Remembering KONG Yin Ling 江燕玲

It is not often I speak publicly or write about artist deaths within the arts community through the decades that I have grown up in and be part of as a professional today. Remembering them fondly for their presence, private conversations, close friendships/relationships and thoughts on art is how I cope with the morbid reality of the passing of such ageing or ill-stricken artists – it saddens me in a personal way due to my relationships with them (as opposed to an obligation by means of work association). However today… the passing of an artist compelled me to seek a personal way to remember her.

Condolence notice submitted by members of The Molan Art Association (names redacted) and as published in local Chinese broadsheet Lianhe Zaobao, Obituaries. 2020 May 21.
Condolence notice submitted by members of The Molan Art Association (names redacted) and as published in local Chinese broadsheet Lianhe Zaobao, Obituaries. 2020 May 21.

As a relatively low profile Chinese ink painter and calligrapher based in Singapore, the late Madam KONG Yin Ling (江燕玲 Jiang Yan Ling) graduated from Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts and further studies at the China Academy of Fine Arts, Hangzhou.[1] She first began her exhibition career in 1988 with her Chinese ink painter husband CHEN Shi Jin (陈士仅),[2] and had since been active as a participating member of the Molan Art Association, Singapore Art Society, NAFA Alumni Association and Shichen Chinese Calligraphy and Seal-Carving Society. Memorably, she studied portraiture under Singaporean portrait artist SIEW Hock Meng (萧学民). She passed away at the age of 58 on May 18, 2020. She is survived by her husband.

While an art historical perspective of paintings is not the focus of this article, I deeply respected and loved her Chinese ink paintings of Southeast Asian women that she had seen in her travels.

KONG Yin Ling, Untitled, 1991 (辛未), unknown dimensions, Chinese ink and pigment on paper. From exhibition catalogue Molan Association 25th Anniversary Special 墨澜社二十五周年纪念特刊, 1992.
KONG Yin Ling, Untitled, 1991 (辛未), unknown dimensions, Chinese ink and pigment on paper. From exhibition catalogue Molan Association 25th Anniversary Special 墨澜社二十五周年纪念特刊, 1992.

Placing aside her ability as a Chinese ink painter, I always remembered her bright smile and kind voice whenever I visited her and her husband or travelled overseas with my family with them.

At Cameron Highlands, early 1990s. L to R Dad (LIM Choon Jin), KONG Yin Ling, CHEN Shi Jin, KOH Mun Hong and unnamed lady. Courtesy of LIM Choon Jin and Vincent LIN.
At Cameron Highlands, early 1990s. L to R Dad (LIM Choon Jin), KONG Yin Ling, CHEN Shi Jin, KOH Mun Hong and unnamed lady. Courtesy of LIM Choon Jin and Vincent LIN.
At Myanmar, 1999. L to R - Local guide, KONG Yin Ling, CHEN Shi Jin and Dad (LIM Choon Jin).Courtesy of LIM Choon Jin and Vincent LIN.
At Myanmar, 1999. L to R – Local guide, KONG Yin Ling, CHEN Shi Jin and Dad (LIM Choon Jin).Courtesy of LIM Choon Jin and Vincent LIN.

She always had a kind word or story for everything that could be taught to a young child – and I grew up calling her Yanling-jie (燕玲姐) much to the annoyance and chagrin of many other artists’ wives or female artists. Her quiet personality, resilience against adversity and constant support of her husband help to shape my thoughts and inspire me over the years (as well as to serve as a personal “matrix” to seek out my significant other).

As time went by, I seldom had the chance to meet Yanling-jie but retained fond memories of her over the decades. It was in 2016 during National Gallery Singapore’s presentation of Ink Masters series (with Singaporean Chinese ink painter KOH Mun Hong 许梦丰) that I met her again. I did a double take and had to seek the confirmation of her identity with “Uncle” GOH Chiew Lye (Singaporean Chinese ink artist 吴秋来) and “Aunt” YEO Yang Kwee (the wife of the late Singaporean Chinese ink artist CHUA Ek Kay) who were both there at the presentation.

“燕玲姐!”

Turning around, she was shocked and surprised at my salutation. She called me by my personal name and said that only “that one rascal” who would call her in this manner over the decades. My eyes were moist with tears as were hers, while we emphasised our mutual inability to recognise each other (I mean, the last time we met I was still a child). Thus under the wry smiles of Uncle Goh and Aunt Yeo, we began to catch up over what we have been doing over the years.

