Vital images of life

T. K. Sabapathy

Towards the end of his concise account of the history of modern sculpture, Herbert felt compelled to pose what struck him as an unavoidable question.

One must ask a devastating question: to what extent does the art remain in any traditional (or semantic) sense sculpture? From its inception in pre-historic times down through the ages and until comparatively recently sculpture was conceived as an art of solid form, of mass, and its virtues related to spatial occupancy.1

In his narrative, the dematerialization of sculpture produced after World War II is portrayed as a reduction to a "scribble in the air". He proceeds to mourn the loss of virtually everything that had characterized the art of sculpture in the past. Consequently, Read perceives a drastic shift in sculptural values. He sees the contemplative as being replaced by the dynamic; he illustrates the deleterious effects of the rejection of volume and mass in preference for the linear and open form.

The year was 1964. Read's anxieties signaled his bitter disappointment over what he apprehended to be the demise of an era of modernism whose creators, achievements and values he had chartered, probed, articulated and defended throughout his life; it also marked the passing of a heroic, high-minded phase of modernism. It will be useful to back-track a little along the path he advanced to reach his final, dispirited position and dwell, briefly, on his diagnosis; in doing so a frame can be secured through which we can enter into the sculpted world of Ng Eng Teng.

Read devoted his critical efforts to cultivating a condition in which sculpture could be invested with vigor and conviction. Impelled by a need to forge a new humanism arising from the devastation unleashed during the two World Wars, he viewed sculpture as possessing "virtues" capable of restoring a sense of healthiness and wholesomeness. He saw this art emerging from a special sensibility dealing with three-dimensional masses in space; in this respect, he opined sculpture to be far more complex than painting. Read makes this claim and unveils his grand vision in his A.W. Mellon lectures in 1954; in the process, some of his conclusions appeal to us as definitions. Consider the following:

The specific plastic sensibility is, I believe, more complex than the specifically visual sensibility. It involves three factors: A sensation of the tactile quality of surfaces; a sensation of volume as denoted by plane surface; and a synthetic realization of the mass ponderability of the object.2

There they are: "tactile quality", "sensation of volume" and "ponderability" -- the famous trinity which has, until recently, acted as the foundation for appraising a considerable body of sculpture produced by artists in this century. These factors do not only appeal at the sensual level. In elaborating them at conceptual, symbolic and technical levels, Read pegs them to a sense of life and also the wondrous, variegated realm of forms that abounds in the biological world. In this connection he distinguishes two clear, mutually exclusive, impulses in modern sculpture; one he calls vitalism and the other constructive. For Read, sculpture encapsulates and radiates its true virtues only when it is embedded in vitalism. Inspired by this ideal, the sculptor freely and intuitively transforms inert material into form, infuses it with structure and sensation, thereby producing images that simulate and are even akin to states of life. The aim is not to represent or imitate existing entities. On the contrary, it is to embark upon a creative process of continuous formation and transformation; it is to create images that can be apprehended to be organically developing and transforming in accordance with material and organizational features. Although Read acknowledges the importance of the constructive impulse, his preference was clearly anchored in the vitalist ideal.3

In the post-World War II years, there emerged new aims and radical processes; increasingly sculptors turned towards technology and the urban world of consumer products for materials, technical procedures and image-content; some looked to mathematics for pure concepts. For Read, these moves signaled the betrayal of authentic sculptural intentions and values, and the abandonment of humanistic ideals. He judged these works as life-denying rather than life-enhancing.

In the light of current positions underlining critical appraisals of 20th century sculpture, Read's historical view of modern sculpture and his judgment of contemporary sculptors who have leaned towards severe reductive, conceptual tendencies or machine -- aesthetics will be difficult to sustain. This, however, is not the issue in this instance. I have outlined Read's position in order to extract a context that will be suitable for apprehending Ng Eng Teng's work. In this connection, the notion of vitalism, both as an aesthetic ideal and a mode of artistic operation, is compelling. An intimation of this was discerned in 1970. Writing in the catalogue for Ng's first one-person exhibition, Georgette Chen, who has been in many respects his spiritual mentor, observed:"...his (Ng's) constant feeling is that man is bound hand and foot and is prevented from a full blossoming of what Bergson called our clan vital ... hence his Captives and Bondage."

