The Eye of the Artist

 Written for ¡°Sensory¡± by Rebecca Huang

Chng Nai Wee spends most of his day looking at eyes.  As an ophthalmologist, he sees eye problems and abnormalities and administers treatment.  As an artist, he sees beauty in the structure and function of arguably the next most important organ in the body after the heart and finds inspiration for art.

Showcasing to the world what he sees on a daily basis at work, Nai Wee photographed his retinas after pharmacologically dilating them.  The images were then magnified and painted over to accentuate the vividness of the colors of the internal mechanisms within the eye and to emphasize the transmission of light. 

At first glance, you see an unadulterated photograph of the anatomy of the eye.  Looking again, you see more than just a landscape of blood vessels and varying shades of light.  I saw a miniature galaxy suspended in the midst of a fiery orange universe where the sun was a great white fireball and the earth, a smaller red orbit emanating warmth and energy.  The third time, I noticed the way the red veins curved and twisted sinuously at the converging point before continuing their journey to become the wisp-like top branches of a casuarina tree.  Ah, the seduction of art!

Currently on display in the Singapore Art Museum as part of the Nokia Singapore Art 2001 exhibition, Histories, Identities, Technologies, Spaces: Singapore Art Today, this installation which is entitled ¡°The Spirituality of Perception¡± also symbolizes the marriage between Nai Wee¡¯s two professions and the fulfillment he has found in both.


Inspirations from Medicine and Technology

Using the jargon of science acquired from his medical training, Nai Wee captures the relationship he sees between technology and the conventional means of artistic expression.  Through images formed from x-ray assemblage, histology cuts and other medical paraphernalia, viewers of his art are transported into an Orwellian world of microbiology, artificial intelligence and robotics.  

From the birth of a baby in a bio-reactor in Motherboard (1990) to the construction of a cyborg in the laboratory of Biotechnics (1998), the resurgent theme in his work is one of the impact of medical and scientific advancements on human perceptions, modes of being and existence.  His message is clear: our way of looking at the world and the future has irretrievably been changed by the quantum leaps in technology, such as genetic experimentation and cloning, that started in the last century and which continue to trail blaze in the current one, like it or not. 


Reflections on Art

He finds himself easily inspired and says there is an artistic angle in everything he sees ¨C even in his patients.  ¡°Surgery, in the sense of changing the appearance of or restoring things, can also be regarded as art.  The difference is that these pieces of work are carried around in the eye, as part of the patient¡¯s anatomy¡±, he quips before adding, ¡°But of course, your aim in medicine ¨C that of restoration - is totally different from your aim in art which is creation.¡±  Equally noble professions, one might add. 


Getting Started

When asked how the doctor became an artist or vice versa, Nai Wee reveals that his artistic leanings were nurtured in a part-time course with the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts whilst he was still a junior college student.  This was followed by extensive arts immersion visits to the fine arts capitals of Western Europe, North America and China.

After graduating from the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland in 1993, he returned to Singapore where he commenced his medical practice.  Concurrent with his early years in ophthalmology was a period of intensive painting.  For his efforts, he received honorable mentions in the Philip Morris ASEAN Art Awards (1994), the Dr Tan Tze Chor Art Award (1995) and the National Arts Council Young Artist Award (1999).

Speaking to Nai Wee, it is hard to imagine him having been anything other than passionate and enthusiastic about art.  But as the artist in him reveals, this was not always the case ¨C especially in the early days when ¡°you wonder why you are an artist, putting so many resources into your work.  But now, after a certain point, you develop a different perspective.  I feel it has been worthwhile.  I get the feeling that it is going to be more fun.  I think I¡¯ve gone through the hard part.¡±


Future Projects

Without so much as a break, Nai Wee is already well into his next artistic endeavor which will be unveiled at Sculpture Square come 1 March.  In a departure from the serious tone of his earlier works, the good doctor¡¯s latest offering will explore the concepts of space and light with the help of strategically placed lights against a night sky.  ¡°A luminescent light structure for those who missed out at Christmas¡±, he chuckles. 

Beyond this, Nai Wee plans to do ¡°new and interesting things ¨C something that hasn¡¯t been done before¡±.  He hopes too, some day, to be able to use the latest technological advancements and organic materials to create ¡°medically inspired artwork, sculptures and textiles.¡± 

The future is looking very bright for this talented young ophthalmologist and artist.