Facilitated by Senior Curator of artcommune gallery, Ma Peiyi
PY: At the gallery we are always very keen on artists doing woodprint art, and I think for most of us we find it interesting that an artist being so young like you (Fuming) is using a medium that is viewed as traditional and archaic; so I think the first question many of us here would like to know: what draws you to woodblock print as an art form, to actually choose it as your medium of expression?
FM: [laughs] Well, when I was studying printmaking at LASALLE, I had a lecturer who introduced me to the German expressionist artist Kathe Kollwitz, which opened my mind to the woodcut movement in her time. I came to the realisation that woodcut being a simple medium is reasonably accessible. Wood and chisel are readily available, plus when I print by hand I eliminate the dependency on fixed equipment.
At the same time, with the use of black and white tones you can achieve a direct, communicative effect. The direct approach of wood carving—whatever mark I produced will be honestly reflected onto the transferred image—this appeals to my working method of working spontaneously and directly on the wood itself with little fore planning.
PY: As a young printmaker utilising the medium today, do you think you have brought something different to woodblock print as an art form? How have you harnessed or deviated from the medium’s fundamental techniques as you continue to make it current or relevant to today’s art world?
FM: Yes, woodcut has existed for a very, very long time, and it wasn’t until recently that it is accepted, so to speak, as a formal artistic medium. We have the German expressionists, and also locally the Nanyang woodcut movement by our pioneer artists.
The earlier woodcut print artists were mainly doing it in the form of political art, and I think during that time their inclination towards woodcut as a medium is also the same reason why I have chosen it in the first place: accessibility. If you notice my works, a lot of them are based or inspired by my daily observations growing up as an artist in Singapore. But I think the main difference is that I don’t go all out to say, look (at the situation we have here) - this is bad or this is good. I kind of like to keep it objective, give my viewers space to reflect. Although it is ironic to say how objective one can be as an artist that chooses its subject, I prefer to let the individual derive their own subjectivity while looking at my works.
As for the question of relevance, I think any art form and medium can be relevant in its context. In today’s art world, what is old and what is new anymore? And by whose standard? If we were to follow the line of argument claiming video art to be old, that painting is outdated and academic art is passé, by whose standard and benchmark do we ultimately adopt to? I hope to assume a refreshing stance as someone who takes something that is deemed outdated and old and embrace it as it is.
PY: So in other words, your agenda is more towards conveying a message than to get your audience to feel a certain sentiment -
FM: Definitely, yes. The earlier woodcut printmakers use the medium in an expressive manner to influence people to feel a certain way. But I think (for) most modern-day Singaporeans, we are a passive bunch you know. We don’t like to openly confront issues. Imagine if I did my work showing a parent reprimanding a child, no one is going to take to it well.
PY: Can you discuss a little bit on how you arrived at your latest series, ‘Poised for Success’ and what kind of impact you hope to accomplish with it? Please feel free to correct me if I’m wrong: as compared to your two previous series, which are relatively more ‘literal’ in their thematic depictions, your visual language for this latest series, ‘Poised for Success’ appears a lot more crafted with subtlety and rhetorical criticism. What contributes to this turn in your visual language?
FM: Poised for Success is a series of work that is speaking about the predicaments our younger generation faces today—the stress and expectation placed in them that are expected to guide them to excel through life. A child’s relatively short childhood is deemed to be crucial in its determination of his future . . . that is quite a problematic notion, I feel. As usual, my work incorporates elements of my personal experience. Perhaps one notable motif is my Chinese influence as exemplified in the piece, “Becoming Dragon”.
This series of works is certainly created with a certain sense of subtlety behind the messages portrayed. In a way I think this is one differing factor in my work, as compared to the works of artists from the earlier woodcut movements, such as the German expressionists, or even the social realists. I think this is part of the cultural adaptation on my part growing up in Singapore. The socio-political culture in Singapore is not one that accepts open criticism. Case in point: the Indonesian artists based in Yogyakarta form collectives and organise themselves into groups of artist/activists. The mode of expression adopted by the Indonesians is enthusiastically supported by their public, but Singaporeans are kind of “polite” in a disgruntled way.
Although my intention is to present societal criticism, I aim to depict the subjects of my work in an objective manner. Every piece of work could have been good news. Through the omission of colours in an objective, factual representation of motifs and images, I hope to present the viewers an obvious tilt and biasness in image selection that will engage a certain sense of reflection and critical analysis. Perhaps this will drive home my message much more efficiently.
PY: I also realise that most of your works are unusually large for this medium. Can you share a little bit more on the kind of challenges you faced in carving and printing such big woodcuts? Is it a matter of getting exhausted by the labour involved in executing them?
FM: It’s a real logistic problem! [laughs]. When you print, it’s not like carving and painting where there is a planning stage... In a way, you lose a certain sense of spontaneity. I can’t say, for example, right now I feel like printing when I am at the stage where I am still carving. For me the difficulty is rather on the process of printing. Since I print my blocks by hand, with a spoon, every piece takes about 3 hours on average for me to print. It’s a tiring affair. But I am always inclined to work large. Working in (large) scale allows me the freedom to act in an unconstrained manner.
PY: The process is so handcrafted, what is the room for error? Say for one woodblock, what is the success rate for it to qualify as an artwork that you can show? Because I’m sure there will be prints that come out less ideally with the colouration. Is it usually from the first print that will be successful or you do a few drafts before you actually get to an ideal print?
FM: I have to go over it a few times. For example, I normally keep going and going about 5 times a day until I have exhausted my strength for the day, then I’ll frame it up and I’ll take a look again, until I feel that it’s done. Because sometimes the reality is, a print that is technically not so perfect might end up more pleasant to look at (as) compared to the rest. So it’s about giving yourself some options.
PY: Typically for one woodblock print, how many editions do you keep?
FM: 2. I think there’s no need to reproduce that many. Also, to be honest, what are the demands? We don’t need 50 prints to pass around, now that most of the information that we need has been digitised. You don’t really need the function of printing to circulate; I always try to keep to 2 editions for each work.
PY: What do you think is the future of woodblock printing? Given that most local artists’ works are a lot more contemporary and landscape and yet the medium that you’ve been using and the language, they are sort of reflective of a different cultural environment. Do you worry about the future of the medium in Singapore?
FM: That’s tough to say. Do I worry? Yes of course, but then again, is there anything I do about it as an artist? I don’t think so. The only concern as far as I’m concerned as an artist who wants to do woodcut prints is to continue going at it. That’s all. Whether the (future) direction is in favour or not of woodcut prints, honestly it’s not up to me; so I tend not to worry about it too much.
My personal story with the use of woodblock is that woodblock used to be a medium I thought up initially to be a breakaway from my paintings, as an in-between of my paintings when displaying them. They were sort of a side note, so to speak. My agenda now is to embrace the medium in its totality.
PY: Are you currently involved with other printmaking techniques? There are also etching and lithography, for example. Do you see yourself going forward being able to combine different print mediums into your woodblock print art?
FM: That’s actually an area I’m interested in. As a printmaking major, I also helped out briefly as a technical officer during the pre-assessment period for LASALLE undergraduates. I had to constantly keep up to date with the various printmaking techniques. But I think ultimately it is the accessibility of the mediums. For instance, if I want to do a lithograph, I need to have a limestone, and the limestone in turn needs a press that is suitable for printmaking. That is the main deciding factor for my use of woodblocks as a medium. That said, I’m looking forward to exploring and exposing myself to different working methods and techniques, I foresee myself developing along this path in my artistic practice.