Anatomy of a Free Mind: Tan Swie Hian’s Notebook & Creations Exhibition Opening 2016

Tan Swie Hian is Southeast Asia’s living legend and the most expensive artist, with a whopping auction record of $4.4 million.

And the ink has just dried on the newest work in artist Tan Swie Hian’s solo exhibition at the National Library.

The spontaneous calligraphy by the artist, whose work has sold for millions of dollars at auction, was realised some three weeks ago, after he returned to a piece of calligraphy he did in 1996 for a three-panel stone engraving.

Tan, 73, says he was gripped by inspiration at the last moment to make a “new, improved” work of calligraphy. The fresh work is based on the earlier text that was engraved, but it incorporates drawings between the lines of free-spirited writing.

The new piece of calligraphy is fortuitous, but it is also representative of the Cultural Medallion recipient’s way of working as a multi-disciplinary artist – an idea that hatches in his mind is penned down in his notebook and comes alive in various forms and mediums over time. This creative process is the focus of the exhibition, titled Anatomy Of A Free Mind: Tan Swie Hian’s Notebooks And Creations.

The National Library’s assistant director of exhibitions and curation Chung Sang Hong, says the show came about because the library was keen to showcase its collection of works and artefacts by the artist.

Tan has donated more than 6,600 items to the library since 2003, including his manuscripts and monographs, as well as his notebooks, which are on show in the exhibition.

Pages from the notebooks, which date back to as early as the 1970s, are displayed alongside more than 100 pieces of writing and artworks, including paintings, seal carvings, lithographs and video recordings. This curatorial approach is a first for exhibitions on Tan’s work, says Mr Chung.

He says: “We have the notebooks Mr Tan donated and he has the works which the books document, so it’s a perfect combination.”

Tan, who has been jotting down ideas for poems, song lyrics and visual art works in notebooks for decades, says he chose to donate them, along with other artefacts, to the library when he was approached by the institution because his “affinity with the library is karmic”.

He says: “I held my first exhibition of paintings at the old National Library in Stamford Road in 1973. And being an avid reader, the National Library is a place I frequent.”

He adds that placing his notebooks and manuscripts in the collection of the state institution ensures that they will be well cared for and shared with future generations.

Mr Chung says the exhibition also aims to encourage other Singapore artists and creative professionals to donate to the library documents that chart their creative processes, so that the public can study, research and better understand their works.

Exhibition highlights

A Couple (2014)

This portrait (main photo) of Singapore’s founding Prime Minister, the late Mr Lee Kuan Yew, and his wife, Madam Kwa Geok Choo, is based on a black-and-white photograph of the couple, which the artist came across in a book. The picture was taken in 1946 while they were students at Cambridge University in England.

Tan, who deeply admired the couple’s enduring devotion to each other, began painting the portrait on Valentine’s Day in 2009 as an ode to their love and marriage, which spanned more than six decades.

Curator Chung says you can “feel the sunshine” in Tan’s painting, given the use of warm colours. He adds that Tan’s portrait of Mr Lee stands out from other depictions of the man, which usually portray him as a politician.

In 2010, while the artist was still working on the portrait, Madam Kwa died. This led him to pen a poem, in both English and Chinese, in her memory, and he added it to the painting.

In 2013, before the portrait was finished, a fire broke out two doors away from Tan’s studio at Telok Kurau Studios. The portrait, painted in ink, oil and acrylic on canvas, was soaked by water after the fire was extinguished, but it could still be salvaged and Tan completed the painting in 2014.

Graffitied Portrait Of Charlie Chaplin (2013)

Portraits are an important body of work in the oeuvre of artist Tan Swie Hian. He has painted many portraits of luminaries whom he admires, in fields such as the arts and politics.

This Chinese ink portrait of English comedian Charlie Chaplin, however, stands apart from other portraits by Tan because of its graffiti-inspired style.

The artist, who sees a similarity between graffiti writing and the “wild cursive” script of Chinese calligraphy, fills the background of the painting with memorable quotes by the comedian in the latter style.

Curator Chung Sang Hong says the move to combine two disparate artistic styles – graffiti and Chinese ink painting, resulted in a work with a unique aesthetic.

The Celestial Web (2010)

The centrepiece of the exhibition, this dome-shaped sculpture is constructed from coiled metal wires and clay figurines.

It was made in 2010 by Tan, but its origin can be traced to a poem he penned in 2002, for a concert with the Singapore Chinese Orchestra, as part of the Singapore Arts Festival 2003.

The poem, comprising 117 verses, is inspired by the artist’s Buddhist faith and his belief in Buddhist teachings that embrace the idea that all creatures in the universe are connected to one another.

It was performed as a symphonic orchestration backed by a 188-strong chorus, melding recitation with music, while Tan wrote the verses in Chinese calligraphy on stage.

The artist also made a sketch based on the poem in his notebook in 2002 and a related oil painting in 2003.

The poem was also reinterpreted as a float for the 2008 Chingay Parade. The float, measuring 22m long and 6m high, featured dancers and a live recitation of the poem.