Johann M Fauzi on Being an Artist-Collector, The Value of Craftsmanship and The Ecology of Everything
Johann M Fauzi is a Singaporean artist and art collector whose collection span the 13th to the 19th centuries, ranging from paintings, tapestries, prints, bronzes, ceramics, lighting and furniture. Through his interest in collecting, he began exploring the mediums of painting, printmaking and sculpture. He works with elements such as light and perspective, and uses oil painting as a means to explore image-making. His research is focused on the conceptual framing of Singapore landscape at the intersections of Classical and Romantic periods, as well as questioning ‘otherness’ and the position of a Malay person in Singapore.
Following a successful showcase upon his graduation from the LASALLE College of the Arts, Johann’s works are now on display in a very different setting — that of a corporate office. We met with the artist in his studio to talk about the twists and turns that have led him to the art he produces today. For our conversation, he picked out a variety of works including compositions by Johann Sebastian Bach, artworks by Paolo Veronese and AES+F, a book by Jamie James, and a movie directed by James Ivory.
Let’s open up the conversation with the visual works you’ve picked out here. The Wedding Feast at Cana and Allegoria Sacra share certain similarities in their interest in the symbolic, but sit very far apart in terms of the time period in which they were created. Tell us more about how you started working with allegorical images and characters in your practice.
I’ve always been fascinated by these two works. As a young artist, one is often more carefree; yet as time passes, you begin to think more about ideas surrounding death and life. These two works we’re discussing here encapsulate these big ideas. They encourage deep thinking. You have to look at the work many times in order to grasp its richness, and that fascinates me. I enjoyed these works so much, and it made me realise that this was the kind of art I wanted to be making as well. This was how works such as these became reference points for me. I began using allegorical images or symbols in my paintings to direct viewers in a subtle way.
In particular, Allegoria Sacra by AES+F is interesting in that it is a contemporary take on the historical tradition of Western painting. It is a video work, and the scenes that really stuck with me were those that were filmed in the setting of an airport. The airport is a transitory space. In the work, it was used as a metaphor for how we often find ourselves in holding spaces throughout our lives. The artists were able to use symbols and allegories associated with works from the Renaissance or Baroque periods, and reinvent them for a modern-day viewer.
Are there particular images or symbols that you find yourself coming back to time and time again?
I find myself using botanical elements quite often, and you can see how flowers have been employed as symbols across a few of my works. A flower like the lily symbolises purity, and the rose can sometimes be associated with danger due to its thorny nature.
I also find myself using animals in my work. A lot of my work deals with colonisation in Southeast Asia, and the study of botany and zoology was integral to these processes. One particular animal, the mouse deer, was seen as a representation of the native people. When viewers read my works as a complete tableau, they begin to pick out how I use these flora and fauna as metaphors for different groups of people during the colonial period.
As you said, the study of botany and zoology is closely associated with colonial officials who came to Singapore by way of the East India Company. It brings to mind the how the stuffed tapirs and drawings of the Rafflesia flower feature prominently in a previous exhibition at the Asian Civilisations Museum.
I was working on a series on colonial Singapore, and used indigenous flowers as a symbol for Southeast Asia, Malay-ness. When it came to representing European figures such as Raffles himself, I’d use European flowers. I couldn’t use a Rafflesia flower in the image, even if I wanted to, because those flowers are very large. They wouldn’t fit into the canvas.
This is a good point at which we can turn to talk about the book you picked out. This book by Jamie James discusses artists who uprooted themselves from one place to live in another. This is a situation that is not dissimilar to the colonial officials we were talking about earlier, who were engaged in anthropological processes of documenting and collecting. Tell me about your relationship to or understanding of the word “exotic”, a word that many people find problematic today; and what you enjoyed about reading this book.
In the book, one of the artists James discusses is the Indonesian artist Raden Saleh. He left Java for Europe at a very young age, and remained in Europe for more than twenty years. Saleh was even depicted in a portrait whilst dressed in European style.
There was always opera music playing in the house, and I was exposed to composers such as Puccini from a very young age. I didn’t understand the lyrics because these operas were mostly sung in Italian, but the music grows on you. When I moved to Australia for my university, I studied in a campus that was situated right next to a museum. I’d always find myself in the museum during my lunch break, surrounded by culture. During my time in Australia, I stayed with a local family as well. I ate with them, spend time with them, so their culture grew on me over time as well.