During a recent interview I remarked that his works prompted a variety of readings, ranging from the naïve to the sentimental, and then again from the romantic to the ideal. This is Ng's response:

There is something in what you say. Basically, humanity is my inspiration, it provides me with a general frame. Overall, I am old-fashioned. For instance, I believe in the family, the family group, the individual in the family, independence and inter-dependence, From this, there emerged the mother-and-child subject, and more recently the father-and-child. There are also subjects arising from intensely felt, personal emotions: the struggle of the individual with a variety of emotional or psychic states or conditions ... I mean anxiety, fear, tension, aggression, and also warmth and kindness. I believe in the force of basic emotional states. Yes, mankind as both noble and discreditable.5

Read at a literal, surface level the disclosure sounds gauche, even riddled with cliches. Such reactions arise from prevailing cynical attitudes which deny and demean intentions shaped by emotions; our obsessions with systemic operations have estranged from life-impulses. In these circumstances Ng is probably correct when he claims that he is "old fashioned". Other voices speak differently. Writing in that very same 1970 catalogue, the artist-critic Chia Wai Hon unearthed the tense, emotional tissue in some of Ng's images and concludes his appraisal by noting: "The chained figure is the captive artist bursting with ideas but held back and restrained for lack of opportunities and facilities to express himself. It can be taken as a personal indictment of a society plagued with materialism and caring little for its spiritual life."6 It is apparent that the condition of man is the primary, formative ground from which are dredged and crystallized images whose form and content are palpable and vivid.

The disclosure made by Ng is valuable in that it furnishes clues which we can use in order to enter the manifold realms encapsulated in his work. This exhibition features a range of three dimensional images which illuminate ideas and processes that have dominated his artistic activity during the past two decades.

The human figure is predominant; indeed we can press further and claim that Ng's images are all figurative in intention and effect. That is to say, even in those instances in which figurations are not overtly anthropomorphic, yet our readings of them lead us to interpret them as "presences," and "beings", infused with life-impulses and evocatively approximating to life forms. In part this is induced by their disposition: they are all vertical or aspire towards the vertical and are therefore akin to the physical stance of man; in part this is induced by the ambivalent, yet unmistakably biomorphic propensities inherent in the images. And in part this is induced by the materials and working methods preferred by Ng.

Ng adopts a flexible, fluid approach in shaping and composing formal elements. In this respect, the human figure is invented and re-invented to suit specific, ideational aims; the figure does not adhere to conventions of anatomical structure of appearance. Waiting and Bored are compact arrangements made up of abbreviated parts (as in the trunk and lower limbs) and dismembered hands. Ng stamps these images with formal coherence by integrating volumes which are firmly articulated and clearly realized; he imbues them with emotional intensity by carefully selecting gestures and detailing facial expressions.

A recurrent feature in these figures and in a great number of others is the sensation of swollen forms. Even as we dwell on them, say the trunk and lower limbs, our eye is invariably drawn to the textures; these are rough, uneven and pock-marked. As we follow the curvature, dip down an inclined plane and make a turn upwards, we become aware of another sensation which is more than merely visual. It is as if each of these forms is the outcome of an in-dwelling breath which is being inhaled and held.

This feature has attracted considerable attention, provoked commentary and been highlighted as marking a characteristic which is distinctive to his sculptures. It is usually attributed to Ng's parallel interest in pottery and interpreted as conveying a sense of fertility or even pregnancy. Chia Wai Hon, for instance, is convinced of such interlocking formal interests, although he is cautious in suggesting any overt symbolic significance. Writing in the catalogue for Ng's 1970 exhibition, he remarks:

The notable feature in Eng Tong's work is his 'pregnant' women. The pregnancy is not the child-bearing capacity that One normally associates with physical condition of this nature. The shape is the shape of the pot. Eng Teng's figures are the direct influence of his involvement in pottery. The pot-bellied shape appeared time and again in a variety of figures and large sculpture piece.7

One may well be tempted to draw analogies between pot-shapes and some of the rounded figures on the basis of a perceived sense of 'containment'; however, there are more stable grounds from which we can proceed to account for the pronounced rounded convexity of Ng's forms and surfaces.

Ng is a modeller; ciment fondu (an industrial cement to which can be added different aggregates to achieve desired textures) is his favorite material. He applies it layer upon layer, brushing, stroking, rubbing and thereby building the surface from the inside outward. It is an additive process. The hand is employed as a tool to mould the material into shape: invariably, the tendency is towards producing rounded surfaces which when completed exist as convex, space-filled forms. In viewing and touching them, we experience them from inside the skin of the sculpted image, distending outward.

