Against All Odds

Marvel at the amazing life journey of Singapore artist Victor Tan and the making of his latest sculpture, The Hummingbird

Issue: Apr 2015

Close-up of the maquette made by Singapore artist Victor Tan for The Hummingbird at Sky Habitat
Close-up of the maquette made by Singapore artist Victor Tan for The Hummingbird at Sky Habitat

Imagine a young man from a poor family who had just finished national service. He took on drafting as a job to earn a living while attending a part-time architectural technology course to better himself at the same time. One morning, as he woke up, he found that something covered one of his eyes. He could not get rid of it. Optic neuritis (an inflammation of the optic nerve) had crept in and within a few months, his visual faculty had greatly degenerated, with a large cloud permanently blocking much of his left eye and brilliant hues constantly dancing in his right eye.

Made of Steel

One could easily have given up under such trying circumstances. But not Victor Tan Wee Tar (b. 1969, Singapore). As he could no longer do drafting or pursue the architectural technology course, he explored other avenues. As fate would have it, Victor found working on ceramics in a class conducted at the Singapore Association of the Visually Handicapped therapeutic. He applied to pursue Fine Arts at the LASALLE-SIA College of the Arts (now LASALLE College of the Arts), and fulfilled his childhood dream of becoming an artist, in spite of his visual impairment. Today, he is indeed an established artist, with many of his works commissioned and installed at various locations, the latest being The Hummingbird at Sky Habitat, a premium residential project of CapitaLand Singapore.

I first met Victor last year when my colleagues and I visited him at his Telok Kurau studio to review the maquette (small model) for Humming Bird. He came across as a cheerful and easy-going person, who candidly shared with me his unique artistic journey. In the first semester of his art course, Victor had to do drawing using pencil and paper like the rest of the students. It did not work for him but the school would not let him quit that module. So he experienced with other drawing media, and found steel wire most suitable. He completed the diploma course majoring in ceramics and continued with a degree course majoring in sculpture. In 1998, a gallery approached him to do an outdoor work. Victor took inspiration from his wire drawings and created for the Singapore Expo his first stainless steel wire sculpture. The rest, as they say, is history.

Made with Steel

The full-size hummingbird in the making
The full-size hummingbird in the making

What is very special about Victor’s wire sculptures is that he can create them right from the small maquettes to the finished works of several metres high, all by himself. He uses his gift of touch to do so and he enjoys the process thoroughly. The soft stainless steel wire of different diameters – 0.8mm, 1mm, 1.2mm, 1.6 mm, etc - is a fascinating material. It can be moulded into any shape by hand with simple tools, but when layered and intertwined into three-dimensional forms, it assumes an unexpected rigidity. Being a finished product with a silvery sheen that stays permanently, it needs no additional layer of finishes or colours. Victor only varies the tone by using different diameter wire, which he likens to be the different pencils - 6B, 4B, 2B, etc - in drawing.

Made with Joy

The hummingbird being hoisted into position
The hummingbird being hoisted into position

The Hummingbird at Sky Habitat depicts the titled bird, many times its real size, diving from the sky to take the nectar from one of seven flowers sitting on a pond. While the flowers are static, the bird can move with the wind, seemingly flapping its wings. This is a lovely image: Victor captures the brief moment of the bird’s encounter with the flower, taking only what it needs from the flower to sustain itself, at the same time giving it back something, by spreading its pollen and enabling the plant species to sustain.

While the bird itself is created with labour of love entirely by Victor, the flowers, whose form is determined by Victor, is produced by his fellow artist and friend Chua Boon Kee. These flowers are made in stainless steel tubes, each bent to shape in a workshop of Boon Kee’s and laced subsequently by Victor with stainless steel wires to maintain visual coherence with the bird. Boon Kee provides valuable technical support for the entire project, seeing that all the flowers, including the crucial one that has to support the bird are all well made and well installed.

It is wonderful to behold The Hummingbird at Sky Habitat, whether from the pool deck where one can see both flowers and bird, or from the drop-off point where one just catches a view of the bird. The free form work contrasts beautifully with the well-disciplined architecture, acts as a stunning eye-catcher, and gives a meaningful message: about giving and taking; about co-existing in harmony; and about being joyful, responsive and resilient - traits that the tiny humming bird is well known for. And I cannot help but relate these traits to the artist and his amazing journey through life.

This article is contributed by CapitaLand Chief of Art Management, Francis Wong Hooe Wai

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