Teng Yen Hui (Singapore Art Museum) on Teng Nee Cheong’s Of Merit Accrued Through Previous Existences

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Known for his bold compositions and emotive figures, Teng Nee Cheong’s work has the dual-pronged capacity of captivating and eluding viewers, art historians and curators alike. In this conversation, we speak to Teng Yen Hui about Teng Nee Cheong’s masterful handling of colour, motif and desire. In charting the ebbs and flows of Teng Nee Cheong’s life and artistic career, it becomes clear that perhaps the artwork can’t be seen as existing separately from the artist after all.

Teng Yen Hui is Collections Manager and Assistant Curator at the Singapore Art Museum. She holds an unlikely BSc in Economics from the Singapore Management University, and an MA in Asian Art Histories conferred by Goldsmiths, University of London (LASALLE). Since 2016, her research has largely focused on queering as a methodology to re-approach art history. Material in this interview comes from a larger paper titled Queering Perspectives in Singapore Art in the 1970s to 1990s: Subjectivity and Desire in Figuration (2017).


¹ Of Merit Accrued Through Previous Existences, Teng Nee Cheong
1997

Credit: Estate of Teng Nee Cheong. Image courtesy of Gajah Gallery.


SETTING THE STAGE


Teng Yen Hui (TYH): Teng Nee Cheong was an artist who had a productive career spanning over forty years. His career began in the late 1960s as a student in the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts (NAFA), and he continued his artistic practice until his passing in 2013.

Teng worked in a diverse range of media and this included watercolour, pastel, charcoal and oil. His subject matter was varied as well, but it was really still life and figurative works that he dedicated his life towards. In this pursuit, he created some of the most unique and compelling compositions. I would consider Teng Nee Cheong style and vision incredibly distinct. In his charcoal drawings, his human subjects had a unique and luminous quality about them. The curator and writer Lindy Poh has described it as a “liquid quality”. I really like that description of Teng’s works because it really encapsulates how the artist took joy and pleasure in painting skin. It was very palpable, in that sense. The figures in his works are often depicted various postures of languor, and they carry sensual, erotic and even homoerotic undertones, this is especially so when you consider his male nudes.

Besides his charcoal drawings, Teng Nee Cheong is also well known for his vivid and exuberant paintings. These paintings were very ornate and decorative. He would fill his canvases with inspiration that he got from everywhere. This would include art history, film, nature, literature, and his travels. All of these elements would come together to create otherworldly atmospheres or stages that his human figures would then inhabit, and this is the case for the work that I picked out for our conversation. I remember the artist penning his thoughts about how he saw art as a kind of escape, where artists could create their own fantasies and be lifted up. This is similar to how the curtain rises in the context of a theatre production. I think the idea of a stage or theatre, and by association what is presented to the public and what is performed in private, was also of particular resonance to him. Throughout his practice, the artist really grappled with wanting to be forthcoming about his sexuality, and on the other hand, a fear as to how that would will impact the reception of his work. This was especially so during the 1980s and 1990s, when the artist was actively practicing and his practice was maturing.

During this period of Singapore's history, there was really little to no visibility of homosexuality in the media. Whatever little coverage there was tended to portray same sex desire in a very negative light. This therefore contributed to the stigma around it. On top of that, we inherited a colonial law that still criminalises same sex acts. Throughout the 1990s, there were incidents of police altercations with gay men. Given this climate, the fear and apprehension about being open about one’s identity is understandable. Predating the internet, I imagine it wasn't easy for someone like that to find information. I feel that Teng Nee Cheong channelled all of these feelings, concerns, and anxieties onto his paintings, along with some of his hopes and longings.


² Tribute to Mishima, Teng Nee Cheong
1990


Credit: Estate of Teng Nee Cheong

A SYMPHONY OF FLESHY FIGURES AND SOFT SENSITIVITIES



TYH: Teng Nee Cheong continues to be very endeared for his masterful handling of the human form. I believe what is lesser acknowledged and discussed are the symbolisms that are encoded into his works. These symbols comprise a visual language that Teng developed through, on one hand, a desire of visibility, but on the other hand, a need to conceal references to queerness so that he could continue painting without social reprisal.

