The year 2017 - Hong Sek Chern
Hong Sek Chern (b. 1967, Singapore) graduated with a Diploma in fine arts from the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts (NAFA)in 1995 and an MFA from Goldsmiths College, University of London in 1998. She has exhibited both Singapore and internationally. She was named as one of the President's Young Talents by the Singapore Art Museum (2001), and represented Singapore at the Sao Paolo Biennale (2002) and the International Ink Painting Biennale of Shenzhen (2006). Her interpretation of the urban landscapes in the Chinese ink has earned her several awards in Singapore, and in 2000 she received the Young Artist Award from National Arts Council.
Sek Chern’s creative production is influenced by the traditional Chinese ink methods as well as Western modern aesthetics. Over the years, she has established a stylized ink practice recognizable for its masterful interplay of architectural blocks and lines, coupled with a multi-point perspective in which superimposed frames and objects appear overlaid or collapsed upon one another. In many instances, her images comprise dense, familiar yet alienating structures that epitomize urban living; space-time notions are purposefully destabilized to reconstruct experiences beyond physical boundaries and encapsulate the tension between the old and the new, as well as visible and invisible threads of existence. Her landscapes are generally devoid of people, lending them an eerie and sometimes post-apocalyptic feeling.
In The Straits Times dated 29 April 2012, Sek-Chern paintings are described as unique as she uses Chinese ink on rice paper to create architectural perspectives of buildings and civic structures like bridges. The mathematical precision also characterises her works. Reporter Arthur Lim explains “Her work is both Gothic and Bauhaus-ian. Architects of the early 20th century German Bauhaus art and architecture movement had looked towards industrial architecture in much the same way peasants might have look at 13th century Gothic cathedrals – with a sense of awe, the same sensations that Hong seems to want to instil in her work.” He added “In her paintings, spaces are reduced to mere structural skeletons with the columns pointing towards heaven, like the spires of a cathedral. The light shines through the gaps as it might through a stained-glass window.”
“As a student working with ink, Hong painted the typical subject matter of mountains and trees and imitated masters like Huang Binhong in order to perfect her practice. With her eventual breakaway from the traditional approach of painting through imitation, as well as her departure from the conventional subject matter of mountains and trees” BT 2011 Women Artists in Singapore – National Heritage Board, Singapore explicates. Her art making are defined as architectural renderings of forms, spaces and structures in ink and collage. She is also described as erudite and self-reflexive and her works are unabashedly rational.
Sek Chern speaks about urban structures, their implications on the human condition and the use of Chinese brush techniques in an interview conducted through email correspondence with Ahmad Mashadi. He depicts her works as exclusively monochromic, creating a dark and sombre mood using Chinese ink. “These landscapes are emptied of its human inhabitants and defined by lines, lines that extends beyond the immediate subject to connect to a point of origin, often using single point perspective. Infiniteness and elusiveness are key interests in her works as she makes clear the vastness of the environment.” He also clarifies that the spaces she created in her work are void of figures almost as though insisting that the audience place themselves into these spaces.
The article Poetics of Ruination by Michael Lee in Singapore Architect 217 remarks that Sek Chern laments the lack of huge and monumental artworks in Singapore and has said “To me, big structures like flyovers are modern monuments, and I find them very beautiful.” Michael also highlight how Sek Chern begins her creative process by painstakingly mapping out the perspective line works. Proceeding to add grid lines, she further emphasises the western perspective and vanishing points in her images. The artist effectively ruins what she has done earlier, through bimo (brush line and ink washes). He emphasizes that her paintings have a recognisably cinematic quality reminiscent of German Expressionist films like Metropolis (1926). He elaborates “Standing before her works, one begins to understand what the artist means by her rather paradoxical remark, “There is beauty in sadness. “Infiniteness and elusiveness”, one is reminded, “are key interests in her works as she makes clear the vastness of the environment and vain attempts to explain them meaningfully.” The splendour of forms, rather than any reasonable meaning, is enough to gratify.”
In an introduction for a Chan Hampe group exhibition, Sek Chern’s
She added in a 2001 interview, “Though my paintings refer to the calculated and rationalised – qualities exemplified by the Modern person – the use of Chinese ink allows for an element of tianyi [heaven’s interest] or chance.”
Bridget Tracy Tan translates for the 25th São Paulo International Art Biennial held in 2002 and she explains “Hong Sek Chern presents a series a series of obviously urban structures in her art. With mathematical precision, she uses perspectival organization and grids to define architecturally built-up areas in the cultivation of space on a two-dimensional surface. With a background in the mathematical sciences, her methodology is two-fold: it creates a sense of the uniformly measured while begging of questions concerning the infinite. Hong Sek Chern’s work contains investigations of art in three areas: firstly, in cultural difference (in her use of Chinese ink and paper), practical usage (in the capricious qualities of media, use of solid ink, water and rice paper) and finally, in aesthetic contemplation (imagining and imaging an alternate space for appreciation). In her deliberate exclusion of the figural, the artist professes, “The paintings are obviously constructed by a human for a human, the inclusion of a human figure would be superfluous.” In this, she diagnoses the spiritual lacking in contemporary urban-scapes.
Chan Hampe Galleries presents “Drift,” a solo exhibition by Sek Chern Hong (b.1967, Singapore). Hong’s paintings in Chinese ink attempt to visualise the words of Hermann Hesse's (b. 1877 - 1962) poem, Stages. The series was first conceived in 2013 with the depiction of the Singaporean landscape in multi-colours in reference to the description of the city-state as a 'vibrant city' by Singaporean politician and the country's second Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong in 1999. The use of different colours enable a high key contrast, resulting in a flattened pictorial plane reminiscent of planar diagrams such as maps. With Hesse's urging to "prepare for parting and leave-taking," the maps serves as a metaphorical a guide, referencing structure, a suggestion of reality, that hovers within the pictorial plane.
Sek-Chern explains, “I look upon my current series of paintings as ‘history painting’ – that is history of the mundane day to day with the daily news stories as points of inspirations for each painting. These history paintings are themselves forms of registering the past – each trace, mark or wash is a demarcation of a moment that has just past.”
By Sek-Chern’s own admission, the objects that tie together a composition can be for her as personal as they are impersonal. These days, she takes particular fancy in news events that might have unfolded on another continent, often appropriating images of places from Google Street View and “painting directly on the rice paper each portion of the composition” as she wanders through the web pages.
Sek-Chern has held many local solo exhibitions, such as “Sleepless in the City” (2014); “Raised Tumpal” (2011); “Constructed Interiors” (2010); “Artist Feature” (2009); “On Borrowed Skies” (2008); “Portrait Sayang” (2000); and “Modern Monuments” (1999) and participated in group exhibitions locally and overseas, such as “Home and Beyond – Recent Ink Works of Chua Say Hua and Hong Sek Chern” (2012); “Singapore Survey 2012 – New Strange Faces” (2012); “Still Building: Contemporary Art from Singapore”, Indonesia (2012); “5th International Ink Painting Biennial of Shenzhen”, China (2006); “25th Sao Paolo Biennale” Brazil (2002); and “President’s Young Talent Show”, Singapore (2001).
She received the Young Artist Award (2000); Grand Prize, UOB Competition (2007); First Prize (Representational) UOB Competition (2006 and 1997); Juror’s Choice in the Singapore Art Awards (1999 and 1998); and Chen Chong Swee Overseas Art Scholarship (1998).