Recent art has a tendency towards placing importance on form, and values only the effects of point, line, surface, colour, structure and atmospherics. By doing so, the content and meaning of the subjects chosen are relegated. But there are exceptions, such as the works of Picasso, in which he wields his brush directly at the face of evil, exposing and despising its treachery. His gigantic work, 'Guernica', a war scene set in a small village in Spain, depicts the cruelty and horrifying deeds of dictators, and shows the commoners' sad fate and painful suffering. In other words, it is a work that expresses repulsion against war and yearning for peace.
Eng Teng's art, by and large, centres on content and meaning, with some works created from a humanist viewpoint. He hates the mortal effects caused by the atomic bomb, and hence created some mushroom-like clouds caused by these nuclear explosions, adding a number of corpses whose lives had been taken: it is a gruesome sight. He has tremendous compassion towards orphans, and hence sculpted a pair of emaciated children, begging with empty bowls, which will strike at the core of anyone who views the piece.
Other works embody ideas or views about society: a muscular man, semi-reclined and with hands and feet bound by rope, has lost the right to his mobility. Anyone can tell that he is struggling to release himself and is fighting with all his might. It is hinting to us that it is meaningless to possess physical might only: freedom of spirit and action are more precious.
Last year was the 150th anniversary of the founding of Singapore. He spent considerable time pondering on this subject and sculpted a well-endowed bust of a man, with his brain protruding front and back, two muscular arms clutching a crystal ball, and a pair of pentrating eyes probing forwards. Many of us can interpret from this that Singapore's lies in the hands of intelligent and strong-willed youth.
Most of Eng Teng's art, apart from those described, does not dwell on meaning. Works such as 'Nude', 'Mother and Child', 'Burden', 'Meditation' etc. explore the rhythms of pure lines, contrasts between solid and void, interplay of three-dimensional forms, forthright versus accommodating nature of shapes, as well as the overall presentation of beautiful forms.
Eng Teng's style of sculpture has the most direct influence from Epstein. Among the modern artists, Epstein can be said to be a giant positioned between tradition and abstraction: steadfast and mature, yet able to reflect the spirit of the age. He transforms themes without losing the essence of the subject, with simple lines sufficiently able to render imaginative and powerful forms. Some of these remind us of works with religious themes from the middle ages, others refer us to indigenous African arts. All said, Epstein is not hung up on tradition, nor is he a slave to fashionable styles. He has his own unique understanding and way of practising his art, and is a shining example in the world of sculpture. Eng Teng is influenced and empowered by the way Epstein creates and practises his art. Eng Teng has also taken pains to trace the history of his art, and apart from Epstein, he admires Rodin and Michelangelo as well. From these masters, he searched for the origins and secrets of portraying 'inner strength', 'elegance', 'aura' and 'spirit' in sculpture.
Because of the limitations of his present environment and his relatively short experience, there is no need for us to overrate Eng Teng's present works. He already has enough confidence and talent, and, aided by his firm grounding in art, a sparkling future for him can be expected.
After Eng Teng graduated from NAFA, he went for further studies in England. There, he also studied ceramics and excelled in this field. During this time, he produced elegant and refined works. It is worth pondering: if these could be mass produced, wouldn't society at large benefit and be enriched? This world is always placed in such throes of irony. Factories and kilns operate day and night to produce simple and coarse works. Other than their practical uses, people who pay for them enjoy little else. On the other hand, artists can produce beautiful works; yet without strong financial support, they have no opportunity to serve the larger public usefully.
All art forms have inextricable ties with drawing. The basic principle of drawing will also influence the ways her sister arts could be created. Advancements and changes in the style of drawing will hence influence these other arts. Thus, architects,, sculptors, ceramicists, interior designers, advertisement artists, etc, must be equipped with drawing skills to be able to explore all possibilities. If one wants to excel in one's craft, the demands that one makes on one's drawing abilities should be high. The history of art is filled with such examples, and I need not elaborate. Eng Teng's drawings / paintings riot only aid in his principal studies in sculpture; they are good enough to stand in their owl) right as a painter's oeuvre. His portraits are finely crafted, stately, and each created with a special muse. One does not find in his works the common mistakes many make in painting: points of stagnation, immature strokes or emptied spaces. The quality of his paintings is certainly on par with that of his sculptures. Ancient Chinese scholars would be highly regarded if they were conversant in poetry, literature and painting. Eng Teng has so many talents; so how do we reckon with him?
Sculpture, ceramic, painting, ng eng teng Singapore, 1970, unpaginated.
Translated from Chinese by Lai Chee Kien
Last updated: 11 January 2001