Of Merit Accrued Through Previous Existences was painted just before a turning point in his practice and personal life. Like many of the other works he made during this period of time, the painting is rendered in a rather naturalistic style and with an unusual perspective. The elements seen somewhat disconnected — there are no shadows that anchor them within each other. This particular painting recalls the aesthetic of Art Nouveau artists such as Gustav Klimt in its unrestrained use of colour and the romanticism evident in the portrayals of the human form. Incidentally, Klimt was one of the artists Teng Nee Cheong acknowledged as an influence. Yet unlike the male and female figures in Klimt’s paintings, who are often portrayed with their bodies intimately intertwined, Teng Nee Cheong’s figures are turned away from each other, almost in indifference. The figures in Teng’s works seem either uninterested or simply unaware of the other’s presence.

Representations of the human form were a lifelong pursuit for him. One of the things that struck me about his body of work was, of course, the common occurrence of the male nude. During the 1980s and 1990s, figure drawing was only just taking off in Singaporean art schools. Even then, the majority of the models were overwhelmingly female, and this can be seen in the works of that period of time. This is why I think Teng Nee Cheong’s practice is keyed into the larger history of figure drawing in Singapore.

Another work by Teng Nee Cheong, Tribute to Mishima, was painted in the 1980s. I saw this in a catalogue first before I saw it in real life, and the colours seem to have faded quite a bit. This work must have been one of the earliest instances of full frontal male nudity in Singapore, making it very unusual for its time and place. The work was a belated homage to the Japanese novelist Yukio Mishima. Teng Nee Cheong was profoundly inspired by Mishima in his youth, and I imagine this work to be a direct reference to one of Mishima’s works, Confessions Of A Mask. It is a somewhat auto-biographical work where Mishima adopted the metaphor of a mask to conceal references to homosexuality and other culturally unacceptable desires of the time. The painting features a youthful, well-built male reclining on an undone blanket. This is when I started noticing the use of sleeping figures in Teng Nee Cheong’s practice. There are other elements in this painting that anticipate his future work as well, including the unusual framing technique, the noticeable lack of folds or shadows on the blanket, and a general sense of ambiguity. You see the male figure slipping off the blanket into some undefined expanse of blue, and it isn’t clear what lies beyond. In this particular work, the figure’s reclining pose and outspread legs directs the viewer’s attention towards his genitalia, which additionally occupies quite a central position in the painting’s composition. I'm not sure about this particular painting’s exhibition history, to be honest, but it must have been really transgressive back in the day. This is especially when you consider its invitation to encounter such a passive male figure with a gaze that is historically reserved, I think, for regarding females in both art and media. The act of watching someone sleep is also quite tender. That quality of gaze is something that Teng Nee Cheong applies onto almost all of his sleeping figures.

With Of Merit Accrued Through Previous Existences, I feel that the artist truly wielded colour to spectacular effect. This starts with the gold leaf across the top of the canvas, which catches the viewer’s eye immediately. Even though we only see the bases of the objects depicted, one can make out the depiction of the Buddha through the inclusion of the mudra. This particular mudra is widely associated with the intention of calling the earth to witness. References to Buddhism here seem to have been inspired by his travels and reading material, which I know Teng has said, offered him the possibilities of other value systems that were perhaps more forgiving, or even celebratory, of a range of sexual identities and practices. The painting also includes some of the things the artist encountered during his travels in Myanmar. The artist also acknowledged sunflowers as a secret symbol of many ancient civilisations. In this context, I think it was also a nod to Vincent van Gogh and his tragic life. Through literature, Teng Nee Cheong sought comfort in the stories of individuals who expressed some form of suffering.

I found the composition of this work incredibly interesting as well. If you consider how prominently positioned the sunflowers are, they visually divide the painting into two halves, effectively isolating the two figures. These two figures, in turn, they're turned away from each other and curled up on the tiger rugs that they are lying on. Back to the sunflowers, as much as they attempt to obscure the male figure, I think they also suggest a secret desire for it. The artist used the arrangement of the sunflowers as a framing device that partially obscured the male figure whilst allowing his bare buttocks to peek through. That is what lends the work a very homoerotic erotic undertone. Of course, these are just my interpretations of the work. The artist passed away three to four years before I began this research, and so there are many questions that I wish I could ask him in person.