Some might look at my upbringing and say that I’ve lived a life steeped in white privilege. Yet on the flipside of it, I’m not white. There is this keen sense of Otherness, so that statement becomes quite problematic for me. I spent about twelve to fifteen years overseas, and so it was a huge change of environment for me coming back to Singapore too. At the end of the day, I’m always careful to draw upon the positive aspects of each culture — be it Asian or Western.
It’s interesting that you’ve lived between quite a few different places, and that you see that part of you reflected in some of the people discusses in The Glamour of Strangeness. Those experiences have seeped into your style and how you now approach painting. Do you think there are certain aspects of your practice that you can attribute as being indebted to experiences that resulted from this itinerant lifestyle?
I think this international experience is most noticeable when you consider my interest in and how I use interior space. When I exhibit my works, I create a space around it that is filled with European furniture and accoutrements. My family home does not look like this at all but this is how I live now, so that preference probably comes from having lived abroad for a substantial amount of time.
I lived in the United Kingdom and America for a while, and I really enjoyed my time there. I have firm friends there, so I have a very lasting and fond memories associated to those places. Certain paintings I’ve done are painted in homage to those moments, and I’m working on a series of paintings on Australia at the moment as well.
Music has been a big part of your life, and it is always exciting to see how encounters with different mediums can feed into each other. Do you credit music as an influential factor to your creative process?
When I paint or sculpt, I always have music playing in the background. It helps to get the creative juices flowing. When I’m working on a piece, I find that music helps to heighten the colours or the forms that I’m using at that point in time.
I really enjoy Classical music, and I play a lot of Bach’s music in my studio. I do play some musical instruments myself, but my partner is an experienced violinist and pianist. He plays every day, so music has become a big part of my life.
Another work you’ve picked out for this interview is the 1993 movie directed by James Ivory, The Remains of the Day. The movie is based on the novel of the same name by award-winning author Kazuo Ishiguro. Why were you drawn to the film adaptation as compared to the original text?
In the movie, I think the actors were able to bring out certain idiosyncrasies in the various characters in a way that the book could not. You have a skilled actor like Anthony Hopkins breathing life into a character like the butler, Mr Stevens. I saw a lot of my own life being reflected back to me through his portrayal.
I was brought up in a strict religious family, and for a long time my parents did not approve of my decision to pursue art. They were worried that I would not be able to make enough money as an artist. It wasn’t until much later on in my life that I was able to devote my time to studying art properly. In a similar way, Mr Stevens was brought up in a strict household as well. His father made it clear that service to one’s employer was the most important task in one’s life, and that left little room for the expression of one’s feelings. Throughout the movie, we see romantic tension simmering between Mr Stevens and the housekeeper, Miss Kenton. Yet neither of them acted on those feelings, and the whole entire story is told through increasingly vivid flashbacks. The title of the story, The Remains of the Day, alludes to the realisation that dawns upon Mr Stevens towards the end. Thinking back on the missed opportunities and his misplaced loyalties, he decides to dedicate the remains of his days to the wholehearted service of his new employer.
I spent the past thirty to forty years of my life doing things that I did not like. The jobs I had were very generic, and very regimented. It got to a point where I began reflecting on the remaining years I have in my life. I want to fully concentrate now on what I love doing. My work is quite different to those of my peers, and this is something that my tutors here in LASALLE commented on as well. I don’t just work on paintings. I spend a lot of time creating installations as well.
Let’s talk about your experience with going to art school as a mature student, and how that was like for you. Many of your classmates are much younger, so how was it like learning alongside them and getting back into the groove of being in school again?
It was quite difficult at first. I hadn’t read books for a long time, and a large part of the degree was focused around research and writing.
My younger classmates have a very different way of thinking as well. They see things from a very different perspective, and they are all so tech savvy as well. In comparison, my works are old-fashioned. For our graduate showcase, there were two video works that were being exhibited. I’m hopeless at technology. I prefer doing everything from scratch.
You really did everything from scratch for your graduate showcase. You had a hand in everything, and there was great attention to every detail of your installation. Many painters are concerned primarily with the canvas itself, but you extend your focus outwards to the frame and the display space. Let’s start with your interest in frames before we move on to talking about the installation space. You’ve done extensive research into the history of frames and this has informed the sort of frames you now use in your works. Why spend so much time on a painting’s frame?
My work is concerned with conceptual framing. When I create a work, I really want to bring viewers into my world. When they step into a space to view my works, I want them to feel as if they’re no longer in 21st century Singapore. I select my frames carefully in order to draw viewers into a different space altogether. I’m really interested in Romanticism between the late 18th century to the 19th century, and frames were laden with symbolic meanings during those times.
