Tang Da Wu
by Quek, Bruce
Tang Da Wu (唐大霧; b. 12 May 1943, Singapore–) is an iconic figure in contemporary Asian art. Though he works in a variety of media, he is best known for his performances and installations.1 He studied art at the Birmingham Polytechnic and Goldsmiths College, University of London, and is noted for having founded The Artists Village, an experimental, multidisciplinary artists’ collective, and for raising awareness on social and environmental issues through the use of mythological narratives in his work.2
Early life and education
Tang was born Thang Kian Hiong, the eldest of four sons of a journalist with the now defunct Chinese daily, Sin Chew Jit Poh. He learned drawing and painting in secondary school, but received formal art education in Birmingham.3
In 1970, with sponsorship from the Singapore Art Society, he staged his first solo exhibition of drawings and paintings at the Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce and Industry. He studied at the Birmingham Polytechnic’s School of Fine Art (now Birmingham Institute of Art and Design) in the United Kingdom, where he graduated with a first-class honours in sculpture and later gained his master’s degree in fine arts from the Goldsmiths College at the University of London.4
The Artists Village
Founded by Tang in 1988, The Artists Village was the first art colony in Singapore. The community was formed over several months as Tang invited like-minded friends and students, such as Wong Shi Yaw, Amanda Heng, Baet Yoke Kuan, Lee Wen and Zai Kuning, to visit, stay and use the 1.6 ha space. At its height, the Village housed 35 artists, with 50 others participating in the Village’s activities.5 Working together the artists adopt a critical collaborative approach. There is no secrecy but constant discussion of ideas and techniques.6
Exhibitions and performances were held during their tenure until 1990, when the Singapore Government repossessed the land for urban development.7 The Artists Village was registered as a non-profit society in 1992, and continues to organise exhibitions and performances.8 The group celebrated its 20th anniversary with an exhibition at the Singapore Art Museum, The Artists Village: 20 Years On.9
Though there are several phases to Tang’s evolution as an artist certain key themes may be identified. These include his advocacy for the active participation of artists and their art in contemporary social issues. In his practice, the importance of such provocation and commentary equals or even surpasses the importance of aesthetic concerns.10 Tang was once quoted as saying, “An artist should introduce to others what he sees or learns of something. His works should provide thoughts not to please the eyes or to entertain, much less for decorations”.11
Tang’s works do not necessarily produce an end product like a sculpture. Rather, his workshops, organised with institutions, attempt to open spaces for interpersonal communication that involves all the senses. The materials chosen for the workshops are basic raw ones like banana, tapioca, rubber, and tin. These items are used to create symbolic building blocks to generate mythologies, narratives relating to Singapore and Southeast Asia.12
Select history of exhibitions and performances13
1970: Drawings and Paintings, Chinese Chamber of Commerce, Singapore.
1972: Touch Space, Midland Art 72, Dudley Museum, UK.
1980: Earthworks, National Museum Art Gallery and Sin Chew Jit Poh Exhibition Centre, Singapore.
1981: Save the Forest, Epping Forest, UK.
1982: Five Days at NAFA and Five Days in Museum, Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts and National Museum, Singapore.
1983: Flying Marks, ALTERNATIVA III Festival of Performance, Portugal.
1984: The 1984 Show, Brixton Art Gallery, UK.
1984: You're Welcome and The Door The Birth, Second International Festival of Performance, UK.
1986: In The End, My Mother Decided to Eat Dogfood and Catfood, Orchard Road Weekend Art Fair, Singapore.
1987: Four Days at the National Museum Art Gallery, National Museum, Singapore.
1988: In Case of Howard Lui and Incident in a City, Singapore Festival of the Arts Fringe, Singapore.
1989: Gooseman; Open the Gate; Dancing UV; Selling Handicaps; In the End, My Mother Decided to Eat Dogfood and Catfood, The Artists' Village 2nd Open Studio Show, Singapore.
1989: They Poach the Rhino, Chop Off His Horn and Make this Drink, National Museum Art Gallery, National University of Singapore, Singapore Zoo, Singapore.
1989: The Third Asian Art Show, Fukuoka Art Museum, Japan.
1989–1990: Dancing By the Ponds and Sunrise at the Vegetable Farm, The Time Show 24 Hours Continuous Performance Show, The Artists' Village, Singapore.
1990: Stop That Tank One Year Anniversary of June 4th, Singapore Festival of the Arts Fringe 1990, PUB Auditorium, Singapore.
1990–1999: North-East Monsoon A Water Game, Singapore and Others.
1991: Tiger's Whip, National Museum and Chinatown, Singapore; and Fukuoka Art Museum, Japan.
