Diary of an NUS Museum Intern | Carved in Stone: Appreciating the Beauty of Chinese Seals

Note: Diary of an NUS Museum Intern is a series of blog posts written by our interns about their experiences during the course of their internships. Working alongside their mentors, our interns have waded through tons of historical research, assisted in curatorial work, pitched in during exhibition installations and organised outreach events! If you would like to become our next intern, visit our internship page for more information!  


Jeanette Tan is a 3rd year History student at the NTU School of Humanities and Social Sciences. In May 2015, she joined us as a Museum Outreach Intern. In this blog post, she reflects on the Singapore-Malaysia Cross Cultural Exchange: A Post-Residency Seal Carving Exhibition, held at Visual Arts@Temenggong. The curator of our Lee Kong Chian Collection of Chinese Art, Chang Yueh-Siang, was a key contributor to the exhibition, which ran from 23 to 31 May 2015.

The links between art and written communication have traditionally been grounded in history. To discuss Chinese literati culture would be to engage in the four traditional arts in China; that is, calligraphy, painting, poetry writing and seal carving. Historically, seals were material objects common across a number of civilisations as symbols of authority and identity. Used for a variety of purposes, both official and private, the ink of a seal upon paper speaks for the importance of the document marked, as well as the gravitas of the seal owner. It can even be said that the seal was the earliest form of the contemporary logo or brand.

Apart from being an object used to mark an official imprint, the seal, small as it may be, is also a significant communication tool. In the context of Chinese art, members of the scholar gentry often collected seals as connoisseurs and as such, the seal could be seen as an art form that encouraged the exchange of knowledge and the execution of ancient scripts amongst the intelligentsia. This spirit of shared meanings and mutual admiration for art thus made it very common for scholar-artists to design and create seals for one another.

The tradition of exchanging knowledge still has contemporary appeal, and the concept of artists-in-residencies are a firm testament to that. The Temenggong Artists-In-Residence programme recently hosted three distinguished Malaysian seal carvers, Chong Choy, Tai Boon Piow, and Tan Shin Tiong, and the three-month long programme resulted in Singapore-Malaysia Cross Cultural Exchange: A Post-Residency Seal Carving Exhibition. This was an art exhibition showcasing the three Malaysian artists’ newly inspired works, both as individual artists, and as well as a collective alongside three fellow Singaporean seal carvers, Oh Chai Hoo, Soh Suan Cheok, and Tang Yip Seng. NUS Museum’s curator of the Lee Kong Chian Collection of Chinese Art, Chang Yueh Siang, played an important role in this event as contributor, and Mr Sam Tan, Minister of State (Prime Minister’s Office) and the Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth, graced the occasion as Guest-of-Honour. Politically, the opening of this exhibition marks a milestone as it celebrates 50 years of bilateral ties between the two countries. Artistically, the seal carvers’ stay at the historical Temenggong residences was noteworthy as it endowed them with the profound experience of engaging in creative dialogue and experiences necessary for the creation of their works.

Extending far beyond the aesthetic beauty of the flat, two-dimensional seal mark, stunning pieces of stone, ceramic, and wood are also employed to create exquisite seal carvings that are unique miniature sculptures in their own right. Carvers usually favour the “soft” stones from mainland China (such as Shoushan or Shuikeng), but these have become more expensive in recent years. Closer to home, both Malaysian and Singaporean seal carvers have experienced the depletion of wood and clay as a result of environmental damage arising from extensive mining. To combat this issue of environmental degradation, Tan Shin Tiong primarily uses “found” or salvaged wooden objects such as chair parts, chopsticks and nonya pastry moulds as the medium for his carvings. Oh Chai Hoo, who specialises in Western art, is similarly atypical in that he breaks away from the cast of tradition and embraces ceramic in his works, a difficult medium to work with. Moving away from the standard cuboid forms of early Chinese seals, Oh veers towards the abstraction of studio pottery techniques and glazes, creating new forms in his approach towards the art of seal-making. These are methods that reveal the possibility of making the seemingly archaic Chinese art form contemporary. It is through reinventing ink, calligraphy and material practice, and by flirting with international styles and movements, that new modes of expression are negotiated within the realm of seal carving.


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