The first element that strikes viewers looking at Tang Kok Soo’s painting ‘Elephants Crossing the Water’, is the unusual placement of bodiless ‘eyes’, taking the form of small black dots dispersed throughout the painting. A signature feature in his ‘Stone’ series, as are the whimsical specks of colour on the canvas, these ‘eyes’ direct ours to different elements in the painting and foreground the coming together of individual lives in a community.
Conveying a sense of resilience and groundedness of its mammal subjects in the face of a challenge, Tang’s painting won the 2016 United Overseas Bank (UOB) Painting of the Year (POY), Singapore (Established Category — Gold award). Artists and gallerists in the nation would undoubtedly know of the competition, established by UOB in Singapore back in 1982. Conceptualised with the vision of supporting rising talents in the local art scene, the award has proven a prestigious title for local artists to aspire to. Cultural Medallion recipients Anthony Poon and Chua Ek Kay are but part of its illustrious alumni.
Clinching one of the top prizes in the competition that recognised these artists who made a mark on Singapore’s art history is a testament to Tang’s meticulous technique and creativity. Charcoal, watercolour and Chinese ink, three of his choice materials, are skilfully applied on the canvas. For the dry and wet materials to co-exist, the painting must have been done layer by layer, lending an undoubted sense of materiality to the final piece. Lines and shapes tease elephant figures, but distinct outlines ultimately elude the viewer, who is left content to address the painting as a cross between figurative painting and Russian abstraction art.
For the Johore-born Tang, the road to practising art and winning the 2016 UOB Painting of the Year, Singapore (Established Category — Gold Award) was a winding one. Exposed to watercolour and oil painting techniques at around age 11, Tang uncovered a deep longing for making art. The age of 38, however, saw Tang as an engineer, who decided then to dedicate his time to making art full-time instead. Clinching the award was one of the ways in which his decision bore fruit.
Another way in which this decision is proven a favourable change, of course, is Tang’s first solo exhibition, ‘Tang and Tranquility’, showing at the UOB Art Gallery from April 12 to May 19. Entering into Tang’s world, the viewer straddles between cityscape paintings bathed in yellow, with streaks of light rendered so realistic that the streets in these paintings might just be alive, to the skilful use of grey to create the illusion of texture in his ‘Stone’ series. The occasional vibrant red and blue hues play an important role of imbuing the paintings with perspective and a sense of life.
Tang Kok Soo shares the motivations behind his practice, and how winning the 2016 UOB Painting of the Year, Singapore (Established Category — Gold Award) has shaped his path as an artist.
You are a firm believer that moral character and qualities shape the art you create. How do your values influence your work?
My life as an artist is meaningful as long as I know that my artworks contribute to the betterment of society. I believe that even if art does not contribute to society, it should not harm or negatively influence society.
There is no one standard for art. However, the artist’s state of mind and intentions should be sincere and pure, as they come through to the viewers who appreciate their artworks. That should be the ultimate aspiration of an artist — to have an unwavering conviction to create art that aligns with the artist’s inner-self and purity of heart.
I draw inspiration from the Confucian saying, “In the Classic Poetry or Book of Song, or 诗经 in Chinese, are three hundred pieces, but the design of all of them may be embraced in one sentence — ‘Having no depraved thoughts’”.
As an artist, I strive to uphold a high standard of conduct and morals, so that my paintings will embody a positive message.
You believe that art has the power to leave a positive mark on society. In what way do you think your art will leave a legacy?
I believe that artworks give viewers a glimpse into the inner world of the artist. I try to channel positive energy and compassion through my artworks with the hopes that it will have a positive impact on the art community and society.
Who has helped you or made an impact on you along the way to making art achieve the purpose you would like it to achieve?
My wife has been a true pillar of support in my journey to become a full-time artist. She is my mirror and a beacon for me to look up to. Her sincerity and compassion never fail to shine through no matter how difficult our journey is.
I also have an artist friend whom I consider to be a true confidante. He knows my artistic ambitions, what inspires me, and my passion.
Mindfulness and positivity characterise your work. Why is it so important to be positive? Why must you develop your art in that direction?
Art is about reaching a common level with the viewer, to be able to move them subtly and gently. As a full-time artist, I paint daily for eight to 10 hours, if not more. I am usually alone when I paint, and this gives me the opportunity to get in touch with my inner voice. As I do not have many opportunities to interact with people, I hope to impart positive messages through my artworks. I believe that true creativity stems from one’s heart and inner self.
You use mixed media and watercolour in your paintings. Why? What made you decide that the materials and medium you used was necessary to express what you want to express?
There is no fixed form or framework for creating good works of art, so I try not to restrict myself to any specific technique.