THE CODA AND CURTAIN CALL



TYH: The shift in Teng Nee Cheong’s practice, I believe, came after a very personal and public ordeal where he was accused of molesting a male policeman in 1997. News of this made the front page of the local newspapers, and this was a very turbulent period for him. The artist felt that he was being outed, but not on his own terms. Throughout the 1990s, the police entrapment of gay men was really common. After this ordeal, I realised whilst looking through catalogues of Teng Nee Cheong’s work, that his subjects were increasingly roused from sleep. I felt almost as if their wakefulness was an echo of the artist’s own acknowledgement of his difference in the public sphere. Over time, his compositions also became bolder. When I interviewed Lindy Poh, who was a good friend of the artist’s, a curator and writer, she mentioned how the artist felt as if he had nothing more to lose following this public humiliation.

What I think Teng Nee Cheong did was to paint and depict a different and softer picture of masculinity. It challenges hegemonic ideas that masculinity necessarily has to be depicted as strong, aggressive or unfeeling. That’s one of the biggest things I see Teng Nee Cheong introducing through his male nudes. Going beyond his male nudes, I think it also applies for some of his female nudes. The artist approached figure painting or figures as a space to project some of his hopes, desires, and longing. These desires were not necessarily just erotic, but rather beckoned a kind of carefreeness and lack of inhibitions. I felt that he wanted to possess that same confidence. This is tied into being in a state of slumber, where one generally surrenders awareness and self-consciousness. In that sense, maybe sleep could be perceived as a kind of reward or an escape. Only in sleep can men escape the trappings of regular existence.

I think that the tension or desire between wanting to show but also wanting to conceal gives rise to that general sense of ambiguity we see in Teng Nee Cheong’s works. He packed his works with a lot of symbolism. You can look at one of his paintings, think that he’s painted a very beautiful vase, and that it's just done in the still life tradition. He injected a lot of meanings in the symbols he used, and I started noticing this because I saw these symbols recurring. When you read about Teng Nee Cheong, a word that a lot of writers and scholars use is “artifice”. By definition, it refers to a device that tricks or deceives others. The word also comes up in Susan Sontag’s Notes on Camp. She describes the essence of camp as the love of the unnatural, of exaggeration and artifice, and where style is perhaps privileged over content. We can certainly see that in Teng Nee Cheong’s works.

We’ve seen a real flourishing of language around queering perspectives recently, and we always have to be mindful of applying these labels when discussing things from the past. I’d like to share a couple of lines from the book, A Little Gay History. These lines are something that I appreciate a lot and they really forms the foundation of my research.

“All too often, written history is monolithic and not multiple, and it quietly suppresses aspects of life that are not considered normal by the governing culture. But this need not be so. Other views are possible.”


And I find that to be really true — other views are possible. The thing about hegemony, be in terms of art history or broader societal norms, is that it privileges just one system and holds that up as ideal and truth. Everything else then becomes less natural, less normal, or inferior and very often frowned upon. That is the same with binary constructs. It sets one thing against another, with no room for in between. Yet based on experience, we all know that that isn’t true. Actual human desires and ways of being in the world just cannot and will not be confined to either two options because they are so much richer than that. In many places today, including Singapore, love and romance continue to be portrayed as heterosexual and hetero-gender by default. Male bodied individuals are expected to behave in narrowly defined masculine ways, the same way that female-bodied individuals are expected to conform to feminine ideals. These are all, ultimately, social and cultural constructs. I think it’s critical to question where these norms came from, and also how they came about. If you pick up books such as Gender Pluralism by Michael G. Peletz, one might just find themselves surprised to find that attitudes towards gender pluralism and same sex relationships in the early modern times were more liberal than they are today. So where did that change happen? I think it definitely had to do with the increasing Western and European dominance over Asian cultures during the period of colonisation.

Overall, I think that approaching art history with this lens could only enrich our understanding of a particular work and of the practices of such artists in totality. What drove them to create works in such ways? It will allow us to ultimately achieve a better understanding of what it meant to be living in times when queerness was considered unspeakable. Coming back to Teng Nee Cheong’s works, one could definitely and appraise the aesthetic qualities of his works whilst steering completely clear of its auto-biographical aspect. Yet it is only when these two components come together that they can convey a truer and more authentic spirit of the works. It makes us all more sensitive to the experiences of others and enlarges our sense of empathy, so that’s the value that I seek through my work.






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