Sculptor: ‘Artistic creation to me is a culmination of personal experiences’

An image of Chua Boon Kee's sculpture Flowing is superimposed onto an image of the building in Chinatown where it will be unveiled on 18 September.

An image of Chua Boon Kee's sculpture Flowing is superimposed onto a photo of the building in Chinatown where it will be unveiled on 18 September.

Sculptor: ‘Artistic creation to me is a culmination of personal experiences’

06 September 2014

By Naomi Canton

61-year-old Singaporean Chua Boon Kee flew to London this month to unveil his sculpture Flowing in London’s Chinatown.  Three days before the unveiling, on Monday 15 September, he spoke at Asia House.

Chinatown Arts Space, in partnership with Asia House and supported by Shaftesbury PLC, selected Chua Boon Kee from a shortlist of 49 East Asian artists to create a landmark contemporary sculpture in Chinatown to explore sustainability issues and leave a legacy for London and the world. Here he speaks to Asia House about the creative inspiration for his work and what life is like for sculptors in Singapore.

You learnt the technicalities of welding at a local shipyard and then set up a hydraulics and machinery company. How important are the skills you learnt in those jobs compared to training in sculpture at art school?

When I graduated from the Applied Sculpture course at my local art institute in the early 1970’s, Singapore was a developing country with high unemployment rates.

Despite my passion for sculpture, it was not possible for me to find work as a sculptor.

I did the next best thing to pave a career as a sculptor – I took up a job as shipbuilder in a shipyard. Shipbuilding to me is like creating a massive three-dimensional sculpture and I believed that the skills and knowledge I would learn from shipbuilding could be applied to any large-scale sculptures I might make in the future.  With a knowledge of structure engineering and hydraulic engineering principles, I thought I could realise any creative vision I might have when creating large-scale sculptures.

My dream was to become a full-time sculptor by the age  of 40. To prepare for this, I read books on both Eastern and Western art theories and kept myself updated with the developments in the arts industry. In my spare time, I experimented with smaller sculptures for practice. It was not until the age of 44 that I finally realised my dream of becoming a full-time sculptor!

Your sculptures often represent abstract concepts such as luck, longevity or peace. You have also created sculptures called Buddha, Wine or Temple. How do you go about creating your sculptures?

Artistic creation, to me, is a culmination of personal experiences. In the 1970s, I created both realistic and abstract works that leaned toward Western influences. I owe it to my teacher, Mr Tan Teng Kee from my local art institute, for opening up the world of both Eastern and Western art forms for me. He inspired me to fuse East and the West with his extensive knowledge of art studies and the residencies he has done in France, Germany and Hong Kong.

Although my ancestors come from China, and Chinese culture is ingrained in me, my practice in Singapore was actually inclined more towards Western influences. In fact I wanted to develop my own artistic style. I discovered that Chinese calligraphy is a form of visual art based on Chinese characters. Chinese characters are merely text symbols and by giving it an artistic expression, it forms calligraphy art.

Thus, I combined Chinese cursive script with modern Western three-dimensional abstract forms to create the Calligraphy Sculpture series. In the same way that a calligrapher has their own calligraphy style, similarly, sculptors can now apply their own calligraphic style into three-dimensional works. This allows the creation of a new genre of Calligraphy Sculpture, whereby sculptors can express their individually unique script styles in a three-dimensional space.

In the creation of a Calligraphy Sculpture, I will first decide which Chinese characters I want to work on, then study the Chinese calligraphy structures. I draft the basic shape on paper, taking time to refine the form taking into consideration the brushstroke movements, the balance of suppleness and rigidness, and the aesthetic theory of Chinese calligraphy art, until a desired draft is achieved. Next, l create a maquette using wire bent into the basic three-dimensional shape. I present only the front view as a readable form of the Chinese characters, and all other angles are only three-dimensional abstract expressions. When the Calligraphy Sculpture is scaled up to display in an open space environment, it achieves the interesting visual effect of calligraphy in the air.

What is it that appeals to you about making sculptures? What draws you to it? 

In my childhood, I used to love observing a family friend mould a traditional peanut snack into lion-shaped candies. He also practised using clay. I sometimes used to do it with him and that was how my passion for sculpture started. Sometimes I gathered mud from the yard as sculpting material to practise forming simple shapes of cats and dogs.

Each time I observe a subject, some kind of idea emerges in my mind waiting to be expressed into an art form. At times, the initial idea might not work out exactly in the beginning. I have discovered that it usually takes time to develop such ideas but I always find in joy in the process.

Who buys your sculptures?

Works from the Calligraphy Sculpture series can be a gift. Chinese characters such as Luck (吉), Fortune (福), Good (好) and Longevity (寿), contain pleasant meanings for well wishing. They are suitable for modern home decorations as well.

For large-scale public art, my Calligraphy Sculptures can be treated as a landmark of any based on its location name. For instance, works bearing the Chinese characters 北京 (Beijing) could be displayed in Beijing as a local landmark. I have to date worked with a school in Xiamen, China, a monastery in West Australia and with private companies to create calligraphy sculptures using their location or company names.

The environmental calligraphy sculpture Peace (和平), which is installed in the front yard of a World War II national monument in Singapore, depicts the value of peace after the war ended, and Flowing (饮水思源) like Peace, is another work that conveys a message instead of a location name, to share a value or philosophy.

