The Ekphrases of Eye/Feel/Write: When Art Meets Literature

EFW 2015 Cover 18 Aug 2015 Front OnlyWhat happens when art meets literature? At the Singapore Writers Festival, Eye/Feel/Write will launch its second instalment, with the publication of a beautiful anthology, titled “Eye/Feel/Write: Experiments in Ekphrasis”, as well as curated walking tours at The National Gallery.

A special commission by the National Arts Council, Eye/Feel/Write is a two-year ekphrastic project that has invited distinguished writers in Singapore to pen texts inspired by artworks exhibited at museums here. In the first year, ten writers — Alvin Pang, Edwin Thumboo, Isa Kamari, Jollin Tan, Joshua Ip, Ovidia Yu, Ramanathan Vairavan, Robin Hemley, Tan Chee Lay, and Yeow Kai Chai — created texts that dialogued with artworks at Singapore Art Museum’s Medium at Large exhibit. Ten poems were printed on broadsides as limited edition collectibles, housed in blank journals with an invitation to readers to engage in their own ekphrastic experiments.This year, editor Desmond Kon Zhicheng-Mingdé extended the invitation to yet another ten distinguished authors — namely Alfian Sa’at, Chow Teck Seng, Divya Victor, Eric Tinsay Valles, Gwee Li Sui, Jerrold Yam, K. Kanagalatha (Latha), Lee Tzu Pheng, Leong Liew Geok, and Yong Shu Hoong — to complete the second instalment.

In the preface to the anthology, a series of questions are posed: “What forms do we build/rebuild, and unbuild? What kinds of constructs and constitutions are read and reread, in acts of interpretations, along with any ensuing series of inscriptions? If everything is indeed a text, how do we speak about the text beyond its single material form? In the rarefied space of art, there are frequently gaps in the thesis, an opening that may be looked into, some kind of aperture or perforation within which another discourse may be elaborated.”

Towards understanding any emerging discourse borne of these ekphrastic experiments, Kitaab shares beautiful insights from Divya Victor, Jerrold Yam, Gwee Li Sui, Yeow Kai Chai, Jollin Tan and Robin Hemley, as they contemplate how they went about their particular creative renderings.


An Ekphrasis of “Construction” by Wu Peng Seng

“Wu Pen Seng’s photograph was first exhibited at a temporary site or holding zone for art at the Paya Lebar airport. This is the very site that he photographed while it was under construction. His photographic work is both a document of and evidence for its own documentation. And in the middle of the hypo-realism of the image there is this laborer, in silhouette, caught in the cross-hairs of these abstracted aesthetic concerns. To see the art work was to place the laborer in silhouette; to see him was to place the artwork in recession. Ekphrasis was a tense game for a while. So, in ‘Three Deconstructions’ I wanted to play with the homologies between the construction of the gaze and the construction labor[er] documented in Wu Pen Seng’s photograph. The ekphrastic work began to include, thus, the work of negotiating pragmatic aesthetics (of line and figure) with empathetic ethics (of lives and labor conditions) — an unexpected consequence of my engagement with Wu Pen Seng.”


An Ekphrasis of “Money Suit” by Vincent Leow

“When it comes to ekphrasis, one should research the artist. Understand the art work to which one is responding. Remember that it is instructive rather than prescriptive, and the poet’s role is to interpret – not recount – the source of inspiration. Ekphrasis involves a superimposition of authorial over artistic intentionality. ‘Money Suit’ makes a mockery of the truths which many Singaporeans unquestioningly take for granted: consumerism, superstition and the superiority of Western codes of conduct. Naturally, I wanted thematic uniformity and resonance among my three pieces, and proceeded to reduce ‘Money Suit’ to its three metaphysical stakeholders: tailor, figure and artist. Writing a sequence also provides opportunity for internal comparison and deviation, which enriches the individual pieces. I wanted to interpret not just Leow’s thematic considerations, but also his stylistic and imagistic preoccupations, such as mythology and mortality. In terms of structure, I chose to write in modern free verse with a tinge of the experimental, which I believed to be suitable formal representation for Leow’s kitschy and irreverent pop art.”


An Ekphrasis of “Artist and Model” by Liu Kang

“I respond to any painting critically by first tracing the source of my attraction to it and my excitement about it. The serenity of Liu Kang’s ‘Artist and Model’ is really deceptive. Peel a layer of feeling off, and I find simple, gullible forms set against an enigmatic arrangement. The warm, bright colours draw me in, but, at the same time, I am pulled away by something else, specifically perspectives and vanishing points. As such, I feel that I should write in a way that can respond with equal interest in contrast and equal playfulness. I want to re-imagine the points where continuity and discontinuity meet in human perspectives. Then I throw myself into the mix in the way Liu Kang has into his – and so I describe four artists! An ekphrastic poem is thus, for me, this naughty, disruptive conversation art has with art.”


