The Conservation Studio (NUS Museum) on Ng Eng Teng's Asian Symphony
We meet with two conservators from the Conservation Studio at NUS Museum, Lawrence Chin and Claire Lim, in their studio. Whilst the studio has worked extensively with a variety of significant artworks, our conversation with Chin and Lim focuses on a sculpted mural by Ng Eng Teng titled Asian Symphony. The mural has been installed in the National University Health System Building.
The Conservation Studio was set up in 2008 at its current premises within the NUS Museum. The primary focus of the studio is to provide services and support in the area of paintings conservation, as well as preventive conservation measures for both public and private collections. Another important aspect of the studio's work is collaborating with museums, galleries and schools to conduct programmes in order to raise awareness of long-term preservation issues.
Claire Lim (CL): The mural was originally installed in the lobby of the Garden Hotel. It's actually a very nicely laid out and designed area.
Lawrence Chin (LC): It's [a design that's] very typical of the late 60's of 70's.
CL: The hotel was renovated a couple of times, and it was during one of these renovations that an attempt was made at removing the mural. They soon realised that they couldn't remove the mural.
LC: We suspect that these renovations were done in the 80's. The contractors started to hack at the top right corner of the mural, but cracks started to form in the work. Once they noticed these cracks, they stopped work immediately — which was good of them.
CL: When it became clear that the mural could not be removed, the hotel then decided to construct a new room so that the mural could be enclosed within. In comparison to its previous configuration of openness and grandeur, a small function room without windows was built around the mural.
LC: The mural is 10 metres across, so one would need at least 6 to 7 metres worth of viewing distance in front of it. The new meeting room was narrow and small, which meant that one probably wouldn't have been able to view the mural in its entirety. You'd only be able to see half of the mural at any one point in time.
LC: The hotel was later sold. Asian Symphony was commissioned by the hotel owner's late father, and so the owner himself knew of how significant this piece was. Knowing that the Ng Eng Teng Collection had just been established at the National University of Singapore (NUS) Museum, the owner started making enquiries with the museum as to whether the piece could be rehoused or donated to the museum.
At that point in time, Ahmad [Mashadi] had just come onboard. For a period of four years, he worked towards finding a suitable location within NUS for the mural — anywhere that was either in the midst of constructing a new building, such as the School of Business; or undergoing extensive renovation, such as the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy. Initial discussions would always look positive, however when it came down to crunch time, everyone would say no. It would come down to things such as money and the mural's location — because it could not be positioned in an exposed area. Most often, it actually came down to its design — the piece just didn't quite fit.
We actually gave up [finding a home for the mural]. There was a period reprieve due to a dip in the property market, which meant that the developers leased the hotel back to the owner instead of starting work on the land immediately. When the developers decided to finally redevelop the land into a condominium, the hotel was told that it would be demolished within the coming year. Moving forward, we knew that if we could not find a new location for the mural, we would not be taking it. It was just too large — we knew that if we put it into storage, it would never be redisplayed again. The museum just didn't have the space for its showcase, so it had to be reinstalled elsewhere. If we couldn't find a suitable location for the mural, we were prepared to let it go.
Things seemed bleak up until February 2009. Someone from the National University Hospital (NUH) made enquiries with the museum to see if we were able to loan them some artworks for their offices.
CL: The exact question was, "Do you happen to have something huge?"
LC: They wanted something for their concourse area, which was a semi-enclosed space that was ten-storeys high.
CL: It's not the best space, but...
LC: The sun won't get [the mural].
CL: The space is also broad enough to allow for the viewing of the entire mural. As compared to its previous location, viewers now get more distance from which to view the mural.
LC: We were so lucky with the space as well. There was about a metre left on either side of backsplash after the mural was installed, so the mural fit in perfectly.
As soon as it became clear that the new space would house the mural nicely, talks turned towards discussions about money. The owner of the Garden Hotel paid for the deinstallation of Asian Symphony, and the new premises had funds under its building project for site-related installation works. It worked out well on both sides.
De-installing the Mural
CL: We weren't confident that we'd be able to take the mural down. To begin with, we weren't sure how the mural was installed because there wasn't documentation [of the process]. Furthermore because a previous attempt at removing the mural produced small cracks, we weren't sure that we'd be able to both deinstall the mural and maintain its overall condition. With all this in mind, we decided to involve the Department of Architecture's Design Incubation Centre. We wanted to do a high-resolution 3D scan of the mural so that should the mural be compromised during its deinstallation, we'd still have the data from the scans. At that point in time, 3D scanning technology wasn't as advanced as it is now. We had to use a handheld device. Also, the device couldn't detect the contours of the mural, so we had to have dot stickers stuck all over the murals. In order to get an accurate scan, the surface of the object has to be matte. However, the mural's surface was rather shiny. In order to mattify the surface, a particular type of foot spray was used.