Before I had to return to my duties, I mentioned to her that I would like to interview her one day (after my studies) with regards to her Chinese ink paintings of Southeast Asian women. She was thrilled and told me that she is looking forward to that.

Alas, she is gone too soon. I hope I will still be able to pick up the pieces of her gentle voice and loving personality in her art in due time.


[1] See The Molan Art Association – 35th Anniversary 1967-2002, ed. The Molan Art Association (Singapore: Cape of Good Hope Art Gallery, 2002), Exhibition Catalogue. Unfortunately, the exhibition catalogue has minimal chronological details.

[2] See “Visual Artist – Chen Shi Jin,” Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts, 2011. Accessed May 21, 2020. https://tfcsea.nafa.edu.sg/artist_biography.aspx?id=45.

Completion of MASS Website

Hello,

Just a short note to say that I have finally finished the Modern Art Society Singapore‘s website.

To be honest, a majority of the work was already done when I set it up for continuity purposes (read: easy to use). There were some delays in persuading the society that web-quality (i.e. 72 dpi) images with decent viewing size should not come with digital watermarks. With the idea that the society provides 72 dpi images of artists’ artworks on their profiles pages, visitors can view the images without any image obstructions or deformities – the artists can be assured that these digital images are not suitable for print or replica purposes (unless the digital perpetrators want to make postal stamps or something).

The inclusion of a blanket copyright clause on the usage of the digital images, with guidelines on proper accreditation and image usage, allows for students/researchers/visitors to utilise these digital images for research/study purposes.

By doing so, the society is offering an implicit trust and understanding for the usage of its digital images.

Through gentle persuasion and earnest explanation, this is my way of guiding art societies or artists to show their artworks on digital platforms… and allow for the global expansion and growth of research/study on Singaporean artists.

The Face of Defeat

As I was looking out of my window and pondering the deary weather, my scattered thoughts ran across the state of the art community we have here in Singapore today.

A Perspective Of The State Of This Community

I do feel that the different forms of art cannot be quantified to make the bean counters happy about how much their budget is being turned into other sorts of comfortable numbers (like visitorship, as a form of Return on Investment quantifier).

Then again, if the bean counters are so fixated on the RoI, I am pretty sure a lot of institutional places in Singapore would have to close down – we will be culturally bereft and heritage is just a whisper in the wind (just like some of the neglected heritage trails in Singapore).

As the corporate dominance within cultural institutions get stronger everyday, I find that it is a place which is hard to understand or grasp – how is art and their practitioners being respected in Singapore? When corporate decisions and their efforts become widely separate from the creative/curatorial content, the result becomes jarring and shameful for other people in the arts communities or even public audience to see.

When consumerism overtakes art, you
know that something is very wrong.

A “Sans Consumerism” Cultural Experience

I remembered visiting the Hakone Open Air Museum in Japan recently. It is a private museum with wide open spaces, filled with cast sculptures from the Masters as well as a lovely Picasso museum sitting in the most beautifully landscaped part of the museum. There is a lot of emphasis in curatorial content and visitor interaction with the art works… the commercial aspects (the museum shop and eatery) are just a tiny complement to the entire museum. I felt liberated from the overwhelming consumerism in Singapore’s cultural institutions.

Which part of the phrase cultural institution
does consumerism exist? I only see culture.

The Hakone OAM operates as a “public interest incorporated foundation”, which is similar to a non-profit organisation. From my limited understanding, the Hakone OAM is supported by the Fujisankei Communications Group (owner of Fuji TV Group, Pony Canyon Group, Sankei Shimbun Group and so on). I remembered a staff member sharing with me that they do not focus on visitorship numbers but on ensuring the quality of the exhibits, “It is a big place with a few of us here. We don’t need to worry about fundraising but we do worry about the artworks we are looking after. It is for our future generations’ benefit too”.

Besides the fact that Hakone OAM is bankrolled by a financial giant, I really do wonder whether Singapore will be capable of something like that – making the cultural institution a proper cultural experience, with consumerism as smaller aspect of the experience.

Worrying About Our People

Whatever the case maybe, I am aware of how some of the senior creative/curatorial positions feel (in some cultural institutions) – defeatism. I remembered sitting in a few meetings where I could see the defeated looks of such persons. When I meet them in private, the same haunted and defeated grimaces are shouting warnings to me – I fear that we will lose some extremely talented and experienced creative/curatorial people.

