To Infinity and Beyond with Jahan Loh
Art Republik dives into the work of Singaporean pop artist Jahan Loh
This is not a fairy tale. This is a Luke Skywalker underdog story about Art Republik cover star Jahan Loh (b. 1976), a Singaporean contemporary artist currently based in Singapore; still trying to find a home in his home country, and would probably lose an arm before he finally does. His philosophy on art and the artist is as straightforward and as forward-thinking as it gets: “Contemporary art echoes modern life as both are ever evolving. Artists have to be sensitive to the changes in their environment or it could prove dangerous should they embark on their creative journey unprepared. They should constantly develop and modify their practice, and should continuously strive to introduce new visual elements to stimulate their audience.”
Jahan believes that an artist should be prepared to move forward with the ever-changing world, not necessarily to break tradition, but reinvent it and always keep an open mind; it’s about embracing change, not fighting it; about being commercial, but not selling out; about self-expression, not self-deprivation; about passion, not propaganda.
Always trekking the road not taken, Jahan turned down a career in law for one in art when he accepted a scholarship in Fine Art at LASALLE College of the Arts, Singapore, from Singapore Press Holdings (SPH). Writer and curator Alexandra Chang writes in her introduction to Jahan’s book, one that charts his artistic journey from 2013 and before, titled ‘Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth’ (2013), that “[t]he overbearing focus on abstraction at the school at the time stood in opposition to his interest in pop cultural icons and figurative forms. In an attempt to come to terms with the constricts of his situation, he created a work which incorporated a negative evaluation from the lecturer in his program and a series of past critiques onto his painting, citing Basquiat as his influence at the time”.
Jahan went on to win the attention of Nokia, but losing the respect of the LASALLE art department, which barely passed him. Nokia however, presented him with an award at their Nokia Regional Awards Show 2000, following a traveling group show that visited Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, Taipei, Beijing, Hong Kong and Auckland.
After graduating from LASALLE, he furthered his studies, majoring in design, and obtained his Masters from the University of New South Wales, before returning to Singapore to serve his scholarship bond within the SPH division of The Straits Times where he worked as an artist, creating cartoons and infographics for the national paper. He broke his bond with SPH within a year and moved to Taipei, Taiwan, in 2002, after being offered a job there, where he worked in MACHI Entertainment under Jeffrey Huang, the company’s creative director.
In Taipei, Jahan gained fame for his drawings for Machi’s (hip hop group) CD sleeve design and the band’s music videos. He won several Taiwanese music awards including MTV’s CD cover Design of the Year. With the boom in the Taiwanese music industry, he set up Invasion Studios in 2004 with Jeff and his brother Stanley Huang to design album covers and music videos. With the advancement of MP3 and music downloads, the industry declined and Jahan turned the direction of Invasion Studios towards art and animation, which included making vinyl toys. His work both as a commercial and fine art/street artist marked a new approach to art practices in Taiwan.
Jahan is the kind of guy that does and does not take life seriously. He follows his instincts wherever they may take him. He recalls: “Thinking back, I didn’t think like the whole thing would become so big… but back then we were still a very small community.”
In 2005, Jahan traveled to New York where he collaborated with his childhood idol John ‘CRASH’ Matos to prepare for two back-to-back exhibitions set for June 2006. While in New York, Jahan also met the artist Phase 2, who ended up playing a pivotal role in cultivating Jahan’s identity as a person and an artist.
“You’re Asian right, but you paint like what we did in the ’70s. So where is your identity?” Jahan remembers Phase 2 asking him. “When he said that, he really made me think: It’s true I’m Chinese, I’m Singaporean, but a lot of people in China think I’m Taiwanese, so what am I? There was this period when I was really thinking hard.”
Alexandra Chang writes, “Coming out of this experience… [Jahan] began to hold his paintbrush in the Chinese mao bi style and paint his script-based work in black and white, referencing Chinese calligraphic tradition. Yet this comprised only a portion of… [Jahan’s] artistic affinities and intersections as an artist trained on the streets in Singapore, Tokyo and Taiwan, as well as art school, and shaped by graffiti artists from the 1970s and 1980s in New York City and its wave of global influence, and the international phenomenon of toy, manga and comic book culture. After struggling with the confines of art world and national labels of graffiti and gallery artist, design and fine art, and his own cultural identity… [Jahan] found himself living within the space of multiple overlapping identities with multiple possible potential categorisations.”
