A Brief Un-briefing of The Male Nude: Histories, Two Present Instances, A Qualifier

By Louis HO

“... an un-idealized depiction is a reminder that men’s actual genitals are
quite weak - a good kick in the groin and a man is put out of operation.”
- Jonathan Weinberg

 

The epigraph above highlights the primary point of vulnerability in the male anatomy, an apropos opener for a show that foregrounds the subjective and distinctly un-idealized male body in all its naked vulnerability and expressiveness. Eiffel Chong’s contribution consists of black and white studio portraits of young men, while James Seet has crafted a series of Rodin-esque ceramic sculptures. Here, the pairing of their work takes its creative cue from an earlier exhibition, at the Musee Rodin in Paris, that juxtaposed the nude bodies of Robert Mapplethorpe’s images and Auguste Rodin’s figures. (More on which later.) More pertinently, however, It’s a Male Nude Show perhaps serves as just the occasion to survey, however cursorily, the unclothed male figure in the history of Singapore’s art, and, to a lesser extent, that of Malaysia.

... though we begin in another time and place. The male nude in established art historical narrative would kick off with the Hellenistic universe and the genre of so-called heroic nudity, of which Polykleitos’ Doryphorus, now remaining to us only as a Roman copy, is oft-cited as a prime example. The artists of the Renaissance would later elevate the Greco-Roman idealization of the male body to new heights. Michelangelo’s celebrated statue of David, which has come to typify the new intellectual milieu of the period, once stood in the main town square of the independent Republic of Florence, and personified not just strength and lithe male beauty, but also autonomy and resistance to political domination. Representations of the male nude persisted into the early modern period and beyond, with nude life classes becoming the basis of European art education and a mainstay of history painting, a case in point being Jacques-Louis David’s The Intervention of the Sabine Women. Later, the expressive subjectivity of male nudity would come to fore in the sculptural work of Auguste Rodin and the self-portraits of Egon Schiele, to mention but two salient examples of the late 1800s and fin de siècle. The twentieth century foregrounded what would prove a vital dimension in the depiction of naked men: the homoerotic gaze of male-male desire. (The flip side of that coin is the fact that the male nude also played a role in the visual culture of Nazism in the 1930s and 40s.) The post-war era saw the emergence of male nudity, unabashed; the likes of Paul Cadmus and his one-time paramour, Jared French, as well as David Hockney and Harold Stevenson, all embraced the form with enthusiasm. The second half of the century brought new urgencies, with the advent of the sexual revolution, the struggle for gay rights and the AIDS crisis of the 1980s providing the historical context for the work of figures such as Robert Mapplethorpe, Peter Hujar and Mark Morrisroe.

The third millennium has witnessed a resurgence of interest in the tradition, with the nude male a beneficiary of the contemporary cultural prominence afforded to the representation of an ever-widening spectrum of LGBTQ and other non- normative identities. A number of highly visible, large-scale institutional exhibitions have, in recent years, been dedicated to either the genealogy of the male nude and/ or its framing within discourses of sexual alterity. In 2012, the Leopold Museum in Vienna opened “nude men from 1800 to the present day”, a massive undertaking devoted solely to a look at the range and historical transformation of the portrayal of unclothed male bodies. The following year, “Masculine/Masculine: The Nude Man in Art from 1800 to the Present Day”, which covered similar thematic ground, was held at the Musee d’Orsay in Paris. In both instances, organizers adduced the imbalance of historical and scholarly attention paid to the female and male nude figures as one of the chief impulses. Following close on the heels of the d’Orsay exhibition was a retrospective of Robert Mapplethorpe’s work at the RMN-Grand Palais in 2014, in conjunction with which the smaller exhibition, “Mapplethorpe-Rodin”, was held at the Musee Rodin. The latter was clearly the creative point of departure for the present undertaking: the pairing of Mapplethorpe’s photographs and Rodin’s sculptures, with the male nude serving as the common iconographic thread, is reiterated here in the juxtaposition of the work of Chong and Seet.

