Naima Morelli

THE SINGAPORE SERIES — CHAPTER 23

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Ruben Pang

“Wait! Is it allowed to talk about incest on the Singapore metro?” I abruptly asked with an alarmed note in my voice to the scrawny guy in front of me, holding onto the bar of the red line. I looked for a reaction in the faces of the people on the metro. Nothing. Someone told me that Singaporeans don’t complain to your face. In their heads though, they had probably already labelled me as a loud-speaking Italian as soon as I opened my mouth.

“We can talk about whatever we want!” replied Ruben Pang in a stubborn tone which implied than yes, it was not advisable to talk about incest on the Singapore metro, but rules didn’t apply to us free-thinkers.

Ah, the fleeting camaraderie you establish for a few hours with some of the artists you interview! I really liked Ruben Pang, but I was wary. In three hours, he had already told me three times that he is a person who gets easily bored. The thing with these ultra-nice people is that they never say what they truly want. They endure boredom, endure struggles, and they act as if everything is fine. On top of that, Ruben also declared to passionately admire the stoics, especially Seneca. He finds their endurance in the face of sufferings and the fact they never complain, totally badass.

To prove his point, he showed me two tattoos he has on his forearms. He said that while the artist was tattooing him, he stopped and asked if it hurt. Ruben said, “no, not really.” The tattooist said it was impossible, because he had just broken his needle in Ruben’s arm. Seneca would have been proud of him.

He got interested in Seneca by pure coincidence. He had found his “Letters from a Stoic” on a bookstand in Jaffa, Israel, where he was in residence the previous year. I told him that Seneca was the teacher of that whom I have already described as favourite Roman emperor, Caligula. That’s how I started talking about the incest between Caligula and his sister Drusilla. “Caligula was batshit crazy! He appointed his horse as a consul. He used to kill people just to entertain himself,” I said with an enthusiastic smile on my face. “Well, then of course he got a very bad press because of Svetonio. The guy, a historian, didn’t really like him because of the bad treatment he received. Also, you have to understand that Caligula had also been traumatised by the death of his beloved sister Drusilla!” I said by means of justification.

I had started to wildly rant about my favourite subject in the world: intrigues in ancient Rome. In hindsight, just like most of the people on this planet, Ruben probably didn’t give a damn about Caligula. But of course, was too polite to interrupt me, and I was too engrossed by the subject to notice.

In my wild abandon, I didn’t ask for a second why someone from Singapore would give care about all that Roman stuff. But Ruben was no regular Singaporean. He was incredibly knowledgeable about Italian culture, and perhaps he got an intro to many of these by his Italian gallery Primo Marella. Actually, he was knowledgeable about a lot of things, to the point of becoming suspicious. How in the world can you possibly learn all those things at 25 when, judging from your Facebook feed, you spend most of his time sharing memes and cat videos? Ruben was and still is a high-brow/low-brow mystery.

To research for the interview, I saw some interviews about him on the internet, and then went to YouTube and watch an one that he did together with another Singapore-based artist, Bradley Foisset – who turned out to be his best buddy. Ruben’s deep voice struck me in comparison to his ultra-skinny appearance. He had a confident, gentle and reflective way of talking. His cadence was Singaporean, but his accent slightly American.

Sembawang, the area where Ruben lives, is in the very north of Singapore, almost Malaysia. The area was residential. I took a small elevator in an understated HDB and got in front of a tiny door closed by a metal gate. His father, a tall man with strong eyebrows identical to the son with a ponytail, came to open the door. I greeted him with “We know each other from Facebook!”

A scrawny boy with gelled Piton-like hair came to greet me, apologising that he just woke up. I explained to him what I was doing and asked what parts of Singapore are interesting to visit. He said the aquarium was interesting. I hastily dismissed it. “I don’t really like that sort of thing. I’m not that much into nature and animals. I’m more into cities and humans.” “I see…” said Ruben, thinking of other options. In retrospect, he probably liked the aquarium very much. The figures from his paintings looked a lot like those ethereal marine figures with their aura visible from the glass of an aquarium.