We have an unimpeded experience of these dominant characteristics in Torso. The lower limbs have been reduced to two irregular, swelling stumps; from the point of their meeting arises the torso, erect, with a slightly inflated abdomen, and tapers towards an abrupt terminus, minus the head. The entire image quivers with life and vitality. It also radiates a haptic sensation, with its emphasis on an upward-stretching tension.

Among the images that are overtly anthropomorphic, there are two subjects which emerged in the 60's and have endured until the present day. These are the mother-and-child and an assortment of figures that have been cast as living out states of tension and fear.

The mother-and-child is the most enduring and loved of all Ng's creations. It symbolizes his fervent belief in the family and the central position of the mother. He explains the configuration in terms of the juxtaposition of two opposing, yet linked, conditions, namely: big and small, complex and naïve, frustration and joy, dependence and independence. The earliest representations, both in drawing and sculpted form, show that the image was derived from close observation of the way women carry and support their infants in this part of the world.

A shawl (the Malay word for it is selendang) is suspended from and knotted around the neck; its widest extension is spread just below the breast and in which is placed the infant, curled, snugly warm and in foetus-position. The configuration of mother-and-child assumes great versatility in terms of formal interests, ideational content and emotional flavor.

The Way is the most recent mother- and-child image. It is composed along firm vertical and horizontal axes, almost conforming to a crucifix arrangement. The figure of the mother stands directly on the ground, with the rounded masses designating the lower limbs functioning as the base. One arm holds the tiny, gangly, figure of the child while the other is extended away from the mass of the body. The rectilinear frame is softened by the strongly modelled drapery which curves over and frames the heads of the mother and the child. Formal elements have been integrated and juxtaposed in complex ways; the tension between dependency and autonomy is delicately, yet assertively, maintained.

Mother and Twins has been cast in bronze, a material and process which Ng has only now ventured into employing. Compared with The Way, which impresses with its weight and mass, the bronze composition impresses with its taut contours and svelte surfaces.

The balanced scheme of verticals and horizontals is replaced by spherical masses which rock, rotate and spin; these are the primary grounds for figures personifying tension and fear. Some of them are embedded into uneven surfaces or 'grounds' which even out to form bases which are square.

Anxiety, Fright and Fear are explicit in the display of their states. In them Ng exaggerate the physical masses of the bodies as devices to convey the sense of helpless entrapment. The fluency of the volumes enhance and invite self-identification with these images.

There are also a number of three-dimensional objects produced by means of pottery techniques. They have been handbuilt and are made out of clay. These are experimental efforts, some arising from improvisations and others from sheer accident. The range of Sculptural and visual interest varies. In them can be glimpsed the nucleus of forms and ideas which can be worked into arrangements and compositions that are sculptural and central to Ng's interests. They exemplify features which characterise all of Ng's works and with which I will conclude my account.

It will be both futile and injudicious to arrive at conclusions that are definitive. This is not my purpose in making these generalisations. Yet, I leave this moment with the impression of two prevailing forces which innovate Ng's sculptural world; they work in tandem with one another. I will term one force transformative and the other metamorphic.The transformative has to do with the selection and conversion of material into sculptural medium. Ng's major statements have been made in ciment fondu, a material which he finds malleable and conducive for his aims and methods of work. The process is, admittedly, laborious; yet, it allows for complete and unambiguous control. Ciment fondu becomes medium only at the behest of the artist; it does not possess any inherent or intrinsic aesthetic qualities. Every phase of its conversion into a medium suitable for embodying sculptural values is determined by Ng.

The metamorphic force takes us into the elusive realm of embodiment, It has to do with giving ideational, emotional and social subjects images that have sensual appeal and formal coherence. In pursuing these aims Ng has exercised considerable liberty in interpreting the human figure and in creating figure-types which are individual and distinctive. In reading them we are continually required to adjust our own acquired norms and conventions; we are presented with situations or predicaments which challenge our experience and tease our wit. It is indeed sobering to come across works which are rooted in a deep, abiding understanding of human nature.

Read, H., A Concise History of Modern Sculpture, London: Thames and Hudson, 1964, p. 250. 2 Read, H ., The Art of Sculpture,London: Faber & Faber, 1956, p. 71. 3 A Concise History, p. 272-274 5 Recorded Interview, September 27, 1988. 6 'A personal view oJ Eng Teng', in Sculpture, Ceramics, Painting by Ng Eng Tens. ( Exhibition Catalogue), Singapore, 1970. lbid


Vital images of life. sculpture ng eng teng Singapore, 1989, pp. 1-12.

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Last updated: 11 January 2001