You know after you shared that “defeated look” thing with me. I suddenly managed to piece it together what you meant. How did I ever miss that given that I worked with him frequently?
– Friend from the same industry

I once gave an analogy to few friends, “corporate functions within a cultural institution is easily dispensable and replaceable – but to lose creative/curatorial people within the cultural institution would be irreplaceable” – they agreed wholeheartedly.

These same friends (coming from various arts communities and groups) talked about how the balance between corporate and creative sides to be crazily in favour of one side. However, I do get the general opinion that the performance and dance communities have the power of authority leaning more on the creative side. When they question me why some cultural institutions have it the other way around (“I don’t get it. Is it a business or is it art?”), I can only shrug and give my best impression of my fellow defeated friends.

And What Can We Do About It?

I think it is going to be a slow process – we need more people (from the cultural institutions) to understand that the art provides the basis for everything else. If there is no content, there is nothing to show for – it would be fluff and does not bring visitors back. We can do with less people who are focused on gaining personal objectives, and find more comrade-in-arms to work together.

Corporate people do forget easily… the arts community
is a very exclusive, small and tightly-knit community.
You’ll never know whose toes you have just stepped on.

We also need an understanding that too much focus on consumerism brings about the conversion of cultural institutions into retail institutions – it is a terrifying concept for members of the arts community. Be it music, dance, theatre or visual arts, we should be engaging with the arts as the primary objective; the complementary commercialisation aspects are secondary or even tertiary and should never be the forefront of a billing.

This Solution Is Not Mine

Before I end, a guest speaker once shared with me on the ways to change the lopsided authority in various cultural institutions, “find a few of the most respected and annoying artists to write and complain everyday… then we will win! I know it works beautifully. Just read the papers and see the results! Hahaha!”

Maybe we could hire this same respected artist to sit in some of the senior positions on various cultural institutions or groupings? That would be a lot of fun! *grabs popcorn*

Reconstructivism in Art Presentation and Programming

Reconstructivism and Art

As an expansion of Reconstructing History in Anime, Reconstructivism can be used as a framework towards audience engagement or education development. I strongly feel that topics (such as history or art) can be made more relevant to various audiences in various forms. As demonstrated by the previous example in Kantai Collection, how can we possibly infer the usage of Reconstructivism in art presentation?

Mona Lisa and Her Sisters

A strong example of re-looking at a celebrated painting would be Leonard da Vinci’s Mona Lisa. I am sure many would know of this iconic masterpiece that currently resides in the Louvre, France (incidentally, the gallery renovation was financed by the Nippon Television in 2005).

On the superficial level, it is just the painting itself – beautiful and enigmatic. However, Paris-based Lumiere Technology was able to uncover various layers of the Mona Lisa through their multispectral digitisation processes. While the information from these various layers allowed for optimal conservation (which is another boring thing that can be made amazing), the Louvre was able to present the scientific information gathered from the painting itself as an educational tool in the form of their specialised web portal – Focus Louvre (direct link to the comparison aspect).

Since then, the Mona Lisa (and her layer-sisters, har har) became part of a travelling exhibition called the Da Vinci – The Genius. This exhibition made its rounds to Singapore in 2009 and became wildly popular with students and general public alike (I was there, the crowds were crazy). Most of the people I met and talked to were amazed by this layered (I have to stop punning) approach in presenting an iconic masterpiece, and allowed them to feel more attached or relevant to the painting itself – it wasn’t just the famous Mona Lisa, it was Mona Lisa and everything she is under all that.

Linking the Framework

Let’s analyse the exhibition here in the framework of Reconstructivism (as mentioned in the previous column)… the Mona Lisa painting itself (classic structure), the multispectral layers (visual symbols), the narratives behind each layer (context), and audience engagement (emotive-reflective significance).

It is pretty obvious how the Mona Lisa can be construed as classic structure – due to its iconic status as a masterpiece by Leonardo da Vinci. The multispectral layers are visual symbols based on the fact that each layer is a simplified visual symbol (for example, preparatory layers of the painting) but still form the basis of reference to the end result. Based on my memory of the exhibition, there are narratives attached to each layer (such as corrections made to the structure of the face, inclusion of objects in various parts of the painting, and even material usage) – these narratives form the context of the layers themselves. Through the presentation of these layers and narratives, audience response gave strong evidence of the significant attachment or realisation that the iconic masterpiece was not just the reverence towards the masterpiece nor just Mona Lisa’s enigmatic smile.

Influence on Presentation and Programming

This particular presentation of Mona Lisa can be concluded as a masterwork in education and presentation. The very idea of bringing a “commonly known” masterpiece to the audience, and shedding new light for the benefit of the audience; is simply staggering in its implications towards closer engagement with audiences.

