Of hamburgers and humanity

New Yorktrained artist Wong Keen (above) with his Still A Burger work at his exhibition titled Theatre Of Enigmas.
New Yorktrained artist Wong Keen (above) with his Still A Burger work at his exhibition titled Theatre Of Enigmas. PHOTO: GIN TAY,
The collection of more than 15 works includes Self-Portrait With Burger (left) and mixed-media collage Hot Pink Lady (right).
The collection of more than 15 works includes Self-Portrait With Burger (left) and mixed-media collage Hot Pink Lady (right). PHOTO: COURTESY OF WONG KEEN AND ARTCOMMUNE GALLERY VIEW

New solo exhibition by artist Wong Keen is an eclectic and evocative showcase that gives plenty of food for thought

Hamburger paintings, collages and calligraphic nudes form the meat of a new solo exhibition by second-generation Singaporean artist Wong Keen.

Theatre Of Enigmas, which runs at artcommune gallery until July 14, features more than 15 works created over the past six years. The show marks the opening of the decade-old gallery's new home at Carlton Hotel in Bras Basah Road.

Wong, 77, is known for his inventive fusion of Chinese and Western aesthetics. He was a student of pioneer artists Liu Kang and Chen Wen Hsi, and is now based in California, having left Singapore in 1961 for the prestigious Art Students League of New York.

Among the eclectic works on display are the mixed-media collage Homage To Hans Hofmann (2015); Reversed Writing (2012), a collage featuring his mother's calligraphy and discarded calligraphic work by a famous Nanyang artist; and The Breath Of Desire (2017), an evocative work of acrylic paint dripped over rice paper.

This show comes a year after his major Flesh Matters exhibition at Artspace@Helutrans, which explored similar themes.

The painting Still A Burger (2018), which was displayed the last time, makes a reappearance here. The 3m-long work features nude female bodies in the guise of sandwiched patties. They allude to those who are oppressed and "consumed" for commercial ends - be it a beast for the slaughter or a woman in a brothel.

"The social treatment of women is totally unequal," says Wong, speaking to The Straits Times in a mix of English and Mandarin.

"I want to express this (and ask), why is that so? My answer is, I think human beings are not civilised yet. They are still consuming meat. By eating meat, human beings become very brutal... I have no scientific (evidence) to prove this, but this is what I think."

Is he a vegetarian then?

Wong laughs and replies: "No, I'm not, I eat some meat sometimes. I can be violent too."

And, in a way, he seems to be gesturing at the link between fast food and American cultural imperialism.

"I'm not launching into a full attack or a boycott on hamburgers," he says. "But I do regard them as unwholesome things."

He adds: "Religion is the first 'weapon' which colonises a country before the soldiers come in. Hamburgers, too, are a way of 'colonising' a country. Pop art, pop music... once they get into a country, they influence young people there. Hamburgers are no different."

In Self-Portrait With Burger (2019), the artist's face - fused with a burger - appears baked and lobster-pink, but also evokes the marbled striations of raw meat.

Then there is Four Burgers (2019) - a bold self-portrait of the artist amid three burgers.

"He is implicating himself within that narrative of 'selling'," says curator Ma Peiyi of the artist's incorporation of himself into the works.

Wong is still chewing on the idea of meat as metaphor.

"I've been thinking about the concept of the screen - a computer, a phone, any kind of screen. What's inside the screen or behind the screen is not real. The only thing that is real is what is in front of it," adds the artist, who will soon exhibit some of his work at Art Jakarta, which is taking place in the Indonesian capital from Aug 30 to Sept 1.

"I want to tell young people: If you spend the whole day learning things from a computer, you are not thinking about reality, your own activities, your experiences.

"You become a chunk of meat sitting there."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 04, 2019, with the headline 'Of hamburgers and humanity'. Print Edition | Subscribe