LC: Because the foot spray has talc in it. We had to test out two or three different types of foot sprays to get the right one.
CL: By the time we were working on the deinstallation of the mural, the hotel was closed. There wasn't ventilation circulating, so the small room that we were in was stuffy. Everyone was wearing masks, but we were still sneezing because a lot of foot spray was used.
We were working with an incredibly tight timeline. We had to rush through the sticking of the dot stickers, the spraying of the talc foot spray, and the scanning of the mural. All of those tasks took almost ten days.
LC: We didn't have a lot of clues to go on [as to how the mural was installed]. We did an investigation onsite, but the only clue we had was that there were a couple of metal bars attached to the cement. Drawings were found of the mural, but these came much later in the process. These were sketches of the final composition and design, but didn't provide any details as to the installation of the mural. We knew for a fact that [Ng] Eng Teng was incredibly meticulous, and he usually photographed all the work that he did. We asked the Ng family if there were any photographs of Asian Symphony, and they said there weren't.
Having completed a scope, we knew that there were a couple of metal bars embedded into the mural — but we had no idea how many there were, or how extensive the adhesion was between the panel and the wall. We worked with the contractors to figure out a step-by-step process for deinstallation. The first thing we did was to see if the panels could be removed from the back. The space behind the mural had been emptied out, so we stripped back the wall in patches around where we suspected the anchors bars were. We hacked around them, and the first two panels [out of ten] came out quite easily. Having done that, we thought the process [for the rest of the panels] would be easy. However from the third panel onwards, a layer of cement was poured down the back and that was what held the panel onto the wall. We almost had to remove every single brick from the wall before the panels came off.
CL: Before we did the hacking, we had to do the facing.
LC: After we scanned the mural, we had to remove the dot stickers. There were over a thousand dot stickers to be removed from the mural. We had to then protect the front of the mural. This protection serves two functions. The first is to prevent direct handling on the surface of the mural. The facing is made of Chinese rice paper with synthetic wheat starch. The facing is then pasted onto the mural's surface in small squares, covering the entire work. This took about three or four days to complete. The second reason why we did the facing was that in the event the mural broke apart during deinstallation, it would have been held together by the rice paper. It would prevent broken pieces from falling off the mural.
CL: Not only would it have prevented broken pieces from going missing, it would allow us to attempt putting the mural back together as well.
LC: Yeah, so it served a double function. We only started hacking around the murals after we completed the facing.
CL: In total, we had about seven people working on the facing for three full days. Before that, we had been removing the dot stickers. We also cleaned up the surface slightly, so as to enable the facing to adhere to the mural better. It was just day after day of staring at this mural. When we went home, we all found ourselves covered in dot stickers. Even a year on, we still find dot stickers around the conservation studio.
The mural was also installed slightly above ground, so two ramps were used to help lower the panels down.
LC: The hotel was closed by the time we started deinstalling these panels, so two ramps were found from around the building.
The panels were backed up by brick walls up until the eighth or ninth panel. From then onwards, the panels were on reinforced concrete walls instead. That was tricky as well because the contractors now had to try punching through the reinforced concrete in order to dislodge the panels.
We took almost two weeks, in total, to get the panels off the walls. The first week was for all the preparatory work, and the second week was taken to do all the hacking. Once it was off the wall, we did a simple open crate around the panel so that they could be carted off.
Preparing & Installing the Mural
LC: We didn't really do much conservation in terms of the front, because we didn't want to remove the facing until the mural had been installed into its new location. What we did, instead, was to reconfigure the back. We didn't want to embed the mural into the wall at National University Health System (NUHS) Building, so we changed it to a hook system. The panels were installed with a two component hook, with an L-bracket at the base just in case everything gave way. The whole panel was lifted up, pushed in, lowered down and slotted into place.
CL: Each panel is incredibly heavy as well, most weigh more than 100 kilograms.
LC: It would have been very difficult for two men to lift each individual panel.
The installation took about a week, but before that the panels were held in storage for about four to five months. During that period of time, we sealed up the back of the panels with fibreglass and epoxy so as to reduce the amount of moisture entering the panel.
CL: The reverse side of the wall upon which the mural was to be installed was to be a toilet.
