At 6:30 a.m. on Wednesday, Yale students from around the world tuned into a Yale-NUS talk called “Everything That Has a Point Makes a Circle.” The talk was delivered by the college’s newest artist-in-residence, Chen Sai Hua Kuan, or Sai.
The talk was moderated by Tom White, a freelance photographer who teaches documentary and photojournalism at Yale-NUS. During the talk, Sai — a sculptor and multidisciplinary artist — discussed his most recent works, his artistic style, his residency project and his class at Yale-NUS, called “Sculpting Movement.”
Jeannie Tay, the senior manager for the Office of Public Affairs at Yale-NUS, said the Artist-in-Residence Program at Yale-NUS is the first of its kind at a liberal arts and sciences college in Asia. Tay said the artists teach a class at the college and work on projects that reflect upon Chinese culture in different contexts.
“The program brings in both local and international artists to nurture a vibrant and diverse artistic community within the College,” Tay said.
Sai has been active in the Singapore art world for several years, with exhibits at the Singapore Art Museum, Singapore Biennale and a performing arts center called Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay. Alongside his wife and fellow artist Wang Ruobing, Sai also runs Comma Space, an experimental space that supports artistic creativity and social critique.
Sai said his artwork is inspired by Chinese philosophy. He said, for him, “What comes around goes around.” When thinking about the world in non-conventional ways, Sai noticed that spinning any object created a circle.
Sai presented his video-art residency project to the audience during the talk. His project investigates the development of Singapore Chinese opera as a way of exploring the present identity of Southeast Asian Chinese. Sai’s primary motivation behind his explorations of Chinese opera relate to his upbringing.
As a toddler, he grew up hearing stories about his aunt, who is an opera singer. Even though Sai was familiar with the Chinese dialect, the “deeper meaning” of the performances initially eluded him.
“So, I was sitting there just listening to them and everything, and it was like very interestingly, after one hour of recording, ‘Bam!’ that language suddenly sank in because of the action. The whole thing suddenly clicked,” Sai said.
During his talk, Sai presented parts of his different art installations, including “A Circular Journey,” “Space Drawing” and “Something Nothing.” The works explore spatial relationships through lines and circles that “divide, subtract and define a space,” as well as elements of movement and characteristics of infinite space. Sai said he does not prefer a specific medium while creating art. Instead, he uses a wide spectrum of materials, from bicycles to cans, wires and hammers.
“It could be just a pen or a rubber right in front of me that would inspire me to become a tool. Anything that comes to me that sparks my thinking, I would say, bring me to think further, is my tools,” Sai said.
Jia Yang Kwok, Yale-NUS class of 2022, was one of the students who attended the talk. Kwok found Sai’s talk “personal,” which he said surpassed his expectations of a more “general” and “structured” presentation, centered around technical elements. But Kwok appreciated this novel structure and said that Sai’s delivery style made him more relatable.
Sai joins two artists who previously held the position of artist-in-residence at Yale-NUS: Andrew Yang and Christa Donner. Their work focuses on visual arts, science and ecology.
The Artist-in-Residence Program at Yale-NUS is supported by the Tan Chin Tuan Foundation through the Tan Chin Tuan Chinese Culture and Civilisation Programme.
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Correction, Nov. 10: A previous version of the article said that Sal joins two other artists who “already hold” artist-in-residence positions. These two artists are not currently in residence, and the article has been updated accordingly.