Eye/Feel/Write About Art and Language: The Ekphrastic Experiment

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 installment, 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 Anne Lee Tzu Pheng, Chow Teck Seng, Leong Liew Geok, Joshua Ip, Edwin Thumboo and Alvin Pang, as they contemplate how they went about their particular creative renderings.


An Ekphrasis of “Another Woman” by Amanda Heng

“The artwork moved me well before I understood why. The exposed nude torso, viewed from the back had a certain poignancy, a sense of human vulnerability. A hand – much older, female – gently touching the nude back sealed the idea of time as thief, and the whole had a universal appeal and candour. Art, beauty and death are the central concerns of any artist, however unconsciously. Words like ‘back’, ‘behind’, ‘beauty’, ‘age’ crowded into my mind. It took quite a bit of contemplation before the poems latent in this photograph took shape. The first poem was ‘Not His Coy Mistress’ because almost from the start the line from Marvell’s Coy Mistress poem sprang to mind: ‘But at my back I always hear/Time’s winged chariot hurrying near’. The photo being of a real human body gave me the idea of stripping the drama of courtship/seduction down to the bare truth of the real enemy of lovers, Time. The poem is meant to be a take on Marvell’s hyperbolic and ‘arty’ mode of courtship. The second poem was ‘Look Behind Me’. I was somewhat perturbed by the fact that the body in the photo had its back to me; that I and any onlooker will always be behind this person, this subject; never getting to see her face or know any more about her than she lets us. Yet artists share certain aspects of identity as creative beings – we are behind each other, supporting each other through our belief in art – and that was what finally drove the poem into being. The third poem, ‘Transformations’, mirrors most closely of the three (or so I intended) the more widely held, traditional idea of ekphrasis, not so much in verbal description of the artwork being contemplated, but in its attempt to reproduce verbally the process involved in the whole notion of art-creation in Amanda’s photograph. With mother and daughter thus represented – connoting relationship, the ambivalence of rejection or support, the separations and mini-deaths wrought by time – it spoke to me of the birthing process in life and in art, the essential freeing into autonomous life accorded every creation, the recollection of the beauty of the new-born years after the event, all captured ineluctably in the work produced. The poem tries to re-embody the dynamics of a process revisited through the lens of growth and change, in another medium.”


An Ekphrasis of “National Language Class” by Chua Mia Tee

“There are both Western and Chinese ekphrasis traditions that employ literary words to describe works of art with/without the pieces by the side. My closest ekphrasis response is ‘Love’s Best Language Is To Be With You’, a poem that plays with meta-narrative from the outsider/artist’s perspective to look at the attentive lady at the national language class in the painting. The central theme is romantic love, yet it’s also a metaphoric interpretation of the ‘love of national imagination’ then. In ‘We Speak to Fish Using National Languages’, my most favourite response, is an attempt to reinvent and reconstruct the original painting. With elements of the original painting, the poem relooks at the ever-changing concept of national and official languages, including Malay, English and Mandarin (Guan Hua, which means the official language of the Qing Dynasty in China). The poem also plays around with the phonic and visual metaphors of tongue (she), snake (she), fish, yu (fish in hanyu pinyin), ikan (fish in Malay) and the i sounds. A more surrealistic piece, my flash-fiction response, ‘Encountering Histories, Recently’, taps on the wordings ‘What’s your name? Where do you live?’ on the blackboard, reinterpreting histories by putting Raffles, San Nila Utama, Paramerswara, Sima Qian, Cheng Ho, and Li Bai together at the backstage of modern central Singapore near Marina and Singapore River. Conflicting master narratives of one’s identity – his language(s), rootedness, heritage, nationality and geographical diaspora – are questioned in this text.”


