Dr Tan Kai Syng: An enduring passion for art


Certainly the Toughest UltraMarathon of Your Life (2015) by Dr Tan Kai Syng

Art is never at a standstill — courtesy of artists who tirelessly challenge the boundaries of art. Such enterprising spirit is embodied by Dr Tan Kai Syng, whose artistic work has evolved over the years from painting to media art and digital drawing.

Dr Tan Kai Syng is the winner of the 1993 UOB Most Promising Artist of the Year. An acclaimed artist, Dr Tan uses graphics and videos to question the notion of reality. A 29-minute video cycle titled ‘The Amazing Never-Ending Underwater Adventures!’ by Dr Tan is displayed at Bras Basah MRT Station as a permanent art commission.

Dr Tan’s achievements are noteworthy. She was the Visual Director of the eighth ASEAN Paralympics Opening and Closing Ceremonies held in Singapore in 2015. Her other accolades include winning the 8th Panasonic Video Awards and a Certificate of Merit at the 42nd San Francisco International Film Festival Golden Gate Awards.

The passion for art developed from childhood. Dr Tan started participating in drawing competitions when she was four years old and her parents also encouraged her pursuit of art. At 19 years old, Dr Tan was the first recipient of the Shell-National Arts Council Scholarship, studying Fine Art at Slade School of Fine Art, University College London where she graduated with First Class Honours. Dr Tan recently completed her PhD in Fine Art from her alma mater, and is currently a research fellow at the Leeds College of Art.

This affinity for art runs deep in her family. Having grown up in an environment that encouraged creativity and the exploration of ideas, both Dr Tan and her sibling Mr Philip Tan have distinguished themselves in the creative field. Mr Tan ( is a renowned creative director and a 2016 Cultural Medallion nominee. Since young, their parents opened their lives to art and encouraged them to pursue their artistic interests.

In June 2016, Dr Tan will be presenting a new commission as an invited artist at the Grenoble Festival in France.

Recently, we had the opportunity to catch up with Dr Tan to learn more about her art developments. Here is a short Q&A with her:

1.  How has your artistic career changed after winning the UOB Most Promising Young Artist award in 1993?
In one word – tremendously. I was 18, in my second year at National Junior College and this was one of my first big national wins. This award was a turning point that came at the right time- it gave me the ‘permission’ to go all the way with my art career (not that I was seeking permission). Within a year, I was at the Slade School of Fine Art in London as the first National Arts Council Scholar. Since then, I have gone back to school a few times, taught at a few places, exhibited here and there.

Sams (1993) by Dr Tan Kai Syng
1993 UOB Painting of the Year – The Most Promising Young Artist Award

2. What do you like about the audiovisual medium and how is it different from painting for you?
Timely question. While I won at the POY for a painting I did, I stopped painting for a while and refused to make any more ‘objects’, instead focusing on making and teaching film
(eight millimetre, 16 millimetre, video). What I like about the audio visual medium is that it is based on movement through time. You are making as many as 25 images per second, so you can embed and complicate meanings in them, making it more exciting. This medium also allows you to pull together elements such as text and music (I had 12 years of training in classical music and my long term collaborator Philip Tan is also trained in music). And when we have more than one film playing in the same space, the possibilities can be endless.

Having worked with media art for 15-20 years, I have since ‘retired’ from that. Coming full circle, I now engage in drawing (albeit digitally), mapping and even making objects again in an upcoming project. Here is a recent work:



Drawing and painting is much slower the way I do it- difficult and requiring discipline. This took 5-6 months from conception to development and making.

3. Where do you draw your inspiration from?
Everyday life, everything. Our own body is a curiosity: its limitations, creative possibilities, its role as our navigator in this world and how we think. The city also offers insight, from the rhythmic buzz of human activity to the juxtaposition of consumerism and poverty. Societal concerns are always thought-provoking: migrant crises, extremism, our hypocrisies, ‘first world problems’ and petite middle class hang-ups. I question conventions and norms in the art world, in polite society, in academia; what to follow/reinforce and why; what to challenge and cross over etc.

4. Tell us more about your upcoming project at the Grenoble Festival in France.
Main dans la main (Hand in Hand) is a new commission for an annual street festival in Grenoble, France. The event attracted 50,000 participants last year. I make participants tether themselves to a stranger and run with them for a distance. While running, they will share their dreams for the future. This is inspired by how the blind and their guides run together (by tethering), and is my response to how asylum-seekers in Wales are forced to wear coloured wristbands. This work draws on my seven years of PhD and post-doctoral research, running serves as a creative tool to ask questions, bond people, and understand the world in a new way.

5. What is your advice to young, aspiring artists?
Work hard – don’t ‘wait’ for inspiration as sudden, miraculous rushes of enlightenment and energy. Don’t exoticise yourself, being an artist is no different from other professions or vocations – show and prove your worth. To be regarded as a professional, work as a professional and dedicate time to research, thinking and making. Venture outside of your comfort zone. If museums or society do not ‘get’ your art, it is your job to help them understand it. Never blame others for being narrow-minded; instead, open your mind, understand their viewpoint, engage, debate, persuade and learn. If you stop learning, you are not growing.

More information on the artist Dr Tan Kai Syng is available at