Alvin Tan, fine artist

Artist, Alvin Tan, attracted much attention
as he painted the street with a broomstick!
When artist Alvin Tan, a San Francisco-based Malaysian artist was travelling on public transport in Asia recently, he observed that there was virtually no human contact among fellow commuters.  As the advancement and convenience of technology is being used to save lives, he was troubled that it is also isolating people who are too preoccupied with their devices that they are losing touch with each other.  This observation was like a “culture shock” to him and became the inspiration for him to express the irony of people who are being connected by electronic devices but yet are getting more disconnected with the people around them. 

Tan, a 1976 graduate of the Kuala Lumpur College of Arts, went to further his art education with the Accademia di Belle Arte Roma in Rome.  His exposure to the art world abroad and its potential in Malaysia encouraged him to relocate his entire family from Alor Setar to live in Johor Baru in 1982.  As his parents and siblings settled down here, Tan used to commute to work in Singapore with the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts where he lectured in Western Art History and the Aesthetics of Art and Psychology of Art until 1989 when he continued his education with the California College of the Arts, Oakland in USA.

Alvin Tan [Right] working among the black buntings in
 his site-specific installation at Tan Hiok Nee Heritage Walk
Since 1978, Tan has participated in art exhibitions held in Portugal, Italy, Singapore and the USA where he presented solo, partner and group exhibits.  He was among the pioneers of the Singapore Artists Village who joined founder, Tang Da Wu, in the art colony in the late 1980s to exchange ideas and encourage artists in new experiences and experiments.  While he continued his art studies with the Academy of Art University in San Francisco between 1991 and 1993, this prolific artist presented a number of solo exhibitions in San Francisco and Singapore, and in 1995 he was commissioned to create a wall mural in the Parrot Paradise of the Jurong Bird Park.

Last December Tan, a Peranakan of Teochew origin, who works and lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with his wife and family, was visiting Johor Baru and seeking a contemporary art space in the city to make an impact with his art.  As he explored the heart of the city and discovered the charm of Tan Hiok Nee Heritage Walk, he concluded that Johor Baru is more than ready to experience art in the city.  He was delighted to receive the green-light from the Tan Hiok Nee Heritage Walk Committee and went about getting the materials and sponsorship to create his site-specific art installation that he aptly entitled, Connect Disconnect.

 JB mayor Ismail Karim [4th from Left] and JB Tiong Hua
Association members admire "Connect Disconnect" by
Alvin Tan [2nd from Left] at Tan Hiok Nee Heritage Walk
His artwork that was first put up on Dec 14, attracted so much attention that he was encouraged to present it again on Dec 21.  This installation comprised 120 pieces of 7-ft long buntings that were suspended along a 15-meter length of the Tan Hiok Nee Heritage Walk that was painted in Tan’s distinctive style.  This length of the street, painted in a range of colourful paints sponsored by Colourland Paints, inevitably attracted a great deal of attention particularly when Tan was painting the street with a broomstick!

He explained that the street, painted in bright colours, represented the world at our feet.  He believed that everyone should be able to relate to colours and chose to use colour in various shades and intensities as a language to communicate our moods.  He hoped that the attractive colours would encourage people to look at the beauty that surrounds us and literally, “stop and smell the roses” rather than be preoccupied with their electronic devices. 

"Connect Disconnect" along a 15-meter stretch of
Tan Hiok Nee Heritage Walk, JB
In contrast, the 120 pieces of buntings made of poly-carbon fabric, were in solid black colour and painted with the outlines of six different human characters engaged with using electronic devices to represent the genders and ages of people who are caught in the “head-down trap.” 
The message in this art installation made such a strong statement that it impressed Johor Baru mayor Ismail Karim, when he visited Tan Hiok Nee Heritage Walk with representatives of the Johor Baru Tiong Hua Association on Dec 14.  Encouraged by the positive response to his art exhibit, Tan is upbeat about bringing more contemporary art to the masses and looks forward to the next opportunity to exhibit in Johor Baru again.  Tan can be contacted on email:

A version of this article was published in The New Straits Times, Streets Johor on 14 February 2014

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