In my work Batu 6 (6th Mile), I included the year 1820 at the top of the gilded frame. Even though I completed the work in 2018, I wanted it to seem as if I was there with Raffles after he landed in Singapore in 1819 to paint the landscape. My works contain a lot of details that viewers would have to spend a lot of time with in order to see all these elements working together.
For another work, Manggis (Self Portrait), I painted it after the Dutch still life tradition. Dark ebony frames were commonly used in conjunction with Dutch or Flemish still life paintings, so I knew I wanted to use a similar frame for my own work. I bought an ebony frame from an auction for this work, and I wanted it to evoke associations to that particular genre of painting.
You draw the viewers into your works through the display space as well. Your works are show alongside furniture and pieces from your own art collection, and it creates an atmosphere that is similar to a French salon. With your works at the graduation show, you even took the time to create a map of the objects in the space as well. Why was that map important, and could you talk us through how you decided on using this set up?
Let me start first with the mapping. When I work on a painting, I draw from 18th century paintings and reinvent them for our present time. I wanted to place these older paintings alongside the contemporary renditions I’ve done, and to present both to viewers. It was important to me that viewers were confronted with questions around authenticity, historicity, and veracity. I’ve had viewers ask me if my works were paintings I purchased from an antique shop.
I find the ecologies of things very interesting as well. With the furniture I use in the space, I try to map out where all of these materials have come from. For example, Vietnamese French export furniture were important export products from Saigon. When Saigon was under French colonial control, the local residents were coerced into producing cash crops. This diverted the farmers’ resources away from the production of necessities such as rice. As a result, many of the local Vietnamese people died from starvation. This was the case in Indonesia as well, where the Dutch were in power for an extended period of time. In the graduate showcase, there were two ebony stools from my own art collection that I included in the installation. These stools were originally made in Indonesia, and I acquired them in Amsterdam. During the time these stools were made, ebony wood was an expensive and valuable product. One ebony stool would have been sold for the equivalent of two slaves. Humans were seen as yet another commodity, and you could even trade them in for furniture.
When I do this sort of research, it breaks my heart. I enjoy making art, and these findings got me thinking about the human cost of the art I now create. Through these maps and objects, I wanted to open up these conversations around the ecologies of manufacture and consumption.
This leads us to bigger questions surrounding the ethics of art making. For example, the stools you mention acquiring from Amsterdam are actual byproducts of a violent colonial past that robbed an entire nation of its resources, wealth and culture. As your work is interested in the voices of the Other, how have you reconciled these contradictions within your work?
Every individual viewer who comes to view my work brings along with them their own conscience. I leave these conclusions up to the viewers to make. I’m careful not to encourage irresponsible consumer behaviour. I wouldn’t, for example, encourage the purchase or sale of ivory. As a younger collector, I purchased ivory myself. I was uninformed at the time, and only came to learn much later about the issues surrounding protection and conservation. As a result of this, there were no ivory items from my collection included in the graduate showcase installation. For my thesis, I managed to provide a more in-depth look into how deep these ecologies run. We have to be conscious about what we purchase.
As viewers were allowed to interact freely with your installation, what were some of the responses you gathered from audiences? Did some of them feel conflicted about what they were seeing?
There were many viewers who told me they had never seen an art installation set up quite like that before. I also received some negative feedback as well. By showcasing works from my own art collection alongside my paintings, some felt as if I was merely showing off my own wealth. I didn’t know what to say to that, because that wasn’t my intention at all. I have been an art collector and artist for many years, so this showcase was an amalgamation of these different facets. When it comes to thinking about private collections of art, these privately acquired works are rarely shown to the public. As such, some viewers said that this installation allowed them access to a body of works they otherwise wouldn’t have been able to see. There was a huge variety of opinion.
I managed to have conversations with some audiences surrounding the decor and layout of the space as well. Some asked why the walls were painted red, and I pointed out that the colour red is commonly associated with ideas of bloodshed and anarchy. With colonialism, countries were plundered and lives were lost. I wanted the space to echo that history.
These critiques are continued within the works themselves. In Tuan Stamford Raffles, for example, a garland of flowers surround a portrait of Raffles. Given the backdrop of the Bicentennial commemoration, I wanted to question why we were celebrating our colonial masters two hundred years on.
It isn’t often that you find a practicing artist actively amassing an art collection, or an art collector pursuing art. In previous questions, you touched on your art collection and how that has influenced your work. You started collecting art a long time before you formalised your own art practice. Do you think your works would have taken on a very different tone had you developed your collection and your practice at the same time?