Following, in 2006, his work with CRASH was exhibited at Esplanade, Singapore, titled ‘Collison I’ and ‘Collison II’. This was the first graffiti art show held in a formal art institution in Singapore. In 2007, Loh signed with Mingart Gallery in Taipei and held his first Taipei solo pop art exhibition in 2008, ‘Cherry Pop II’. The controversial exhibition depicted suggestive nude paintings and sculptures, which gained him a lot of attention from the media.
“‘Cherry Pop’ is a concept that I conceived in 1998 and actualized in 2003 when the paintings I created for this series were exhibited in my first solo show in Singapore. I did not do it merely for the sake of stimulating or appealing to my audience; it was more of a personal project to explore identity through a spectrum of emotions,” Jahan explains.
Taiwanese critics acknowledged him as one of the key artists who has made Singapore pop art international. Also that year in 2008, he was selected for 8Q-RATE, the inaugural exhibition of 8Q SAM in Singapore. After the show, he took a year’s sabbatical before returning in 2009 with a solo show at 798, Beijing, China, which was sponsored by VANS; the exhibition ‘The Great Wall’ was the nation’s first street art exhibition.
“Contemporary visual culture embraces a gamut of practices across disciplines, industries, and media,” says Tan Siuli of the Singapore Art Museum. “Of these, perhaps none has gained so much visibility in recent years as much as graffiti art, fueled in part by the soaring popularity of practitioners such as Banksy and Shepard Fairey, whose wryly critical commentaries pepper the urban landscape as chance encounters on street corners and brick walls.”
In 2010, Jahan created paintings and sculptures of iconic pop subjects as a collective with Jakuan Melendez of the former 360 Toy Group, and Hong Kong actor Edison Chen who went by the moniker ‘Etelier des Chene’. The trio named themselves ‘Treacherous Treis’ and showcased their work at the Museum of Art & Design, Singapore. Of these iconic pop subjects, most notably is his ‘Hello Pussy’ (2010) series, which is essentially fiberglass sculptures of a blue-toned Hello Kitty character, each surrounded by a pool of hot pink blood.
Alexandra Chang writes, “When brought into the framework of the larger range of the artist’s works, this sculpture (‘Hello Pussy’) parallels the overtly sexualized squatting blue fiberglass female form, surrounded in a red plastic pool of menstrual blood in ‘Cherry Pop Girl’ from his ‘Cherry Pop’ series. In ‘Hello Pussy’, the work shifts from a more straightforward adolescent gaze onto female sexuality, and instead signals a play on innocence and the layered and multivalent points of view the artist is able to gather through compressing many moments of time into a single frame — all signified by a childhood icon passing into adulthood.”
After spending nine years in Taiwan, Jahan moved back to Singapore in 2011 where he created his series ‘Cherry Poke: Reconstructed Philosophies’ (2011) that was exhibited in various exhibitions including a solo show in 2011 at Esplanade, Singapore, and a group show in 2012 titled ‘15 Minutes Eternal’, an Andy Warhol’s exhibition at ArtScience Museum, Marina Bay Sands, Singapore.
“I wanted to break away from my old figurative style, and create a series of still life works which define my nationality as a Singaporean, as I felt that after spending… years in Taipei, even some China art magazines write that I am Taiwanese,” says Jahan.
Then 2013 saw the creation of ‘Working Class Hero’ (2013), where Jahan re-contextualized iconography and pop culture in a solo show at Chan Hampe Galleries at Raffles Hotel, Singapore. ‘Working Class Hero’ introduces new ways of considering familiar narratives, paying tribute to the everyday unseen heroes through pop and religious references that explore a contemporary examination of Singapore and beyond.
“These icons drawn from mass media are not about gaining instant popularity, but getting a connection to bring social subtleties into light, so that they may be honestly explored,” says Jahan. “From the superheroes that fight for justice in the comic world to the human heroes who make a difference every day in the real world… [‘Working Class Hero’ is] a record to the deeds of unseen heroes… The deconstruction of popular icons in my new series was done in order to perform not just a critical or philosophical task but also an intergalactic one: to alter one’s perception of reality and open up new spaces of being and becoming; one that delves into the possibility of new forms, new bodies and new minds.”
