In celebration of Singapore’s 52nd anniversary of independence, The Private Museum is proud to present Benny Ong: Walking the Thought. This solo exhibition marks the first showcase of works by the renowned fashion designer and textile artist, Benny Ong at The Private Museum.
Along with other textile works centred on Buddhist themes, the exhibition revisits a series of Ong’s older works from his inaugural textile exhibition titled, Re-woven: A Celebration of Lives opened at the Singapore Arts Museum a decade ago. Ong’s artistic practice traces back to the roots of his spiritual. The body of textile works is a reflection of the artist’s interpretation of the Buddha’s teachings based on inner contemplation, peace, dualism, compassion and meditation.
Although the series of textile works was inspired by the values and teachings of Buddhism, the exhibition reveals a deeper layer of Ong’s artistic practice. Through the use of succinct imagery, Ong bridges his spiritual beliefs with art making— compelling the viewer to get a closer glimpse of the thought process behind his artistic practice.
Benny Ong (b.1949, Singapore) is a Singaporean fashion designer and textile artist. His fashion work is produced under his own label, The Ong, which is sold in Bloomingdale’s and Bergdorf Goodman in New York City, and throughout Europe. Ong has also designed uniforms for the British Airports Authority, British Telecom, Raffles Hotel in Singapore, and he has remodelled the clothes of security staff at leading hotels in Beijing, ahead of the 2008 Summer Olympic Games. His private clients have included Princess Diana, the Duchess of Kent, Queen Noor of Jordan, and Shakira Caine. Ong is a graduate of London’s Central Saint Martins and is a founding member of the London Designer Collections.
In the early 2000s, Ong made the switch from fashion designing to contemporary textile art. In 2007, he presented the exhibition, Re-woven at the Singapore Art Museum. It comprised 46 pieces of silk textiles based on the art of Lao weaving. In 2015, Ong received the Singapore Design Golden Jubilee Award. In January 2016, Ong, in collaboration with a family of master Laotian weavers, presented The Pioneering Spirit at Raffles Hotel, an exhibition of 21 woven textiles, including the S$10,000 “The Shirt”, featuring Lee Kuan Yew in his iconic white shirt in the shape of Singapore.
Benny Ong: Minefield
By Kang Siew Kheng
Benny Ong is a couture designer turned artist. From adorning the fashionable and the royal in wearable works of art, he has geared his talent towards making contemporary art pieces that are as appropriate in dressing the home as they would temples.
This exhibition comprises the works that mark the transition. Created in September 2006, and first shown at the Singapore Art Museum in 2007, these pieces speak of Benny’s exploration of Buddhist philosophy and the practice of insight meditation. Hence the Buddha images of heads, faces and silhouettes take centre stage.
Yet Benny’s employ of this unmistakable dominant motif of a spiritual tradition is interesting, not only because it underscores the spiritual pursuit, but because it hints of a certain confluence, arguably even divergence, of the spiritual with the creative. The artist must somehow reconcile the two.
As he tells it, for Benny the artist, the human mind is a playing field of ideas. Whether as couture designer or artist, the creative process starts with the observer. He sees the cacophony of thoughts and ideas that bubble for his attention. As an artist, he crystallizes them into concepts, and confronts and hones them into a singular idea. He then executes the idea through a chosen form or medium, in this case, the weave. Through working with a community of weavers, the swathe of silk threads, interspersed with space and colour, are brought together into coherent materiality. Thus we see the outcomes now before us that represent the “mind- field” of the creator. Heads with lips sealed, mindful of speech. The characteristic long ear lobes and the lotus leaf, suggestive of the Buddha’s longevity and serenity. Masks upon faces. Cosmic journeys. Contemplation. Expressions of compassion. Finally, Enlightenment. The process seems complete.
For Benny the spiritual practitioner, the meditating mind is playful, often uncontrollable. The body can be brought into stillness, but the meditator finds that the very mind he directs to create has a life of its own: Out of the reaches of its nooks and crannies arise all manner of mental objects, of the regrets of years past, forgotten faces of yesterday, and the yearnings and fears of the morrow. The meditator’s mind slowly, if it is skillful, watches patiently without commentary. Only then will it glimpse insights into the true nature of reality. It is that simple, yet that difficult.
Both processes take the same trajectory, but must surely fork for the intentions cannot be the same. The mediating mind only observes. The creative mind must observe, yet it must ultimately direct, which begs at least the question of whether there is only one mind. Or are there really two, or 10 or more? Or is the process of directing merely an illusion? Has the artist created these heads and faces, these Buddha silhouettes? Is the artist “merely” interpreting what the meditator sees?
Must the process of meditation exclude the act of creation? Or is it a different consciousness that the artist awakens to create, from the consciousness that becomes quiet in order to observe? Perhaps these questions are superfluous. After all, not all Buddhas could teach. In the same vein, the divergence between the meditator and the artist is perhaps more concept than real. Indeed, we are fortunate that the meditator in Benny can both practise and create, indeed more powerfully so, with the practice lifting the creation.
Take the contrasting faces in the series which suggest the human ego’s search for an identity. The Buddha was a human, and prior to Enlightenment, he too wore masks. They are nothing more than our multiple identities because the ego lands itself in different situations, and gets repulsed or attracted to different people, to different things. Varied, they reflect the sums of what we are, ever-changing, depending on where we are, who we were, and what we become, and what we want or long to be. Then, weary with this myriad of faces and identities, we search valiantly for a core, and hopes for peace and some truth that is inherently us. Hence, the practice of contemplation which Benny, the artist turned seeker, undertakes is reflected in two of the four postures in the series, those of sitting and standing. But we also walk and we lie down in repose. These are all things we do naturally in our daily lives. And it is these same, seemingly mundane everyday postures that when applied with mindfulness, can bring us to the real truth, wherein real happiness reside, free of the very dialectic that puts us on the path in the first place.
Almost unbeknownst to us, perhaps even incomprehensible to those of us not of a creative turn of mind, the many-mask self that gardens and yet observes is possible because of the dualistic mind that understands phenomena only in contrast. Where there is hard, we can know soft; when there is darkness, can we see light; because there is evil, we can realize good. From our groundedness, we become part of the cosmic; and through the awareness of suffering, can we grope for enlightenment. This suggests that the dialectic that aids is the dialectic that can obstruct. The creative artist must somehow maneuver and play along this spectrum if he is to produce thoughtful works of art. This, Benny certainly has achieved, as he transitions, in both his career and pathway, from one to the other. Creating in one’s mind, guiding one’s hand is one thing. To ask weavers in a different language to take the ideas from the garden to the market is quite something else. This must be where his experience as the couture designer steps in. What we see are not just the Buddha images in all its varied postures on woven silk, but the meditative journey of an artist.
Siew Kheng is a fellow walker on Benny’s path. Formerly the Singapore Ambassador to Laos, she has many masks that need discarding.
Angloinfo – July 2017
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