The following reflection was originally published on the now-defunct intersection.sg.
Tucked away in Alexandra is a modest studio space occupied by Ben Loong, one of the finalists for this year’s UNTAPPED EMERGING. In this space are the stereotypical implements of an artist: canvases, stretcher bars and brushes. In this space there are also smoothing tools, buckets of wall plaster and white dust all over the floors. The canvases look like they are in the process of being prepared but perhaps the actual painting work is not being done at the moment. Perhaps Loong is remodelling; some of the canvases even look like they may be a kind of construction palette. That is, until Loong pulls out one of them out and began to talk about it as a work of art.
Comparatively speaking, Loong’s practice and studio is traditional (we can still see canvases and brushes around). Nonetheless, it still deviates significantly from that of the romantic artist. In his studio, Terra Blanca, his current series of work, dominates the space, blending in and asserting its difference from the actual walls of the studio. Terra Blanca, Spanish for ‘white earth’, is largely made of wall plaster, the same type used to build up the walls in our homes. And keeping with the original function of plaster, Loong uses the tools of wall makers. If we discount the presence of large wooden stretcher bars, it is understandable if a visitor mistakes his studio as a miniature factory or storage cupboard for a construction worker.
How can we reconcile the stereotypical concept of the artist studio with Loong’s? First, there is a need to demystify the idea that the point of an artist’s work in the studio is the production of art objects. While art objects may be produced in the process of working in the studio, the space of the studio is predominantly an exploration space. For Loong, this means experiments with wall plaster and other materials to understand their visual and material potential. Some canvases are classified as ‘sketches’, others ‘scratch paper’ and only a relatively small number are seen as ‘works in progress’. This is not very different from the studio of a traditional figurative oil painter, which is also going to be filled with scratch work, sketch work and works in progress. The difference is Loong’s contemporary choice of material.
Loong explains that Terra Blanca is an “[engagement] with the industrial and the personal, inviting the viewer to question the value of our physical world.” Through his work his studio, Loong hopes to, among other things, challenge our normative perspectives on different types of material, most visibly through his use of wall plaster, refusal to produce the perfectly flat wall with the plaster and the ironic appropriation of real walls’ uneven form. The layered, weathered and often chaotic textures over his canvases are deliberate remakes of effects he had observed and discovered in his sketch and scratch work. By refusing to use wall plaster passively, as a finishing for walls, Loong makes personal the industrial material.
In utilising wall plaster, Loong’s practice also calls into question the nature of artistic work. How do his walls, essentially unrealised and rejects of walls, different or in any way better than the expert work done by the experienced blue collar workers in our art or other trade fairs? How can a broken and uneven tiny fragment of a wall be better than the smooth partition walls made in residential spaces? In more immediate terms, how can we think that his laboured work over a tiny piece of canvas is better than the beautiful and perfect walls that line his studio space?
The value of work
Wall plaster is more familiar to a construction worker than an artist. There does not seem to be a significant reason why plaster is pricier than acrylic paint, yet that is the state of society that we live in. There is not much of a reason why a painter, making gestures on the residential wall, should be less valued than an (abstract) painter making the same gestures on the smaller canvas. There is no seeming correlation between the value of the material and the products.
Rather than abandon our system of valuation, I argue that the work of art does productively increase the power of Loong’s work over that of a generic wall builder. In being the springboard for the preceding discussion, his practice already holds value that direct scrutiny. In picking up the banal plaster and taking it as the material for his visual research and artistic production, Loong creates meaning through its banality, raising questions about the work of a wall builder.
In his most recent pieces, Loong has also begun to use gold leaf. In terms of value, this kitschy material cannot be any further from the modest wall plaster. It is as if Loong is trying to make a point about the materials. Both are used to create an attractive surface but the labour of gold leafing is perceived as more valuable than plastering. It even has a special word of its own, gilding. The work done by the labourer of plaster and gold leaf is not very different, similarly finishing devices, but they are judged by the perceived value of their material. In asserting a singular author for the plaster and the leaf, Loong does challenge the uneven valuation of work in our society.
Surface and finish can make and break an object. This is sometimes literal: workers finish pipes with resin to weatherproof it. The same resin is applied to outdoor sculptures for the same reason as well as to produce a gloss finish. It is possible that the same workers do this. Resin is strange to Loong, who knows it both as a banal utilitarian material and a kitschy shiny one. And in public sculptures, it is often regarded as a material not worth mentioning at all in the description. In Vug, the resin is muted, a smoothening layer over the delicately textured surface. A single line of gold has been added to this work, a play on the unevenness of the plaster. In another work, Assay, also finished in resin, gold is used as a shadow element on the work, echoing resin’s ability, through refraction, to dramatise the grooves of the plaster.
Loong’s studio looks like a miniature factory space, or a construction site. As he explained his practice, I was caught by the irony of my focused, specialised interest on his labour when I have not been similarly interested about the many unseen ‘artists’ around Singapore executing this same labour over the course of my life. Placing the material on the floor, displaying the tools on the table and wielding them the same way as the master craftsman, he enacted their daily life.