Over the next two years, Jahan published ‘Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth’ (2013), a bible of his oeuvre; participated in a four-month long residency at ESKFF at MANA Contemporary, Jersey City, New Jersey, USA; gave up bachelorhood; did various commissioned collaborations including one with Singapore-based sneaker retailer Limited Edt for the opening of their ninth store, where he created a life-sized 150kg Michael Jordan sculpture titled ‘Full Metal Twenty Three’ (2014); and started preparing for his new series ‘STATIC PARITY:’ (TBA).
From being known as ‘Dazed-J’ when he first forayed into street art in the early ’90s, to having his own ‘jahan-loh’ tag on (possibly the most popular street culture website in the world) Hypebeast, Jahan is a visual artist who is part-from-the-future, part-counterculture, and has techniques and a mind-set that is part-fine-art, part-street. His work is both highbrow and lowbrow, witty but not over-intellectualized, playful yet palatable. From neo-pop girls to intergalactic heroes, cape crusaders to dragon chasers, Jahan’s world of graphic marvels is replete with popular imagery, acid-washed dreamscapes and cryptic word play.
Arguably one of Singapore’s leading artists, he has represented Singapore in New York, Los Angeles, Glasgow, Melbourne, Japan, Malaysia, Hong Kong, Korea, Taiwan, and China; and collaborated with massive global brands such as Nike, Adidas, VANS, Sony and Reebok; with works in many private collections and museums throughout the world. Art Republik telepathically catches up with its two year anniversary ‘Jedi Master’ cover star (since being part of the ‘Guardians of the Garden City’ collective artist feature back in issue five, Art Republik’s one year anniversary issue) to pick his brain on the Singapore art scene, and what he’s up to these days.
You’ve had stints in many countries like New York and Taiwan, what’s it like being an artist in Singapore? What do you think of the Singapore art scene?
Being away for close to a decade and returning home to set up my studio has been a real trip. I realised that the government has built a huge greenhouse to grow the Singaporean arts scene, in one of the most expensive cities in the world.
Things happen a lot more organically in countries that I have showed. During my eight and a half years in Taipei, my career in art grew organically as I was exposed to market forces upon entry into this field of art. I didn’t know of the extensive art financial schemes and infrastructure offered by the National Arts Council (NAC) for Singaporean artists when I was in Taipei.
It was challenging for me to fund myself and survive being a full-time artist, managing my studio rent, material cost and fretting about various aspects of sustenance, but I guess everything happened for a reason, and these various set backs and experiences played a part in shaping my art practice.
I was without income for two years when I was in Taipei preparing for my first solo show, and after that harsh season, I realized nothing could possibly get worse if I could live through that. When you are left to survive in the world without any test tube attached, it makes you more resilient and not only able to survive, but thrive.
The grant system is great as a kick-starter and a good support system for artists to leverage on schemes to achieve greater heights. I think that with a good system of support, artist need to reinvent ourselves and think beyond our local audience and create awareness and develop a following overseas, and carve out a niche. The grant system is a means, not an end. It is not good for artists to be over reliant on it. Many times, even though the grant system was created to help artist grown, some artist are too spoon fed by it that this support hinders an artist’s growth.
A majority of local artists feel scared when they leave school and do not risk being a full-time artist. Most go back to their comfort zone which is teaching in school. With a full-time day-job as an educator, our local ‘artist’ moonlights and creates art part-time. I don’t see this as a healthy sign, as both careers are compromised.
Creativity does not apply only in the artworks but it is a holistic approach to how artists run their art practices. I have often been branded as a commercial artist because I do not fit in the traditional mould of being a ‘pure’ artist with abstract concepts which only a select few can comprehend. My art is a reflexive expression of the society and the consumerist culture in which I grew up in. Pop art, which is what I tend to classify my works as, has to reach out to the masses, to simplify abstract concepts in lovable and aesthetically pleasing forms, be it painting, sculpture or even merchandise, which I at times consider art. The differentiating fact is that I will still create and make my sculptures even if they do not meet the needs of the market. I will not bend my concept nor style. My art and what the market wants might run parallel but they will never meet.
