Former Director of Glasgow Museums and founder of Glasgow Gallery of Modern Art.
Now a world cultural historian.
Published in the 2019 catalogue that accompanied the artists solo show Childhood Memories at the National Art Gallery of Malaysia, Kuala Lumpur.
This exhibition celebrates Hock-Aun Teh's international art and his Malaysian homeland from which his art springs. The internet nowadays makes us all global and local, citizens of the World but still tied to the places where we were born. Hock Aun Teh has been international and home-loving for nearly fifty years, working in the West, and being inspired by Western art, yet always coming back to Malaysia to refresh the individuality of his inspiration. He first leapt abroad in 1970, and this exhibition sees him leap home. Leaping is essential to Hock Aun Teh’s art. When you leap you are, for a moment, free and air-born, above the heavy, turning world under your feet. You always get this leaping sensation when you see a work of art by Hock Aun Teh. You feel a spring not only in your body, but also in your heart and mind.
As the great English poet William Wordsworth wrote:
My heart leaps up when I behold
A rainbow in the sky
So it was when my life began So it is now I am a man
So be it when I shall go old
Or let me die
The child is father of the man
This poem beautifully encapsulates what this exhibition is about - the joy of Hock Aun Teh’s vivid, intense and spontaneous responses to the Malaysian jungle of his childhood recaptured in the maturity of his art. It is the job of all artists to peel away physical appearances to reveal the spirit within. So Hock Aun Teh doesn’t try to paint the appearance of the rainbow - an impossible task anyway with pigment and brushes - but the inner feeling you get when you see a rainbow, when 'your heart leaps up'. The result is an explosion of colours on canvas - a rainbow of a different, spiritual kind.
This 'leaping spirit' can of course be felt physically, within your body. Hock-Aun Teh developed a new form of martial arts in the 1980s called Tukido, founded on the realisation that power doesn't spring from one's hips but from pushing off the ground with one's feet. His art - his paintings and sculptures - always have a physical presence no matter how much they appear to erupt with energy. There is nothing airy-fairy about Hock-Aun Teh's spirit - everything he reveals is real and here. This surprises, can even disturb, those who expect art be gentle and mystical, about aspirations and dreams, not physically present sensations.
None the less, the spirit that Hock-Aun Teh reveals is felt most strongly by one's heart and mind. His art is powerfully emotional and intellectual. Typical of a grandmaster of martial arts, Hock-Aun Teh sees no separation between the body, thoughts and feelings - everything is made to flow. And it is the flow in his art that is most crucial to its power. Everything in one opf his paintings - the smallest dab of colour here, a slight shift in tone over there, the dribbling trail of a ferocious brush mark in one corner - has to be exactly right and enhance the impact of the whole. This is the mind and heart at work, sensing the completeness of a statement.
I have often spent hours in Hock-Aun Teh's studio looking at paintings that are still being finished. What I look for always, as in all works of art, with my eyes wide-open yet focused on the picture plane, are the reverberations between the details of colour, shape, space and movement and the overall impact of the whole, the dance between the small and encompassing that engages one's attention, enables one for a while to bask in the resonance of the total effect, a joyous feeling that lifts you out of your everyday life, like listening to a piece of music.
And sometimes my eyes linger on a spot, and Hock Aun Teh can see i’m troubled by something. And more often than not his hand will shoot to mask zt detail in a different part of the painting — too bright a smudge of orange, or too pronounced an uplift of a brush-tail —and suddenly the bit of the painting that was jarring with me clarifies and takes its place in the dance of the whole. ‘That detail was worrying me, too,’ he often says — but the solution to the problem is rarely ever within it, but with its relationship to the rest. This is how all works of
art are created: bit-by-bit, to build a resounding completeness that shows us something of what our life is, and alleviates, for the time we enjoy them, our continuous, undermining feeling of discontentment that we are not making as much of our life, living as intensely as we could. Hock Aun Teh shares his intensity of feeling with us; that is why his art is so uplifting, and relevant to Malaysia and the world.
I know of few artists who are so local and so international as Hock Aun Teh. The vividness of his childhood in Malaysia has never left him, and continues to inspire his art, as witnessed in the paintings in this exhibition, even though most of them were created in his studio in the cold, grey, rainy atmosphere of Glasgow, on the other side of the world. He doesn’t paint pictures of the tiny Malaysian village where he was born and of the jungle that surrounded, but re-imagines the sensations of living there - of running after spiralling kites or playing the children’s game of ‘the eagle preying on chicks’ or watching the morning mist rise. Instead of being literally true, he reimagines in his mind what he felt about them at the time - his leaping excitement and terrified hiding, the thrill of the chase and of being being chased - and the exhilarating lightness, almost nothingness, of mist (the white paintings in this exhibition are extraordinarily beautiful). These remembered sensations burst as colours, tones and brushstrokes in his mind - explosions of moments and movements once intensely lived. This is why his paintings are so life-enhancing - as we look at them the heavy scales of our adult, world-weariness fall away, and we rediscover the excitement of our youth.
The great 19th century French poet and art critic, Charles Baudelaire wrote that 'genius is nothing more nor less than childhood recaptured at will.' This statement is worth considering more deeply because, I think, it has great relevance to Hock Aun Teh's art, especially to the paintings in this exhibition. Does Hock Aun Teh really have 'genius' and what can this overused word mean to us today? 1 think what Baudelaire was saying, in a condensed, poetic way, was that when we are children we are naturally and spontaneously excited at being alive, and full of wonder at the world around us.