An Ekphrasis of “Lotus in the Breeze” by Georgette Chen

“It was not difficult to move into Chen’s ‘Lotus in the Breeze’ and walk around, viewing it from different angles. In the actual writing of ‘Compulsion’, I used her remarks (quoted as an epigraph) on the process of painting the lotuses as my starting point. The finished poem presents what I perceive as the artist’s angle, and mine as observer/commentator. The literary challenge lay in the ‘spin-offs’ from Chen’s painting. As preparation for ‘Champ’, I did some reading on the mythology and iconography of the lotus, and looked at photographs and Chinese poems (in English translation) on the flower before offering my own take. The third poem, ‘Yogasana’, in retrospect seems to be a practical extension of ‘Champ’, as applied to the lotus posture in yoga. The same floral subject; different treatment. It may be an indication of how stretched I was by then that ‘Yogasana’ underwent some nine revisions before it passed as a poem.”


An Ekphrasis of “BluRay_B” by Osang Won

“Giant Korean man with bulging crotch! Though on closer inspection, the shifting perspectives from the layering of two-dimensional photos only skin deep on a three-dimensional sculpture were fascinating in their examination of the nature of perception and reality in our insta-fabulous selfie world. In direct response to the artist’s cheeky modern take on a classic form (sculpture), I decided to employ the most traditional and dignified of South-East Asian literary forms, the liwuli (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Liwuli). An 800-year-old poetic form derived from Southeast-Asian literary and rhetorical traditions, the epic beauty of the liwuli has only recently been rediscovered. I also constrained myself in thrice attempting the more difficult variation of the form, where a liwuli and its inversion, an iluwil are juxtaposed to form a liwuliiluwil. Just as ‘BluRay_B’ subverts the traditional expectations of the media of sculpture and photography, as well as re-examines the nature of perception and reality, my liwuliiluwils dwell on similar themes of unreliable perception, transformation of the form, and of course the liwuli itself is a mixed tribute/send-up of tradition in its own way.”


An Ekphrasis of “The Charity Lady (After Jean-Baptiste Greuze’s La Dame de Charite, 1775)” by Wong Hoy Cheong

“ ‘The Charity Lady’ by Wong Hoy Cheong is intriguing because of its link to Jean Baptiste Greuze’s painting, and the theme of Charity which is their focus. His re-imagining provides new context – through the replacement of European figures – an opportunity for me to make various comments concerning the re-emergence of identities following the dismantling of colonialism. The challenge was to devote the first poem to Wong’s digital photograph and link it to the Christian experience. The second poem focusses on the re-establishment of identity through new figures which are closer to our experience, our identity. For me it is a counterstatement of the colonies – now independent nations – painting back to the formal imperial centres. It was also an opportunity to link the power of Charity to certain aspects of the religious experience in Singapore. I hope the poems encourage readers to think of their own experience as they relate to the theme of both Greuze’s painting and Wong’s digital image. My final comment would be how one art not only deserves another, but how they can generate dialogue that is enlivened by their medium, in this case, shape and colour on the one hand and words on the other both inspired and connected to the great themes of Love and Charity.”


An Ekphrasis of “Space Drawing No. 5” by Sai Hua Kuan

“I’m not usually drawn to video art, but ‘Space Drawing No. 5’ was compelling from the get-go – it was manageable, brief but energetic and compelling throughout. It has a restless, kinetic zing that makes for great repeat viewings. I watch it on a loop, over and over. While the piece satisfies on a visceral level, it can also be read in different ways to yield insight into everything from physics to metaphysics. It’s a fascinating, deceptively simple piece. It was a difficult process, mainly because the assignment came at a time when I had a relative who was dying in hospital. In trying to grapple with the artwork and all it stirred in me, I could not help but fold in my thoughts about what was going on at the time as well – I was struck, in fact, by how apt the pairing was for me affectively – especially since the assigned artwork seemed, to me, to be concerned with the time bound and transient. But as a result of what was happening in the background, it took longer than planned for me to find the time and clear mental space to put my own words together in a way I was happy with and which honoured both the subject matter, the artwork, and my own poetics. It also turned out to be an act of grieving as much as it was a ritual of remembrance and shared experience now come to a close. These things can’t quite be rushed. I hope my pieces, like the artwork that inspired it, will yield a range of different insights and directions for inquiry. I was led to ponder the quality and trajectory of our all-too-brief lives, and perhaps my writing will prompt the same in readers. I believe there is more music to be found in questions than in answers.”

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: https://www.singaporewritersfestival.com/nacswf/nacswf/programme-listing.html