pray, prey
an interview
plates :
charcoal on paper
download full
pray, prey
THE PLAYFUL AND THE BLISSFUL IN JIMMY ONG’s Ancestors on the Beach        p e t e r   l e e

Jimmy Ong entered into a civil union with his long-term partner Scott Kreutz in the garden of his house in Vermont, USA, on a specially chosen day: the seventh day of the seventh month (July) of the year 2007. The union in a way represents a culmination of a quest to forge an ideal of personal happiness, domesticity, partnership, sexuality and spirituality.

Ong’s residence has evolved from the bohemian shabbiness of a dilapidated shophouse in Amoy Street, in the heart of Singapore’s Chinatown where he lived in the 1990s, to his current abode, a listed period house in a waspy Vermont village, with a beautiful garden and several pet dogs. Accordingly, the artist’s latest interpretations of his ongoing presentation of human relationships has evolved to a level where they are informed, not by the impulses and emotions of his earlier career — angst, guilt, lust, loss — but by a sense of closure, and of a rehabilitation, with his past.

Gone are the ghosts of absent parents, domineering grandfathers, Confucian guilt, and the shadows of furious and furtive sexual acts. Jimmy Ong’s icons still remain intriguingly eccentric and quixotic, but rather than wrestlers, dancers and deities, the figures in Ong’s current work have a greater naturalism. The intensity of the past has also evolved into playfulness and humour. Another fascinating development: his subjects now appear to radiate an emotion not commonly seen before — happiness.

Everyone is an ancestor

Ever since he moved to Vermont from Long Island in 2005, Ong has been an active member of a local Tibetan Buddhist group. Although he has never intended to create ‘Buddhist art’, his process and work are often inspired by certain fundamental teachings. One of the primary forms of spiritual practice focuses on the nurturing of compassion, and the pinnacle of this is tong-len (‘give and take’) practice, which is epitomised in the seventh stanza of the famous Eight Verses on Training the Mind by the Tibetan Buddhist monk Langri Thangpa (1054-1123):

In short may I, directly and indirectly,
Offer benefit and happiness to all my mothers;
May I secretly take upon myself,
The harm and suffering of mothers!

In tong-len one strives to take upon oneself the suffering of others and in so doing, transform it into pure compassion for others. The idea of ‘all mothers’ and ‘my mothers’ equates to ‘all beings’, and stems from the notion that with the cycles of reincarnation, every being may have been another’s mother in a previous incarnation, or may be another’s mother in a future incarnation.

Ong has previously acknowledged that drawing is a form of spiritual practice for him. Within the framework of familial relationships — mother and child (the M+Child series), three generations of males (Ancestor Watch), siblings (Yu Sisters Cross the Mountain, Anonymous Daughters), spouses (Heart Sons, Heart Daughters) — Jimmy Ong’s works in Ancestors on the Beach can be regarded as expressions of tong-len practice where all human relationships can be conducted as though they were between loving members of a family.

In addition to this, Jimmy Ong has taken the familiar notion of the ‘ancestor’ in his work as a synonym of the Tibetan Buddhist notion of ‘all mothers’. Ancestor Breeder, Birthing Ancestor and Ancestor Watch explore the idea of a reversed world where beings give birth to their ancestors, and that we are all sons, fathers, grandfathers. From the perspective of tong-len practice, one’s child could have been one’s mother/ancestor in a previous life.

Perhaps through this practice, through taking on the sufferings of the ghosts of his past, embodied in the various iconic figures in his earlier work, Ong has found a way to come to terms with them. Transcending the raw and intense emotions that inspired many of his earlier work, he has transformed these ‘ghosts’ into the benign ‘incarnations’ of Ancestors on the Beach.

