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Book Review: Teng Jee Hum’s Godsmacked

Godsmacked_book-final1_5ac3687c-255e-40df-a002-dff23f22b188_1024x1024 The legacy of late founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew (LKY) has often been the subject of much debate, especially since his death. This publication is an effort by art collector and self-taught artist Teng Jee Hum to capture the often contradictory, at times confounding, narrative surrounding the man and the political leader through rather abstract visual compositions.

Beginning with his artist statement, Teng explains why he chose the mesh of words ‘Godsmacked’ and ‘Gobsmacked’ and its relationship with being Singaporean. The artist is open about his growing-up fascination with superheroes from comic books and even the personal influence of his own father’s passing in describing how these works came to be.  Following the artist statement are a series of essays meant to illuminate the reader on the context of these works.

Godsmacked_book-final3_031a3e41-e5f7-48a6-bb43-47684ff17339_1024x1024The first essay titled “There will be another LKY: Disarticulating Hegemony” is written by Seng Yu Jin, senior curator at The National Gallery, Singapore. It examines the notion of legacy in relation to LKY and the diverse approaches and intentions of remembering, reflecting and rethinking what he means to us. The second essay titled “The Animal” by artist and writer Jason Wee examines the symbolism of animals in Teng’s paintings. With references to Fontaine and Derrida, the essay provides a textured analysis on the association between animals and power. After all, politics most often bears an uncanny resemblance to the prey-predator relationship that is fundamental to the animal world. The third essay has a self-explanatory title “An Analysis of the Multicultural Dimensions of Teng Jee Hum’s work” and is written by Mei Huang, a curator, writer and art critic. It carries interesting references to contemporary art in China and its relationship to politics and how this in turn influences the visual narrative as a whole.

Godsmacked_Book-final2_9f105e9e-5804-4452-af1b-3347dd200365_1024x1024Subsequently, the reader is introduced to the visual showcase of Teng’s paintings. ‘Singular Phenomenon’ starts with the artistic rendering of LKY in various superhero poses and goes onto feature the leader in more traditional Chinese garb. Consequent paintings show him clad in his typical white shirt and pants in various surrealistic scenarios that bear some resemblance to reality through recognisable emblems, slogans and other personalities. Some reference historical situations but are portrayed in a cartoonish style, giving an almost satirical tone to the visuals.  The second part of the paintings titled ‘Singular Plurality’ follows a similar style but with an even more surrealist approach so the reader feels as if they are viewing LKY through a kaleidoscope, distorting his actual image into a myriad of perspectives, each one linked to him but yet not entirely the man who built Singapore with his steely-eyed determination and talented team of thinkers and leaders.

The book ends with an interview between the aforementioned Seng Yu Jin and the artist Teng, aiming to provide further insight into the ideas and work behind the book and its collection of paintings. There is also a chapter in Chinese for the multi-lingual reader, making the book accessible to wider audience.

Overall, the publication presents an interesting alternative view to the ongoing national discourse on founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew. However, it does not provide any new and inventive ways for the reader to connect with the memories of the late LKY.  In fact, the abstract and surreal nature of the works imbues certain remoteness to LKY’s legacy. One cannot help but ponder the value of reaffirming the legacy of a larger than life leader like LKY. Sometimes, the man speaks for himself better than the myth.

The book is available in bookstores, and online at www.ethosbooks.com.sg

Reena Devi is a freelance writer and editor. She has written essays for art exhibition catalogues and social commentary pieces for TODAY. She has previously worked at the Singapore Art Museum (SAM) and Singapore Contemporary Young Artists (SCYA). 

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