The Romanticism of Lies


At the start of the month, Arun, Ben, Jeremy and I went to watch this show called These Children Are Dead. It sold itself as a lecture performance by Nora Samosir about her discovery of these paintings stashed away in a Joo Chiat shophouse along with some journals by a mysterious artist called Huang Wei, who disappeared in 1955. Each painting was a haunting image of a child, complete with vacant stare, or in fact incomplete – some had missing forearms. We were led to believe that he was painting along a different trajectory than the Singapore Pioneer Artists who were establishing the Nanyang Style of art at the same time (1950s).

I say “led to believe” because two days ago, on a day when I finally decided to read the newspaper from corner to corner (okay, flip through would probably be a more accurate description), I chanced upon this article that had the headline “Play paints a hoax” and I saw a very familiar picture of Nora Samosir. That was when I went: “Holy shit.”

I read through the article and it was claimed that the hoax was revealed at the discussion sessions after the show, that the works were done by a local contemporary artist called Alan Oei, and how everyone felt very betrayed. But this issue didn’t arise at our discussion session, and in fact everyone who was asking questions that night seemed to be doing so with a belief in the artist’s existence.

Nora Samosir said: “Others said they wished they did not know it was a lie, which really surprised me. It seems we believe what we want to believe. When a romantic idea is shattered, people still refuse to relinquish it.”

I don’t know if I belong in that group of people who still wished it was a lie. Even though it’s been two days since I read the article, I still feel torn between what my head wants to acknowledge and what my heart wants to believe.

Of course, I have to admit that my first reaction was, well, something between the points of “mild irritation” and “anger” on the human emotional spectrum. I felt cheated, because I had believed in this artist, his morbid brilliance, even the fabricated “Sook Ching survival story”. Then I felt stupid, because I had treated all this as fact, simply with the two words “lecture performance” on the flyer – a phrase that usually has no literary value, but yet connoted the act of presenting historically proven facts.

Subsequently, there was the confusion. In my mind I wanted to admit that this was really a fantastic piece of conceptual art. It goes beyond a simple blurring of the lines between reality and illusion; it questions how much the perception of the artwork is influenced by the context provided, rather than determined by the art object in itself. This is something that, of course, is a natural extension of the intellectual nature of contemporary works, as opposed to the aesthetic value that had been the foundation of thousands of years worth of great art. In a museum, we are increasingly forced to rely on the accompanying text to explain the interpretation(s) of the presented work – and when will we ever know if it is falsified information? Art is no longer just the power of the visual, but also the power of the word.

Furthermore, it goes beyond the fabrication of artistic intention and context; it had the potential to change the way that we approach the history of Singapore art, and even the history of Singapore in general. For a moment, we could believe that there was something so poetic, something that possessed such Romantic sensitivity, despite the blood that dripped down where the forearm was supposed to be.

Yet, when I broached the topic with Mr Chia and Miss Chan while we were travelling around visiting all the JC courseworks, they seemed nonchalant, and even said that it was pretty “cliche”. It was clear that I was feeling something much more profound that they could get from my presentation of the story. Mr Chia told me to just look at it as how it affects me personally, and not care about what other people’s interpretations of it are. The thing is, I would not have liked these paintings if they had not provided this back story (I would have thought it was just some cheap attempt at shock art). But yet, I was so in love with them – with the idea of them. How do you separate the art of the paintings from the art of the idea?

I realised eventually that I could have figured it out. I had clues presented to me:

1. I had seen one of the works at The Air-Conditioned Recession, one of the exhibitions of the Singapore Art Show a while back.
2. Arun and I were constantly discussing certain disturbing parts of the show, such as the creepily mature and ’emo’ mutterings of Nora Samosir’s niece that she mentioned during what was really no more than an extended monologue.
3. The idea that Huang Wei was trying to rediscover his lost childhood was a Modern, or even Post-Modern mindset that was probably beyond the intellectual maturity of Singapore art at the time. (They claimed that he did so by painting in a manner that was similar to the portraits of children that his father took in their family photo studio.)

Maybe it’s just me then, it’s just my nature. I always want so much to believe. I believed in it more intensely than I really knew, thus I felt that disappointment more acutely than what is really necessary. When that beautiful lie is shattered, it is difficult for me to put together all the pieces, to figure out what everything really meant.

Is it still the truth if it was only true at the point in time?



  1. mildred

    I think your ruminations struck a chord. I don’t think I need to add that all too often, its the idea which fascinates us, which holds our imagination. haha after all, “No amount of fire or freshness can challenge what a man can store up in his ghostly heart.”

    The ‘truth’ is something we may very well have to create for ourselves.

  2. mildred

    hahah. shit. my song just went “I’m holding on by letting go of you” 😦 sighhh. emo nights.

  3. Paul

    I think this is an interesting response to the work – which I also saw. You express your mixed feelings very clearly! I’m sure your teachers are very good, but I wouldn’t take their injunction only to focus on your personal response too…er…personally. Contexts are always important; we define our ‘own’ interpretations by measuring them against the claims of others, as well as in response to or in rebellion against the injunctions of teachers!

    I agree the play raises questions about how and why we lend credibility to information and misinformation, as well as the emotional investments we make in the things we want to believe. Personally, I think the ‘reveal’ about the paintings – which I understand they only introduced into the post-show talk a few days after opening, when they realised how strongly people believed in the story they were being told – could have been integrated better into the play itself. But I also think it poses hard questions for audience members about their desire for romanticism, their gullibility, and the personal and political sources of these characteristics.

    • Berny

      hi paul thanks for your comment! i think what my (ex-)teacher meant was that i should just focus on how i respond to the piece first and foremost, not “only”. i agree wholeheartedly with what you said about context.

      yes, in a sense they made it too believable; maybe if they had made it detectable, we would have been caught in this web of belief and disbelief, instead of just finding out at the end and going “oh my god”. but on the other hand, because it was so sudden, we feel the brunt of being “proven wrong”. it’s a choice between confusion/suspicion and well, something like being slammed against a wall (depending on how deeply you believed).

  4. Al

    I saw the play twice, thrice, and each time I wanted so much to believe it as well. I wanted to feel Nora’s hurt, as well as Huang Wei’s loss. And I suspended my doubts – this in spite of the ghostly laughter, the rambling monologues, the disjuncture of the text.

    Huang Wei feels absolutely real to me. Even after the play.

    • Berny

      hi al, thanks for your comment. i don’t think the feelings are/were false. but i don’t know what to feel now – i don’t know if i feel he’s real, or if i just want to.

      • Berny, I really appreciated your insight. I run a couple of large scale projects, and wonder if I can get you involved somehow as a younger voice and to do things like outreach and education to your peers.

        Drop me an email if you’re keen eh?

  5. yen

    oh my gosh, Nora Samosir’s my theatre teacher/tutor!

  6. Pingback: Relations « another blog: by kwok

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