Hungry Ghosts

A related thread running through Ancestors on the Beach is the idea of another kind of ‘ancestor’ — the hungry ghost, or preta, one of the three negative modes of existence in Buddhist cosmology. It is a mode or realm of existence associated with insatiable craving, greed, lust and addiction. In popular Taoism, a person without progeny is said to become a hungry ghost upon death. Without any descendants to conduct proper funerary rites, the spirit of such a person would never be appeased, roaming the earth like a lost soul. During important ancestral rites during Ullambana (‘Festival of the Hungry Ghost’) on the fifteenth day of the seventh month of the lunar calendar, a separate table of offerings is sometimes set up as an act of compassion towards the spirits of roaming ghosts. This practice takes place in Singapore and the region.

Jimmy Ong was troubled by the Taoist viewpoint regarding the fate of those without descendants. As a reaction to this terrible path, his paintings aim to rehabilitate hungry ghosts. Each and every drawing is a personal form of canonisation, a poignant wish and prayer that all people, with or without offspring, of all sexual orientations, should be equally deserving of commemoration and honour. Ancestors on the Beach is about ‘banishing’ hungry ghosts, and conferring the honour of the title of Ancestor, Father and Mother on everyone.

Reminiscences of a lustful past

One consistent aspect of Ong’s work is the presentation of complex layers of meaning and symbolism within a single work, drawn from religious iconography, classical painting, and pop culture. Therefore it is not surprising that works such as Sea Song and Parting at Fort Road are loaded with other visual references.

Parting at Fort Road is Ong’s epitaph for the end of an era, when the notorious beach near Fort Road, along Singapore’s east coast, was the primary venue for gay cruising. A large tract of vacant, sandy beachfront land that was up to the late 1990s filled with lush casuarinas, overgrown bushes and tall grasses, it is now largely a manicured golf course. But intriguingly, what Ong has chosen to depict is not sexual predators during a midnight prowl, but rather a group of three cheerful men dressed in sarongs and engaged in a celebratory group dance. In the background, dramatic waves crash towards the sandy shore. As much as they may be Ong’s ‘ancestors’ on the beach, they are also humorously depicted as Immortals on the beaches of Penglai, the paradise island of Taoism. The title also makes references to the poems of the Tang period, especially of Wang Wei (c. 699-761), who composed several laments about parting from friends.


I see you off to the southern shore, my tears like threads
Off you go to the eastern provinces, and cause me grief
You can tell them there, that their old friend is haggard
No longer what he was in those Loyang days.

Like the poems, the drawing has the same sense of nostalgia about youth and friendship, and shows a clear transition from Ong’s early works. This nostalgia is also evident in Sea Song, which is as much an elegy for the end of the Fort Road era as for lost youth. The sordid and the overtly sexual aspects of this history are replaced, like with Parting at Fort Road, with a mythologised past, here represented by three muscular, sarong-clad youths striking poses in the shallows of the sea. Perhaps not everything has been ‘sanitised’: there is also a subtle but clearly present reference to American pornography of the 1970s and 1980s with their depiction of sun-kissed, chiseled bodies in clear blue oceans.

The waves in Sea Song, as in Parting at Fort Road, are also part of an ongoing process of depicting waves and seascapes, evident in his last exhibition in Singapore, Rocks and Water (2004). Observing the sea and the movement of waves began as a form of ‘practice’ during trips to the Sri Lankan coast in the early years of the new millennium. It has led to investigations about their appearance in classical Chinese painting, and in Ancestors on the Beach, the artist makes his first forays in combining this interest with his more primary concern: human figures.

Solidarity: brotherhood, sisterhood

While Ong’s earlier works often expressed the complexities of human relationships especially when desire, dependence, abuse and rejection fueled the dynamics of the struggling figures, those in Ancestors on the Beach are all evidently expressions of much more aspirational sentiments, especially the camaraderie and solidarity of family ties. In these works the artist deconstructs ideals of the family unit and family relationships, creating alternative visions or ideals of lovers, brothers and sisters.