Now it is not just about “We have beautiful artworks here! Come and see!” or “We managed to butcher the artworks so you can have a photo opportunity!”, it is now “I bet you didn’t know about this! Let’s find out more together!”. The thought of enticing audiences with a sense of mystery, allows presenters and programmers the ability to provide windows of opportunity towards self discovery. When the audience is given this opportunity, it allows for their self growth within their own control and be positively receptive as compared to being forced down the throat with cut-and-dried information on how to interpret something.

End Note

Self discovery and growth, coupled with interest (of any multitude), can be factors that influence successful presentation and programming. By utilising Reconstructivism as a framework, presenters and programmers may find it easier to develop their presentations with a direct focus on audience engagement and education. It would be a slow process to engage and educate, but a trickle turns into a torrent – and that is where sustained interests in the arts (or any form) can be achieved for the long term.

Credit: Image from Focus Louvre (http://focus.louvre.fr/)

Reconstructing History in Anime

Anime and Philosophy

Japanese animation (henceforth, anime) is something I am quite fond of. I was inspired to illustrate and doodle by this particular art form practised by the Japanese (my pathetic attempts can be seen all over this website too). As I grew older, I have begun to look at anime with different perspectives based on what I understand about various philosophies and ideologies (and sometimes theological perspectives). A good example would be my fascination of the ability of the anime industry to relate the life styles and social impact of their hikikomori population (for example, N.H.K ni Yokoso).

I have often talked about Reconstructivism (Wiki summary and Chris Sunami’s influential essay) as a way to analyse art, to analyse the creative process, and to engage audiences. In fact, a lot of my research is oriented towards human engagement in arts as opposed to the tired path of historical regurgitation. However, what are some ways to reap the benefits that the ideals of Reconstructivism can provide? Allow me to present one fine example.

Reconstructing History in Kantai Collection (Kancolle)

I do have a fondness for history pertaining to the second World War where tanks and naval ships have always been the key focus of my interests in that particular aspect of human history. However, cut-and-dried history is something I cannot grasp fully… I don’t exactly have a photographic memory of names and dates – the stories behind the individual points of conflict were what kept me fascinated.

I chanced upon a game called Kantai Collection, which is developed by Kadokawa Shoten and DMM.com. The premise of this web browser game is the idea of ships being anthropomorphised into cute (usually) anime girls (henceforth, kanmusu) sporting naval armaments, who are then sent on various sorties to fulfil quests or whatever the developers have in mind. I was hooked, it had everything I was interested in… WWII, naval ships and anime.

The Japanese are very good at this.
– T Tsuruta, Japanese artist (referring to anthropomorphisation)

Allow me to indulge here and perhaps you will understand.

2016-10-12a
Hey there, Myoko-chan!

This is Myoko. She is a heavy cruiser from the Imperial Japanese Navy (henceforth, IJN) during the second World War. When I first saw her design, the camouflage design reminded me of how a lot of the coastal batteries in Singapore were painted (or influenced by).

When the Kancolle Summer Event 2016 rolled out, the event map was a representation of the maritime waters around Singapore.

2016-10-12b
Singapore is at the map node I. Another joke on the literal red dot.

One of the Summer Event bosses is called the Harbour Summer Princess, who is identified as Singapore.

2016-10-12c
I swear… the Singapore Tourism Board should adopt this Princess as our national mascot.

Look! The developers anthromopohised Singapore into a cool anime girl with a brolly and leg-things that seems to hint towards our cultural icon, the Merlion (not to mention the coconuts).

2016-10-12d
My apologies for the transparency, but the action was a little too fast to screen capture.

Over here, you can see Ushio (an IJN destroyer) with Myoko and another destroyer (hidden) called Kasumi.

If you are half as crazy as I am, you begin to wonder why anime girl ships in a game and how does that relate to Reconstruction and history?

Following the Reconstructivism framework that I written about (based on Sunami’s work), it follows the structure of familiar game mechanics (classic structure), the kanmusu designs (visual symbols), the kanmusu backstories that are identifiable and attached to them (context), and community reflections (emotive-reflective significance).

The kanmusu are re-birthed (as the backstory goes) from the souls of the brave naval crew and the actual ships themselves… manifesting in a way where the kanmusu experience existence in this fantasy world. However, the kanmusu and game mechanics can be considered as symbols or semiotics. The context of the entire game experience (the basis of Reconstructivism) would be the meanings and stories behind each particular kanmusu.

