The Art Of Conflict

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Contrasting identities represent photographer Angie Tan and her painter husband, Gregory Burns, for whom collaborative work can spell necessary conflict.

By Zina Alam

She is the daughter of Tan Yee Hong, one of Singapore’s pioneering contemporary artists  and co-founder of the Modern Art Society in Singapore. He is the son of an American Foreign Service officer, and educated around the world. They grew up in two different worlds but their love of sport, art and life kept them together since the day in 1996 when they met at a windsurfing club in Singapore.

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Ris to Prague by Gregory Burns

Angie Tan grew up studying fashion and graphic art, and eventually became a professional photographer. Enamoured of the sea and an avid windsurfer, Tan’s love of nature and sport saw her embrace photography to capture landscapes, and the energy and spirit of those engaged in dynamic sports. Gregory Burns was painting since he was five and exhibiting since 18, but he only took to life as a fulltime artist 22 years later. When he was one, Burns contracted polio, which left him paralysed from the waist down. Yet he grew up to be an accomplished sportsman, breaking five world swimming records in the 1992 Barcelona, 1996 Atlanta and 2000 Sydney Paralympic Games, besides completing three IronMan events. In his 30s he sailed from Tahiti to China on a 125-foot boat called The Return of Marco Polo as part of a team making a television documentary series of the same name. Currently captain of the HandCycle Association of Singapore, Burns has also spent 20 years as a motivational speaker, and has published two books in English and Mandarin.

His interest in visual imagery began with comics and the contemplation of foreign landscapes from airplanes. After art studies at Cabrillo College, California, and the San Francisco Art Institute, he went to Taiwan in 1984 to study Chinese brush painting and calligraphy with local masters. But it was in his early years in Singapore, when he had just met Tan, that he transitioned into a full-time artist. “I was working for a multinational company and was let go during the Asian crisis of ’97. Brother Joseph McNally (the founder of La Salle School of the Arts), my mentor, suggested I do my Masters in painting. This proved to be a turning point… I decided to go into art full-time.”

 Artistic Collaboration

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Suzhou Journey by Gregory Burns

Starting their lives as a couple, Tan and Burns created what they like to call, “the big life” — travelling around the world, carrying out artistic residencies in “exquisite environments”, collaborating on their work and living multiple professional identities. “You need to live a lot, and only then you may have something worth writing, painting or singing about. Being an artist is not about living in a cloud,” explains Burns. Their collaboration as artists, Tan explains, happened organically and very slowly. “We started travelling together. Initially Gregory was painting, and I would take photographs of him working and his paintings and our surroundings. At first it was a lot of documentation on my part but it soon turned into more fine-art photography.” They began to market his art, so she spent years setting up exhibitions, doing all their behind-the-scenes work: promotional  and administrative chores, designing posters and invitations for events, and documenting Burns’ hundreds of artworks all over the world.

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Singapore Transition by Angie Tan

Only in the last decade did the couple start combining their artistic creations.  “Gregory would sit and paint at one location for a few hours, while I’m much more mobile so I can cover a whole village in the same time.” On how they work together, Burns observes, “Angie is like a squirrel who goes off in search of acorns, bringing them back to me, saying, ‘Hey look what I found!’ which I might then incorporate into my paintings.”

Tan talks about the influence Burns has had on her photography — not only is it painterly in style, but she also adds paint to her photographic prints, interestingly blurring the distinction between art and photography. “I capture images through photography, and then often work in multiple layers of gel and acrylic paint.” She often prints or mounts her photographs on canvas, creating a painterly finish and feel to provoke the viewer’s attention.

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Prague transition by Angie Tan

 Conflict and Creativity

Many might think it’s a match made in heaven, but Burns begs to differ. “People have this vision of a couple sitting and working side by side — that’s not really how it works. We are both quite stubborn in our own ways.”

Approaching each other from the genres of photography and painting creates a fair bit of difference in perspectives — but so does their coming from two different cultures. “We have very different mindsets, and we look at life differently. When I am out with my camera and Gregory’s got his sketchbook, he’ll see something and ask me to take a photo of it, but I’ll have no interest! So I’ll tell him to take his own photo!” she laughs. “But later, when I see what he’s taken, I realise its value. So he helps me to see something I normally wouldn’t notice in a different light, at a different angle. It makes me pause for contemplation.”

The couple, who have been on over 20 artists residencies around the world, claim they work best separately, and also by constantly referring to each other. “We are in conflict as much as in collaboration. We really work best as individuals, so we argue a lot! “But this is what’s healthy. It’s all art. Expressing our unique perspectives, no matter how different, is the cornerstone of our work. Encapsulating and reflecting what we see and observe, and expressing this through the layering of images and colours and meaning.”

Suzhou Passage

Suzhou Passage by Angie Tan

Their most recent project, an exhibition entitled Portals and Passages, marks the “culmination of our travels and the way we see the world.”

 Gregory and Angie Burns are recipients of the Singapore International Foundation’s Singapore Internationale grant that enables Singapore artists to collaborate across cultures and exhibit their works here and overseas. Portals and Passages was recently seen at DiverseCity 2012, the SIF’s annual arts showcase. Website: www.gregoryburns.com, www.angarts.com; Blog: http://gbatjourney.blogspot.com


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