Tan Chin Kuan

Tan Chin Kuan- participating artist in the GMCA (Great Malaysia Contemporary Art)

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Written by : Zena Khan

About the Artist

“A successful painting must be one that is shockingly impressive.” This statement by the late Lee Ku Chan impressed so much on a young Tan Chin Kuan that it has formed the cornerstone of Chin Kuan’s artistic practice. Over the length of his career as an artist Chin Kuan has strived to bring together aspiration, tone, form and execution to create a perfect storm of elements that will not only shock his audience but also establish the basis for dialogue therein.

The concept of Shock Art as it were is art that incorporates unsettling imagery, sound or scent to upset complacency and energise debate. Possibly one of the earliest examples of Shock Art is “Fountain” by Marcel Duchamp in 1917. A displayed porcelain urinal signed “R.Mutt”, “Fountain”, is regarded by some art historians and theorists of the avant-garde, such as Peter Bürger, as as one of the most important art works of the 20th century. An article published at the time, which is thought to have been written by Duchamp, states, “Mr Mutt’s fountain is not immoral, that is absurd, no more than a bathtub is immoral. It is a fixture that you see every day in plumbers’ shop windows. Whether Mr Mutt with his own hands made the fountain has no importance. He CHOSE it. He took an ordinary article of life, placed it so that its useful significance disappeared under the new title and point of view – created a new thought for that object.’ (‘The Richard Mutt Case’, The Blind Man, New York, no.2, May 1917, p.5.) The underlying point in Shock Art though is always the context within which it presented.

Context as the underlying point of art that shocks it’s viewers is expressed in Chin Kuan’s “Blue Night” series. Chin Kuan himself explains “Only those artists who understand the tragedy of life can create works which can astonish people, and give rise to the resonance which shakes the very selves of the appreciators, who similarly cannot escape the tragedy of life.” The works are saturated with the colour blue which gives them a strong melancholic atmosphere.

The “Blue Night” series opened with Blue Night 1, a work Chin Kuan describes as an almost ‘horror painting’. The concept behind the painting first came to him when he was hospitalized and observed the scenes of death and mortality the surrounded him. He channeled the idea of momento mori into a painting that expressed his feelings of fear and loneliness and, almost more importantly, paved the way for the explosive collection that was to follow.

blue night 1, 1987, oil on canvas and mixed, 152x112cm

Blue Night 1.oil on canvas and mixed media. 152x112cm. 1987

Continuing the theme of loneliness Chin Kuan also began to explore his own character as an artist and also aggressively questioning himself and society which can be viewed as the initial steps to his development as an important socio-political commentator. While identifying his character via his work Chin Kuan came up with the perfect symbol, the horse. Being born in the Chinese lunar year of the horse, Chin Kuan incorporates horse imagery into his works to describe himself, whether emotionally or reacting to issues. The first major work that demonstrates this is Blue Night 9. Underpinning the relevance of this work is that it is the first to combine a two dimensional and three dimensional space to better connect with the audience and impress upon them the full impact of his message. Blue Night 9 was a major critical success and satisfied Chin Kuan’s experimental streak during this crucial period in his career.

Blue Night 9- death of the white horse.  mixed media. variable size. 1988

Blue Night 9- death of the white horse. mixed media. variable size. 1988

Buoyed by the success of his foray into three dimensional installation Chin Kuan moved into a highly experimental phase in his career. The notion of providing works that encouraged audience participation eventually led to the creation of works such as Blue Night 11: Tragic 2 which creates an illusion of emotion within space. The spatial involvement in such a personal piece, Chin Kuan is relating his individual tragedies of poverty and an unsupportive art community, allows for a particular connection between the artist and his audience, whose reactions have been established as essential to Chin Kuan’s artistic practice.

Blue Night 11- Tragic 2. 1989, mixed media. variable size.1989

Blue Night 11- Tragic 2. 1989, mixed media. variable size.1989

Critical accomplishments were piling up high for the young Chin Kuan by now, yet commercial success still eluded him, as it did for many of his talented art school peers who were switching to different careers at this point. Steadfast in his belief that he was meant to be an artist, Chin Kuan wondered if he would ever be able to create what he regards as saleable art, to appease the market. Chin Kuan held solo exhibits, first at the Creative Centre then at NN Gallery, where he switched his main medium from his dramatic, interactive installations to sculpture and painting, and found a measure of commercial success therein. It is heartening to note however that he continued to search for avenues to express himself freely in this time, accepting the Artist in Residence position at Curtin University School of Visual Art in 1992 and the 4TH ASIAN art show residency at Fukoka Art Museum in Japan, two instances where he was able to produce highly conceptual performance installation pieces.

The Soul Under Midnight. oil on canvas. 490x220cm. 1996

The Soul Under Midnight. oil on canvas. 490x220cm. 1996

While declaring his appreciation for artists such as Edvard Munch, Edgar Degas, a pre-surrealist Salvador Dali and Giriko, as well as his artist wife Eng Hwee Chu, Chin Kuan mantains an idependent approach to his art practice. He strongly believes artists have an experimental spirit that they are duty bound to explore, and channels his own visions through his searing performances, installations, sculptures and paintings while maintaining his fierce dedication to conveying his vision and narrative to his audience in the most arresting manner he can.

A celebrated artist, Chin Kuan works across all mediums but is particularly noted for his seminal paintings and installations, for which he has won many awards. In both 1989 and 1990 Chin Kuan won the Major Award for Young Contemporaries at The National Art Gallery in Kuala Lumpur, going on to be presented with the Minor Award in both the categories of Painting and Sculpture at the Salon Malaysia 3 at the National Art Gallery Kuala Lumpur in 1991. 2001 saw him win the Bronze Prize at the Osaka Triennale in Japan. Chin Kuan has exbihited internationally on numerous occasions including a solo exhibit at the Fukoka Art Museum in Japan, the Osaka Triennale in 1993 and 2001, the Kwang Ju Biennale in Korea in 1995 and in Australia and London, in addition to frequently exhibiting in Malaysia.

Museums that collect Chin Kuan’s works are the Fukoka Art Museum in Japan, The Osaka Prefectural Government & Osaka Foundation of Culture in Japan, The Singapore Art Museum and the National Art Gallery in Malaysia, as well as important private collections such as the Aliya and Farouk Khan Collection in Malaysia


Born 1966, in Johore, Malaysia



‘Tan Chin Kuan 1987-1997’, NN Gallery, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia


‘Creative Centre’, National Art Gallery, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia


‘Stage-Art of Tragedy’, Fukuoka Art Museum, Fukuoka, etc., Japan



Artist-In-Residence, Curtin University School of Visual Arts, Perth, Australia


Major Award, ‘The Young Contemporaries’, National Art Gallery, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia (’90, ’89)


AFK (Aliya and Farouk Khan) Collection

National Art gallery, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

Fukuoka Art Museum, Fukuoka, Japan

Singapore Art Museum, Singapore

Osaka Cultural Foundation, Osaka, Japan


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