And he has the passion. He is very much alive to the world, but also knows how to behave. Seneca would have been proud of Ruben Pang, for sure a much nicer person compared to the hot-headed Caligula. But with someone in common with the Camus version of the emperor. Camus’ Caligula thought that artists create to compensate for their lack of power. He deemed that he didn’t need to make a work of art; he lived it. I asked Ruben what function art has in his life, and if that has changed over time. He didn’t think much about it, but replied slowly: “For a while it’s just something you do when you are bored. Boredom is a luxury, now especially.”

He tells me that in the past he was very unstable in terms of mood and in terms of constant feeling of emptiness inside. “Always, always feeling empty. Even if the day is perfect, it’s pure anxiety and it’s so lonely inside there. It’s a beautiful rainbow outside, visually it’s stimulating but you feel so distressed. That’s something I can’t deal with. And that’s me, my nature as a person. For the longest time, I fought with this rage or depression and it’s always been there. I’m not bothered by it now, it just went away. So there is a phase. And the art would be a form of stability and constancy. It never lies to you. People lie to you all the time. People trying to get into your head all the time. Art doesn’t. It’s a mirror. It just shows you how the hell you are inside. If you don’t like it, it’s your problem. If you don’t like yourself, it’s your problem.”

The reason why his favourite medium is painting is because it’s accessible. So it becomes a natural, almost physiological function. In his life, painting provided him with immediate pleasure. “You get brief sections of satisfaction at every stroke, still knowing that there is something huge at the end of three months maybe. And it’s always been there and its function in that way, and I think it’s also something that is part of my nature. It can’t satisfy me.”

While his art won’t ever be censored by Singaporean government, to me it is about the very things that are usually censored. You know, the things curses are built upon: death and sex. Or solitude and desire. Talking with Ruben is a bit like flying over a wild landscape. There is an excessive, extreme quality to the artist and probably the reasons why people like his paintings is because he’s able to give back that Dionysian energy.

“The image of the panting really looked like it was coming out of the canvas” said his former gallerist Ben Hampe, who met Ruben at LaSalle graduation show. “I can tell it was a hot painting as soon as I saw it.” Ben got to talk to Ruben straight away. “Very affable personality, but also knew how to talk about his work in a way many artists struggle with. And really I thought on the spot, I’m gonna do a show with this guy, there is no doubt about it.”

“Ben has very charming manner, a bit like Vincenzo, Primo Marella’s gallerist,” said Ruben when I told him I was going to meet the gallerist.

While he tells you about solitude and desire, Ruben’s approach to painting is technical at the same time, making it all about saturation and contrast. “And theatrics. I love theatrics in painting. I love playing with the viewer head. Again, it’s probably a music habit. I want to go from one thing and then when they see something different, it has to be ridiculously different. And it’s not natural to me.” He admired that variety in Richter and didn’t find this in Lucien Freud, as his brushstrokes are always recognisable. “Theatrics is one of my huge cancers now. Huge, huge, huge.”

Ruben considers himself an inaccurate painter and he works from memory and imagination. He is also a musician, so he keeps on referring to music.

“I started with music, for example what kind of guitarist you would be. You’re not Steve Yai, you’re not someone very accurate that can read notes, maybe more like Jimmy Page, you know. It’s all about the feel. If you mess something up, you just bend the strings a little bit higher and you hit the right note. Improvisation. As an abstractionist, you take something that had a very clear form: Rules. So I need something that has a very clear structure, a very clear demarcation and I think you’d see that in Francis Bacon as well. No room ever looked that way.”

He admits he doesn’t have the patience of Lucien Freud: “I’m a 21st century neurotic at my worst, I get bored so easily! It takes a lot to stimulate me, so every stroke has to be exciting or leading to prospect. I’m not at the stage where I can sit like Freud and stare and appreciate the face and the moment and that aspect of a person, because it has to be highly experiential, a heightened existence.”

He’s aware that when you work this way, it becomes about painting. That makes him feel close to the abstract expressionists. It’s about the act of making. “Your subject matter would be like divination, reading tarot cards. One day you get this, one day you get that. And there is always a very limited amount of things accessible to make it this way. You don’t talk primarily about politics for example. It’s never going to be a system of metaphors in the same way a renaissance painting could be.”