Exhibitions elsewhere presented male nudity as an integral component of same-sex attraction and personal identity. “Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture”, which ran from 2010 to 2011 at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Portrait Gallery, examined issues of gender identity and sexual difference through the lens of the titular genre, and included works by Cadmus, Larry Rivers and Wynn Chamberlain. Depictions of nude men, unsurprisingly, also played a conspicuous role in the narratives shaped by “Queer British Art 1861-1967” at the Tate Britain in 2017; examples of early works involving nudes included paintings by Duncan Grant and Henry Scott Tuke, as well as the photography of Wilhelm von Gloeden. Closer to home, a blockbuster exhibition of queer-themed art by Southeast Asian and Asian artists, the first of its kind, was staged in Bangkok from 2019 to 2020. “Spectrosynthesis II” - it was preceded by a smaller, first iteration in Taipei - was a milestone in many ways, and featured nude male and transgender bodies in the work of Arin Rungjang, Truong Tan, Xiyadie and Naraphat Sakarthornsap.

Male nudity in art - or the depiction of any variety of full-bodied exposure, whether male or female - has experienced a divergent historical trajectory in Singapore and Malaysia. The legal systems of both countries are premised on the common law system inherited from the British colonial authorities (with a major difference being that Malaysia subscribes to a dual system allowing for Islamic, or syariah, law). The legal statutes of both include a Section 292 of the Penal Code that proscribes the dissemination and display of “obscenity”. In Singapore’s case, the law warns off anyone who “distributes, transmits by electronic means, publicly exhibits or in any manner puts into circulation...any obscene book, pamphlet, paper, drawing, painting, representation or figure, or any other obscene object.” Legal interdicts and socio-cultural taboos have, unsurprisingly, chilled the production and reception of the nude depictions in this part of the world. In the modern era, the plausible beginnings of the genre in Singapore’s and Malaysia’s art history may perhaps be located in the work of the Nanyang school painters, who were educated in Western studio traditions in Shanghai, Paris and New York, and incorporated the nude into their respective oeuvres to varying degrees. Georgette Chen, Chen Wen Hsi and Cheng Chong Swee all produced nude studies, and Cheong Soo Pieng was given to depicting women of various indigenous Southeast Asian communities in their customary topless state. In the latter respect, however, it is Liu Kang who is renowned for his depiction of bare-breasted Balinese women, a subject he utilized repeatedly, but one of his most famous self-portraits is a delicate, pastel-on- paper rendering from 1950, where he sketched himself as a young man - resolute, undaunted, shirtless. The marked lack of prudishness about the human body, including his own, seems to have been reflected in his personal life. Artist Ho Tzu Nyen has adduced existing black-and-white photographs of Liu disporting in the outdoors, completely in the buff, as “performatively construct[-ing] for himself an image of the uninhibited artist returning to the bosom of nature.”

Singaporean artist Ng Eng Teng, who is known for his sculptural work, produced life drawing sketches while at school in the U.K. in the 1960s. (He was also a student of the Nanyang painters, including Georgette Chen, at the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts.) He would achieve a measure of fame for his monolithic, public statuary, but the figure of male nude makes an early appearance in the Declining Man series, the earliest of which dates to 1969. Art historian T. K. Sabapathy marked of the works - there are three similarly titled pieces - which all feature a naked man, lying on his side, with bound hands and legs and feet, that the figure is “fettered and encumbered”, “symbolising captivity and bondage.” Ng’s later practice would also come to feature his famous torsos that reshaped the eponymous anatomical fragment into surreal, inescapably phallic-seeming forms. Here, Sabapathy pointedly noted: “Doors leading to the domain of the subconscious are open.” The same period also saw Malaysian Patrick Ng Kah Onn, a member of the Kuala Lumpur-based Wednesday Art Group, experimenting with the figure of the male nude. His painting, Spirits of the Earth, Sky and Water (1959), one of his earliest and best-known works, included a nude or semi-nude couple as one component of a quasi-mystical landscape, comprised of elements and figures drawn from various Asian cultural traditions. More interestingly, Patrick Ng produced a series of batik paintings in the early 1960s that depicted nude male figures in various outdoor tableaux, their genitalia prominently on display, that seems to constitute one of the earliest examples, in this part of the world, of the nude male body as a signifier of homoeroticism. Complicating the narrative of modern Malaysian art, art historian Simon Soon has opined that Ng’s “batik paintings demonstrated queering as an operative gesture and model within the story of modern Asian art.”