LC: We requested that the walls be waterproofed both on the inside and the outside because we didn't want water to seep into the mural and accumulate. We also tested out the hook systems at the off-site storage space, so we knew it worked. We took about three or four days to hook on all ten panels into the new space. After removing the facing and cleaning the mural, it was ready.
The panels were all very stable, because they had been made with an internal wire mesh. The cracks that we mentioned earlier were rather superficial, so we just pumped in a bit of adhesive [to fix it].
CL: The original colour of the mural is a golden-brown, but the facing made the surface look white and marbled. It ended up making the mural look quite contemporary. Someone joked that we should leave the work with the facing on. When we started removing the facing, some people actually tried to stop up because they thought we were destroying the artwork.
LC: The mural is made of ciment fondu, and the surface was painted with this warm, brown colour. We didn't remove the coating at all. All we did was a superficial clean, and where dirt was a little more stubborn, we used a bit of solvent to dissolve it. We recoated the surface with a clear, lacquer resin.
The condition of the mural is stable, but because of the undulating surface of the work, it collects dirt quite easily. We've been going back every one or two years to lightly clean the mural, and we're still considering if we should do a deep clean of the mural sometime soon. A deep clean will involve the use of solvents to break down some of the mural's surface coating in order to remove dirt that has accumulated. If dirt is allowed to build up on the surface, the mural will seem duller, which will impact its overall look. We'll also have to think about whether we should cover the mural with a coloured coating in order to even out the surface, before applying a clear coating on to finish.
CL: Whilst we were working on Asian Symphony, we were told that there was another piece by Ng Eng Teng in the Garden Hotel's café area. The piece had been vandalised quite badly — someone had drawn on the surface using markers and pens.
LC: This piece, Tropical Rhapsody, was a lot easier to remove. It wasn't cemented onto the wall, and was just attached with a couple of bolts.
I don't know if this was a blessing in disguise, because we weren't prepared for it. We had to go back to the owner of the Garden Hotel and ask if he could come up with extra money for the deinstallation of Tropical Rhapsody.
CL: It was an older member of the Garden Hotel staff who remembered that there was another piece by Ng installed in the hotel.
The drawings we mentioned earlier were also brought to us by a member of the staff. The drawings were folded, and placed in a small box. There were ten drawings, all folded into squares. This member of staff found it in the office, in one of the drawers, and handed it over to us. The first drawing was in good condition, but towards the ninth piece, we found that the drawings had been eaten into [by pests].
LC: When you compare the drawings to the completed murals, you can see that Ng made quite a few changes. These were the final drawings used in the making of these panels, but it's quite clear that [Ng] Eng Teng was still making changes to the mural's composition in these later stages. He was very much playing with the motif right up until the last moment.
We noticed that there were line markings made on these drawings as well, and later figured that these were where the anchor bars were positioned. They differ from panel to panel because he was looking to stabilise the thickest section of every panel.
We found a maquette within Ng's collection that was also named Asian Symphony, but the maquette differs quite a bit from the final work. For the longest time, there was a lot of confusion about the maquettes in his collection. There were two maquettes in his collection that he indicated as works for the Garden Hotel, so the consensus at the time was that he made the first maquette, changed it to the second, before working on the final mural. However when we found Tropical Rhapsody, we realised that the two maquettes were made for two different commissions.
LC: I think the one thing this experience showed me was that had the owner of the Garden Hotel not donated that sum of money towards the deinstallation of the mural, the entire project might not have worked out. It really evidenced the importance of patronage in preserving artworks. Artworks aren't always saved because they have an inherent value. A recognition of the role of patronage and funding is necessary. Even when we look at the conditions surrounding its continued display, things such as lighting and maintenance is necessary in ensuring the work remains in good condition.
CL: We were incredibly blessed with the many partners that we worked on for this project. The contributions of the Department of Architecture with regards to the 3D scanning, and the contractors that we worked with the remove the panels.
We ourselves had no idea as to how these panels could be taken off the walls. It was the contractors we worked with who came up with a solution. The entire process was incredibly harrowing, because the walls had to be hacked off from behind the panels. We were all standing in front of the panels, looking for cracks. Every time one panel was removed, we heaved a sigh of relief, and then moved on to the next. The contractors we worked with took extra care to handle the panels.
There was a lot of tender loving care on this project.
LC: How we approached this [project] was that every party knew something about how best to go about preserving this panel. We just had to put our skills together in order to figure out what the best possible way to remove this mural was. Although the contractors don't have the experience in taking down such murals, they have certain skill sets that we could tap onto. We had a certain understanding of material, so we could contribute with regards to that.