Definitely. I paint what I like, and this reflects my own collection where I only buy works that I am drawn to. It’s not about what’s trendy, it’s about surrounding yourself with things that make you happy.
As both an art collector and an artist, I’m drawn to high quality craftsmanship. Great art is as much about a thought-provoking concept as it is about its execution. Aldo Gucci notably said that the quality of a product will be remembered, even after its price is forgotten. I studied at the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts (NAFA) prior to my recent degree at LASALLE. At NAFA, the instruction emphasised technical skill and finesse. As students, we spent a lot of time getting the basic techniques of painting, sculpting and drawing right. This helped me to develop a keen appreciation of technical proficiency.
Tell us about what you collect. Do you collect works from a particular time period or geographical area?
The works in my collection primarily span from the 11th century to the 19th century, although I do own a few contemporary works as well. I collect porcelain from the Yuan Dynasty up to the late-Qing Dynasty. I also collect French furniture from the 18th century. I’m also intrigued by French and Belgian tapestries. Paintings form a substantial portion of my collection, and I enjoy works that have been made in the still life and landscape traditions. On top of these works, I own bronzes, crystals and porcelain figurines as well. When I paint, I do draw from my own collection for inspiration. Some of the still life paintings I’ve done feature objects that I own.
Your works extend beyond the physical frame into the viewing space, and this makes viewing them quite an encompassing experience. If it were within your control, what sort of collection would you like your works to be in? Would you prefer them to be seen as a whole installation, or would you be open to breaking the series up?
At this point, I’m open to all the various possibilities. I have had collectors purchase just one or two paintings out of a series of works, but I would love for a major institution to acquire the installation in its entirety. Of course it would be great if someone were to purchase the entire series. When you view these works together, they speak to each other and connections can be made between them. But it also comes down to the storage space one has, and what is practical.
I’m working on an installation with a gallery at the moment, where I’ve been given free rein over four rooms. If a client wants to purchase a work, they’d have to purchase the entire wall. That will be interesting, and I’m looking forward to working on it.
Coming to the subject matter you deal with in your paintings, the modern history of Singapore is a timely yet contentious topic. Some might feel that your works represent a colonial past through rose-tinted lenses, and that they do not deal with these histories carefully enough. As an artist, how have you approached depicting this moment in time?
I try to give viewers as much insight as possible into my thought process in putting an installation together. I have spoken to some viewers who have questioned my choice to depict Raffles as well. I wanted to critique the figure of Raffles against the backdrop of the Bicentennial. At the end of the day, everyone’s perspective on the matter is different and there is no single way of creating works in response to this period in time.
Right now, it seems as if almost every other event or art exhibition in Singapore comments on the Bicentennial in one way or another. What did you hope to add to the conversation by creating this body of work?
I wanted to create awareness around the ecologies of capitalist consumerism. It was important to me that the objects I use in my installation reflect the exact time period I’m commenting on. I invited a musician to perform in the space when I exhibited at the graduate showcase. Instead of playing a repertoire that consisted of classical music, she played local Malay music. I wanted to intrigue viewers with that contrast, and I think it worked.
I created an incredibly lavish setting in which the paintings could be viewed, and this was important to me. Some viewers have commented on how inappropriate it feels, and how out of place some of them have felt amidst this luxury. I think it is important to visualise the sort of wealth that was accumulated by the colonial masters, as a result of their exploits in places such as Singapore, Java and India. This was the sort of opulence common in English or French country houses and estates. Some might not have considered the extent of the colonial plunder before until they see it before them in such an overt way.
In a seminal essay, the poet Audre Lorde mused that, “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change”. As someone who employs techniques, images and symbolism that are reminiscent of a Western art historical tradition, do you think that these archaic structures or ways of seeing can only be turned upon their heads by working from within that same system?
To a certain extent, I do think so. I wanted to bring viewers into these settings, however uncomfortable they might be. This is how the colonial masters lived. This is the extent to which colonisation benefited the West. When I was preparing for the graduate showcase, some asked me to consider using the setting of local, Malay houses instead. Although that was a valid suggestion, I felt that using a local setting would not land with viewers or bring out the subject matter in the same way. The discomfort that one feels from coming into such a rich and luxurious space creates, in turn, an acute awareness around just how skewed and imbalanced these power structures were.
The Pride of the Mangosteen is now open.
The exhibition will run at Clifford Chance Singapore until 16 July 2019.
For more information about the exhibition, please contact Art Porters Gallery.