Interview with Yeo Tze Yang

Painting as Reaction and Rebellion
By Sara Lau

Yeo Tze Yang stands out among his peers. Instead of attending art school after completing his ‘A’ Levels, he opted to study Southeast Asian Studies at the National University of Singapore (NUS). Now as a fresh graduate, he prepares for his solo show, ‘A Lack of Significance’ at iPreciation. In this interview, he speaks about the evolution of his practice and reflects on his positionality as an artist in Singapore.

Yeo Tze Yang, 'Brown Suit', 2018, oil on canvas, 35 x 45.5cm. Image courtesy of the artist and iPreciation.

Yeo Tze Yang, 'Brown Suit', 2018, oil on canvas, 35 x 45.5cm. Image courtesy of the artist and iPreciation.

How do you feel university education has changed your practice and approach to art?
I gained a lot from my studies in NUS. Even though it’s not like art school where I can see tangible results on my art, I see change through the thought processes, ideas, ways of seeing, and the approaches that I was exposed to.

When I first started painting, art was purely an aesthetic experience. It was a rebellion against conceptualism and the kind of contemporary art where vernacular was prioritised over skill. I found that contemporary art was very niche and elitist, not for regular people. I didn’t agree with that perspective on art.

For me, art has always been about my immediate surroundings and seeing beauty in the most unassuming things. I’ve not changed the way I look at the world around me. What NUS did for me, through anthropology, history, and all these other disciplines, is how to think about what I see. Let’s take this coffee shop we’re in, for example. In the past, I would’ve just painted it without much thought. But if you ask me now, I notice that there are no halal stalls here, you don’t see any Malay people here, and very few Indian people here as well. These details now reveal themselves.

So you began to think more about your art in political terms, and about your own political position?
You realise that everything is politicised. This is one thing that has affected my painting: you can’t take things for what they are anymore. This doesn’t mean you have to stop depicting certain things, but you have to acknowledge your positionality. Things like race, gender and sexuality all come into play. This exhibition is in response to what I’ve learnt in school, and to being more aware and reflexive.

Even though I have not been an artist for very long, there are some who already identify me as a Singaporean artist. They comment about my work being local or Nanyang. For this exhibition, about 40% of the works do not depict Singapore, but also Malaysia, Thailand, and Indonesia. The point in these paintings was not to explicitly show that they were not Singapore, but rather to look closer and find clues that reveal as much. It’s a very superficial trick, but it’s just a starting point for the viewer, to blur the lines on what they see as familiar or local.

Yeo Tze Yang, 'Maggi Goreng', 2018, oil on canvas, 30.5 x 41cm. Image courtesy of the artist and iPreciation.

Yeo Tze Yang, 'Maggi Goreng', 2018, oil on canvas, 30.5 x 41cm. Image courtesy of the artist and iPreciation.

What does the term ‘local’ mean to you? You seem to ruminate a lot on this term.
My use of the term is a reaction not just towards art. As a Singaporean, one is a citizen of the world; you’re never really interested in the immediate world around you. When you want to go overseas, you think of New York, London, and other parts of the West. Do you really have to travel to these places to find beauty that could very much be present in your daily life? I was jaded with the idea that one has to go very far to see great things. I do think it has to do with growing up in a very Anglophilic environment and education system, where one might look down on one’s own culture. What I was, and am, reacting to, is not just about art. It is about life.

The artists that I admire the most are those that have a lot of heart for the simplest things, such as Liu Xiaodong, George Shaw, and filmmakers such as Hou Hsiao-hsien and Wong Kar Wai. It’s about a sense of home, a familiarity that they capture. This is my biggest inspiration. I don’t reject the work being ‘local’, but I would like to challenge what the ‘local’ is. 

How do you make sense of your position in the art market, being perceived as a ‘local’ artist? 
I remember when I was 18 years old, I told someone before that I did not want to sell my art. I was hanging on to this ideal of keeping it ‘pure’. When I did eventually let go of those lofty ideals, it was out of necessity. You can’t eat principle or live off your ideals. I can be a part-time communist when I want to be, but at the core of my practice is survival. I want to look after my parents and for them to retire comfortably. So far I’ve not gone against my principles, except for maybe one or two instances, when sales of my artworks were dire. I’ve said no to quite a few things. I also do not work with people I disagree with in the art world, such as those who are too arrogant or opportunistic.

Art critic Jerry Saltz once said in a podcast that no likes the art world but everyone relies on it. Sometimes I feel like there is this pressure on contemporary artists in Singapore to be anti-commercial and make art for art’s sake, as a legacy from the Artist Village generation. For those who are still stuck to this idea of “pure” art, I feel that we should stop feeling bad for trying to sell our works. If you can take care of your family, pay your bills, and make art, why not?

Would you ever go beyond painting? Seeing how film and writing are also significant influences.
I do have the desire to try something different, like film, but I lack the technical expertise. At this point, the only other thing I’ll do is write. This wasn’t a part of my work before NUS, but after writing more essays than making paintings, I think writing has also become very important to me.

Yeo Tze Yang, 'Green Light', 2017, oil on canvas, 40.5 x 61cm. Image courtesy of the artist and iPreciation.

Yeo Tze Yang, 'Green Light', 2017, oil on canvas, 40.5 x 61cm. Image courtesy of the artist and iPreciation.

You seem to be an artist that straddles between two worlds, between what is seen as traditional and contemporary.
I’ve always felt that way, stuck between the contemporary, conceptual sphere and the “Nanyang”. But I don’t think like Nanyang artists. I do not romanticize the Singapore river, the kampong, or the old shophouses; I don’t even have memories of that time. I actually use photography very blatantly in my painting. Yet I also don’t feel like I fit in with many contemporary galleries. My work is neither here nor there, but I’m okay being like that.

What are your hopes for the upcoming show?
I hope that it will be exciting for the viewers, no matter who they are, whether they are tuned in to the art world or not. I hope that at least one work can capture an audience for a while. The artist talk with Zulfadhli Hilmi will be interesting too. I don’t know what to expect, but I hope people enjoy the show.

‘A Lack of Significance’ runs from 10 – 24 August at iPRECIATION. There will be an artist talk with curator Zulfadhli Hilmi on 17 Aug 2019 at 2pm.