Ong Keng Sen

Ong Keng Sen is a performance director. He was born in Singapore. His works have been presented in Asia, Australia, Europe, and the United States. Ong holds a number of foundation fellowships including the Japan Foundation, British Council, Asian Cultural Council, and is also a Fulbright Scholar. He has also lectured extensively in Europe, Australia, and Asia. In 2000 Ong directed his first opera, The Silver River, by David Henry Hwang and Bright Sheng for the Spoleto Festival. It will have its New York City premiere at the Lincoln Centre Summer Festival in 2002. His latest work, which premiered at Yale University in June 2001 for the International Festival of Arts and Ideas, is a documentary performance with a 68-year-old Cambodian dancer who survived the genocide during the Pol Pot years, The Continuum: Beyond The Killing Fields

Selected Objects

  Court Lady
North China
Tang period, 8th century
Earthenware with multicolored lead glazes and traces of pigment (sancai ware)
H. 14 1/8 in. (35.9 cm); 1979.113

I am often intrigued by representations of artists or people expressing themselves in dance and music. These representations are often a valuable record of the way instruments were played, the postures and the context in which they were played. In the case of this court lady, I was also incredibly drawn to her hair. The styles of ornamentation and decoration were often fantastical, especially in the Chinese court and this is a great example of that.

  Head of Buddha
Angkor period, Bayon style, 12th-13th century
H. 13 in. (33.0 cm); 1979.71

I like it when I can see the face of the man on the street who just sold me a bunch of rambutans in the face of a Buddha. The globular contour of the eye under the skin, the luxurious ear lobes, the full smile, and the large nose combine to suggest a graciousness, an abundance, and an openness.
  Kneeling Woman
Angkor period, late 11th-early 12th century
Copper alloy
H. 18 3/4 in. (47.6 cm); 1979.69

The angularity of this figure is attractive to me. The human body becomes articulated as lines, shapes, form, and architecture. The hard lines imprint into my imagination and I close my eyes to erase her. But the negative space between her hands and above her head continues to haunt me.


Female Figure
Angkor period, Baphuon style, early 11th century
H. 38 in. (96.5 cm); 1979.65

The simple elegance of proportion and balance. I am drawn in particular to her belly and the suggestion beneath the translucent skinlike sarong. But her feet ...


China, Jiangxi Province
Ming period, early 15th century (probably Yongle era, 1403-1424)
Porcelain with impressed and incised design under glaze (Jingdezhen ware)
H. 4 in. (10.2 cm), D. 8 1/4 in. (21 cm); 1979.158

As we are asked to select our favorite pieces based on photographs, I am drawn to this white dish for its apparent simplicity. Simplicity is hard to achieve in expression and it takes a secure person to strive for simplicity. Looking at the photograph, I was drawn to the fact that it could be an everyday object that I use in my kitchen. The distance between art and daily life/design is not that much. Time immortalizes an object; often the everyday becomes reconsidered as art (it could be an everyday object of an emperor and then it takes on a different significance!) The catalogue tells me that there is under the glaze a decoration of two dragons. This makes it, of course, more than its apparent simplicity. I am also told that this is an example of eggshell porcelain which is much prized as it is very difficult to fire successfully. I am looking forward to seeing the thinness myself at the exhibition.
  Female Figure
Japan, Aomori Prefecture
Final Jomon period (1000-300 B.C.E.)
Earthenware with traces of pigment (Kamegaoka type)
H. 9 7/8 in. (25.1 cm); 1979.198

I chose this figure as it is so different from the Japanese art that we see today. As we encounter cultures, it is often easy to say "that's just so Japanese." This figure completely breaks that cliché of stark austerity and highly stylized minimalism which has come to characterize one type of Japanese aesthetics. It is also very different from the urban pop that contemporary Asian youth identify with today. In a sense, an exhibition like this often makes the visitor reflect on the process of time; how representation often narrows into a stereotype and we spend all our time trying to undo the cliche or to counter the established norm. Here is the living proof of the multiplicity of cultural expressions in the continuum of time. The perverse beauty of this figure with its superb thick neck is intriguing as it may suggest a standard of beauty and aesthetics aspired toward.