2016-10-12e
Myoko in 1941. Digitally colourised by Irotooko, Jr. Image from Combinedfleet.com

When I see Myoko, I am reminded of the historical fact that she was left at the Seletar harbour when the IJN decided that they did not have the resources to repair her towards the end of the war. It was just that smidgen of military history that I have, but when Myoko (the anime kanmusu) appeared as a visual character… it appeared to me as a symbol of something far more complex and of significant context.

2016-10-12f
Post-war – Myoko in camouflage colours, at Seletar harbour. Image from Combinedfleet.com

Myoko was berthed in Singapore’s Seletar harbour after she was hit by torpedoes from USS Bergall (SS-320) on 13 December 1944. Prior to being hit, she (and Ushio) was escorting a convoy of naval auxiliaries (convoy HI-82) heading back to Japan. After the encounter with USS Bergall, Myoko was towed back to Singapore by Kasumi and Hatsushimo for repairs. After evaluation, Myoko was deemed to be unrepairable (due to lack of resources) and she was left at Singapore with another crippled heavy cruiser, Takao. Both were moored at the Seletar harbour to act as anti-aircraft platforms due to their incapacitated status instead (which the British later found that both cruisers were stocked with anti-aircraft ammunition instead of ammunition for their main naval guns).

Towards July 1945, Myoko and Takao became the targets of Operation Struggle as their main naval guns was thought to pose a threat to maritime activities of the Allied forces. However, the operation (involving submarines from the British Navy) were not particularly successful in sinking both ships.

2016-10-12g
Post-war – Inspecting torpedo damage suffered by Myoko after USS Bergall’s attack. Image from Combinedfleet.com

 

2016-10-12h
Post-war – Myoko shown with IJN subs I-501 and I-502 prior to scuttle operations. Image from Combinedfleet.com

After the surrender of Japanese occupation forces in Singapore, Myoko was towed and scuttled (accompanied by IJN submarines I-501 and I-502) in the Straits of Malaya, off the now Port Klang, Malaysia.

Now… this game really means something else now, eh? Following the game mechanics, presentation style and stories of actual naval ships, the concept of Reconstructivism is alive and well in Kancolle – and it is simply amazing. However, I have left out a significant portion of the Reconstructivism framework – emotive-reflective significance.

The Kancolle community boasts a large number of players who are working professionals, military historians, manga artists, musicians, story writers and other professions. Due to their interests, they are happily involved in creating derivative fan works based on the history of the ships while utilising the characterisation given by the game itself. The community then shares these derivatives on platforms such as Pixiv, NicoNico and Youtube – as well as a large number of manga artists who would produce derivative comic shorts/books and make them available for sale in Japan (Melonbooks is one such publishing platform utilised by such artists). Do note that the Kancolle community is not just limited to the Japanese audience, but world-wide as well.

The story of the IJN destroyer Shigure is one of the many IJN naval ships that has captured the hearts and minds of the Kancolle community. Fan-made music videos ( Tom キネマ106’s まっくろな雨 is one fine example) and manga (due to the fan community’s propensity to orientate towards questionable content, I am unable to share links on these) revolves about her character’s suggested PTSD issues (as originally suggested from her voice lines within the game and canonical information from the developers) stemming from the historical fact that she was the sole survivor of the Battle of Surigao Strait (which saw the loss of IJN battleships Fuso and Yamashiro, heavy cruiser Mogami, destroyers Michishio, Asagumo, and Yamagumo – as part of the Southern Force, commanded by Vice Admiral Shoji Nishimura during Operation Sho-Go).

Due to her backstory and the community reactions towards her, Shigure is one of the most popular characters as it definitely resonates with how the community see her as an exemplary icon of being a loyal protector of her friends.

Now What?

While it can be argued that only people who are marginally interested in history and naval battles would be motivated enough (by this game) to explore further and research on the actual histories of such kanmusu… the question now is how can we actually utilise what we have learnt from Kancolle’s example to further engage audiences in various genres of topics.

I actually have an idea using an iconic national artwork as a case study
towards this concept of Reconstructivism and audience engagement.
But I can’t write about it… because reasons.

I’ll write about how Reconstructivism, education and audience engagement can be presented (sort of) in another column.

Further Fun Reading

Some WWII ships which survived the war – IJN Yukikaze (post-war service in Taiwan), IJN Hibki (known as Верный during her post-war service in the Soviet Union’s navy), and USS Iowa (conferred as a museum ship in 2012).