Patrick Ng’s fellow Malaysian, Zulkifli Dahlan, was tragically cut down by lymphoma when he was but in his mid-twenties. His brief career, which transpired from the late 1960s to his passing in 1977, evinced a visual language that was centered on the human figure: whimsically cartoon-like, with elongated proportions and undulating silhouettes, sometimes in mutated shapes, and almost always inexplicably and humorously nude. He produced several large paintings, of which Kedai-Kedai (or Shops, 1973), is a case in point: its urban setting of a shophouse- lined street populated by his trademark figures going about their daily business- unclothed. Artist and curator Nur Hanim Khairuddin has observed that “the most frequently drawn images in his work are human figures, mainly male, which he regularly depicted totally naked ... we a find a few classifications of figure-types ... as if Zulkifli was producing a visual inventory of categories of human beings, from the most ordinary to the most bizarre.”

The coding of the male nude as an iconographic metonym for same-sex desire appears in the work of Singaporeans Teng Nee Cheong and Jimmy Ong. Teng, who passed away in 2013, worked primarily in the genres of portraiture, landscapes and floral still-lifes. He was a student at the Nanyang Academy in the late 1960s, and, like Ng Eng Teng before him, a student of Georgette Chen’s. He worked with models in life drawing sessions over the course of his career, and would produce portraits of male nudes that, in a number of cases, featured erect or semi-erect phalluses, or were sexually explicit. One of the earliest existing such works is Tribute to Mishima (1980), a painting that depicts not the titular personage, but rather a supine, lithe male model clad in nothing but a pair of white, calf-length socks of the sort worn by soccer players, and depicted from a vantage point where, framed by parted legs, his genitals immediately seize the viewer’s gaze. The work seems reminiscent of fetish-specific varieties of gay pornography - athletic gear, in this case - and the artist notes that “Publications and magazines like Blue Boy, Colt or Tom of Finland [sic] were hard to come by in Singapore in the 1970s and 1980s - not to mention the consequences one faced if caught possessing them.” Years later, Teng would produce one of his most explicit works: a large, untitled drawing from 2004 that captures a man on all fours, his blunt tip of an erection just visible beneath his bent body, performing oral sex on another man. The artist apparently did not shy away from discussing issues of personal sexual orientation in conversation, though not in print, about which curator Lindy Poh writes:

... another aspect of Nee Cheong’s art has been circumvented in published writings for its problematic implications. Nee Cheong himself remains cautious about addressing the facet of his practice but has, since the 1980s, elaborated on how the issue of alternative sexual preferences and sexual identities have impacted his endeavours.

Not unlike Teng, Jimmy Ong began his artistic career, in the 1980s, with large charcoal-on-paper works that foregrounded the nude. More recent projects have seen him engage thematically with the region’s historical narratives - that of Singapore’s colonial past, especially the larger-than-life figure of Stamford Raffles, as well as Java’s feudal history - but notable early works include those that, in one instance, were censored from a gallery exhibition for their depiction of exposed anatomies. “Lovers & Ancestors” was held in 1996 at the now defunct Cicada Gallery, and included drawings on themes of “progeny and filial piety”; it was, in the artist’s words, “a parting letter to family and friends as I left Singapore to live out a gay union.” A number of smaller pieces were excised from the final presentation, a situation that Ong characterized thus: “Some drawings contain depiction of genitals the gallery deemed offensive, thus the self censorship by the gallery.” These drawings were later included in a dedicated publication, I am not the One, published in New York in December the same year. Several of his drawings were involved in the first iteration of “Spectrosynthesis” in Taipei in 2017, works that featured both male and female nude figures in their representation of same-sex families.

