Tan Teng Kee

Singapore Infopedia

by Balagopal, Roberta


Tan Teng Kee (b. 1937, Batu Pahat, Johor, Malaysia–d. 2016) is a sculptor and painter, specialising in abstract works depicting space, flow and movement.1 He is regarded as a pioneer in the history of metal sculpture in Singapore, and was one of the first in the country to work with metals to create his art pieces.2

Early life
Born in Batu Pahat in Malaysia in 1937,Tan began sketching in primary school and continued to paint and draw throughout his school years.4 While attending the Overseas Chinese High School in Batu Pahat, Tan held his inaugural exhibition in 1954, featuring his watercolour paintings and charcoal drawings.5

In 1958, he was accepted into the fine arts programme at New Asia College (now the Chinese University of Hong Kong) in Hong Kong, where he studied Chinese brush painting, drawing and sketching, later changing his focus to oils. After obtaining a Bachelor of Fine Arts in 1962, Tan went to Paris, France where he painted and visited art galleries while working part-time.6

Tan visited the Staatliche Kunstakademie in Dusseldorf, West Germany in 1967 and was awarded a scholarship to study print and sculpture making there.7 At the Kunstakademie, one of Tan’s professors was Norbert Kricke, considered to be one of the most important sculptors in Germany after World War II. Studying in Dusselfdorf at this time also exposed Tan to notable Abstract Expressionist painters such as Paul Klee and Joseph Beuys.8

In 1970, during his final year in Germany, Tan applied to art colleges in Japan, New Zealand and Singapore for a teaching job. An invitation for an interview from the Baharuddin Vocational Institute (now Temasek Design School, Temasek Polytechnic) saw Tan arrive in Singapore in late 1970.9

Career as an artist
While awaiting news on his application, Tan held a solo exhibition at the National Library, which featured works he had produced in Germany. Eventually, Tan was offered the teaching position at Baharuddin Vocational Institute, where he conducted one of the first sculpture courses in Singapore in 1971.10 Tan’s work was also featured at the inauguration of the National Museum Art Gallery, Singapore, in 1976.11 At the time, his use of industrial materials and techniques such as welding challenged established notions of sculpture, both in terms of its physical construction and mental processes (that of experimentation and discovery) underlying it.12  

In 1973, Tan won an open competition organised by the Development Bank of Singapore (DBS) to create a sculpture to be installed in front of Plaza Singapura shopping centre. The following year, he installed the sculpture Musical Fountain, an arrangement of brass pipes shaped like a mountain range and set in a pool of water.13 The work, which conveys a sense of change and development,14 was donated by DBS for public display at Marina City Park in 1989.15 It was later moved to Toa Payoh when the park was redeveloped in 2007.16

In 1979, Tan produced Lonely Road, a 100-metre-long painting, which was displayed outdoors in an open field. The centrepiece of this exhibition was a “fire sculpture”, a construction wrapped in newspaper and supported by 6-metre high poles. The sculpture was set alight by a torch placed inside it, and the poles were designed to sway back and forth as it burned. The painting itself was sold, not as a single item but as cut sections chosen by the buyer.17

The Oversea-Chinese Banking Corporation (OCBC) commissioned Tan’s second public sculpture, Endless Flow, in 1980.18 It was meant to depict good fortune and, more broadly, flow and movement. The 6.4-metre-high brass sculpture was installed in 1980 outside the OCBC Centre in Chulia Street. The work, which weighed over 5,000 kg, was moved to Bras Basah Park in 1983, as a donation from OCBC Centre to the Parks and Recreation Department (now National Parks Board).19

Tan also contributed a 1,000 kg stainless steel (his favourite medium) sculpture entitled Rider for the 2nd ASEAN Sculpture Symposium in 1983. The piece symbolises strength, courage and the dignity of man. It is on permanent display at Chatuchak Park in Bangkok, Thailand.20 His works were also among those chosen for the 2nd Contemporary Asian Art Exhibition, held in November 1985 in Fukuoka, Japan. His two featured works were Endless Rhythm, a structure of precariously balanced curves, and Mobility, which was made of moveable steel parts.21

Many of Tan’s works are untitled, a reflection of his belief that works of art should be left to the interpretation of the viewer. The intention is for the work to speak for itself, and for viewers to derive their own meanings.22

Departure for Australia
In the early 1980s, the Baharuddin Vocational Institute decided to end its sculpture course and sent Tan for training as a physical instructor. He received a certificate for coaching swimming and physical fitness training; and for two years conducted football and swimming lessons. Unhappy with the situation, Tan left for Australia in late 1987 and became a full-time painter and sculptor.23 Between 1994 and 1995, he was Dean of Studies at the Central Academy of Art in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, and in 1997 he became a part-time sculpture lecturer at the Brisbane Institute of Art in Brisbane, Australia.24

Commissions and major projects25
1974: Musical Fountain (outdoor sculpture, brass, 6.4 m x 7.3 m x 1.8 m, awarded first prize by Singapore Shopping Centre Sculpture Competition).

