Artist Yeo Chee Kiong turns gallery into beauty centre

Yeo Chee Kiong's Dream Lady series, which features semi-abstract figure sculptures, anchors the show.
Yeo Chee Kiong's Dream Lady series, which features semi-abstract figure sculptures, anchors the show.ST PHOTO: AZMI ATHNI

Artist Yeo Chee Kiong's solo show mimics a beauty centre and aims to provoke viewers to consider the definition of beauty

A beauty centre has taken over the galleries at the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts (Nafa) for a month, touting beauty demonstrations, therapy and membership programmes.

No, it is not a hoax. But neither is it a conventional beauty centre.

It is a solo show by artist Yeo Chee Kiong, titled A Beauty Centre. The immersive exhibition which opened on April 16, however, is made to look and feel like a beauty clinic.

Docents sit behind a counter as if they are receptionists at a beauty parlour. Some of the exhibition pamphlets on the counter are deliberately written like brochures advertising beauty services. Rooms in the gallery are marked by blinking LED signs that highlight treatments such as the "incredible implant programme".

There are no wall labels that identify the works, but visitors can scan QR codes in lieu of the labels to learn more about the works of art, including the semi-abstract figure sculptures from the Dream Lady series, which anchors the show.

The figures are shaped by bubble-like forms and cast in steel and resin in the colour of pink flesh. Some of them hold poses that seem to borrow from yoga or ballet.

  • VIEW IT / A BEAUTY CENTRE

  • WHERE: The Ngee Ann Kongsi Galleries 1 and 2, 80 Bencoolen Street, Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts

    WHEN: Till May 15, 11am to 7pm, Tuesday to Sunday, closed on Monday

    ADMISSION: Free

Yeo, 46, who trained in art at Nafa and the Glasgow School of Art, says the exhibition was conceived after he won the 2008 Asia Pacific Breweries Foundation Signature Art Prize 2008 Asia Pacific Breweries Foundation Signature Art Prize for his site-specific installation, A Day Without A Tree. The work, which transforms the way buildings look by making them appear as if they were melting, was first presented in 2007 at the National Museum of Singapore.

He says: "There were some people who liked the work, but there were also others who didn't. This led me to question what beauty is and if I can produce something that when the audience looks at it, he can't tell if it is good or bad."

He says his work is playful and ironic, but he has no intention of mocking art. "When it comes to producing the works, I take things seriously."

It took him almost seven years to prepare for the exhibition, working on one sculpture from the Dream Lady series every year.

To a viewer, the spherical forms that make up the figural sculpture could seem like gross tumours, but to another viewer, it may be conjured in the mind as foam, sparking a sense of whimsy and surreal. The way one perceives these sculptures is further complicated by their placement in a space that is at once a pseudo beauty parlour and a fine art exhibition. Both sites are places that negotiate what beauty is, albeit according to different standards.

The myriad possibility of meaning in his work underscores his twin interests - to create objects that possess a material quality so vital they cannot be ignored, and to imbue objects with compelling ideas or narratives that may be irrelevant to how they were initially conceived.

This is also seen in his sculpture, The Six Overlapping Tables, which come from his Dysfunctional series that began in 2002. The table tops are hollowed out and filled with water, so although the sculpture looks like a table, it does not function like one; anything placed on top of it will likely sink.

Within the context of the beauty centre, however, the sculpture is the central piece of furniture in the centre's dining club room, whose use, according to the pamphlet, is exclusive to the centre's celebrity customers.

A Beauty Centre may seem surreal, but the show - Yeo's first in almost a decade - is a dream come true.

He says: "My wish is simply to explore through art, our primal desire for material and spiritual satisfaction in a world that is deluded."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 26, 2016, with the headline 'Surreal foam or gross tumours?'. Print Edition | Subscribe