“It’s not planned and the end result is unpredictable I guess.”

Absolutely not. It’s distillation. And then you get renaissance art, the one that is more mysterious is some sort of brandy and then you get the vodka out of it. ‘Cause we have an impression of what constitutes a renaissance painting. In my head, it’s a lot of ghost light and then shadow. You must have a lot of shadow. And it’s not even about the technique, it’s the constitution of renaissance painting. Man’s failure, a striving for the shadows that they live under, and this absolute need to produce theatre. The perspective is never photo realistic. And then there is the other side of it, just pure formal. There are some strokes and shapes that are “renaissance”. To me, it’s not the most romantic or beautiful way to experience a painting, it’s an addict-like way of living. Very instinctive, and I am a bit self-conscious about that, but I have to be honest with myself in the way I function now and hopefully that will change with time.”

When he paints, he struggles between these two ways of seeing the work – there is Ruben the painter who seeks pleasure and to escape boredom, and then there is the Ruben viewer who loves theatrics. “I only paint for a certain person who sees things in a certain way. Similar to me, not as an artist but as a consumer. The most successful films are like a drug tailoring to one person’s illness. One person needs violence in a certain way, no morality. No country for old men. Fucking successful. To me.”

When pressured to speak about his routines, Ruben reveals some. He wakes up preferably around 6 or 7 after everyone goes home. Because of these unusual kind of hours he’s doing, Ruben defines the Singapore he’s experiencing as the Singapore in the 90s, where there were not many people around. Then, depending on how lazy he feels, he gets the stuff he’s supposed to get, before the shops close at night.

Most of the time it doesn’t happen and then he gives up and does nothing but painting. Sometimes he cycles to the studio, working on the stuff that needs more impulse, as he defines it, at home and the stuff that needs more high-concentration in the execution, in the studio. Then later on, he will hang out with friends and go and see movies together.

“It’s a small city and I explore even less of Singapore, despite having lived here for years. I live in Sembawang, I go to city hall, I go to LaSalle to meet some lecturers and I have my friends, and we always go to the same sushi place. I’m very, very happy. But when I’m in Europe, I become a different person. I don’t seek to distract myself with movies and all that. I stayed in nature, I’d sit in a random place and feed birds.”

“Like old people” I suggested. “I like old people,” he said. “If I had to talk with old people, dead people, I would choose the ghost of Hieronymus Bosh and Caravaggio, because they would have no investment in this world. When you talk with living artists, it’s always going to be marketing, you’re never going to be that honest. When you’re dead and you don’t have anything to sell, there’s no need to sell. I want to talk with old people, because they don’t give shit anymore. If there’s any age where they get to speak their mind, that’s it.” he laughed.

Ruben Pang noted that many people look at his work and say it doesn’t reflect anything about the Asian Values or Culture: “That’s one of the criticisms I do get, especially in Singapore where they try to search for national identity. With the post-colonialism dialogue, I realised a lot of the Western art value doesn’t appreciate certain things in Asian art and failing to see these subtleties, considers it mere craft instead of art. There is this divide. I don’t know if I bought into that, but I grew up with this Asian self-consciousness If you don’t put enough work into it, you can’t formally say it’s art. There is that lack of conviction. I don’t consider it a good trait. If you look at a lot of art that sells well in this region, it is highly skilled. And that part of me is really turned off. Even though I know it’s not one of my values, why am I compelled to submit to it?”

“I think that’s why I love the liberation from the fauvists, from Picasso, he has opened up this realms where you can have a “broken” artwork and people would understand that you are not selling the art. First and foremost, they have to understand that you are not trying to sell anything. And then what are they getting? What are they paying for if it happens to be available? The idea? The conviction? The personality? The freedom. I think it’s the freedom.

“It’s like you work so hard as an artist to go against the rules that you are thought in school, and become intellectually and financially independent from other artists, movements and galleries, maybe, from the clients, to find freedom. And at the end of the day, you realise that in your head since you’re young, there is this notion that it must be perfect. You’re still bound to the tyranny of what you imagine you should be. So I can respect the artists that understand that this is not their world to execute art in that way, and they are making perfect objects, and they are proud to be craftsmen. They are like surgeons. You’re not supposed to express yourself while operating on someone’s brain. You do your work and you’re done. That’s kind of a liberation in itself. But I’m talking about something where you’re never comfortable with what you do.”

