The Dual Realm Of Ng Eng Teng

T. K. Sabapathy

A form that is aesthetically inspiring will have greater impact if it also has meaning which is universally understood.

Ng Eng Teng interview 1990

Something is happening here
But you don't know what it is,
Do you, Mister Jones?

Bob Dylan, Ballad of a Thin Man

From the onset and throughout his artistic profession, Ng Eng Teng has steadfastly adhered to an attitude to life and work that can best be framed by that well-worn word, humanism. In this respect, he professes to be "old-fashioned" and subscribes to the necessity of mutual dependence and interdependence in human affairs. Is such a position or adherence feasible and creatively fulfilling today? As we plummet into the twenty-first century with increasing, unshakable belief in scientific materialism as a self-generating, self-aggrandizing process, and scarcely pausing to seek a suitable farewell to the twentieth century, the position adopted by Ng may well smack of feeble sentimentality or of being simplistic.

Scientific materialism thrives on a systems-oriented world in which man's control over his environment advances inexorably. The modern network of artificial systems remains the most sophisticated form of materialism devised to date; at its most advantageous, such systems are characterised by flexibility, adaptability, the capacity of measured reaction and a given life span.

Contrasted with this is the world of objects which is characterised by material actuality, presence and durability. Whereas systems are invisible and inhuman, objects signal and embody direct, sensual modes of experiencing the phenomenon of being alive. This distinction is also important for the world of art; its influence in determining art practices and endowing art works with value has been inescapable, yet disturbing and disruptive.

An air of disbelief and indeterminacy hovers over the realm of sculpture today; the status and stability of sculpture as possessing distinct attributes and palpable form are severely undermined. Propelled by the dynamic influences of science and technology, the very material substantiality of sculpture is threatened; tactile quality, sensation of volume and ponderability -- values which delineated the basis for both the practice and apprehension of sculpture -- sound like faint reverberations from another era. The world of sculpture appears as a maze of changes, estranged from its own traditions and valiantly surviving threats to its own origins and continuity.

Ng Eng Teng's sculpted world discloses disquieting symptoms of some of these shifting, volatile conditions. From a general view of his productions, these sensations may appear to be alien and rather forced. It is true that Ng's works are free-standing, self-sufficient, discrete objects. His is an art primarily concerned with modeling for the purpose of simulating biological appearances. As objects, Ng's creations are palpable, varying in preciousness and a direct result of the human formative urge; they radiate a latent anthropomorphism. His most recent venture into casting his compositions in bronze reveals the need to conserve his works in durable material, involving a process that lies at the core of the tradition of sculptural practice. In all these respects, Ng's works can be reviewed as fulfilling and conforming to the grand tradition of sculpture. His espousal of the universal nature of the human condition confirms this view.

Yet other forces and interests are at work, variously tragic, playful or aspiring towards a position of harmony. Although Ng employs figuration as a preferred schema, he continually dislocates and at times defies the logic of physiognomy. He compresses masses, planes and surfaces in order to produce interlocking units which settle into configurations implying entrapment and containment. Waiting, Fear and Anxiety are embodiments of such arrangements and psychic conditions. The condition of man is precarious.

Brown Eyes is a composition which signals new interests and engagements. In it Ng sets aside his primary concern with mass, gravity and biomorphic forms. Instead, he explores the meticulous, rigorous realms of abstraction and the enlarged properties offered by materials appropriated from industrial technology. In this work he also manipulates space as a dynamic, constructive force; extension and mobility (spheres attached to the ends of a steel rod, designating eyes, and balanced on the bridge of the nose) transcend the finite condition of dimension. Balance and harmony are juxtaposed in situations which are, delicate and fragile.

The sculpted world of Ng Eng Teng is firmly rooted in conditions that are unmistakably human and sensuous; it is a world made up of creations which possess material properties and tangible presence. In these respects we are viewing a world of objects. Yet, these objects disclose situations and states which are far from being settled; we are continually confronted with entities that convey anxiety, fragility and indeterminacy. As objects, they affirm man's desperate need for tangibility and durability; as sculptures they reawaken our awareness of the biological basis of life systems which are increasingly coming under threat. This duality both nourishes and unsettles the sculpted world of Ng Eng Teng.


Poetic Metaphors. Sculptures ng eng teng Singapore, 1991, pp. 8-10.

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Last updated: 11 January 2001