Life figure drawing was reinvigorated in the 1990s with the formation of the Group 90 collective, named for the year in which it was inaugurated. The group was centered on the figure of Solamalay Namasivayam, a Singaporean artist who graduated from the East Sydney Technical College in 1961, where he received his initial introduction to life drawing. He spent the following decades as a teacher in public schools in Singapore, and it was only upon joining the faculty of LASALLE College that he began steadily producing a prodigious volume of nude drawings, though their subjects were, in most cases, women. The formation of the Group 90 collective has been attributed to the difficulties that artists such as Namasivayam faced, in their efforts to organize life drawing sessions in Singapore:

...In the absence of any club, either formal or ad hoc, that might have otherwise facilitated such an exploration of figurative art, Namasivayam, together with Brother Joseph McNally (the founder of LASALLE College of the Arts), Chia Wai Hon and Sim Tong Khern, founded an informal club named Group 90 in 1990. Although it was technically an unregistered collective of like-minded artists, it nevertheless played a significantly influential role - one that was arguably the very first of its kind in the region.

The early years of the decade witnessed two watershed moments in Singapore’s art history. In 1993, a pair of artists, Singaporean Tan Peng and American John Goss, staged an exhibition, “Flowing Forest, Burning Hearts”, at the Substation, a show of homoerotic works that a review in The Straits Times dubbed “a milestone for Singaporean visual art in being the first full frontal, unabashed attempt to examine homosexual love and desires from a more positive point of view.” A number of pieces featured nude bodies and erect phalluses, but perhaps the most remarkable aspect was Tan’s openness about his personal sexual inclination. The aforementioned piece included a quote from the artist: “Being gay, as a viewer in art exhibitions, I am tired of drawing meaning from works which ignore my existence. At the same time, I feel a desire to serve the community - to do my bit to help comfort and heal a world ailing from prejudice, intolerance and hatred.” The other notable event at this time occurred on Jan 1, 1994, when Josef Ng, in protest against the recent police entrapment of gay men, performed a piece titled Brother Cane, which climaxed in the artist pulling down his briefs, his back to the audience, and snipping off some of his pubic hair. While visible full-frontal nudity did not occur in the performance, the ensuing public uproar would prove traumatic for the development of Singapore’s contemporary art scene; it was the trigger for decade- long constraints on the licensing and funding of performance art in the country.

 

As the new millennium rolled around, and on, the depiction of male nudity in Singapore became increasingly detached from life drawing in the mode of traditional Western studio practice, and formed part of the standard iconographic repertoire of representations of queer male identity and experience. A new generation of Singaporean artists such as Martin Loh, Ernest Chan Tuck Yew and Jason Wee incorporated the nude male into their pictorial vocabularies, while in Malaysia, perhaps as a result of socio-religious norms, it made only sporadic appearances, outside of LBGTQ contexts, in the work of Ahmad Zakii Anwar’s scrupulously detailed studies of male anatomies and Ahmad Fuad Osman’s portraits of himself in a foreign clime. In 2002, Martin Loh staged a solo exhibition, “Men in the Raw”, of explicit pictures of male-male sexual activity and intimacy. A review of the show on gay online portal, Fridae, noted the “impossibly handsome and well-endowed men ... proud in their bulging masculinity, making them icons of gay erotica ...” Chan likewise painted starkly naked and fetching male specimens in his 美人 (Mei Ren, or “beautiful person”, 1998 -2002) series, while Jason Wee, whose practice hews to a more conceptually-oriented bent, exhibited a suite of works titled Bao Bei at the Substation in 2005. The latter appropriated explicit photographs derived from websites, forums and chatrooms frequented by gay men, and were of individuals in various sexual acts or states of undress. These images were visually obscured by the artist - a deliberate thwarting of the voyeuristic impulse so common to gay male interaction. One of the pieces featured a young man with his rump half-exposed to the viewer, the image “little more than a pornographic affectation, knowingly eliciting the voyeurism of sexual desire”, that simultaneously “imposed upon the eroticism of the tableau ... a layer of abstraction, a semi-opaque barrier of artificial pixels confounding the viewing gaze ... ”