Yu Sisters Cross the Mountain, Anonymous Daughters, Kong Thung & Guni are works that express these concerns. One of Ong’s favourite paintings is Xu Beihong’s Yu-Gong Moves the Mountain (Yu-gong Yishan, 1940, now in a private collection in China). The title Yu Sisters Cross the Mountain is a playful take on this masterpiece, which itself is based on a famous Chinese myth about great determination. The story concerns the elderly Yu who strives to move two mountains blocking his village’s path to the outside world. He swears that if his goal were to remain unfinished in his lifetime, his descendants would complete the task. Typically inverting the gender of the protagonists, Ong’s drawing is a tribute to the women in his family — his aunts and grandmother — whom he presents as matriarchal amazons.

The two women in Anonymous Daughters display the same kind of unbreakable bond. Serene, intimate and quiet, the dynamics of their relationship seem motivated by nothing more than pure affection.

Kong Thung & Guni is a nostalgic and humorous parody of the nationalistic propaganda during the early years of Singapore’s independence, depicting two male figures in the midst of an odd dance with their arms locked in each other’s hands. This is of course a reference to the four clasped hands (representing the ‘solidarity’ of the nation’s different races) in Singapore’s $10 Orchid Series banknote, which was in circulation from 1967-1976. The phrase kongthung guni is a nonsensical Hokkien term, which can be translated as ‘candy and milk’ (贡糖牛奶), and is a pun on the last phrase of Singapore’s national pledge in Mandarin, gongtong nuli (共同努力 ‘to work hard together’). This is yet another nostalgic reference; a reminiscence by the artist of the schoolboy’s mischievous perversion of the sacred pledge, recited ad nauseam by every student at morning assembly before classes began.

The locked arms seem to be a residual concern and emotion from Ong’s past, reminiscent of the wrestlers in the Lovers’ Rocks series (2001). Are they playfully restraining each other? Are they preventing more intimate contact between themselves, or with others?

Dreams of domestic bliss and a wish for mankind

Taking the idea of family solidarity further, Jimmy Ong has delved into speculating about alternatives of domestic bliss, as a kind of personal longing, as well as a proposal to mankind. Ong posits the view that perhaps any unit of individuals, founded on and bonded by compassion and love, constitutes a family. The focus of this proposal concerns the kind of family unit that includes a child. This intent can be seen in works such as the M+Child series, Heart Sons, Heart Daughters and Number One Son.

The M+Child series are two variations of a tender moment between parent and child. Number One Son depicts afather carrying his son, and it almost forms a diptych with M+Child, which illustrates a father carrying a child in a similar fashion. Heart Sons and Heart Daughters each show an affectionate group comprising a same-sex couple with a child. Like Kong Thung & Guni however, Heart Daughters, with the unnatural poses of the subjects, is related more with Ong’s earlier work.

These proposals of alternative family units are especially pertinent in the light of the ongoing debate about homosexual acts in Singapore and the recent controversy over the repeal of section 377A of the penal code. The government and a vocal section of the populace remain rigid in their view that ‘gross indecency’or sex between consenting adults of the same gender in Singapore should continue to be regarded as a criminal act. There have also been expressions of concern that legalising this would lead to legalising same sex unions, which would be ‘anti-family’.

Ong’s drawings again work on a superficial as well as symbolic level. As much as they present alternative ideals about the family, they can also be seen as part of the artist’s ‘practice’ to view any kind of relationship in terms of ideal family relationships – everyone should be loved as if they were one’s mother, or in Jimmy’s vocabulary, one’s ‘ancestor’. When one considers that Ong grew up with an absent mother and was traumatised by meeting her again after more than four decades, this becomes all the more challenging, poignant and meaningful.

Underlying this practice is the recognition that although the focus is on the small family unit, these ideals work on a macrocosmic level as well. Jimmy Ong’s vision had been about human frailties, but with Ancestors on the Beach he is presenting humanistic ideals. This can veer too close to the trite and hackneyed, but by laying bare his own spiritual journey, and throwing in a good dash of humour and irony, he is showing that when you clear the tangled web of hurt, loss, lust and struggle, the resolution, the resulting wisdom achieved, can in fact be about seeing things in a way that is so profoundly and serenely simple.