In partnership with nature

SCULPTOR Zadok Ben-David cheerfully recounts how his relationship with Singapore "started out on the left foot".

"I was invited to submit sculptures for an open international competition in 1994, of which the winning pieces would be displayed in front of the towers of Suntec City," he recalls. "I received, in one letter, both good news and bad news, that out of 1,300 applicants, I had won. However, the letter also stated that the new owners of Suntec City were not interested in art." The project was cancelled, revived three years later but was derailed because of the financial crisis.

Ben-David's relationship with Singapore warmed up slowly but surely over the years to come. He first visited the country in 1997 and the "beautiful food and hospitable people" left a lasting impression on him. His first exhibition here, Evolution and Theory, was held in 1998.

Ben-David, who is based in London, recalls in vivid detail his Singaporean endeavours. They include showcases at the National Museum of Singapore and the Esplanade, as well as the placement of an artwork in Chinatown, outside the Majestic Hotel.

The 63-year-old was in town recently to oversee his outdoor exhibition of 17 works at the Singapore Botanic Gardens. The show, which opened in October and will run until Jan 31, is in collaboration with auction house Sotheby's.

"I am very pleased with how the exhibition looks," remarks Ben-David. He says he has been more hands-on with this exhibition, his largest outdoor one to date, than before. "How we place everything can help or kill the show, because it's not a neutral space like the walls of a gallery. Trees, sky and rain can be obstacles, but they can also be advantages."

The artist says this is his first outdoor exhibition of such a scale anywhere in the world. "My exhibitions have always been indoors or a group show, but I was always encouraged by the growing interest in the Far East in my work."

Because of this interest, Ben-David immersed himself in the Asian arts scene. This culminated in his largest show to date, at the Guangdong Museum of Art in China, in 2007. He speaks proudly of the piece he created for the Olympic park in Beijing, as well as his participation in the international Biennales in Busan, Venice and other parts of the world.

"The art scenes in the countries where I have been showcased are all very different," elaborates the Yemen-born Israeli, "but art now speaks one common language of contemporary art."

Yet, he is a firm believer in individualism. "This language helps us understand one another, but I still feel that artists should stick to their own locality and experiences. Bringing one's own culture into an artwork actually helps other people relate to it from the outside; that is why my work has access to people from both East and West. I believe it is possible for two people to produce two similar pieces, but one would have a different feel from the other because both artists would have had different life experiences."

Ben-David, who has collaborated with three-dimensional visual artists, contemporary dancers, as well as musical icon Peter Gabriel, says his propensity to depict nature in his art is not actually about nature itself. "It's not so much about a flower, it's not so much about trees — ask me the names of some of these plants that I've used and I might not be sure of them," he admits. Instead, he says his use of nature is as "a metaphor for human nature and behaviour". This is most evident in Blackfield, arguably his magnum opus. "Blackfield was a massive installation where viewers entered a room of burnt flowers. This scene gripped them with sadness, and to some extreme, was quite depressing for a few people."

Another lauded piece was his first exhibit for a holocaust museum. When asked to commemorate the Jewish partisans, he was amused by his impression of their camouflage fatigues, which blend men into trees. "From a distance, my exhibit looks like an ordinary tree, but coming closer, one starts to notice that this tree is made entirely out of thousands of human figures. It's not about copying nature on the surface, but interpreting what you can see."

His next show will be in Los Angeles. "It's all going to be in darkness," he explains, "where people enter a dark room lit by UV lights." The room will be lit by 2,000 butterflies — his favourite creatures. "On one side, these butterflies will consist of humans, but crossing to the other side, these butterflies are covered in insects, like cockroaches and beetles. One side will attract you, while the other might repel you. Perhaps my next project should be painting cockroaches the way I paint butterflies."

The amiable artist shares part of his creative process. "When I am commissioned to do a large piece, my immediate reaction is to make miniatures, which are much more delicate, as you can imagine, but they help me see their details better.

"My large ones are all hand-cut with a high-voltage hand torch. The torch uses air pressure to cut as deep as 4cm, from a big plate, but the creative process really ends at the drawing stage, where I draw pictures to be projected onto the surface to be sculpted. The sculpting process is more of finishing the end-product, but I still don't know how the piece will turn out at that point," he elaborates.

Asked about his foray into art, he suggests: "Perhaps it was something genetic, because my father and forefathers made jewellery." His early ambition when he was attending St Martin's School of Art in London was to become a painter. Instead, he discovered sculpting during his freshman year.

"Many people miss out on a lot of enjoyment when they go to an art museum," laments Ben-David, who became a teacher later on his artistic journey. "They try to concentrate on finding out what the artist is saying. Most of us don't even know what we want to say when we are making the piece," he laughs. "I don't know of any art pieces that have solved a major world problem. We artists — dancers, musicians, and visual artists — are just philosophers who raise the question differently and perhaps more deeply."

He relates an incident with a former student. "I was telling this girl what I thought of her piece and giving her my criticism, and she replied, 'Five minutes before, another professor came in and said the exact opposite. What should I do?' 'I am just an observer from the outside', I replied. 'Do nothing'."

Andre Frois gave up his full time editorial post to pursue other interests including acting. This story first appeared in

The Edge Singapore weekly edition of Dec 24-31, 2012.

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