Life art model shares the experience of working with late Singaporean artist Teng Nee Cheong

Teng Nee Cheong was one of Singapore’s bright spots in the art world. His works are can be found in the collections of the Singapore Art Museum, National Gallery Singapore and the Neka Art Museum in Bali amongst other institutions. Since the 1980s, Teng’s works have been exhibited in Holland, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Paris, and the United States.

He was known for his colourful and exuberant paintings and the use of Southeast Asian cultural motifs with use of symbols from Buddhism, Hinduism, and Balinese mythology. However, Teng’s intimate charcoal works have hardly been in the limelight, much less exhibited comprehensively.

This year from 5th October to 9th December, an exhibition will be held for the first time since the artist passed away in 2013 featuring a selection from his collection of life drawings. Teng’s rarely-seen monochromatic charcoal drawings are in stark contrast with his better known colourful paintings.

One of his models for these life drawings was Mr Kim, who had been modelling for Teng for over a decade. Mr Kim graciously shared with us recently about his experiences of being a life art model and what it was like to work with an artist like Teng Nee Cheong.

Let’s start with how you got started as a life art model. What led you to this unusual profession?

During the economic decline in the late 90s, I was retrenched twice and needed to make a living. In a strange turn of events, a friend challenged me to try life modelling and that’s where it all began, on 2nd Jan 2000. By the end of this year, it will be my 18th year as a life model.

So it was a random happenstance that led you to the art world. How did you start working with Teng Nee Cheong?

A leisure drawing group of artists brought me to an art exhibition and I saw Mr Teng’s drawing of a nude male figure laying on his belly. Below the drawing stated Mr Teng’s name and contact, I therefore took down the information and I called Mr Teng. The rest is history!

And what was it like working with him?

Firstly, he always treated me with great respect. Mr Teng was very thoughtful and engaging, constantly making sure that I had enough to eat or drink. Knowing that his poses were demanding and very challenging, he always stopped to check on me, whether I was feeling fine, ensuring that his studio was well-ventilated and cool at all times.

Was there much interaction between the two of you when he was painting?

Yes! There was plenty of chatting. He would chat and express his personal thoughts on current issues and sensitive topics. Also, he would ask for my opinions too! Sometimes we would laugh so hard! Chatting may distract me from the painful challenging pose, which was good.

What makes the best artistic poses?

This question is very subjective. An artistic pose is based on the eyes and feelings of the artist. If not given instructions, I’ll always give my classic contrapposto (Italian for counterpoise) pose with shoulder tilt and twist. That’s what I’m known for, my dynamism.

When you’re posing, what are you thinking about?

Before I disrobe, the most important thing for me is to stay calm and composed. While posing, I’ll take a moment to gather concentration in order to lock myself in the correct pose and don’t move, the only thing that moves is my chest, as I have to breathe. For longer poses, I’ll let a song or music play in my head. Sometimes, I’ll engage in solving problems mentally. In essence and most of the time, I’ll simply meditate.

Finally, What do you wish the general public knew about life art models? Specifically, what kind of misconceptions or myths would you like to dispel?

The general public may think that being a life nude model is an easy job for making a quick buck and having so much ‘fun’ at the same time. Most people assume that life models are all the ‘same’. ‘Same’ in the sense of just strip for fun and pose. Well, that’s quite the opposite. Firstly, life nude modelling requires one to be vulnerable and most of the time. Secondly, life models must be able to endure long hours of holding poses. Pains and ‘pins and needles’ are inevitable. Most cases, painful cramps would set in, but being a professional model, I’ll always strive to hold it till the end.

Thirdly, usually the venues are extremely cold, and we are naked! We eventually don’t move because we are simply ‘frozen’. Fourthly, with social media and the smartphone, everyone basically carries a camera with them all the time. People do constantly try to get some shots of the models without our permission. This is very sad. In this industry, there are many life models around, but the good, reliable and professional ones are very few. At the end of all the challenging issues, it is all for just a small remuneration fee paid by the hour.

Embodiment | Sentience

In commemoration of the fifth anniversary of the passing of late Singaporean artist, Teng Nee Cheong, The Private Museum is pleased to present EMBODIMENT | SENTIENCE, featuring a selection of charcoal works done between the 1970s to the 2000s from the collection of the Artist’s Estate. The extensive collection of charcoal drawings is the result of more than three decades of working with life models in his studio and abroad.

The exhibition will be held from 5th October to 9th December 2018 at The Private Museum on Waterloo Street.