The early aughts saw the first and, to date, only institutional exhibition in Singapore devoted to the genre of the nude, organized by the Singapore Art Museum in 2002. While, perhaps unsurpsingly, “Naked Perfection” featured mostly works centered on nude female figures, a small number were of nude men, including those by Ng Eng Teng and Wee Beng Chong. Ng, in particular, was represented by a starkly realistic drawing, in colour pencil, of a corpulent, hirsute individual who appears to be of South Asian ethnicity. While the model’s private parts remain hidden from view behind closed knees, the image stands out for its psychosomatic drama: the scowling expression on the sitter’s face, hinting at a dark mood or an abrasive personality, is matched by the thick web of pencil lines crisscrossing his body, a suggestion of extreme hairiness. Here, a sense of emotional heaviness dovetails with dense surficial textures.

Queer representation in Singapore’s visual culture has continued to flourish into the second decade of the 2000s, an era that has seen greater visibility for the local LGBTQ+ community with, for instance, the annual Pink Dot event, which held its inaugural edition in 2009. The work of Loo Zihan, Marla Bendini and Simon Ng are notable for their deployment of male nudity to those ends. In 2012, Loo restaged Brother Cane at the Substation, where, cleanly shaved from his scalp to his privates, he re-enacted the performance against a backdrop of a recording - shot by artist and academic Ray Langenbach - of Josef Ng’s original. The dimension of full-frontal nudity, which was not part of Ng’s performance in 1994, is interesting for being frameworked by a rash of episodes in Singapore involving public nudity then. In early 2009, for one, a young couple took a stroll around the popular Holland Village neighbourhood in nothing but their birthday suits; the following year, a man walked into a MacDonald’s restaurant, au naturel, while, also in 2010, a middle- aged woman disrobed at a bus stop in an unrelated incident. Marla Bendini, who identifies as being transgender, has made captured her own body in the nude in a number of works, including the Ruminant series, one of which was included in an exhibition of queer artists, “No Approval”, in 2013, co-curated by Jason Wee and this author at Grey Projects. Simon Ng’s Scenes series of paintings (c. mid 2010s), which includes several of nude male figures, are based on images of individuals posed in fictive, psychologically-charged settings - a number of whom he met through the online gay dating app, Grindr. Other exhibitions at this time that featured male nudity were “Handsome: IVSG”, curated by Bendini at the Substation in 2012, and “Portraits of Defacement”, which took place at Your Mother Gallery the same year. The latter had participating artists, both male and female, contributing works that reflected on their relationship with their own genitalia, in an effort to “elucidate the politics of representations ... challenge societal and cultural constructs around human genitalia, as well as to create healthy dialogue about the issues.” Most recently, collector Chong Huai Seng organized an exhibition of nudes from his personal collection, which featured a roster of female bodies, excepting a Teng Nee Cheong painting, Untitled (1997).

