Rising from the ashes

SINGAPORE - One year ago, a fire ravaged the Telok Kurau Studios workspace that Singapore painter Hong Sek Chern, 46, shared with her artist husband Anthony Chua, 49.

In 30 minutes, 30 years of their work and more than 1,000 pieces of art went up in smoke. They were not in the studio when the fire broke out.

Before she had time to contend with her loss and pain however, Hong was caught in another kind of glare - that of the media.

She says: "They came over and started asking us about the fire, but how can you talk about that? I made myself absent. With all the emotions coming out, I would've made a mess of myself."

Her experience of the way the public and mass media intrude on the life of a private individual left her raw. But it also sparked an idea that would invigorate her artistic practice.

Her latest show at Art-2 Gallery marks this fresh start with 14 paintings in oil and Chinese ink priced for sale between $3,200 and $18,000.

The works remain faithful to her enduring interest in depicting architectural spaces, which she infuses with both concrete reality and subjective experience.

But her artistic process and approach are new.

She says: "I read the newspapers all the time and places that make it to the news interest me. After the fire, I began to search online for pictures of places in Singapore that are linked to sensational news."

The sites she paints to address issues of urbanisation, identity and place are thus now laced with curiosity surrounding how people make sense of the world through the Internet, and how mass media conflates public and private space.

Among the buildings featured in the new works is the hawker centre at Block 511 in Bedok North Street 3. It was in the cross hair of a long drawn-out row over the cleaning of food centres in Aljunied GRC. The dispute was among the Aljunied-Hougang-Punggol East Town Council, hawkers and the National Environment Agency.

The hawker centre is familiar to Hong, who had earlier incorporated its spellbinding mesh of ceiling pipes in a Chinese ink painting she made in 2008.

Her new work spotlights the interior of the centre, which is rendered in gestural strokes of vivid green, blue and ochre oil paint. An anonymous figure sits in a corner of the painting. The work is titled Jiak Kopi (Drink Coffee).

The subjects of other paintings in this show include buildings cited in offbeat news stories such as one where a man was arrested for wielding a knife in his home.

Hong, who has two daughters, began working on this set of new paintings after she returned to the restored studio in the middle of last year.

She says: "When I heard about the fire, my first thought was 'That would get rid of all the rubbish in the studio'. Later, I realised that I had a lot of nice stuff I couldn't salvage. It was very traumatic, but at least I got a fresh start."


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