Tan Teng Kee
Comments on article: InfopediaTalk
Tan Teng Kee (b. 1937, Batu Pahat, Johor, Malaya - ) is a sculptor and painter, specialising in abstract works depicting space, flow and movement. He is regarded as a pioneer in the history of sculpture in Singapore, and was one of the first in Singapore to work in the form of abstract metal.
Tan Teng Kee was born in Batu Pahat in Malaya in 1937. He began sketching in primary school and continued to paint and draw throughout his school years. While attending the Overseas Chinese High School in Batu Pahat, Tan held his first exhibition, featuring his watercolour paintings and charcoal drawings. After high school, he went on to study at the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts in Singapore.
In 1958, he was accepted to the fine arts programme at New Asia College (now the Chinese University) in Hong Kong, where he studied Chinese brush painting, drawing and sketching, later changing his focus to oils. After obtaining a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in 1962, Tan went to Paris, France where he painted, visited art galleries and worked part-time.
Tan visited the Staatliche Kunstakademie in Dusseldorf, West Germany in 1967 and was awarded a scholarship to study printmaking and sculpture there. At the Kunstakademie, one of Tan’s professors was Norbert Kricke, considered to be one of the most important sculptors in Germany after World War II. Studying in Dusselfdorf at this time also exposed him to notable Abstract Expressionist painters such as Paul Klee and Joseph Beuys.
In 1970, his final year in Germany, Tan applied to arts colleges in Japan, New Zealand and Singapore for a teaching job. The Baharuddin Vocational Institute (now Temasek Design School, Temasek Polytechnic) invited him for an interview and Tan arrived in Singapore in late 1970.
Career as an artist
While awaiting news on his application, Tan held a solo exhibition at the National Library in 1970, which featured works he had produced in Germany. He took the job at the Baharuddin Vocational Institute, where he conducted one of the first sculpture courses in Singapore from 1971. Tan’s work was also featured at the inauguration of the National Museum Art Gallery in 1976. At the time, his use of industrial materials and techniques such as welding challenged established notions of sculpture, both in terms of the physical construction and the mental process (that of experimentation and discovery) underlying it.
In 1973, Tan won an open competition organised by the Development Bank of Singapore (DBS) for a sculpture to be installed in front of the Plaza Singapura shopping centre. The following year, he installed the “Musical Fountain” sculpture, an arrangement of brass pipes shaped like a mountain range and set in a pool of water. The work, which conveyed a sense of change and development, was donated by DBS for public display at the Marina City Park in 1989, and later moved to Toa Payoh when the park was redeveloped in 2007.
In 1979, Tan produced a 100m-long painting, “Lonely Road”, which was displayed outdoors in an open field. The centrepiece of this mixed-media exhibition was a “fire sculpture”, a construction wrapped in newspaper and supported by 6m-high poles. The sculpture was set alight by a torch placed inside it, and the poles were designed to fall back and forth as it burned. The painting itself was sold, not as a single item but as cut sections chosen by the buyer.
The Oversea-Chinese Banking Corporation (OCBC) commissioned Tan’s second public sculpture, “Endless Flow”, in 1980. It symbolised good fortune, and more broadly, flow and movement. The 6.4m-high brass sculpture was installed in 1980 outside the OCBC Centre in Chulia Street. The work, which weighed over 5,000kg, was moved to Bras Basah Park in 1983, upon OCBC Centre’s donation to the Parks and Recreation Department.
Tan also contributed an 8,000kg stainless steel (his favourite medium) sculpture entitled “Rider” for the 2nd ASEAN Sculpture Symposium in 1983. The work symbolised strength, courage and the dignity of man. His works were also among those chosen for the 2nd Contemporary Asian Art Exhibition, held in November 1985 in Fukuoka, Japan. His two entered works were “Endless Rhythm”, a structure of precariously balanced curves, and “Mobility”, which was made of moveable steel parts.
Many of Tan’s works are untitled, a reflection of his feeling that works of art should be left to the interpretation of the viewer. The intent is for the work to speak for itself, and the meaning provided by the viewer’s own imagination. His philosophy went even further than this, extending to drawing the viewer into active engagement with the sculpture project, which fosters a deeper sense of community and dialogue between the artist and the viewer.
Departure for Australia
In the early 1980s, the Baharuddin Vocational Institute decided to end its sculpture course and sent Tan for training as a physical instructor. He received certificates for physical fitness training and for two years conducted football and swimming lessons. Unhappy with the situation, Tan left for Australia in late 1987 and became a full-time painter and sculptor. Between 1994 and 1995, he was Dean of Studies at the Central Academy of Art in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, and in 1997 became a part-time sculpture lecturer at the Brisbane Institute of Art in Brisbane, Australia.
Commissions and major projects
1974 : “Musical Fountain” (outdoor sculpture, brass, 6.4m x 7.3m x 1.8m, awarded first prize by Singapore Shopping Centre Sculpture Competition).
1980 : “Endless Flow” (outdoor sculpture, brass 6.4m x 4.2m x 1.8m, commissioned by OCBC).
1982 : “Sculpture Garden” (outdoor sculpture, 50m x 50m).1983 : “Rider” (outdoor sculpture, 6.7m x 9.1m x 1.2m, represented Singapore at the 2nd ASEAN Sculpture Symposium at Chatujak Park, Bangkok, Thailand).
1984 : “Flying High” (hanging indoor sculpture, stainless steel, commissioned by the Holiday Plaza Hotel, Johor Bahru, Malaysia).
1985 : “Breakthrough” (wall mural, stainless steel, 3m x 6m x 0.9m).
1986 : “The Signals Spirit” (outdoor sculpture, stainless steel, 4.8m x 3m x 1.5m, commissioned by Signals Department, Singapore Armed Forces).
Barnes, R. (1979, September 18). Poetry in sculptures. The Straits Times, Section 2, p. 3. Retrieved on September 21, 2011, from NewspaperSG.
Jay, S. E. (2001, October 9). There’s music in his art. TODAY, p. 25. Retrieved on September 21, 2011, from NewspaperSG.
Lim, C. (1985, September 15). A sense of something stirring. The Sunday Times, Sunday Plus, p. 7. Retrieved on September 21, 2011, from NewspaperSG.
Ngui, C. (1984, January 9). Riding high in Bangkok. The Straits Times, Section Two, p. 11. Retrieved on September 21, 2011, from NewspaperSG.
Sabapathy, T. K. (1991). Sculpture in Singapore. Singapore: National Museum.
(Call no.: RSING 730.95957 SAB)
Sabapathy, T. K. (2001). Tan Teng Kee : an overview, 1958-2000. Singapore: Sculpture Square.
(Call no.: RSING 730.92 TAN)
Sim, A. (2001, September 22). Capturing shape and movement. The Straits Times, Life!, p. 5. Retrieved on September 21, 2011, from NewspaperSG.
Tan, D. (1986, November 17). Singapore’s man of steel. The Straits Times, Section Two, p. 6. Retrieved on September 21, 2011, from NewspaperSG.
Tan, J. (1983, October 15). Art takes root in the park. The Straits Times, p. 13. Retrieved on September 21, 2011, from NewspaperSG.
The information in this article is valid as at 2011 and correct as far as we can ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the library for further reading materials on the topic.
Tan, Teng Kee, 1937-