1980: Endless Flow (outdoor sculpture, brass, 6.4 m x 4.2 m x 1.8 m, commissioned by OCBC).
1982: Sculpture Garden (outdoor sculpture, 50 m x 50 m).
 Rider (outdoor sculpture, stainless steel, 6.7 m x 9.1 m x 1.2 m, represented Singapore at the 2nd ASEAN Sculpture Symposium at Chatuchak Park, Bangkok, Thailand).

1984: Flying High (hanging indoor sculpture, stainless steel, commissioned by the Holiday Plaza Hotel, Johor Bahru, Malaysia).
1985: Breakthrough (wall mural, stainless steel, 3 m x 6 m x 0.9 m).
1986: The Signals Spirit (outdoor sculpture, stainless steel, 4.8 m x 3 m x 1.5 m, commissioned by Signals Department, Singapore Armed Forces).


Roberta Balagopal

1. T. K. Sabapathy, Tan Teng Kee: An Overview, 1958–2000 (Singapore: Sculpture Square, 2001) (Call no. RSING 730.92 TAN); Arthur Sim, “Capturing Shape and Movement,” Straits Times, 22 September 2001, L5 (From NewspaperSG); National Gallery, Singapore, Gallery Gift Impact Report (Singapore: National Gallery, 2016)

2. Rachel Barnes, “Poetry in Sculptures,” Straits Times, 18 September 1979, 3; Danny Tan, “Singapore’s Man of Steel,” Straits Times, 17 November 1986, 6. (From NewspaperSG)
3. Sabapathy, Tan Teng Kee: An Overview, 1958–2000, 65.
4. Sabapathy, Tan Teng Kee: An Overview, 1958–2000, 54.
5. Sabapathy, Tan Teng Kee: An Overview, 1958–2000, 7.
6. Sabapathy, Tan Teng Kee: An Overview, 1958–2000, 57.
7. Sabapathy, Tan Teng Kee: An Overview, 1958–2000, 21, 57.
8. Sabapathy, Tan Teng Kee: An Overview, 1958–2000, 21.
9. Sabapathy, Tan Teng Kee: An Overview, 1958–2000, 60.
10. Sabapathy, Tan Teng Kee: An Overview, 1958–2000, 24, 60–61.
11. Sabapathy, Tan Teng Kee: An Overview, 1958–2000, 66.
12. Sabapathy, Tan Teng Kee: An Overview, 1958–2000, 24–25, 59; T. K. Sabapathy, Sculpture in Singapore (Singapore: National Museum, 1991), 9. (Call no. RSING 730.95957 SAB)
13. Sabapathy, Tan Teng Kee: An Overview, 1958–2000, 61–62.
14. Sabapathy, Tan Teng Kee: An Overview, 1958–2000, 61.
15. Julia Goh, “$600,000 Sculpture Wows City Crowd,” Straits Times, 5 August 1989, 2. (From NewspaperSG)
16. Sabapathy, Tan Teng Kee: An Overview, 1958–2000, 61; David Chew, Where Art Thou? Today, 19 April 2007, 44. (From NewspaperSG)
17. Sabapathy, Tan Teng Kee: An Overview, 1958–2000, 27, 62–63; Sabapathy, Sculpture in Singapore, 26, 82–83.
18. Sabapathy, Tan Teng Kee: An Overview, 1958–2000, 62.
19. Judy Tan, “Art Takes Root in the Park,” Straits Times, 15 October 1983, 13. (From NewspaperSG)
20. Tan, “Singapore’s Man of Steel”; Caroline Ngui, “Riding High in Bangkok,” Straits Times, 9 January 1984, 11. (From NewspaperSG)
21. Carol Lim, “A Sense of Something Stirring,” Straits Times, 15 September 1985, 7. (From NewspaperSG)
22. Barnes, “Poetry in Sculptures.” 
23. Sabapathy, Tan Teng Kee: An Overview, 1958–2000, 63.
24. Sabapathy, Tan Teng Kee: An Overview, 1958–2000, 65.
25. Sabapathy, Tan Teng Kee: An Overview, 1958–2000, 65.

The information in this article is valid as at 2011 and correct as far as we can ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the library for further reading materials on the topic.

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