The figure of the male nude, then, has been the aesthetic vehicle for norms and forms of various impulses: socio-cultural, political, personal, erotic and, of course, art historical, with the genealogy of the genre informing contemporary formulations. Moving on to the case at hand, the work of Eiffel Chong and James Seet here, like the curatorial premise of the exhibition itself, are derived from earlier precedent, a historical lineage of nude male representations. Chong’s portraits of nubile young men - most, if not all, appearing to be of Chinese descent - call to mind Robert Mapplethorpe’s work, perhaps approximating his Black Book most closely in its visual contours. While the bodies being fetishized in the work of both artists are diametrically opposite, with the strapping black men of the latter, boasting musculatures of almost sculpted quality, standing in stark contrast to the pristine, slender, marble-pale anatomies of the former’s models, their minimalist, black-and-white framing of the male body, posed in deliberately stage-y studio settings, seem to share remarkable affinity. Chong remarks of these images that he had in mind intimations of immortality: “It is about the idea of how the world worships youth, while not dying is also something that humanity has been trying to achieve. To me, the only way to achieve that is perhaps to immortalise youth ... It is about immortality.” The concept of immortality runs parallel, of course, to the the promise of ageless permanence held out by the photographic image, but perhaps it may prove instructive to bear in mind other dimensions of immortality - namely, reproduction, or the transmission of genetic material. The exposed phallus is conspicuously present in Chong’s work, and, as a signifier of insemination, and thus reproduction, the male sexual organ serves only to reinforce the theme of continuity. On the other hand, the inescapable whiff of homoeroticism that lingers over the genre of the male nude belies attempts to understand male genitalia simply as a symbol of heterosexual reproduction. Read within the possiblity of same-sex desire, it is tempting to imagine that the connotations of continuity held out by the motif of the phallus in these images is really the visuality of agelessness ensured by the camera, one form of immortality shading into another.

James Seet’s Conversation series is more explicitly citational in character. A suite of diminutive ceramic figures of nude men premised on Rodin’s sculptures, they channel the psychological expressiveness and tactile modelling of the latter. (Worth bearing in mind here is that Rodin himself worked with clay.) As Seet remarks of his predecessor: “He modeled the human body with naturalism, and his sculptures celebrate individual character and physicality. My exploration with every stroke on the clay and every indent and impression on the form creates spontaneity.” Indeed, Seet’s own ceramic sculptures were all modelled by hand, and their surfaces scored by marks created with wooden tools and fingernails, a feature that he analogizes to the individuality of a painter’s brushstrokes on a canvas. It is perhaps this haptic aspect of the works that renders the conversation of their title an intimate exchange between two individuals, rather than a dispassionate homage. The semiotic sign of the index, as Rosalind Krauss has demonstrated, is predicated on physical contiguities between sign and object, being a trace of the artist’s hand that emphasizes its own processual character. Krauss wrote of theindexical sign: “... indexes establish their meaning along the axis of a physical relationship to their referents. They are the marks or traces of a particular cause, and that cause is the thing to which they refer, the object they signify. Into the category of the index, we would place physical traces (like footprints), medical symptoms, or the actual referents ... Cast shadows could also serve as the indexical signs of objects ...” Here, the indexical nature of Seet’s mark- making complicates the mimetic dimension of the works. Put another way, the likeness of his figures to their inspiration - the similarities in figuration, mood, materiality - is perhaps less essential to the desired dialogue with Rodin, but, rather, the act of modelling and incising the works by hand, their shapes and surfaces bearing indexical testimony, makes of the exchange a corporeal conversation in the here and now.

It may be prudent to wind up the present essay with a qualifier. The strictures against public nudity in both Singapore and Malaysia, whether representational or live, continue to foster a culture of extreme caution where nudity is involved. Singapore’s laws do not just proscribe obscene material, but also what is termed ‘indecent exposure’, the statute in question identifying “Any person who appears nude (a) in a public place; or (b) in a private place and is exposed to public view .... a person appearing nude includes a person who is clad in such a manner as to offend against public decency or order.” This state of affairs, of course, has had significant impact on various disciplines and mediums, including theatre and performance art. In 2018, for instance, a performance art event that featured a roster of mostly local and regional artists took place over several venues, including a small building located in a neighbourhood in the east of Singapore. It was there that this author caught a work by a male artist in which he performed, for much of the duration of the piece, completely in the nude, behind closed doors. The performance seems not to have garnered mention, unsurprisingly, and no documentation exists in the public realm. Works like this one highlight the fact that any survey of nudity in contemporary art in Singapore would likely remain necessarily incomplete and fragmentary, given the less than public or publicized nature of such live events.

 

In the meantime, we do what we can.