Look closely and you can see the words “Holy Mountain” in blue
Look closely and you can see the words “Holy Mountain” in blue

Nestled among the greeneries of a small hillock on tourist destination, Sentosa, is a very special two-storey building. Once an old army barracks – a legacy of the British colonial period – it underwent refurbishment in 2007 and became the CapitaLand Institute of Management and Business (CLIMB).

As you climb the main staircase leading to the second storey where CLIMB’s training rooms are, you will gradually notice a magnificent work of art. It is a large painting of a mountain. A mountain that stands lofty. A mountain that seems like it is glowing. And there are interesting tales behind and on – yes, literally on this painting.

The Making of the Holy Mountain

Slightly more than a week before the official opening of CLIMB, former President and CEO of CapitaLand Mr Liew Mun Leong toured the premises. Generally happy with the outcome of the refurbishment, he nevertheless felt that a work of art is lacking on the blank wall of the main staircase. He posed us a challenge: acquire a painting and mount it there before the official opening.

A challenge it was indeed. First, the wall is rather big and the painting had to be at least 3m x 2m to make an impact; such large works are not readily available. Second, if we were to commission an artist of standing for this painting, would anyone want to take it on given the tight time frame? With courage – part of CapitaDNA - we said yes, for delivery might be difficult but not impossible.

I searched mentally which artist could possibly do this work. The name Tan Swie Hian was the first one to emerge. Now, Singapore cultural icon Tan Swie Hian (1943-) excels in many fields of the arts including painting and literature and his work should exude a special quality appropriate to our learning institution. Also, he is able to speedily execute work – his performance painting and calligraphy are well known. I quickly called Swie Hian and to my great delight he was in town and willing to consider this commission. We met on site the following day.

Seeing the various rooms of CLIMB named after the great mountains of the planet gave Swie Hian an instant inspiration. He shared that he had written a fable titled A Holy Firefly, and the painting could adopt this theme. He then described most graphically what the work would look like, and it was fascinating. But can it be completed within the tight time frame? I asked. Yes, he said, if the commission can be confirmed quickly, and if it is an acrylic painting on canvas without any picture frame.

The Synthesis of the Glowing Mountain

On the day of the official opening of CLIMB, a painting titled “Holy Mountain” adorned the blank wall of the main staircase. It depicts a mountain in dark green strokes, with brilliant orange and yellow all over. It tells the fable of “A Holy Firefly”:

Having discovered a holy mountain, a firefly lobbied continuously until he had attracted innumerable fireflies to the mountain. When night fell, the whole mountain and its heart phosphoresced, visible as well to the shore beyond.

Take a closer look and you can see that all these English words, as well as all the Chinese characters of the Chinese version of the same fable are written in blue on the painting itself. Hence this work of art is a synthesis of literature, painting and calligraphy. Furthermore, while it is unmistakably a western style painting, it embodies a subtle eastern spirit - I cannot but think of the splendor of the northern school of Sung dynasty landscaping painting. Here ,again ,is synthesis.

Last year, at the Poly Autumn Auction's Modern and Contemporary Chinese Art Evening Sale, Tan Swie Hian's oil and acrylic painting "When the Moon Is Orbed" was sold for RMB 18,975,000 or S$3.7 million. This puts him as the first living Singaporean artist to hit above the million-dollar mark in an auction. Reckoning that valuation of “The Holy Mountain” must go up, some colleagues feel quite excited by it. Now, it is certainly exciting that one’s collection goes up in value, but that is not the main aim of CapitaLand Art. The main aim of CapitaLand Art is to delight the users of CapitaLand’s properties and to add a layer of sophistication to their routines, just like the Holy Mountain illuminates an ordinary stairwell of CLIMB, making the mundane climbing of steps somewhat extraordinary.

This article is contributed by CapitaLand Chief of Art Management, Francis Wong Hooe Wai