An Essence Of Black & White

It is indeed a pleasure to hear that Sebastiao Salgado’s “Genesis” exhibition of black and white photographs on nature and tribal communities in the undeveloped world, currently held at the National Museum of Singapore, has been drawing such huge numbers of visitors that it has been extended by more than a month to 31 August.

This feeling of happiness is doubled by the similar response Stephen Wiltshire’s live drawing of “The Singapore Skyline” had drawn in July as his artwork is a basic black and white pen drawing on paper.

My double delight stems from the reality that we live in a technological world dominated by colour. Classic films originally shot in black and white have to be tinted over in multiple hues to stay appealing to contemporary audiences: the 1939 American musical fantasy film, “The Wizard of Oz” being 1 example.

As for the field of visual arts: though ukiyo-e started as black and white prints in the 1600s, its modern day artistic practitioners create in the full palette of rainbow hues. Even the founding father of modern Chinese brush painting, Wu Guanzhong, had evolved calligraphic works of abstract art in black ink liberally punctuated in sprightly splashes of colourful paint, as exemplified by his ink and colour on paper “Birthplace” in Art Retreat’s private collection.

Yet there are artists today, like Salgado and Wiltshire, who still prefer to ingeniously fashion art that are essentially black and white. And this may well lead some of us to wonder why.

For Singaporean artist, Yeo Shih Yun, it stems from her admission to being, to a certain extent, a ‘basic’ person who dislikes having too much ‘noise’ in her world. She believes this clutter makes where she lives negative: ‘If I am a musician, I will create classical (and) not pop music. If I am a photographer, I will be a black and white film person, not digital.’

And that is because she ‘like(s) what is timeless’: ‘Beauty is timeless. You can look at a Kandinsky painted in 1910 and still be awestruck. (So) I seek to create art that is timeless. (And) black and white is basic’.

On the few occasions when she does use a variation of hues, it is very much done ‘in a controlled manner… in a small area on the canvas’ and in natural tints – be it earth and cool tones, like blue and green, as she believes that ‘colours have always been (to her) a supporting role and black and white is the main role’.

Hence, Chinese brush painting, in its very essence, has very much influenced this abstractionist: she feels that it has always had ‘a very good use of ‘negative space’’ and so her works of art keep this ‘negative space’ very much along the aesthetic lines of this time honoured Asian style of brushing ink onto xuan paper.

To distinguish her work from other similarly inspired artists, she started, during an artist residency in Fukuoka in 2010, to use toy robots to apply the black ink: as a result, her ‘works explore the mystic aspects of the drawing process – (its) accidental and impermanent manifestations’.

As such, her signature style has very much become 1 where ‘change and transience are important in (her) creative process: (she is) fascinated with random occurrences, improvisation, and the liberating qualities of non-traditional tools’ in her artistic process.

Unsurprisingly, toy robots are not the only unconventional artist equipment she uses to mark with ink. Her wide repertoire includes rollerblades, twigs, large cake knives, watering pots and even trees. Yes, trees!

And through them all, Yeo removes the artist’s signature strokes and idiosyncratic touches; and so surrenders authorial control to liberate drawing from all its enslavement to the artist’s hand. The results are bold and energetic uses of black ink that express movement, serving to emphasize her mark making as a performance.

Given Yeo’s creative new take on a well-established art form we begin to see why art makers continue to be motivated to delve into traditions espoused by black and white art. But in a world of vivid colour, why do some collectors enthusiastically buy and build a collection of them?

For Singapore’s highly regarded art collector and renowned Singaporean ballet doyenne, Goh Soo Khim, ‘black and white works come across just as bold and expressive as any other medium’ as all ‘artists are often highly individual people’. And so they ‘draw and arouse (her) into a contemplative mood of different sense and emotion’.

At the same time, she finds that monochromatic Chinese paintings and calligraphy are most able to ‘evoke these different emotions each time she views them’. Hence, she started out by collecting the black and white artworks of Chinese painter, Wang Lin Hai. These, in turn, ignited and nurtured her interest for Chinese art, motivating her to collect the works by other Chinese ink artists.

For Goh, ‘the rhythmic movement of Chinese ink’ finds ‘relevance to the essence of dance’; exploring the connection between it and the visual arts. As such, some of her collection investigates her professional form of performing arts; like her Hong Zhu An’s “Dance” and “Ink Dance” and Chua Ek Kay’s “The Dancers”.

It is a relevant form of investigation as ‘Chinese ink and calligraphy (have) rhythmic characteristic and flow within its brush stroke. Under the brush of an artist, ink is able to emulate the movement and stillness, which can also be found in the essence of dance’.

Those Goh has collected that do not relate directly to this exploration come in mediums that bridge between the visual arts and dance. For example, sound is an important aspect of dance as well. So she has acquired Zulkifle Mahmod’s “Sonically Exposed #001”, a sound sculpture, in a predominating black ground, that draws its inspiration from issues such as over-population and the social structure of a society: its wires and capacitors ‘produce rhythmic static resembling crowded cityscapes and the buzz of the human crowd… engaging (her) visual and audio sens(es)’.

Delve into the still magnetically enigmatic world of monochromatic art by viewing some of Yeo’s artwork and a few of Goh’s collection:

*   Yeo Shih Yun’s “Choreographed Collisions” exhibition of artworks created with toy robots is held at Galerie Steph, [email protected], 39 Keppel Road, #01-05 Tanjong Pagar Distripark, Singapore 089065 till 30 August this year.

The artist walkthrough at Galerie Steph is on 2 August, from 2pm to 3 pm.


*   The exhibition on “舞:A Goh Soo Khim Collection” is at The Private Museum, 51 Waterloo Street, #02-06, Singapore 187969 from 6 August to 28 September this year.

Besides the art created by Wang Lin Hai, Hong Zhu An and Zulkifle Mahmod, it includes highly acclaimed works by Chen Ke Zhan, Chua Ek Kay and Goh Beng Kwan.


Feature photo: Yeo Shih Yun’s “Against The Spring”. Photo credit: Galerie Steph

Right photo: Hong Zhu An’s “Ink Dance”. Photo credit: The Private Museum

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