This is what pop culture is about; if you like something, you tend to want to buy it, so I am confused by purist artists who describe my art as being commercial, when they are so superficial to judge the art by the aesthetics of it. This just shows how myopic one can be when one spends an entire career surviving in a greenhouse sheltered from the elements. Great masters like Salvador Dali took on contemporary commissions and he even designed the Chupa Chups logo. Greats like Picasso, Gaudi and Andy Warhol all had a foot in the commercial world as their art is relevant to the times. However this seems like a difficult concept for curators and artist to grasp here in Singapore. Our art market is fairly young with an accelerated growth in infrastructure and art fairs.
Arts is a key instrument to Singapore’s dash to become a first world country. The intangible value of arts is a crucial component to pushing the arts out to project Singapore as a developed global city. In Taiwan, the average Taiwanese middle class is sandwiched and they have it a lot harder than Singaporeans. Yet the way they feel about art — it being a part of their life, evident in their self expression, how they dress, how they beautify their homes, their everyday — the Taiwanese embrace and adopt this lifestyle. Sadly, I feel that in Singapore, art has not had the time to grow organically; and this could take decades to build.
What do we lack in Singapore to achieve that?
We have great galleries and museums but sadly, we lack the content and the software to fill these institutions. Content is not filling space but to actually pull audiences who want to see the works. I think there’s room for more insightful curators who know the current and make sense of local art, and having more foreign curators from the west to give a new perspective to our art as it is hard for us to see ourselves from a third-person point of view. I also think that we need experienced artists as educators who can prepare students for a career as an artist.
What is the impression of the Singapore art scene in say, New York?
I am not very sure of what they think but most New Yorkers still think that Singapore is part of China…
Tell us more about all your more notable collaborations as an artist.
I think collaborations are always interesting as it brings artist or organisations together to create something new. I guess the most interesting one for me was working with John ‘CRASH’ Matos in Singapore’s first institutionalized graffiti street art show, which was pretty relevant since CRASH was one of the founding members of this art form, and a pioneer New York graffiti artist who exhibited alongside Andy Warhol, Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring. Other interesting collaborations were with commercial brands like Adidas, Vans and Reebok which gave my art a platform to be shown and expressed on a whole different medium. I had my first solo show in Beijing which was sponsored by VANS, and I was happy that the people who viewed the show weren’t just people from the arts community but from youths who would normally not step into a gallery. I still believe in art for the general public, and whether they get my concept in a show, at least they are exposed to it.
There seems to be an increasing trend that artists aren’t the ones actually creating their artworks anymore. Instead, they just come up with ideas, and they have other people create their works, especially with sculptural works. As an artist who creates a lot of sculptures, what is your opinion on this? Do you see this as an issue? Do you partake in this process as well? At the same time, tell us your artistic process.
I guess that’s post modernism in full swing… death of authorship. I am pretty hands on myself, doing all my paintings alone which accounts for my low productivity, as I tend to be obsessive compulsive with my paintings till they are finally resolved. With my sculptures, they are an extension of my teenage hobby to make 1/6 scale toys, and the self-taught skills I picked up then making head sculpts of figurines led me to create my art in 3D starting out in 2007 in Taipei. I took four months to create my first life-size ‘Cherry Pop’ girl sculpture, which started from a maquette. Recently I have been working more with metal and I pass on the casting process to a foundry who help make the mould and cast the bronze sculptures.
Tell us about your latest series and what it’s about.
‘STATIC PARITY:’ is the series I am working on now, and it was conceptualized during my art residency at ESKFF at MANA Contemporary.
‘STATIC PARITY: GENESIS’: Man’s quest for truth and knowledge is always limited to the size of our brains. The universe is always in a state of static parity and in constant equality. The search for the origin of Man can be found in religious texts both from Judaism and Christianity. Even with modern science, it is impossible to create life from non-life, so how did we humans come to be? The inner essence of the man is made from higher, spiritual energy as well as the energy of which the material developed. The mass is making only some material visible cover of this energy. Because of its higher power, the spiritual can affect on the lower energies where the material belongs too, and it can control it. People who have reached the perfection in any sphere of life said that everything is made by itself.
From my study and interpretation of Adam and Eve, I am attempting to create their spiritual aura at that moment which man fell.
Text by Marc Wong
This article was originally published in Art Republik