An Ekphrasis of “The Cloud of Unknowing” by Ho Tzu Nyen

“The first time I experienced Ho Tzu Nyen’s ‘The Cloud of Unknowing’ at the chapel at the Singapore Art Museum, I didn’t understand completely what was going on. I was blown away. I just knew there were misfits in a very dingy HDB block and then this scary albino person with white hair came on and scared the hell out of them. The more I read about the multimedia installation, the more intrigued I was by the artist’s aesthetics, deliberate set-ups and philosophical ruminations on the ideological interpretations of clouds from both the Eastern and Western traditions. Ultimately, it was the ‘unknowing’ bit that got me. At the same time, I had just seen The Imposter, a documentary about a French trickster Frederic Bourdin who impersonated Nicholas Barclay, a Texan teenage boy who had gone missing. Bourdin apparently fooled many people, including many of Barclay’s family and friends. Did they actually believe he was the real deal? I started to read up on other imposters, including Mary Baker, a 19th-century Englishwoman who paraded as a princess from a faraway land called Javasu; and Darius McCollum, a modern, train-obsessed New Yorker who impersonated transit employees. Soon, ideas about truths, myths and narratives coalesced. In these three inter-linked poems, I’d like to explore the fluidity and transience of one’s identity; how porous the wall between reality and art is, and the ease with which all of us flit between personas in our everyday lives. Characters disappear and re-emerge, and words echo and ricochet. We make things, and ourselves, up along the way. In my fanciful mind, ‘The Imposters Triptych’ is an update of those classical altarpieces: propped up as a foldable contraption, with each panel echoing one another, and forming a larger picture – but of what?”


An Ekphrasis of “Shaggy” by Mella Jaarsma

“Writing about Mella Jaarsma’s ‘Shaggy’ was tricky, in the way that analysing what you care about is tricky. In many ways it was an intimidating piece of art to look at. Bearing in mind that the artwork dealt with issues of chasing beauty that I care and write a lot about, I wanted to be very careful when approaching the poetry I wrote about it. I didn’t want to be repetitive and I also didn’t want to misinterpret the artwork and Jaarsma’s intention for its message. The dimensions of the piece certainly helped while I was contemplating the meaning behind it, and I came to a realisation that the search for beauty – or what we perceive as beauty – is something that is overwhelming and quite capable of swallowing us up in our pursuit. From there it was easy to explore what it means to chase beauty and what beauty itself means, and why. I also wrote a piece exploring how our perception of things are often influenced and shaped by the places from which we view them. We always look at art pieces and interpret them – to a certain extent at least – as reflections of what’s inside of us, and I’ve always been fascinated by how, given different circumstances, art pieces and literary pieces always act as mirrors for the spaces we hold within us.”


An Ekphrasis of “Birth of Tragedy” by Natee Utarit

“I loved the challenge of writing about one of the works of art from the ‘Medium At Large’ exhibit. I thought it was an inspired project and while I know it’s almost de rigueur to state that one is delighted and honored to be included in such projects, this is certainly true for me for several reasons. First, as a non-Singaporean, but as someone who believes in the value of community, it felt like a singular honor to be asked to be a part of this. There’s so much I admire and love about my new home and its vibrant art and literary scene, and while I’m not a citizen of Singapore, I want to be a citizen of the art world here. Second, I love a challenge, and I love writing prompts. I believe that all writing should be considered an experiment, and that writers should constantly challenge themselves. Third, I love any kind of cross-fertilization between arts. I’ve always been a bit envious of visual artists and the tactile nature of painting – we don’t really have that as writers, and so I almost get to paint vicariously by interpreting a piece of art. I thought it was incredibly challenging to be tasked with writing three responses to the chosen piece of art. I wasn’t sure I could do three, and so I surprised myself by rising to the challenge. I knew almost immediately how I wanted to approach the assignment – two of my three responses came to me within a few hours of seeing the painting I was assigned, but I spent a lot of time mulling over these responses before writing them. The first, I wrote rather quickly while the other two took more coaxing and more contemplation. I admired the painting I was assigned, ‘The Birth of Tragedy’, for its sense of political whimsy, using iconic Western images, such as ‘Winged Victory’ to comment in a metaphorical way on the political landscape of Thailand. I can’t presume to know what was in the mind of the artist, but that didn’t bother me as I saw my task as a kind of translation. The best translators, in my opinion, don’t try to be literal. They try to capture the essence of the work, understanding that each translation is a new creation. I was thoroughly impressed by the exhibit as a whole, but over the several weeks it took me to write my responses, I grew more and more obsessed by my painting. I want readers to connect my work with the work of the artist, but I don’t want readers to think that my responses are dependent on the painting, with one exception. The response that’s written as a staff memo is completely dependent on the reader seeing the painting as he/she reads my response.”

The anthology is on sale at the Festival Bookstore at The Arts House. For more information on the Singapore Writers Festival, please visit the SWF website here: