Teh Hock Aun’s signature sense of colour and movement is apparent from his very appearance. Dressed in a bright yellow shirt and paintsplattered jeans, the artist has fashioned necklaces in bright primary colours from children’s plastic bead sets. He speaks animatedly, hands moving fervently in an attempt to articulate himself further. His is a booming voice, highlighting a curious Scottish and Malaysian-accented English with a frankness that is refreshing.
A small, arty group has convened to listen to one of Malaysia’s notable artists speak in anticipation of his solo exhibition at the Balai Seni Visual Negara later this year. Not that he needs any introduction. Teh, now based in Glasgow, has had his works displayed in various cities around the world and is as much an honorary son of Scotland as he is a native of Malaysia.
His accolades include being selected by the British Foreign Office in 1995 as one of the subjects of the My Britain series of documentary films. In 1997, he was selected by Glasgow Museums to study tigers in their natural habitat in India. In 1980, he received a Commendation of Merit from the Robert Colquhourn Memorial Exhibition.
His particular brand of contemporary Chinese art draws inspiration from ancient, revered T’ang calligraphy even as it is hailed as abstract expressionism. He explains his works, art education and encouraging young artists in a conversation with Patrick Davies of Patrick Davies Contemporary Art, and Liezel Strauss of SubjectMatterArt, both of whom represent him, with the latter here in Malaysia.
Strauss: Patrick, you and Hock Aun have been working together for more than 20 years. Can you tell us how your relationship developed and how you met?
Davies: Well, Hock Aun had a deal in Edinburgh. I’d seen his work and sort of knew the dealer who was looking after the artwork. I said to Andrew, I’ve got to meet this guy. I just love what I’ve seen. We met and just clicked instantly, but it wasn’t just about the selling element. We all need to sell. It’s really about whether I actually believed in what he was making. I knew that however tough the times would be, we’d be in it together for the long haul.
Teh: It’s been very personal. Davies: The best relationships with the people you work with become personal and that’s been fantastic for me and very interesting for us. As an artist, you have to trust the dealer and not think that they’d take advantage of it. I can concentrate wholly on my work and, as Patrick said, once I finish my work, I don’t look at it, I move on to the second one. Davies: He knows I need to do my job and I know he needs to paint. I represent three artists exclusively and I’m married, so I’d say I was married to four people (laughs). For me, what I like is that the selling is almost a by-product. I like making the stuff happen.
Teh: It’s also important to have an art dealer who knows you, your work and everything about your life; otherwise it’s not about producing pictures and to me, there’s no difference between body and mind.
Davies: I think you can see the calligraphy running through his work but you also discover the abstract and pure colour. Hock Aun was very good in calligraphy. He studied here under a master in Taiping. Teh: I learnt how to write with a brush when I was in primary school!
Davies: But somehow he knew something was missing – as wonderful as it was that you attained greatness by beautiful brush marks, there was always something missing…
Strauss: The colour.
Strauss: Explain your daily practice to us. Are you very set in your day?
Teh: I paint every day and I need absolute silence. Once I get into it, I won’t even hear a phone ring. Whenever you paint, you’ve got to do it with your mind, your focus. You only need the sound of your own breathing and the sound of the brush in contact with the canvas – only two sounds. Then you realise that art and you become one, otherwise you cannot produce. Halfway through, your body will tell you that this will be great art – but sometimes you can’t get it.
Strauss: Was that (creation) a matter of experience or did that come later in your career?
Teh: I think later in my career I understood myself. Every day, I wake up and immediately understand what kind of mood I’m in – it’s very important. When I go to the studio, I smell the brushes and the water, the paint. It excites me and then I work. It doesn’t matter how long it takes for me to finish the painting. The time has nothing to do with the quality of the painting – people think you have to do things longer and longer until it’s there something. Also, when I focus, my mind sees shapes and colour, and then I yearn to release when painting.
Strauss: When you title your work, does it come to you before you start your work?
Teh: The baby comes out first but the titles, for me, are very important. It’s a key to getting into the garden. Sometimes, everything can get an emotional response, like through a conversation, and that gives me inspiration.
Davies: I think it’s an interesting question because his titling is very literal, but then you’ve got the painting and there are no clues. All it is is a way in and then it’s what you make of it. After that, it’s entirely up to you, and there are no rights and wrongs about it. The titles are the way through his life – memories, experiences, etc. But what he’s giving you is the most un-literal sense of that and it depends on what you make of what you will.
Strauss: so tell me about the preparation for the KL Biennale and your solo show at Balai Seni Visual Negara. How does that differ for an installation or smaller piece? What are the ups and downs for such a big preparation?
Davies: Loads of administration! We had a meeting yesterday with the national gallery and it is funded by the government body, so things move very slowly. This exhibition has been five years in the making until last year, when we were formally invited. We go into the meeting and he’s (Hock Aun’s) not interested. I’m beginning to discuss the space they are to make for us and I could tell he was getting bored of that. It’s no disrespect to the work but, once he’s made the piece, he’s on to the next one, so a great deal of what I do is to make this stuff happen in the most efficient way. More importantly, make sure that the show is disseminated to as many people as possible.
For us, this is a non-selling show, it’s a reflection of Malaysia and its culture. We want as many people as possible to see the show and to present it as a good thing for Malaysia. I think the [Malaysian] cultural
landscape is changing right now and there are roots being put down and that’s how you get stuff going. In 20 years’ time, you would have something that’s fantastic.
Strauss: Who can Malaysia look up to and how do you think we can bring in more art?
Teh: I think cities should encourage artists or art shows.
Davies: You need to get the system right. If you take Europe, for example, they have lots of art schools and infrastructure in terms of encouraging the arts. They have grants – it’s as much about the learning as it is about the journey and, if you get that infrastructure right, at the end of the day. you’ll have people coming out of that with meaningful things to contribute.
Teh: And the artists belong to the cities and that inspires the next generation to do art. If the cities don’t buy art, there won’t be any art museums or art activities.
Davies: There are many things wrong with the United States but one of the things they got right is called Percent for Art, where if there are public funds for constructing a building anything over USD10 million, they have to spend a percentage of the budget on public art.
Strauss: In the UK, there’s an art fund called OwnArt, [where] you can buy art up to GBP10,000. SubjectMatterArt belongs to it and we, as a company, receive the money immediately and you pay us back in instalments. Because it’s governmentfunded, it’s interest free and the system works really well. What we’ve done is brought in instalment plans outside of the UK, so we offer instalments plans worldwide because we realise that your first purchase is especially tricky. But once you’ve broken the seal, it’s like getting a tattoo – you’d want more art.
Davies: I think it’s something that’s more fundamental – that people have to be encouraged to think that art is important. Museums probably have to get that right and get their infrastructure right so that people want to go. Once you’ve created that interest, the other stuff feeds into it. It is absolutely about institutions encouraging people. China, as an example, is going to be a major player, if it isn’t already. That has changed in 20 years or less, and partly to do with the government being less abrasive about what is acceptable to what you can do.
That has also created a problem because some artists in China are now superstars, and other artists are looking at them instead of trying to establish their own identity (as each country needs to have its own identity). They ape what’s going on in the West. They need to start to find their own identity. That’s their value.
Teh: I discovered in Malaysia and, in fact, in many high schools here, that they don’t have many trained teachers – the headmaster would ask the geography teacher to teach art. It wouldn’t help Malaysia to be very creative because there’s no regulation, so everyone can set up art classes in communities just to make money. They don’t care about art development. So, what I did for my high school (I always like to give back to my high school), I went to China to look for the young graduates of fine art and employ them in my high school in Malaysia. When I came back to Malaysia, I trained them and gave them a specific programme called ICE (Imagination Creation Expression). I also discovered that a lot of schools don’t have a specific curriculum, so I designed a programme for Forms 1 to 6 that stretches week to week. I know how I want the class to be taught and what kind of result I want to see within months.
Davies: What Hock Aun describes is a tiny egg. One of the opportunities that we will have because of the Balai Seni Visual Negara exhibition is that we would like to say, “Look at Hock Aun now”.
Teh: Because Kuala Lumpur is far from Taiping, where there’re no good art museums, I also arrange international school expeditions every two years so students can see and engage for themselves –
Davies: – and it’s all self-funded! Imagine if you could get help from the government.
Teh: The money comes from private initiatives.
Davies: And that sort of little ecosystem that they’ve created down there (in Taiping) is an absolute template of how you can do it.
Strauss: Have you spoken to the ministry about this?
Davies: Well, because of the show, we are perfectly positioned to. We have something that’s done well. This is not fantasy. This is not what we’ll do but what has been done. We have evidence and we will be in a much more powerful position once that show starts. We have also applied for funding from Creative Scotland as a contribution to the show.
Teh: There aren’t many art in colleges in Malaysia but we do see students studying in commercial art. Graphic design, not fine arts. There’s a difference and that’s not good, really. They need someone to teach them how to pick up a pencil and draw. They get a degree but they can’t draw. In children’s classes, they don’t teach them how to draw but how to copy. This isn’t good.
Strauss: On the topic of Taiping and going back to Glasgow, you have this duality – do you consider Malaysia home or is it Scotland?
Teh: I don’t really feel that I live in the west or east – I come home two, three times a year. My heart is always here and I’m in a really unique position. I’m from here in the East and home is in the West. This opportunity has given me a wider horizon and experience to discover and to suck in the essence of both cultures.
Strauss: Patrick, tell us about the key challenges and changes you’ve seen in the art world over the recent years. Davies: There are good and bad things. I think the world in which I exist has become extremely commercial, and I think a lot of people view value more than what the picture is about. You would never buy a pair of curtains and expect that to go up in value, and I say the same with art. If that happens, it’s a happy circumstance but you buy it because you love it.
I think the money, which is also important, is at the moment too powerful. People are thinking more about the money. I think the biggest change is that it’s become a brand. When I first started out, you’d buy an art magazine and there were pages that were chalk-full about artists. Now, you have many adverts and auctions.
I think the good thing about it is that much younger people have become interested. When I started out, people who bought art were 40 years old in age and even above 50. Now, younger people are thinking about buying art. So, the age demographic for buying art has become younger and that makes them tend to buy things as they grow up. They don’t buy things of the past – they go for artists of the same age, with the same cultures and influences. That’s the good thing, I think.
I come from a very traditional background, where you have shows at galleries and you’re making cases as to why it’s important. Now, with this throw-away culture that we have, people want to go to over a 100 galleries in five days, and what that means is that galleries take less risk because it’s expensive for them, so, again, this money is crushing a bit of the creativity. Somehow, we have to get back somewhere in the middle because the people that go to art fairs, museums and galleries are a minority. Teh: Art evolves all the time and, as an artist, you have to be sincere and honest to yourself, and produce what you feel best. You have to believe in yourself and your own work. Only then you’ll be able to push yourself further.
Strauss: Patrick, what advice would you give collectors and artists? Davies: I’ll tell collectors to trust their instincts – there are no failures in terms of buying art. Trust your instincts, don’t follow the herd. Do it because you think it’s right. And learn as much as you can – use your eyes and ask questions.
Teh: Encourage students to make a mess and find solutions. This is how you encourage students to do art – imagination. If you have good imagination, you have good art. Davies: No success stories happen without failure. And in art, there is no such thing as failure. It’s important for an artist to not repeat oneself. I hate when you go to exhibitions and see 30 or 40 paintings with the same colour scheme. Every painting is a new challenge and territory. Otherwise, what’s the point of creating it?