FEATURING TAN YANG ER
SHE PAINTS, she photographs, decorates interiors, makes her own clothes, does hair and makeup professionally, dabbles in film and is a bona fide florist.
Which brings us to the question- is there anything that Tan Yang Er can’t do?
Yang (as she’s known to her friends) is a multi-disciplinary artist who resists being pigeonholed in a single niche, preferring instead to embrace the possibilities across various mediums.
“I’m kind of like a jack of all trades, and yet I’m not a master of none. It’s fun to have different aspects being blended in one art form,” she says.
The 21-year-old is, for lack of a better word, quite the visual extraordinaire. There is a touch of elegance, a dash of whimsy and edgy cred that lends itself to Yang’s signature style.
Like most people, her Instagram feed charts her daily life, where she goes, what she eats, who she meets. But with her, even the most mundane objects turn into pieces of art.
A drop of food colouring as it dissolves into wisps and curlicues, the quiet destruction of a cracked egg yolk, her brother’s old aeroplane model pictured against a grimy oven, pensive self-portraits featuring organza and silk, and scraps of paper she wrote to her beloved grandfather when he lost his hearing - these are all everyday projects she conceptualizes and captures, just for the fun of it.
Abstract, experimental, stylish - whatever you want to call it, it’s pure wizardry.
“I’m very curious, very easily excited and I want to take that further. The last thing I want to be is the same as anybody else. Every time I’ll ask myself, how can I be different, how can I set myself apart?” she says.
For Yang, her art needs to go beyond merely feeding her own creative needs. It’s about “living for something bigger”, be it through inspiring others or challenging them with a different perspective.
And it shows.
In her interpretation of the recent black-and-white photo challenge, she shot close-ups of rice grains, ice cubes, and coding gobbledegook she discovered in the printing lab. Once again, under her touch, these ordinary objects transmute into something other-worldly.
Painting wise, she does everything, from watercolours, acrylic, markers, chalk, to screen printing and wood cutting. Besides that, she also creates short films for school.
On a bigger scale, she has a knack for transforming spaces, and it’s earned her quite a name among her peers at the Wee Kim Wee School of Communication.
With a practiced wave of her hand, the humble campus turns into a umbrella wonderland à la Mary Poppins, and the next it resembles a scene that might have come straight out of the Mad Hatter’s circus. Most recently, she outdid herself in the grandest installation to date - a giant overhead canopy of steel cages entwined in leaves, complete with dangling delicate baubles filled up with water, bathing the school in a dream-like atmosphere.
Initially, however, when the contractors said it couldn’t be done, she battled with the decision of fighting to protect her vision or opting for a safer floor installation.
Being inexperienced with the mechanics of it, Yang took it upon herself to become well-versed with things like fishing lines and steel cables, besides her usual array of table runners and tea lights. Calling her resourceful doesn’t quite cut it.
“It’s a lot of trial and error, so it’s important to learn to try,” Yang explains. “But this boldness... well, it’s something I got growing up. I was very stubborn as a kid. If I could picture it my head, I didn’t see why not. If this method didn’t work, I’d try another. So if I want it, I’ll make it happen.”
And if she had her way (and enough cash), she’d turn an industrial warehouse into a gallery party, not for herself, but to celebrate fellow artists. “My friends could bring their photography projects, for instance. It’d be like a great exchange, ” she says.
Some of her side projects have helped Yang land huge gigs to New York, Paris and London.
When she was just fresh out of college, she flew with the Makansutra team to New York to coordinate Singapore Day. In December 2013, she scored a trip to Paris Fashion week, where she helped with merchandising and pitching to clients for artisan jewellery brand Choo Yilin.
And in June last year, she signed up for a month-long course in textiles printing at Central Saint Martin’s University, London. Some of her designs involved taking textures like crushed aluminium foil and cling wrap and zapping them with the photocopy machine, before sending them off to the heating press.
One would think that Yang’s been doing this all her life.
In fact, she confides that she sees herself as unqualified. Growing up, she was discouraged to pursue art, thinking that what she drew was ugly. It wasn’t till a few years back where she picked up her pencil and started sketching.
Yang names her grandfather, a painter, as one of the biggest influences in her life. In his younger days, he painted movie posters on faces of buildings, she describes admiringly.
She recalls one point when she stopped painting for a few months, as she was insecure about her work.
"One day, my grandpa told me to come over and draw a circle. So I did. And then he asked me to draw a circle within a circle. It was like a silent conversation we had. Then he got me to draw an oblong, and a triangle. I was like, why is he asking me to draw such things? And then he told me, ‘Yang Er I think you have the potential to draw.’”
That statement was what pushed her to keep working at it. And boy, are we glad, because her work is all kinds of wonderful and it can only get better from here.
Yang adds that it's a great help for her to get feedback from her social media following, as she can learn what people appreciate and then publish the kind of art they want to see.
For every work Yang presents to the world, it has to be first perfect in her eyes, which is telling of her work ethic. She shelves a lot of her bad work, she admits. “It’s like being a chef. Before I dish it out, I need to make sure I’ve tried my best, and I leave it to the person to decide how good it tastes.”
As part of her creative process, Yang captures little snippets of life and scrawls ideas in the multiple notebooks she has in her bag. She’s also cultivated a great love for trips to museums, art galleries, and recently flea markets, where she chats with homegrown designers. “It’s the people behind the work that really inspires me,” she explains, citing a recent visit to the Public Garden Flea Market.
Currently she does food and interior photography for lifestyle brand Chalk and this year, she will be embarking on a 6-month internship at ad agency TBWA.
For now, she’s enjoying the varied nature freelance work brings, but dreams of one day starting her own brand, where she has ultimate control of a product that’s entirely her own.
Beneath that infectious enthusiasm and bubbly persona, Yang displays a serious side. Citing another piece of advice from her grandfather, she muses thoughtfully, "You have to enjoy the process, even more so than the ending.”
With all these opportunities coming her way, she’s certainly having a great time as she takes us along for the ride.
But it’s not easy.
“It takes a lot of courage. There are many times I feel alone, but I tell myself that it’s all right. It’s about staying grounded, and knowing that it’s lonely at the top sometimes." At this point she laughs self-deprecatingly, dismissing her last statement by saying that she’s not exactly reached that point yet.
She adds, “But one day I’ll get there.”