Tan Hwee Hwee | Profile of artist Tan Swie Hian
Article about Singaporean artist Tan Swie Hian
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tan swie hian

A profile of Singaporean artist Tan Swie Hian


When Tan Swie Hian heard that Dr Klaus Schwab, the President of the World Economic Forum, wanted to meet him during his visit to Singapore, Tan almost declined, thinking that Dr Schwab had made a mistake. “I’m an artist,” Tan told Dr Schwab, “I don’t know anything about economics, I can’t help you.”

However, Schwab informed Tan that he had won the Crystal Award, an honour which would put him on the same pantheon as past recipients like Umberto Eco, Ravi Shankar, and Richard Meier. Though he’s celebrated in the Chinese-speaking world, Tan is relatively unknown in the West but 2003 may mark the year where the Buddhist artist finally breaks on through to the other side. Tan held a major exhibition of his works at the World Economic Forum Davos in January, and on June 12, Tan went to Italy to participate in the Venice Biennial, the art world’s equivalent of the Oscars. A consummate calligrapher, Tan painted on a 4 storey high canvas (11 meters by 1.8 meters) in the middle of St Marcos Square.

Tan seems to be doing more in one year than most Singaporean artists do in a decade. In June, Tan created a show with the Singapore Chinese Orchestra for the high profile Singapore Arts Festival, where he painted in synch with the orchestra while a screen projected his poetry. Apart from being an artist, calligrapher and poet, Tan also designed the sets and costumes for the show. If you’re not impressed with that array of talent yet, you will be when you find out that Tan is also an accomplished sculptor who is building the first Earth Art Museum in China, a US$1.2 million project that sprawls over a mountain range of two square kilometers in Qingdao, China.

“Tan Swie Hian is Singapore’s most prolific artist in terms of the range of media he works in – from literature, calligraphy, painting, sculpture, performance to design.  He is significant because his work defies art categorisation,” says Kwok Kian Chow, director of the Singapore Art Museum.

But what makes Tan extraordinary is the way he effortlessly straddles the East-West divide. Tan paints bright watercolours of a Buddha peeing butterflies, but he also has a degree in English Literature and is the first person to translate the works of Samuel Beckett and Marin Sorescu into Chinese. He’s highly regarded in France and is only South East Asian artist to be elected a Member-Correspondent of the Academy of Fine Arts, Institute of France. He’s published 36 books, including many volumes of critically acclaimed Chinese poetry. Cheng Liu Pan, the editor of the “ZAOBAO-zbNOW”, Singapore’s main Chinese newspaper, calls Tan “not only a genius but a genius with a great mind.”

Tan leads a life of disciplined devotion, which has its share of eccentric artistic quirks. He wakes up at 2 pm and religiously climbs 1000 steps every day to strengthen his calve muscles so that endure his marathon calligraphy painting sessions. “I get up and start my discipline – meditation, chanting. Then I go to the food center to get a drink. After that, I work throughout the night and go to bed at 7 am.”

It’s this monastic discipline that has made Tan the spiritual artist of choice for wealthy art patrons. Tan recalls a woman ringing him up to commission a painting of nine horses because, as her geomancer told her to ring up Tan to give the place good feng shui. “I told her – ‘I’m not interested, I’m writing poetry now, I don’t have horses for you,’” said Tan. And then the woman asked him if he had any Chinese junks and Tan realized that she wanted him to paint the OCBC bank logo!

Most artists would probably have jumped on this opportunity to make a quick, easy buck, but Tan’s sales record means that he can opt out of being part of the lucrative feng shui industry. Tan is one of the highest paid artists in Singapore, with his painting, “Song of Sutra” netting $125,000 (US$72,600) at an auction in Singapore in the 90s. He now charges $20,000 (US$11,500) for one calligraphic character and recalls a case where a buyer had carried $20,000 in his pocket to buy one of Tan’s paintings, only to be robbed at the airport.

Despite his Buddhist ethos, Tan also appreciates the fine life. He drives around in his brand new, very trendy Mini Cooper and enjoys dining at expensive French restaurants. But still, religion, and not materialism, is what drives him. “My main objective is to be Buddha. I am using my craft to provide a footnote to Buddhism – it’s like a drop in the ocean of the teaching of Siddhartha.”