1991: Four Persons in One Suit, in the Streets of Singapore, A Sculpture Seminar, National Museum, Singapore.
1991: They Poach the Rhino, Chop Off His Horn and Make This Drink; In the End, My Mother Decided to Eat Dogfood and Catfood; and Tigers Whip, Asian Artist Today Fukuoka Annual V: Tang Da Wu Exhibition, Fukuoka Art Museum, Japan.
1992: Under The Table All Going One Direction, New Art From Southeast Asia 1992, Tokyo Metropolitan Artspace / Fukuoka Art Museum/ Hiroshima City Museum of Contemporary Art/ Kirin Plaza Osaka, Japan.
1993: Who Owns The Cock, Baguio Arts Festival, Philippines.
1993: And He Returns Home When You Least Expected, 2nd ASEAN Workshop, Exhibition and Symposium on Aesthetics, Philippines.
1994: Sorry Whale I Didn't Know That You Were In My Camera, Creativity in Asian Art Now, Part 3 Asian Installation Work, Hiroshima City Museum of Contemporary Art, Japan.
1994–1995: Tapioca Friendship Project, Osaka International Peace Centre, Japan and Singapore.
1995: Don't Give Money To The Arts, Asian International Art Exhibition, National Museum Art Gallery and Singapore Art '95, Suntec City, Singapore.
1999: Life In A Tin, The First Fukuoka Asian Art Triennale, Fukuoka Asian Art Museum, Japan.
2000: Tapioca Friendship, Kwanju Biennale, Korea.
2001: Under a Banana Leaf, Echigo Tsumarigo, Japan.
2002: Many Heads and Local Heroes, Singapore.
2004: Satsuma Brilliance, Kirishima Open Air Museum, Japan.
2004: Interakcje, Trybunalski, Poland.
2005: Your Head, Your Mother Gallery, Singapore.
2007: Fetter Field Performance Art Festival, Sungei Road Thieves' Market, Singapore.
2007: Untitled, Singapore Pavilion at the 52nd Venice Biennale International Art Exhibition, Italy.
2010: Future of Imagination ’06, Sculpture Square, Singapore.
2010: Classic Contemporary, Singapore Art Museum at 8Q, Singapore.
2011: Jaga Anak Baik-Baik, Goodman Arts Centre Gallery, Singapore.
2012: The Artists’ Congresses: A Congress, dOCUMENTA 13, Kassel, Germany.
2012: Intersecting Histories: Contemporary Turns in Southeast Asian Art, ADM Gallery, Singapore.
2013: Guggenheim UBS MAP Global Art Initiative – Volume 1: South and Southeast Asia, Guggenheim Museum, New York; Asia Society Hong Kong Centre, Hong Kong; Centre for Contemporary Art, Singapore.
2013: Situationist Bon Gun, Institute of Contemporary Arts Singapore, Singapore.
2016: Earth work 1979, National Gallery Singapore.14
2016: New Exhibition: Paintings by Tang Da Wu, Art Commune Gallery, Singapore.15
2018-2019: Awakenings: Art in Society in Asia 1960s – 1990s, National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo; National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, South Korea, and National Gallery Singapore.16
2019: Contending Boundaries: Tang Da Wu, Wong Keen & Yeo Hoe Koon, Artspace@Helutrans, Singapore.17
2019: Sembawang: The D.D. Land and Sembagrahie, Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts, Singapore.18
1972: First Prize, Touch Space-Sculpture, Midland Art 72, Dudley Museum, England.
1973: First Prize, Crowd – Painting, Forward Trust Painting Competition, England.
1974: Third Prize, Eroded Space – Sculpture, Birmingham City Museum, Art Gallery.
1975: Third Prize, Lotus – Painting, Royal Overseas League, London.
1978: Visual Arts Award from the Arts Council of Great Britain.
1983: Artist Award from the Greater London Arts Council.
1995: Foundation Prize from Japanese Chamber of Commerce and Industry.
1999: Arts and Culture Prize, 10th Fukuoka Asian Culture Prizes.20
Tang is married to Hazel McIntosh, an Englishwoman.21 They have a son, Ben Zai, also known as Zai Tang, who is a sound artist.22
1. Lim, R.(ed.). (1990). Singapore artists speak. Singapore: C. H. Yeo, p. 255. (Call no.: RSING 709.5957 SIN)
2. Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation. (2017). Tang Da Wu. Retrieved 2020, July 1 from Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation website: https://www.guggenheim.org/artwork/artist/tang-da-wu
3. Toh, C.(ed.). (2016). Earth work 1979. Singapore: National Gallery Singapore, pp. 22; 93. (Call no.: RSING 709.2 TAN).
