入木三分 | Into the Woods
May 21 - June 12 2016
入木三分 | Into the Woods was a woodcarving exhibition, which featured selected works from two apprentices – Ong Ching-Yin and Tong Wing Cheong, as well as a piece of splendid virtuosity carved by their mentor, Master Yeap Siew Kay.
Many artisans and artists favour wood as an attractive medium for artistic expression because each organic piece has its own unique character in grain and contour, scent and colour. Some cultures even ascribe certain woods with talismanic qualities. Woodcarving has been widely practised over millennia and across many cultures. It gives joy to artisans and artists in transforming a raw form into a fine piece of woodcarving although wood is not necessarily a forgiving material to work with.
You can see wood carvings virtually everywhere in the heritage areas of George Town: in residential spaces, shops, and places of worship; as architectural features, interior decoration, even utilitarian ware, and as cultural totems. You will find them incised on doors, air vents, Chinese screens, signage and interior trimmings and trappings. In Chinese temples and ancestral halls, many of the deities and ancestral plaques are also carved in wood. However, due to advancements in technology, scarcity in supply, fewer apprentices, and relatively high labour costs, woodcarving has become an unsustainable line of work.
Following George Town’s UNESCO World Heritage status award in 2008, cultural programmes were introduced to cultivate interest in, create a sense of ownership of, and foster the marketing of traditional crafts. Some of these include the Sunday Artisan Market, Little Penang Street Market, which takes place once a month, and the annual Heritage Celebration. PAPA (Penang Apprenticeship Programme for Artisans) was initiated by PHT (Penang Heritage Trust) to encourage local talent to take up these trades. Although both the featured exhibitors were not directly involved in the PAPA programme, they and the public at large, came to know of Penang’s traditional craftsmen through this initiative.
This exhibition features selected works from two apprentices – Ong Ching-Yin and Tong Wing Cheong, as well as a piece of splendid virtuosity carved by their mentor, Master Yeap Siew Kay. Master Yeap is a self-taught traditional woodcarver, informed by Chinese folk beliefs; his woodcarving style shows a pronounced Fu Jian influence. Although he would be considered traditionalist in his aesthetic values, Master Yeap does not restrict his apprentices’ creative processes; on the contrary, he actively supports and tries to overcome technical issues within their capabilities.
Yin has been Master Yeap’s student for almost 6 years and there is cultural bleed-through from her having lived in England for 33 years. She has a cosmopolitan appreciation and her pieces give a sense both of directness and intimacy; they capture her quirky personality and humanist philosophy.
Tong embraces Chinese traditional folk art and his approach is more attuned to Master Yeap’s aesthetic taste and values. He does not see woodcarving as a form of self-expression but rather, a way to form a deeper relationship with Chinese folk belief systems and the meaning behind cultural symbols.
The exhibition aimed to document the mentor-apprentice symbiosis and examine the influences and trajectories of each in their respective practices. It was also an attempt to look at the cultural significance of woodcarving in the context of George Town as a heritage site, and whether woodcarving can be nudged from its traditionalist values to introduce new elements and vitality into the process.