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Artist and musician Mark Chan on Chinese brush painting and overcoming adversity

Despite a damaged hand, Singaporean artist Mark Chan will not be stopped.

The paintings by Mark Chan belie his physical state. Where the swirls and splashes of black ink on rice paper display ferocity, impulse and movement, the artist, a former national swimmer and renowned musician, is feeling the ravages of injury and age.

“I have a broken hip, a result of sports-related wear and tear,” admits the 60-year-old at the launch of his Ink Mountain exhibition in January. Commissioned by the Esplanade, his works, almost 70 in all, are a dreamscape of mythology, religion and nature, where abstract paintings of birds, the sea, flora and the cosmos shape the idea of a shared universe and humanity’s place in it.

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Mark Chan artist singapore surfing the harvest moon

Mark Chan’s artwork, Surfing the Harvest Moon. A former competitive swimmer, Chan is drawn to the sea.

Not letting discomfort get the better of him, Mark Chan enthusiastically hobbles from one painting to another in his artist’s talk. He’s no stranger to pain – physical or metaphysical. In fact, this showcase, and indeed his career as a visual artist, would not have come about had an operation to fix a torn tendon on his left hand four years ago not left it irrevocably damaged.

Returning to Singapore from Hong Kong in 2015, his ability to play musical instruments impaired, the composer-singer-songwriter decided to pour his artist’s soul into painting instead, choosing the medium of Chinese brush, ink and paper, because, like a live performance, the rendering is permanent once executed.

And what a pouring it is. Though he painted as a child, and exhibited once 28 years ago at The Substation, his latest works present a lode of philosophical insights from a life richly lived and intelligently reflected upon.

Mark Chan’s poem, Heart and Heartbeat, rendered in Chinese calligraphy, encapsulates his late life pivot, after tragedy and  heartbreak. (He came out of a long-term relationship four years ago.) The words speak about drinking on a moonlit night, opening the doors to face a cold world and finding that one’s heart still beats. Says Mark Chan: “It’s about getting older, getting on, and still finding a way to keep working.”

mark chan artist artwork gannets dive bombing fish

Mark Chan’s artwork, Gannets Dive Bombing Fish. Chan wants to show his works in China, Japan and Hong Kong, countries with a tradition of Chinese brush painting.

He found the perfect canvas in crumpled rice paper. “I want the paper to reflect my life. I experimented with it, I like the way it caught the ink. It spoke to me. As I crushed the paper, I felt I was a Chinese man crushing a young girl’s foot to bind it. It was horrifying to me, but it happened. I caused pain to the paper so I could make use of its transformed beauty. I wanted to make beauty out of the many broken parts I’ve had.”

(Related: Exhibition showcasing late Singaporean artist Chen Wen Hsi’s works to be held at his old home in Kingsmead Road)

Mark Chan’s Ink Mountain exhibition is on until March 31, at Jendela, Level 2, Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay.

Photos of artwork by Brian Gothong Tan.