Goh Beng Kwan
When the River is Full (detail)
mixed media on canvas
56 x 71 cm

Travelling with Artists in the Northern Territory, Australia

During the late 1990s, Singaporean art collector and gallerist Marjorie Chu organised several field trips for artists to Bali, India and China. In 1997, she took a group of artists to the Northern Territory in Australia. We present an excerpt from her book Understanding Contemporary Southeast Asian Art.

Field Trip to Northern Territory, Australia in 1997

As my first trip with artists to Bali was so successful, it encouraged me to plan another trip that would be exotic but different. I had always wanted to visit the Northern Territory of Australia to experience the freedom of wide open spaces far away from an urban environment. I knew that the artists would share my views that inspiration for art must come from nature and can only be found outside Singapore. I chose the Northern Territory for budgetary reasons: for relatively little money I could fly the artists over to Darwin, arrange for buses to take us to Katherine Gorge and Kakadu, and provide cover and food. My assistant and I went a day early to plan the buses and camping equipment. The next day, we picked up the artists who had arrived with their luggage and painting accessories.

From the airport we drove south through the shrub-lands on the outskirts of Darwin directly to Katherine Gorge. We pitched our tents in the open air at Katherine Gorge. The sky was cloudless and the stars seemed closer and more numerous. Being at one with nature was exhilarating. It was the first time I had experienced total darkness. The blackness of the night was disorientating: it seemed as though I was in a black pudding, and my feeble torch light was of no help at all.

I was right to have picked the Northern Territory because faced with such beauty it was impossible to make a bad painting. Some of my friends asked whether we went to see Aboriginal paintings or whether we visited any museums. They did not understand that my reason for going there was to be close to nature. I knew that nature would inspire the artists to create, to give them a different point of view and a different atmosphere. At the two campsites at Kakadu and Katherine Gorge we were kept busy studying the famous river, shrub-lands, anthills and vegetation which we had never seen before.
Different aspects of the Northern Territory gave differing inspiration to the artists. Chua Ek Kay was very thoughtful throughout the trip. He made sketches of trees, shrubs and earth formations, elements that were foreign to him and interesting enough to be documented. He was absorbed by the tranquillity, vast open spaces and the timelessness of the ancient rocks. Upon his return he began to work on a series of landscapes that were minimal in concept, often just dots or rocks judiciously placed on white rice paper, such as Stone Island, very meditative and Zen-like. The sounds of silence of the Northern Territory and sometimes a flight of birds in the evening suggested to him a method of expressing the emptiness, by filling it with light fleeting gestures and dots such as the Vivaldi’s Seasons series.

Marjorie Chu
Cave Paintings at Nourlangie, Kakadu
1997, pastel on paper, 15 x 21 cm
Goh Beng Kwan’s reaction to the Northern Territory was more immediate and obvious in the paintings he did upon his return. The predominant use of translucent colours in his landscape painting When the River is Full is his recollection of Yellow Water, located at the meeting point of the South Alligator River and Jim Jim Creek in Kakadu.

Marjorie Chu, Ubirr Rock, 1997,
pastel on paper, 15 x 21 cm
I had never really painted landscape before but Yellow Water inspired me to make a painting to express the gentle surroundings. Yellow Water was an unexpected contrast to the arid rocky landscape typical of the Northern Territory. I think that Ubirr Rock is my best work because all of the ideas of the traditional Chinese axe cut method of creating a rock came to me and this helped in creating the rugged form. Later during the trip, I used the same axe cut style to record Aboriginal cave paintings of kangaroos.
The most memorable evening of the whole trip was when Jeremy Ramsey made coq au vin using chicken, onions and Campbell’s soup. He used no water at all, just bottles and bottles of white wine. Everybody enjoyed themselves, and it was a perfect conclusion to a wonderful stay in the Northern Territory.

* Michelle Chin edited this excerpt from Understanding Contemporary Southeast Asian Art by Marjorie Chu (Singapore, Art Forum, 2003) available through Select Books, www.selectbooks.com.sg or from Art Forum, Singapore (email: art@artforum.com.sg).

[published in Garuda Inflight Magazine, May 2004]