Detail of Singapore cultural medallion recipient Goh Beng Kwan’s mixed media work, Old Lyrics with New Melody; Notice the richness in colour and texture
Detail of Singapore cultural medallion recipient Goh Beng Kwan’s mixed media work “Old Lyrics with New Melody”; Notice the richness in colour and texture

The Ascott Raffles Place Singapore is a unique building. Constructed in the 1950s and known as the Asia Insurance Building, it was for many years the tallest tower in Singapore, dominating her sea front. Came 2006, and it was acquired by The Ascott Group (now The Ascott Limited), a member of CapitaLand. In two years it was transformed into a block of premium service residences, but with all the significant fabrics of the historic building carefully preserved.

How apt, therefore is the title of Singapore Cultural Medallion recipient Goh Beng Kwan’s diptych, “Old Lyrics with New Melody”, as it celebrates this amazing transformation! Not only that, but this work, consisting of two 1.8m x 4.3m panels and specially commissioned for the lobby of Ascott Raffles Place Singapore, also brings about much vibrancy and a festive mood to the interior.

The work is abstract, meaning it does not imitate or refer directly to the appearance of objects in the world. One does not see any people, wildlife or landscape. Some find this form of art hard to understand, even though abstract art has been established in the history of Western Art for more than a century.

Abstract art is easier to understand when we compare it with music. Very often music does not represent anything. The title of the piece can be just Piano Concerto No 26, Violin Sonata No 5 or Symphony No 8, and occasionally the pieces have names such as Coronation, Spring or Unfinished. We enjoy the melody, harmony, rhythm and the changing mood of a piece of music as it flows; we don’t often care much about the meaning of its name.

Now let’s look at Old Lyrics with New Melody as if it was a piece of music. Red is predominantly present and it is a bright major key that warms our heart. We can see that much of the melody flows horizontally from one end of one of the pair of paintings, called a diptych, through to the other end of its companion. The texture changes along the way - some parts dense, some parts thin. The harmony too, varies; often consonant but at times deliberately clashing. Above all, the work evokes a feeling of jubilation.

I recall when the work was in the making, I met the artist several times, from seeing his small ‘mock-up’ to viewing the actual work in various stages of progress at his Telok Kurau Studio. In one of my visits he explained to me about the rhythm of the piece: how certain gestures were needed to articulate particular phrases. We were talking about music, weren’t we?

Goh Beng Kwan was born in Indonesia in 1937. His family immigrated to Singapore when he was eight. He studied in the Chinese High School and took art lessons with Singapore pioneer artists Chen Wen Hsi and Cheong Soo Pieng. In 1962, he left for New York to study at the Art Students League and two years later transferred to Provincetown Workshop, Massachusetts. It must have been an exciting time to do art at New York - the birth place of Abstract Expressionism and the new centre of art after World War II - and Beng Kwan forged his abstract style mixed-media works with a tie to his cultural roots under the mentorship of prominent artists such as Leo Manso, often regarded as a leading influence in the art of collage.

In writing this article, I revisited Ascott Raffles Place Singapore and studied Old Lyrics with New Melody in detail. It has lost none of its vitality since the first day I saw it: delightful to look at from afar, wonderful at close distance. It is at close distance viewing that one sees the various materials of the collage work at play – rice paper, cloth, impasto of the pigment and perhaps bits of bamboo shaving, applied layer over layer to give the work its sophistication.

And I like to see this work as an orchestral piece, with the soothing sound of the strings, murmur of the wood winds, fanfare of the brass and rolling and clanking of the percussion instruments. Occasionally, I hear the Dizi, Sitar and Gamelan…... isn’t that magical?

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