The imaginings and proclivities of artists find form on their sketchpads, hinting at what might or – since resolution is not promised – might not come into being. Such is the case with the sketches of Singaporean artist Jimmy Ong, which are displayed alongside his drawings, paintings, personal photographs and other memorabilia in his current solo show, ‘Visual Notes: Actions and Imaginings’ at the National University of Singapore Museum’s prep-room. The objects were selected from hundreds of personal items and artworks that Ong has donated to the museum over the past six years, many of which are rotationally on display. Designed as an incubator for future projects and long-term research, the prep-room provides a fitting setting for an exhibition in which the majority of works on display are preparatory. The only exception to this is Rampogan Macan (translated into English as Confrontation with a Tiger, 2014) – a sprawling, three-metre-long charcoal drawing, evocative of a history painting, depicting a tiger slain by a bull and symbolizing the power of the Javanese Sultan in the face of Dutch colonialism.
In figurative sketches, Ong made while preparing for a series about cruising sites along the Singapore River (‘By the River’, date unknown, c.1994), ashy strokes approximate human figures passionately embracing in various contortions. Sexuality and the body are central to Ong’s practice, although he often treats them with a humorous touch, as in the spread-eagled male depicted in the candid Study for Fuck (1993). In a series of sketches for ‘Sitayana’ (2010) – the artist’s re-interpretation of the seventh-century BCE Hindu epic Ramayana, recounted from the perspective of Rama’s neglected consort, Sita – Ong unabashedly delineates voluptuous bodies and breasts in pencil and charcoal. Ong re-imagines and ‘hijack[s]’ these historicized episodes and assumptions. His gendered subjects destabilize seemingly ossified and exclusionary canons – or even envision entirely new ones. Presented alongside these sketches and drawings is a video interview in which the artist recalls ‘speaking in code’ about his sexuality to Singaporean curator Constance Sheares in a 1997 interview.
Recently, Ong’s artistic process has also incorporated digital technologies. A testament to that is Green Mountains (2019): a YouTube video compilation of previously discarded and subsequently recovered photographs, mostly of friends and family, as well as scenic perspectives, taken on Ong’s phone while he was living in the United States between 2004 and 2012. Like many other Singaporean and Southeast Asian artists of his generation whose work address gender and sexuality, Ong ventured abroad for personal and professional reasons, shuttling, for many years, between Singapore and the United States. He is now based in Yogyakarta, Indonesia. Still today, Ong’s circuitous practice continues to challenge the laziness of outmoded formulaic thinking.
Main image: Jimmy Ong, The Children Of, 1987, installation view, Arbour Fine Art Gallery, Champlain, 1987. Courtesy: the artist and NUS Museum, Singapore