Some of my works are on a consignment basis with local galleries. I work with public and private sectors as well as real estate developers on commission works as well.

Chua Boon Kee talks to a technician as Flowing is constructed

Chua Boon Kee talks to a technician as Flowing is constructed

Tell me about the sculpture Flowing you have designed for SUSTAIN. What is it made of? How long did it take to make?  

Flowing is a calligraphy sculpture. I worked on the four Chinese characters of a widely-known Chinese idiom “饮水思源” (yǐn shuǐ sī yuán) which literally means ‘When you drink water, think of its source’. This is a beautiful Chinese saying passed down generation to generation to remind us of the virtue of being grateful and not to forgetting the roots or the source that provides for us and of reciprocating with grace and kindness. This philosophy suits the SUSTAIN theme. I think the timeless spirit of gratitude and reciprocation is fundamental for ‘sustainability’ and would have a positive impact on the environment, academia, politics, science, the economy, the arts and so on. ‘Sustainability’ promotes a civilised and happy society, bringing prosperity, balance and stability to everyone.


Chua Boon Kee’s sculpture Flowing being constructed in Singapore

The work also represents a narrow stream of water that flows for a long time. The idea behind it is that this philosophy can be handed down from generation to generation, allowing beauty and peace be present in this world, constantly reminding people to be grateful and to reciprocate in everything.

Flowing was made using an internal reinforcing metal structure, bent from stainless steel pipes to form the desired proportions. It took about  four months to complete.

How does China and Chinese culture influence your work? 

My father originated from China and Chinese culture is my roots. I constantly study Chinese calligraphy, music, poetry, literature, ancient artefacts and Eastern philosophy and they all creatively inspire me.

Have you been to the UK before? What do you hope Flowing will achieve?

This September is my first visit to the UK and to London’s Chinatown. It is a wonderful opportunity to have the Flowing display in Chinatown, I hope it’s not just a landmark sculpture, but the value of this Chinese philosophy, “饮水思源” (“when you drink water, think of its source”), can encourage the people of Chinatown and visitors to the area to be self-motivated.

This is my first sculpture commission in the UK, so it is a great honour to be awarded this project. I hope it will help build up a platform for more art exchanges and opportunities and encourage people from different regions to learn more about Singaporean artists and their work.

Chua Boon Kee

Chua Boon Kee

How is the sculpture scene in Singapore? How does it compare to the UK?

Sculpture opportunities in Singapore are quite rare. Despite basic sculpturing skills being present, there are not many relevant job opportunities available for sculptors to continuously practice, strengthen and gather experience.

People who have a passion for sculpturing may pursue their art studies abroad. But upon returning home they will have to persevere, stay committed and constantly seek opportunities and spaces to make their sculptures. Many need to work hard just to obtain a small personal studio space.

Moreover, the price of sculptures can’t compare to the price of paintings. It is therefore not easy to sustain oneself as a sculptor. But some sculptors who have the spirit for it persist.

I am unsure of the sculpture scene in the UK.

Were you interested in sculpture and the arts as a child? What drives your passion for sculpture? How do your family feel about it? 

Since childhood, I have had a great passion for painting and sculpture. It was my Applied Sculpture teacher Tan Teng Kee  who taught me about artistic quality and spirituality which enabled me to develop my craftmanship. He helped me develop a greater passion for and understanding of a sculptor’s artistic quality and spirituality and I am continually developing and building on that.

My family was worried about my income stability when I decided to pursue a full-time sculpture career. Now they are accommodating and supportive, which allows me to continue my passion.

Having a career as a sculptor might be uncommon, but I think it is a decent career and very rewarding.

What is the most difficult sculpture you have ever made? Is there a dream commission you would like?

I am still looking for challenges in sculpture-making, it’s a constant quest for me. I am currently studying Chinese ink and wash (or brush) paintings of animals and experimenting in ways to create these animals into three-dimensional sculptures. The beauty of Chinese ink and wash paintings are that they capture the spirit of the subject in an expressionistic manner that captures the unseen. I plan to create a series of three-dimensional Chinese ink and wash horses, oxen, goats, dogs and cats etc.

I dream to realise an installation of a herd of three-dimensional Chinese ink and wash horses galloping through open fields, or a lively Chinese ink and wash dog sculpture sitting on a coffee table top.

Chua Boon Kee spoke about his sculpture Flowing at Asia House on 15 September ahead of the unveiling of the statue in Chinatown, London on 18 September.

To listen to the audio of the event click below:-

In association with Chinatown Arts Space and Geoff Leong PR, you are cordially invited to Dim Sum and drinks in Chinatown in Soho  on Wednesday 15 October, preceded by a guided tour of the recently unveiled sculpture Flowing, which was created by Chua Boon Kee.

The event will take place on Wednesday, 15 October at 6.30pm. Meet at Dumplings’ Legend, 1st Floor, 15 Gerrard Street, W1D 6JE. Guests will then walk over to the sculpture and have a guided tour and information about it. At 7.30pm they will return to Dumplings Legend restaurant. Asia House Friends and members will receive a 20 per cent discount off all food and drink on the day. Dumplings’ Legend has been voted the No. 1 Dim Sum restaurant in London’s Chinatown by Time Out. Please RSVP to