So artistic freedom for you is the ability to change and not be constricted by perfection.

And without sticking with what people consider to be your language. Or if you decide to do one thing forever, you’ve the freedom to do that as well. I don’t know if I have the wisdom to say if this is immediately materialised or has to be earned, or fought for. In general, Asian art tends to be sidelined and deemed as “Oriental”. I think here is where it’s ironic. “Why are you self-conscious of the notion of Oriental?” As if they have admitted to themselves that it’s lower. I think it’s perfectly fine to be Oriental, you know what I mean? I guess they are not okay with the notion of being objectified. It’s the self-consciousness of, “oh no, I am becoming a subject be studied by white people.”

Do you think that’s also in contemporary art?

I don’t know, see. I don’t get stressed by white people (laughs). But maybe in Singapore you grow up speaking English, and you’re exposed to America all the time. The internet is American as well, so maybe, just maybe, I am a convert. Maybe my brain has already been washed by “democracy” and propaganda (laughs). Maybe, maybe.

Yeah, it difficult to talk about that. I’m looking at the catalogue of the Singaporean Eye in the library behind you. In the case of artists like you, it seems that the localness is not relevant.

Maybe in hindsight we will see it. Yeah, maybe it’s the idea of the person that is constantly trying to distract themselves. Especially Singaporean, very artificial, all about the surface right? (laughs) Yeah, all about the light, light and smoke and mirrors! Light! Light! Light! No shadows. Maybe that’s especially Singaporean, no credit, money, no credit! (laughs)

(laughs) But yeah, the show at Primo Marella for example, it had the word ‘Singapore’ in the title.

Bright… S’pores? (laughs)

Just this morning I talked with a few artists who weren’t very happy with it. One of them was saying she felt pigeonholed in this role, also because her work is not peculiarly Singaporean. How do you feel about it?

I like the challenge. I’m a person that loves it if someone says I’m not able to do it. I love it when someone says, “oh now you’re known as a Singaporean artist.” I think, “great!” They know me as a Singaporean art, can they see beyond it, through the work, without me saying it. Like, I love that challenge. I’m so titillated by the fact that yes, now it’s a problem. Maybe. I don’t face it. And I’m very glad I don’t face it. We can go and talk and collectors are especially fascinated that I like pittura analitica. They are like, WHY? You know?

Yeah why?

It’s like che schifo. It’s so BORING! Noioso! Why do you like it? Because I cannot do it, you know? Do I see it as decoration? Yes, but on a higher plane. And it’s an abomination to say the word ‘decoration’ in art. I’m like, too bad! Some of my favourite artists, David Reed for example, he’s so blatantly honest that he says, “I do see the decorative aspect of my work.” I and want to see my painting being put in bedrooms. You wouldn’t vomit in your mouth, you know? I want my paintings to be in a museum, to be on an altar shrine on the moon, and in someone’s bedroom while they are fucking.

It just becomes part of someone’s story. It’s much more interesting! Right?

Right! And I love his honesty, and some of his paintings, he managed to put them into a Hitchcock film. WOW genius. That’s the perfect place for his paintings.

But it’s good because art doesn’t happen in a vacuum. There is this idea of the gallery as this metaphysical place, but the truth is that a painting is also an object and in order for people to own it, they can buy it, but mostly important they have to experience it by integrating it somehow into their life.

I agree. The confidence that is yours. The problem I have with self-consciousness, the problem with being seen as an international artist, wanting to not being Asian, or Oriental, or objectified. I think it’s still being chained to your idealised self-image. The problem is that you have all these thoughts in your head and you can spend them on art, you can spend it in this world.

