Siong Chung Hua

by Gemma Kearney, MA Fine Arts Alumni, 2018

by Siong Chung Hua, BA(Hons) Fine Arts Alumni (2017)

Considering most art in relation to travel, it is generally understood that the artist, after navigating her or his artistic approaches to unexplored frontiers – historically, culturally or socially – with other forms of research and knowledge, presents a visual engagement of senses addressing specific experiences. But considering the artist, in the financial capacity of a student, the idea is often relegated to combing one’s backyard. By no means am I suggesting that this realm allowed to creative research is less important. Rather, as the late John Berger fondly puts across, it is something about the “artist’s way of looking at the world... a representation of a recognisable incident,” which provides greater meaning, desire, pleasure, and the ability to “increase our awareness of our own potentiality. (Berger, John. Landscapes: John Berger on Art, Verso, 2016)” What we take away on a higher plane is not just the memory of an experience, but also the suggestion of a minute relationship with the world: a vicarious doorway in which we relate, recall or even question this.

Generally overlooked in the context of white cube spaces, however, is the absence of the artist’s beliefs, visual perspectives and methodology – the process of which she/he draws from a body of materials and experiences that precedes the artwork’s presentation. In the end, we are left with a fragment of a practice, reducing its value to what it does, and not what the artwork actually is. Chuckling while sharing this anecdote during our tête-à-tête luncheon before the launch of The Winston Oh Travel Research and Practice Award exhibition held at the LASALLE College of the Arts, somewhere years ago, Dr Winston Oh, a cardiologist and the sponsor of this Travelogue Award, and Dr Julia Oh, his British-born wife, visited a museum in England to soak in the multitude of exhibitions. Having stopped at a painting, Dr Julia Oh, herself a LASALLE alumna, passionately articulated her understanding of the vivid brushstrokes, movement, reducing it to a context constructed from the artist’s intention. Having listened for a while, the cardiologist looked at the painting, said nothing, and walked away. He lamented, that while in front of him sat a beautiful painting, the lack of description of the artistic process or journey, further widened an invisible boundary between the viewer and the art.

Perplexing to many during a time when the endless debate about arts funding, here is a couple who have quietly walked the talk. For the past 18 years (and perhaps even more), the couple has been nothing but a fervent patron of the arts. While Dr Julia Oh, the social-anthropologist and arts therapist, channels her support to the National Heritage Board and other like causes, Dr Winston Oh took ownership by sponsoring the eponymous travel scholarships to students across the Fine Arts board annually – one of whom was prominent local painter Ruben Pang. “The idea is to enable students in their formative years to gain exposure to other cultures, environments, arts, to record their responses to this new experience,” explained Dr Oh in a 2010 interview by The Business Times.

But who is this benefactor? There are two personal facts about Dr Oh that he humbly keeps hidden. The first is, Dr Oh is an excellent watercolourist having been under the tutelage of the late James Fletcher-Watson, John Yardley and Ken Howard. Singapore’s pioneer artist Ong Kim Seng praised his work as “transparent, right to the point, and spontaneous,” but Dr Oh had never formally enrolled in an art school, only seriously pursuing the craft after his children flew the coop. His love for plein air, the act of painting outdoors, is very much evident in his numerous classic landscapes. Second, Dr Oh is still as interested as ever after 18 years of being exposed to the contemporary ways of seeing.

After lunch, we moved to Praxis Space, one of Institute of Contemporary Arts Singapore’s managed galleries in LASALLE. It was a hot day and 10 recipients waited nervously inside. This time round, the 2017 edition titled Wanderlust, which capitalises on the strong desire to travel, was extended to providing support to travel further to places that were not readily accessible. This group exhibition took on a different nuance from the year before by providing a repository of memories, observations, and obsessions – footnotes of the mind.