Fusing medical science and an artistic vision

by Ben Munroe

Artist and doctor Chng Nai Wee stands amid syringes, bottles of antiseptic and surgical equipment, but he is not at work; rather he is in the studio he uses to create the mixed media paintings. Also scattered around this chaotic workspace at his home are computer parts, glue pots, paint tubes and other artistic and medical paraphernalia.

Blending the equipment of his hospital job with his artistic drive is key to Chng's oeuvre, along with the expressions of concern and ideas close to him, by using the materials and found objects with which he is most familiar.

 'An artist needs something to talk about, and everyone needs a niche. I have been a medical student and doctor for ten years now and have been doing a lot with computers - I used to be part of a hacking group and I started an internet company focusing on healthcare. This partly explains why these elements come together in my work.'

 An example of this fusion leans against the back wall of his studio. A large canvas is covered in shades of yellow and fluorescent paint, with the head and torso of a model attached, wires extending from the shoulders and chest. The model is apparently sustained by jars of garishly coloured antiseptic suspended on the wall above the painting.

The work, entitled Biotechnics (1997), addresses many of the issues close to Chng's artistic vision, particularly the advances in technology which enable machines to temporarily sustain life. The work utilises traditional artistic media and incorporates the tools of his medical work. As with earlier pieces by Chng, it will raise questions and provoke consternation.

'Lots of artists say you can show the beauty of the world by painting a beautiful butterfly, and the aesthetic properties of the world are important, but an artist must search out his place and have something important to say, whether it's about beauty or 'bioethics'.'

Ironically, while beauty no longer enters the artist's vocabulary as a pre-requisite to painting, Biotechnics is alluring through the use of bright, aggressively applied colours and the snaking tendrils of wire which serve as three dimensional brush strokes in this techno-landscape.

And this is only one of a range of styles Chng is exhibiting: there are paintings on wood which evoke cellular structure, positive prints of the human brain taken from MRI scans, and installations with aluminium shelves and rows of medical bottles.

Common to all the works is the theme of medicine, progress and technology. 'This is my first thematic exhibition. An art critic or social historian might consider this a point of maturity, getting close to what I represent, what I'm motivated by. For me, this is a defining moment.'