4. Tang's dynasty. (2008, August 7). The Straits Times, p. 54. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Toh, C. (ed). (2016). Earth work 1979. Singapore: National Gallery Singapore, p.93. (Call no.: RSING 709.2 TAN)
5. Kwok, K. C. (1996). Channels and confluences. Singapore: Singapore Art Museum, pp. 142–144. (Call no.: RSING 709.5957 KWO); Tan, E. (1990, March 7). Artist Village closes. The Straits Times, p. 20. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
6. Sabapathy, T.K. (1989, February 10). Artists’ colony in Ulu Sembawang. The Straits Times, p. 4. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
7. Kwok, K. C. (1996). Channels and confluences. Singapore: Singapore Art Museum, p. 144. (Call no.: RSING 709.5957 KWO); The Artists Village. (2016). The Artists Village. Retrieved 2020, July 1 from website: http://www.tav.org.sg/; Tan, E. (1990, March 7). Artist Village closes. The Straits Times, p. 20. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
8. The Artists Village. (2016). Official registration of The Artists Village. Retrieved 2020, July 1 from The Artists Village website: http://www.tav.org.sg/archive.html;
9. The Artists Village. (2016). The Artists Village 20 years on. Retrieved 2020, July 1 from The Artists Village website: http://www.tav.org.sg/files/TAV20YearsOn.pdf;
10. Toh, C. (2016). “Notes on Tang Da Wu’s Earth Work”. In Earth work 1979. Singapore: National Gallery Singapore, p. 14. (Call no.: RSING 709.2 TAN); Chng, S. T. (2016). “The life of Tang Da Wu. Returning art to the people- Avant-garde artist Tang Da Wu: Protecting the earth, returning to nature”. In Earth work 1979. Singapore: National Gallery Singapore, pp. 30; 32-33. (Call no.: RSING 709.2 TAN);
11. Kwok, K. C. (1996). Channels and confluences. Singapore: Singapore Art Museum, p. 141. (Call no.: RSING 709.5957 KWO)
12. Davis, L. (1999, September–October). Processing raw material. Esplanade: The Arts Magazine, p. 34. (Call no.: RSING 791.095957 E)
13. Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts. (n.d.). Artist’s Biography: Tang Da Wu. Retrieved 2020, July 1 from website: www.nafa.edu.sg/docs/default-source/press-releases/2017/20170802annex2.pdf?sfvrsn=2
14. Toh, C. (Ed). (2016). Earth work 1979. Singapore: National Gallery Singapore, p. 93. (Call no.: RSING 709.2 TAN)
15. Artitude. (2016). New exhibition: Paintings by Tang Da Wu. Retrieved 2016, November 9 from Artitude website: http://www.artitute.com/2016/09/01/new-exhibition-paintings-by-tang-da-wu/
16. The Japan Foundation Asia Center. (2019, July 24). Awakenings: Art in society in Asia 1960s – 1990s. Retrieved 2020, June 26 from The Japan Foundation Asia Center website: https://jfac.jp/en/culture/projects/p-awakenings/
17. Artcommune Gallery. (2020) Contending boundaries: Tang Da Wu, Wong Keen & Yeo Hoe Koon. Retrieved 2020, June 26 from Artcommune Gallery website: https://www.artcommune.com.sg/exhibition-contending-boundaries
18. Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts. (2020). Sembawang: The D. D. Land and Sembagraphie. Retrieved 2020, June 26 from Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts website: https://www.nafa.edu.sg/showcase/exhibitions/profile/sembawang-the-d-d-land-and-sembagraphie
19. Lim, R. (Ed.). (1990). Singapore artists speak. Singapore: Art & Artist Speak, p. 255. (Call no.: RSING 709.5957 SIN)
20. Tang Da Wu bags arts and culture prize. (1999, July 14). The Straits Times, p. 4. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Toh, C. (ed). (2016). Earth work 1979. Singapore: National Gallery Singapore, p.95. (Call no.: RSING 709.2 TAN)
21. Lee, S. H. (1989, May 28). Village. The Straits Times, p. 2. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
22. Chew, D. (2006, September 8). Pushing boundaries. Today, p. 58. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
Koh, N. H. (2018). Early Performance Works by Tang Da Wu in Singapore. Art Journal, 77(4), 49–61.Retrieved from EBSCOhost via NLB’s eResources website: http://eresources.nlb.gov.sg
Wee, C. J. W. (2017). Body and communication: The 'ordinary' art of tang da wu. Theatre Research International, 42(3), 286-306. Retrieved from ProQuest via NLB’s eResources website: http://eresources.nlb.gov.sg
The information in this article is valid as at July 2020 and correct as far as we are able to 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.