I’d tell those who complain about being pigeonholed as Singaporeans: if you had an exhibition in Singapore and Singapore was the world, you wouldn’t be concerned with being Singaporean. It’s so much more blissful in your life if you don’t have to worry abut it. What does it change when you realise you want to make it overseas? It’s a self-absorbed, self-centred situation. If you have the means to transcend it and change what you can change, then great! And usually the means is always money and status. For me, if I go overseas there are plenty of interesting things to think about. And if I go to Italy, there are plenty of fucking interesting things to think about and I don’t see Italian people saying, “oh no, no, don’t tell me about spaghetti again, don’t tell me about pizza napoletana! Don’t remind me! I don’t want to hear it!” You know, it’s like… I don’t see that, it’s perfectly acceptable. Sometimes people see me and they go “konnichiwa” and yeah, konnichiwa you know? It’s something that I try to take with light-heartedness, because it has never been my problem, so why the fuck is it my problem now? And again I always see the irony because sometimes people ask me “where are you from?” out of curiosity. Not because they are trying to colonise me. Maybe that’s their way to try to understand me, because me as a Singaporean going to the States, they have never seen someone from this place called Singapore, maybe one person has met a Chinese person with an English name. And that’s interesting! It’s not about putting me in a box. It could be naïve, but I’d have to say it with conviction.

It actually sounds very stoic of you…

What other people think of you is entirely their business. People have already decided before they met you, what they think of you, based on your skin, your accent, the genre of your art. I don’t like the self-consciousness. And I know being here, being educated in art has made me more self-conscious for a while. And then you realise that you’re supposed to fight it. Just drop it. Forget it. Because when you ask that question, do you find yourself overseas as a person who is put in a certain light? Not that I notice enough to bother me. Not at all.

And besides, if you are an artist, you can’t really be objectified ‘cause you are talking about your experience of the world in your art.

But in Asia you do. You’re not Asian enough. So you don’t get that you’re not white enough. But in Asia, you’re not living up to your forefathers. To me, not everybody is like that. But people that are obsessed over it, it’s like… talk me to me about form and shape and colour for once. That’s all that’s on your minds. And and I don’t like that. Its unfortunate. But Primo Marella is exceptional with galleries really. When he goes and invests himself in an artist, his sense of intuition is really out of this world. He doesn’t try to paint an image for you which is the norm these days. To craft a narrative and a story. He helps you see what your own story is and he helps bring that out of yourself, but he doesn’t paint that image for you.

If everybody it’s all the same, it can’t help being boring.

It’s the lowest, the most natural thing in the world to have categories, because it is in our nature to divide the world according to how we want to see it. It is an exercise of power.

Of course they help. How can you orientate in the world otherwise?

The willingness of not wanting to be seen as Singaporean, I think is about the business aspect. If you can hit the nail in the head, as an artist it is easier to make money if you’re elusive and you maintain the notion of an artist. The notion of an artist is not your choice. The viewers have a pure idea and if you fit into that pure idea and you embody that, then it’s easier for you to part with your money. Whereas I don’t want to sell to someone who needs to ask, “are you happy with this work?” I just want to be in the hands of someone who just wants it, doesn’t matter if I didn’t even paint it. He just wants that, that bad.

Does having an artistic upbringing help you mature this confidence in your art and your ideas?

Definitely so. Maybe I have been deluded all along. You have this bedrock of art behind you and you never question otherwise. You don’t feel the need to get involved in the scene, it is already such a big part of your life. I think a lot of activism, political art discourse. If you pay a lot of attention to what other people think. And it’s gonna sound very generalising, but I think it comes from a place of insecurity. And no doubt as a person you’ll find times where you are insecure, but I don’t think you should rely on changing what other people think of you. It’s never going to work.

Well of course, if you have been into the arts since you were a child, you don’t need to be validated by “the scene.”

I think what I don’t consider much is the response of other people. So art for me is this sacred playground. I don’t want the responsibility of living up to other people’s expectations of Asian heritage. As if I’m not already Asian? I’m not trying to milk identity politics for personal gain. Being yourself in your imperfect, contradictions is sacred in a way. In that sense I think there is a law for artists and dialogues and this course about the sensitive issues. And there are people that are willing to do that. But for me it’s like I don’t want to have to bother. It has to be something very self-centred. For me at least. That’s the role it plays in my life. Because outside of art, I am responsible and I watch what I say. But within my work, I will defend until my last breath my right to be wrong (laughs).