I first came across Taiwanese artist Ju Ming’s sculptures when they were exhibited at the National Museum of Singapore. The ones of his Tachi Series had left a great impression: they looked like blocks of stone but somehow they captured the movement of Chinese shadow boxing. Also one of the Living World series featuring four seated figures seemingly made of bundles of fabrics: both ordinary and extraordinary, that intrigued me too.
That was in the 1980s. Who would have imagined that more than 20 years later, I would be sitting face to face with Ju Ming, as part of a small team from CapitaLand discussing the possibility of doing a new installation for CapitaGreen, a premium office building in Singapore.
More than Ordinary
It was on a beautiful spring morning that we met him in his unpretentious abode in scenic Yangmingshan, to the north of Taipei. Prior to that, we were taken around the Ju Ming Museum, further north, which has ample indoor and outdoor space displaying many of the master’s work, including the various “characters” of his Living World series – soldiers, business people, shoppers, etc. Impressive!
Our meeting with the unassuming artist went well and he was commissioned to do the works. Subsequently he produced a maquette of his proposal – an assembly of ten characters consisting of two women in pink carrying parasols, a group of five men predominantly in white engaged in a discussion, two men in yellow and gray stooping down, and a man in black carrying an umbrella standing all by himself. Tiny figures all sculpted from polystyrene and painted by the artist himself.
The CapitaLand team has some reservation to this proposal: the characters might be a bit whimsical; the way they dress might be too “temperate” for tropical Singapore; the stooping figures do not seem elegant ..... We conveyed our thoughts to the artist, who did not take long to pen his thoughts to us.
“Years ago, when I was a guest in a Singaporean friend’s home, we naturally talked about the weather. I cannot forget the look of amazement on the faces of his grandchildren when I told them about the wet and cold winter of Taipei, when we had to have open fire, put on warm clothing and layers of quilts. What’s the point of an art piece mimicking our mundane daily life? Much better discovering something new and different.....”
Extraordinary show of Character
We made a special trip to Taiwan to see him. This round we saw a strong Ju Ming underneath his outward gentleness. He reiterated the points in his written note. On the stooping figures, he said, “There is absolutely nothing wrong with this posture. It is something you and I naturally do when we pick up things.” He further explained that the different postures of the figures and the way they were grouped together all had to do with the composition as a whole. What was presented to us was varied and balanced. Nothing could be changed without affecting the overall artistic merit of the installation.
Extraordinary mastery of Art
It must be this strong conviction about what he is doing, and that he is doing it right, that has seen Ju Ming through his illustrious career. Born in 1938, Ju did not go through any art school to learn his craft. Rather, he was an apprentice first with a master wood carver, and later with the renowned sculptor Yuyu Yang. It was Yang who arranged the first solo exhibition for Ju in 1976 for his Nativity Series and paved the way for his Taichi Series, which won him international acclaim.
Nothing could be changed without affecting the overall artistic merit of Ju Ming’s installation at CapitaGreen. So what you see today is essentially what he first conceived in the maquette; albeit a few minor adjustments in the angles of the umbrellas so they don’t poke at people. Of course the actual work has lots more details than the marquette. The spontaneity in which Ju cut the polystyrene - yes, even the actual work was first sculpted in this material, moulds were made, and figures of bronze were cast and painted - comes across very strongly. To me it has the feel of wood sculptures, and the coarse look has a very xiang tu or rustic appeal- not withstanding some of the figures were wearing very formal urban garbs -and this special quality can only come from the hands of Ju Ming.
I must say that this installation of the ten figures, both extraordinary and ordinary, does make a striking piece of public art and it somehow fits in with its location. Passers–by will naturally be drawn to it, take pictures with it and perhaps wonder, what characters are these ten people?
“What characters are these ten people?” Ju Ming wrote, “CEO? Gardener? Delivery Man? Yes and No. They can be “ourselves” at a particular point of time. We can be office workers in our suits, delivery men with hands full of stuff helping our loved ones, casually attired travellers without revealing our own identity. Now isn’t that true?”
This article is contributed by CapitaLand Chief of Art Management, Francis Wong Hooe Wai