Art & Science as part of the social fabric

by Parvathi Nayar

Dr Chng Nai Wee is closely bound to both Ophthalmology and Art. In 1999, he was awarded a grant under the Young Artist Award by the Ministry of Information and the Arts and is pursuing a art-related course in New York. The current exhibition has two 1992 works by him: Fovea and Autumn Dreams of Spring. Very Georgia O'Keefe-like, Fovea is the part of the eye where the most number of receptors sensitive to light and colour are located, explains Dr Chng. The large painting is done in pearlescent paints that change as the light on them changes.

The vivid canvas is conceptually and visually attractive, but Dr Chng says that he is moving away from painting itself to more esoteric art forms. "The artistic process is more important to me than the output side," he says, adding that he started producing works only when he got into university and learnt logistics and logic - how to organise materials and thoughts into works of art.

As for Ophthalmology, "I was attracted to visual language, and Medicine seemed like a noble profession." But there is some conflict in trying to juggle two interests. He feels that Singapore is not really receptive to a doctor with diverse interests, that he is expected to focus more on becoming a better doctor.

"Some people don't take me seriously as a doctor, just because I am an artist as well. For me, Art is about being open-minded and looking at things from a different viewpoint. I hope that I'll be able to bring these different viewpoints to Medicine one day." He wishes the medical profession here had a "fluid, creative, and open environment where ideas count and there is importance attached to doing new things, not just the same things with less mistakes."

Dr Chng's art is much influenced by Medicine and Technology. "There's a lot in Medicine that offers rich areas for artistic discourses. It's natural that I am disposed to these things. As an artist, you want to be in the same room as a scientist, as one ready to take on the responsibility to lead and to question. An artist is like a court jester who had the role of questioning the king."

To Dr Chng, social responsibility is the most aspect of art-making, even if it means shocking the viewers into attention. Doesn't shock for its own sake cheapen art ? Dr Chng counters that shock is still a good way of capturing attention to open a dialogue. "Artists have to find niche issues to take about - not broad areas like 'feminist' or 'political' art. There's only so much you can say before people get tired."

Dr Chng is interested in exploring new materials to express these niche issues, in ways that create a frisson of shock. 'I'm looking at creating new works using surgical techniques and plastination, which is putting plastic into organic tissues so that they can be used and preserved without formaldehyde. Plastinated organic materials would really open up organic tissues as a new material for art-creation."

To go back full circle, experimenting with new materials - pearlescent paints - was what created the paintings in the exhibition. They are not for sale because, 'at home I want something decorative to look at. So I can understand why there is a market for decorative art. But Fovea is not what I want to put up in a museum. Painting will remain a tool in my tool box, but it is not my current tool of choice.