end of he tube facing her. A standing column can embody the madonna and child concept of Renaissance art updated to a semi abstract presentation.

The Mother and Child theme is not new to Eng Teng. His early sculptures before the 70's have shown a deep compassion for maternal love not to mention human sufferings. It is most likely that his one-time association with the International Planned Parenthood Federation, and a visit to Medan, Indonesia, where he saw innumerable babies, have much to do with his keen interest in motherhood. Later, around 1978, he was to introduce a Father and Child theme to allocate responsibility to the father. According to the sculptor, the relationship between father and child is less intense. He likened it more to that of a mountain and valley in the way he portrayed the father carrying the child. The mother is a picture of closeness and warmth while the father is robust and somewhat remote. This Mother/Father, Child relationship has spermed many interesting and original sculptures that Eng Teng has given to Singapore.

In between his tubular series (1973-77), Eng Teng was also working on another series which he called his split series. The split was suggested by demolition work going on in Chinatown. The demolition of old houses steeped in history tugged at the sculptor's heart. He said, "It was like a split to the heart of Man. Humanity, represented by the broken chips and textural surfaces of crumbing walls, was torn asunder and mankind reduced to a jigsaw puzzle. Sometimes the parts do not fit."

Running concurrently with the split series and his Mother and Child theme is yet another series on Fear. Figures are huddled together, singly or in groups, cringing in abject terror and waiting. Waiting for what? From a mass of blubbery fat and muscles, the terrified figure is compressed and, at one stage, reduced to a pancake.

Then in 1981 there appeared a Christ-like figure complete with a crown of thorns. Is thisq the salvation that mankind is waiting for? The barbed wire crown is related to the hostage dilemma. Mankind is once again thrown into disarray and the family group is in danger of disintegration.

Not all the themes are serious and brooding, nor are they entirely Western-oriented. There is wit and humour in many of the pieces, especially the ceramics, where some of them play on the Chinese characters, 'Longevity' and 'Good Fortune'. 'Yin', the passive female principle of the universe, and 'Yang', the active male principle, are represented in a bulky round sculpture entitled Yin Yang. The two-piece work is a perfect fit when joined together.

Eng Teng is as much an experimentalist as he is a creative artist. Although his preferred material is ciment-fondu for most of his output, he does not live by ciment-fondu alone. He is constantly exploring new materials while keeping to the same old theme. 1 + 1 = 1, and Head Profile are two pieces of aluminium welding that are outwardly abstract i . n concept but lean more to the minimalist work of modern American sculpture. In 1987, Eng Teng ventured into the field of bronze casting producing a work like Looking Ahead which is an exercise in the art of omission and balance. The girl is represented by her head attached to her two clasped arms, the right resting delicately at a point on her lower torso. Growth is another elegant bronze that gives the viewer scope to come up with his own interpretation of the subject matter. The exhibition ends with Eng Teng's exploration in marble. This show has demonstrated how a sensitive and perceptive artist working with diverse materials and tools can produce works that are not only aesthetically satisfying but enhance considerably the richness of the sculptor's vocabulary.


Poetic Metaphors, Sculpture, ng eng teng, Singapore, 1991, pp. 5-7.

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Last updated: 11 January 2001