Winning Works by Singapore Artists

The Philip Morris awards showcase artists' ongoing concerns

By Parvathi Nayar

Originally published in Business Times, 28 Aug 1999


Painting competitions are a good ground for emerging and established artists to meet and display their ongoing artistic concerns. While it should not be the only such arena, and certainly will not provide a comprehensive list of all the creative voices within the community, it is still a useful vehicle for setting standards and encouraging talent.

In this respect, the Philip Morris Asean Art Awards, into its sixth year, is a pretty comprehensive South-east Asian painting competition. It involves simultaneous competitions across the region with the winning entries from each region -- called Jurors Choices -- sent to an Asean final, this year in Kuala Lumpur. Apart from the prestige, there is a total prize money of over US$150,000 (S$253,680); the Jurors Choices in Singapore receive S$8,000 each while the Grand Prize at Kuala Lumpur will be US$10,000.

The five Jurors Choices at the Singapore level are pretty varied in terms of subject matter, expression and where they are coming from, but as seems typical for painting competitions, most works were pretty large. One of the judges, Joanna Lee, assistant director of collections development, Singapore Art Museum, notes that in terms of trends there was equal weight given to figuration and abstraction in the 170 Singaporean entries.

In his winning work Awakening of the Spiritual Dragon, Goh Ee Choo works with a visual language that he's been employing for a while -- densely textured ink work; the use of gold; tubular, perhaps phallic, forms; horizontal bands; Buddhist overtones. He has featured previously in this competition, as has winner Hong Sek Chern, also working with motifs developed from 1996. It is interesting, observes Ms Lee, to see the development of such artists over time within the context of this competition.

Ms Hong's Fragments of a Monument (Once Great) is perhaps the most thought-provoking piece on show, working both as a response to the urban landscape and an exploration of the quality of space. The Chinese ink on paper work speaks of scaffoldings, buildings and passages. The artist says her primary motif is the expressway, with references to how industrial progress crumbled under the pressures of the recent economic crisis.

Although participants had a free hand to explore whatever themes they were interested in, there were certain criteria for judging: creative use of medium, expression and technique, originality of artistic perception and mode of interpretation, relevance to an Asian consciousness and contemporary issues. Content matters, but Ms Lee clarifies that if a contextual relevance did have an appeal, essentially, it is work that was challenging that was most important.

Apart from the five winners or Jurors Choices, 23 other works are exhibited with an Honourable Mention. The new millennium, urbanisation, the Indonesian crises woes and Asian culture are some of the themes seen in these works.

Ms Lee hopes that in future more artists will play around with the format of the wall painting, to fully explore this 2-D format in terms of what it can accommodate with reference to other media and forms.