Our responses, at that age, are naïve - we later call them 'childlike' - because we don't yet know what life is really like. We are not, when we are very young, fully conscious in the way that we are when we are grown up. Many children, for example, before they are about five, are not fully aware of the passage of time and the inevitability that they will, someday, die. Everything in our childhood is exciting, fresh and new, and our responses then are intense and vivid, untarnished by knowingness and doubt. There is darkness in our world - impenetrable, velvet blackness - for this is when we are most afraid of the night but there is no greyness, dullness, world weariness, not a hint of cynicism, nothing that will deter us from adventure, or mar our insatiable appetite for life.
What Baudelaire was saying was that genius in art, and in life, is the ability to recapture the intense excitement of childhood while remaining fully conscious of all that we know about the world - looking about us with fresh eyes, rediscovering our sense wonder and surprise, questioning, challenging everything, without becoming idiotic, sinking into a second childhood and forgetting everything we've learnt. Picasso said something similar: 'every child is an artist. The challenge is to remain an artist when we grow up'. And he added, 'It took me four years to paint like Raphael [a remarkable achievement in itself, and not a boast], but a lifetime to paint like a child'. Einstein approached the same thought from a different angle: 'the most beautiful and deepest experience a man can have is the sense of the mysterious. It is the underlying principle of religion as well as all serious endeavours in art and science. He who never had this experience seems to me, if not dead, then at least blind'. The conscious recapturing of innocence, however, is extremely difficult to achieve - but it's what these paintings are really about. They are confluences between spontaneous, joyous excitement, springing from the artist's memories of his childhood in Malaysia, and knowing, artistic judgements based on fifty years of painting and a profound awareness of the greatest achievements of international art. Each painting is a balancing act between innocence and experience - what the English poet, William Blake called the contrary states of the human soul.
Hock Aun Teh's experience was hard won. He was born on 8th March in the Year of the Tiger, and delivered by his grandmother, in the tiny village of Sungai Gedong, about 18 kilometers north of Taiping. The family lived above his father's shop selling rice, sugar and kerosene. There was no mains water or electricity. His mother and uncles had to carry water from the river in tin buckets and she washed their clothes by the riverbank. They used hand-pumped kerosene lamps for lights. His childhood was spent exploring the jungle. Rooms hemmed him in; they weren't his world; he always wanted to be outside. Huge trees grew along the riverbank behind their home, their twisting branches hanging low over the slowly drifting green water. Hock Aun Teh balanced his way to the far, springing ends of them, bounced and dived in. He loved swimming, eyes open, in the deep, silk-green waters. He waded through the high green shrubs growing along the riverbank, catching praying mantises and brushing the branches of the Sensitive shrub, whose feathery leaves withdrew at his touch. At night the jungle hummed with the buzz of insects and cicadas. Some trees shone from within, lit up by hundreds of fireflies flashing on and off called 'ghost trees' by the locals. The whole forest was alive both day and night.
What he loved best was to climb to the very top of the thinnest jungle canopy, and clinging to the thinnest branches, dared to make them swing. He spent whole days in trees. Miniature forests grew along their branches, sprays of ferns and flowering orchids, alive with bees, snakes and spiders. He learnt which creatures were dangerous and which were harmless. He learnt which were the choicest fruits and which were poisonous. For his first seven years he lived a monkey, jungle life, and he grew, naturally, fit and strong. Then he had to go to school, and he hated it, playing truant whenever he could.
Every afternoon, when he jumped from the school bus, he stripped off and dived into the canal that ran in front of his home, hunting for fresh water lobsters under the bridge, catching fish by attracting them with his spit. On the other side of the canal was a rubber plantation, behind a temple built by the Hindustanis who worked on the estate. Hock-Aun Teh was fascinated by their rituals when they smashed coconuts to purify the ground and sacrificed a goat. The priest slit its throat, hacked off one leg and put it in its mouth, and then dragged the corpse around the temple, spraying blood.
A market was held every Sunday on the open ground between the temple and the village. Hock Aun Teh saw jugglers, street performers and Indian snake charmers. He was attracted to their freewheeling life, but by then he'd decided what he wanted to do: to become a carpenter. If anyone in the village wanted something made, a bed, some shelving or a door, they would invite a joiner to come to their home. They would give him his meals until he'd made what was needed. As a young boy, Hock Aun Teh spent hours watching carpenters at work, fascinated by their tools, watching the wood being sawn, planed and chiseled and collecting the off-cuts as if they were treasures. He made his own toys with these, decorating them with animals' bones, feathers, branches, lumps of clay, wires and strings, convincing the other boys of his imaginary creations. His sculptures spring from these early experiences.
Then, one day, after the family had moved to Taiping, when he was still only fourteen, he saw a Western style, realistic pen and ink sketch of a bridge arching over water and rocks. The picture literally stopped him in his tracks. He was amazed. He'd never seen anything so spacious and so vivid. Here, in this simple pen and ink drawing, was something that seemed to chime with his inner being, a sensation that freed his mind and spirit - typically an image of a bridge leaping over water.
From that moment on, Hock Aun Teh knew exactly what he wanted to do with his life. He began by learning traditional Chinese painting and calligraphy, under master Guan Hin Tan in Taiping. The ancient, almost abstract, highly expressionistic 'Mad Grass' calligraphy particularly inspired him. Then he saw books of Western art - particularly Turner and Gauguin - and he realised that he'd have to go to the West to develop his art fully. Studying in Glasgow and making frequent trips to America, Paris and Italy introduced him to the leading art of his day, and freed his own technique from any constraints. His art is now at the pinnacle of contemporary painting. And yet its source never ceases to be Malaysian, his upbringing in the jungle that will always haunt his imagination. All countries need memories, and Hock Aun Teh's art is one of the profoundest and freshest Malaysia has.