Tan Sei Hon is a former institutional curator who co-curated the final exhibition of Malaya's First National Painter Datuk Chuah Thean Teng (1914-2008) in 2008 and the design section of the retrospective of Malaysia's Seniman Negara Datuk Syed Ahmad Jamal (1929-2011)'s in 2009.He was the guest curator of Tokoh Cetakan Long Thien Shih's survey exhibition 'Man of the Times' (2014) and self taught painter of Peranakan-themed subject matter, Sylvia Lee Goh's 'Then And Now:The Enduring Heart' (2015).
Seihon works as a freelance art writer and curator with a special interest in abstract and outsider art. He curated the exhibitions 'On the Corner' (2008), 'Dengan Cara Kita' (2011), 'We are Self Taught' (2014) and 'SingulaRhapsody: A celebration of Malaysian Outsider, Naive and Self Taught Artistry' (2015) He also curated MEAA 2013/14 winners Cheong Tuck Wai's solo exhibition entitled 'Linger' and Shafiq Nordin's 'Imperium' at HOM Art Trans (2016).
There is a line in a book written by one of our local pioneer abstract artist that was published more than ten years ago where he audaciously claimed that an artist without a studio is like a surgeon without an operating theatre. Of course, on first reading, one may understandably be put off by the sheer arrogance of that statement, made by someone who, unsurprisingly is known for his haughty demeanour (still) and unsolicited scathing remarks. What gall to equate the ‘holy’ work done by a surgeon (even the plastic ones) to that of an artist (usually the stereotypical image of a lowly, emaciated, stinky, sweaty, unkempt, long haired, paint smeared painter comes to mind!). However, upon further reflection, there may be some truth to it no matter how immodest such a thought. In a fair and sane world, these highly committed men of medicine who struggles daily to wrench patients from the greedy clutches of Death should be showered with praises, heaped with rewards or drowning in accolades. Books and songs should be written and movies should be made about them. Alas, the world is neither fair nor sane. We have more monuments about dictators, actors and cartoon characters than we have of medical surgeons. The reality is that through the surgeon’s best efforts, a patient lives until he or she irredeemably expires but through a work of art, an artist, no matter how outstanding or mediocre, lives ‘forever’ even if he or she dies young, tragically or in grinding poverty, (preferably from all three to make for great reading material or a movies script).
Whether poor, successful or struggling, it is almost every art practitioner’s dream to have their own studio or workshop. This is in anticipation of the great work that they’re about to produce or to at least have a decent place to work in private. Any ordinary person would find an empty room or large space too unnerving and would quickly proceed to fill it up with ‘stuff’. Not the artist though. The height and length of the studio size increases in tandem with the artist’s aspirations and vision. Sometimes, it also coincides with their bulging ego and growing sense of self-importance. The studio is more than just a workroom to make objects which hopefully, people with fine aesthetic sense, good taste and more importantly, a sizeable disposable income will be inspired to acquire, it is also a space where artists would meet gallerists, curators, writers and related others to discuss creative, professional and business matters.
The idea of a privately run studio producing works for pleasure AND the open market with the artist as an independent operator (or with support of a gallerist or several) has come a long way since the time when art practitioners were merely artisans regarded as on par with craftsmen, who labour in the service of the religious class, living and working in monasteries. Later, they would branch out to serve other non-religious masters while living at their residences. For generations, the royalties, aristocracies and mercantile classes have been steady providers of stable employment and countless commission work. As artist in residence, they painted portraits of their patron’s family members, decorated the surroundings and whatever else that was expected of their artisanal skills to bring joy and prestige to their patrons’ homes and standing in society. It wasn’t until the late 18th and early 19th century, the so called age of revolutions that the artist emerged as bohemian-rebel, anarchist-individualist type who, against tradition and industry, claims to make Art for its own sake.
‘The Painter’s Studio’ by Gustave Courbet exemplifies this new importance attached to the artist’s singular vision and ingenuity. In that painting, even the nude model, accustomed to countless male gazes now casts her own gaze in the same direction as the painter’s, both in rapt admiration of his latest masterpiece, ironically, a landscape without humans.
Contemporary artist Chris Ofili, who incorporated elephant dung into his work once said that ‘the studio is a laboratory, not a factory. An exhibition is the results of your experiments, but the process is never ending. So an exhibition is not a conclusion.’ Indeed, the artist’s studio is where the action is. Think of the fantastic series of photos of Picasso, clad only in white shorts, playfully ‘light drawing’ in semi darkness surrounded by his ceramic pieces in his château in southern France, or Bacon in his anal-explusive mess of a studio in London. And there are the photographs and film of Pollock in action, all black and working feverishly as though under a spell, dripping and splashing paints with such cathartic urgency on unstretched canvases laid out on the floor. Pollock almost single-handedly created a new chapter in modern art history with those ‘drip’ paintings in some barn in rural Americana (thereon inspiring any parent into thinking that even their bratty little five year old could do that, and extending that ability to their pet monkey, elephant, pony, dog, cat etc).
Artists, historians and curators may get all hot and bothered about artist studios, yet there are many others in the art ecosystem who remain blissfully dry and unaware of what goes on in ‘there’. The struggles usually begin at conceptualising and extends to the production process. Framed or disassembled and bubble-wrapped, the works arrived in the gallery or an exhibition venue ready to be assemble or display and bought off the wall, floor or ceiling. On opening nights, pleasantries exchanged, congratulatory wishes abound, the obligatory speeches on stage while below two cents worth are tossed about regarding the perceived merits and demerits of the works and whether the pieces deserve the ridiculous prices they command. In between the buying and selling, bitching and back biting, the creative process goes unacknowledged, the struggles unappreciated nor the intentions behind the efforts illuminated. Of course, any good art piece should speak for itself, but most times it gets drowned by the noise generated from those who claim to know art (or the crowd that came for the free food and booze) or unamplified by those who claim to peddle it. Usually, art writers and curators write not so much to report or echo the artist’s thoughts but to highlight their own readings of the works which often times do not really reflect the artist’s intentions. Even art historians are no better. Think of Gerhard Richter’s slightly annoyed and confused look when listening to Benjamin HD Buchloh’s long intellectual sounding verbiage (in German!) about his paintings.
Perhaps that’s why the idea of ‘open studio’ came about. It is not so much to share and expose one’s working environment, it is also in certain ways, wrestling back control the framing and contextualizing done by other actors in the art ecosystem on the artist’s position and outputs. Art making is usually a solitary endeavour with the artist spending many hours alone working in private. This makes the studio not just a creative space but also a deeply personal space that is not readily accessible to just anyone. By opening up the studio one is given excess to a side of the art making business that is much hyped and glamorized but rarely experienced and seen unembellished. As the visitor steps into the studio, one could be entering a castle, a temple, a sanatorium, a laboratory, a factory or a playground. The surrounding reflects the artist’s temperament, taste and interests, which in turn is reflected in their outputs. An open studio is an invitation to see, to get to know the artist beyond his or her professional façade or reputation.
An open studio is the artist’s way of saying “Talk to Me”.