From a commercial perspective, recreating popular artworks with the similar techniques and styles may help to boost sales. However, being too entrenched in a singular concept or technique may block the artist’s creativity and hinder the evolution of their artworks in the long term.
You were born in Malaysia, spent your childhood in Brunei, then came to Singapore in 1986 and discovered painting and art. How have these places influenced your paintings?
I spent my growing years in Brunei, where I learnt to live simply with a contented heart.
I have spent the past 31 years in Singapore, where I built my career and started my family. Singapore is where I belong. It is in Singapore where I built my vision, honed my outlook in life and developed my passion for the arts.
Singapore was where you learnt watercolour and oil painting, and fell in love with art. For many years, you treated art as a hobby. What made you leave your job in engineering in 2013 to become a full-time artist? What were the thoughts going through your mind? Was the switch a drastic or gradual process?
In 2009, I crossed paths with two artist friends, Tay Bak Chiang and Ng Woon Lam, whom I knew during my younger days when I used to spend time at Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts (NAFA) and the Federation of Art Societies Singapore.
I learnt about their success as artists, after which I reflected on what had I been doing over the past decade. I felt that I had wasted valuable opportunities by discontinuing my practice of fine art, and was filled with a sense of emptiness. Thereafter, I picked up my paintbrush again and started painting during my free time.
In 2013, at the age of 38, I realised that was nearing my golden age and did not want to look back on life with regrets. With the invaluable support of my wife, I gave up my stable career in engineering to practice fine art full-time.
To quote Confucius, “At fifteen my heart was set on learning; at thirty I stood firm; at forty I had no more doubts; at fifty I knew the mandate of heaven; at sixty my ear was obedient; at 70, I could follow my heart’s desire without transgressing the norm”. Today, as I reflect upon this sentence I regret not pursuing art from the age of 15. At my current age of 41, I hope to remain firm in my goal and make up for lost time by working on my art every day.
Where did you learn painting in Singapore? Were you influenced by other artists of that time?
I am inspired and influenced by artists such as Chen Chong Swee, Gog Sing Hooi, John Singer Sargent, Vincent van Gogh, Pablo Picasso, and the Russian Masters. I also enjoy studying the works of Wu Guanzhong, Chua Ek Kay, James Abbott McNeill Whistler, Cheong Soo Pieng, Pieter Bruegel, Egon Schiele and Gustav Klimt.
We often start off doing something without recognising ourselves as a person who is competent at it. At what point did you realise you were not just a person making art, but you were an artist?
When I decided to become a full-time artist in 2013, it was with the clarity of mind that I wanted to create art that would contribute to society. It was also spurred by my desire to work hard as an artist to make up for lost time.
You won the 2016 UOB Painting of the Year (POY), Singapore (Established Category — Gold Award). Why did you choose to join the competition? What does this recognition mean to you as an artist?
When I became a full-time artist at 38 years old, I was not well known in the art community. Winning the 2016 UOB Painting of the Year (POY), Singapore (Established Category — Gold Award) boosted my confidence in my artistic abilities and affirmed my decision to pursue art as a career.
The UOB Group Strategic Communications and Customer Advocacy (GSCCA) team engaged me shortly after the win to organise my solo exhibition at the UOB Art Gallery. They worked closely with me to curate the artworks for the exhibition and select the exhibition theme, and to organise media interviews, a gallery tour and photography to profile my exhibition to UOB employees and the public. The entire process was new to me.
My winning artwork was selected as the inspiration for the design of the 2016 UOB Annual Report. I was honoured and pleasantly surprised that my artwork was selected due to the positive message behind my work.
I appreciate the efforts of the UOB GSCCA team, who worked tirelessly to make all the arrangements for my first solo exhibition; from the design and printing of the exhibition catalogue to giving me an enormous push to promote my works to the public through the Bank’s regional network.
Going forward, I hope to continue creating art with a sincere and pure heart and to explore new painting techniques.
Has winning the 2016 UOB Painting of the Year, Singapore (Established Category — Gold Award) paved the way for more exhibition opportunities?
Yes, definitely! With the UOB Painting of the Year (POY) competition, I was able to showcase my artworks on a regional level, and network with UOB POY artists from around across the region.
Since winning the 2016 UOB POY competition, I have broadened my clientele base to a wider audience which I normally would not be able to market to. This includes regional art collectors and new collectors.
I have exhibited my artworks at the UOB Art Space @ Art Stage Singapore 2017 alongside 14 other UOB POY artists from around Southeast Asia. I am honoured to host my first solo exhibition at the UOB Art Gallery. I sincerely thank UOB, especially the UOB GSCCA team, for giving me the chance to launch my first solo art exhibition at UOB’s headquarters in Raffles Place, Singapore.
We would like to thank UOB for relaying the questions to the artist in Chinese, and transcribing and translating the interview as shown above.