HAN SAI POR creates art that begs to be touched. Whether it’s a smattering of shiny granite seeds or a fallen log on a carpet of velvety charcoal, the Singaporean artist has built a career on sensuous stone sculptures inspired by the natural world. Now 70, Han remains a formidable force on the Asian art scene. Like an Asian Louise Bourgeois, she is among the foremost women sculptors of her time. Earlier this year, Han’s work was thrust into the limelight when Singapore Tyler Print Institute (STPI) invited her to participate in its esteemed residency programme. Known for hosting the likes of globetrotting artists Rirkrit Tiravanija, Ashley Bickerton and Do-Ho Suh, the organisation had never before collaborated with a local sculptor. “I’ve been waiting for this for a long time,” says Han when we meet in her airy studio on a humid afternoon. A slight, wiry figure with thick horn-rimmed glasses and sharply cut bangs, she looks more than a decade younger than her age. “It was a challenge to use paper but I think stone is much more difficult,” she continues. “It’s very heavy, but paper, it can float in the air.”
At first glance, it’s difficult to imagine this tiny woman using power tools and sanding machines to create giant sculptures, but Han has spent more than three decades chipping away at unwieldy blocks of stone. Undeterred by her age, she continues to create large works characterised by their raw physicality.
As she guides me through her studio, excitedly lifting sculptures for me to take a closer look, her strength becomes clear. Some look almost half her weight but she holds them gracefully without flinching. Unlike young artists today with an army of assistants, Han makes every object herself. “I’m used to physical work and kneeling on the ground all day. Once, a friend came to help me and said all his muscles were still aching after two weeks,” she says with a laugh.
Since the 1980s, Han’s practice has been driven by an obsession with nature, something that’s reflected in every inch of her studio, which is brimful of organic forms. There’s a sketch of a dense forest on an easel, a pile of smooth black branches in a corner and a white shell-like object on a pedestal. On the ground below lies a cluster of bulbous sculptures. Exquisite in their simplicity, the abstract forms echo coral, leaves, seeds and roots.
For her residency at STPI, Han infused a series of paper works with her deeply sculptural approach. Spending hours working in the cavernous printmaking workshop, she threw herself into experimenting with the new medium. Her residency culminated in an exhibition titled Moving Forest, which coincided with the Art Stage Singapore fair, and became an instant hit with the international art crowd.
Opening with whimsical paperpulp sculptures of colourful fruits, the show featured undulating three-dimensional wall reliefs of landscapes, sweeping wave-like drawings made of black cotton threads and moody woodblock prints of entangled trees.
Han’s engagement with the natural world began at an early age. One of six children, she was born in a rural kampong (village) during the Japanese occupation. “Singapore was called Syonan-to at that time,” she remembers. “I was born in a very poor family. My mother was a hard-working lady and my father was often sick, but he would sell coffee at a stall. We just had a small farm to grow vegetables.”
An introverted child charged with imagination, she spent her time playing in nearby forests and beaches ringing the island. At the time Singapore was teaming with tropical wildlife, which fascinated the young girl. “We even used to have wolves, monitor lizards and wild cats,” she says with her eyes widening. “My parents couldn’t always take care of us so we had to be quite independent. We didn’t have toys so we played with leaves, gravel and seashells.”
After completing secondary school, Han enrolled in college and began working as a teacher in the 1970s, but her heart was never in the job: “I was supposed to concentrate on teaching, but I always dreamed of being an artist,” she says.
In 1979 she left for England, an impulsive decision that set her career in motion. “It was the first time I took a plane,” she recalls. “I just went there. I didn’t have a school at first.” She took an art foundation course at East Ham College, then moved to Wolverhampton Polytechnic, where she studied under artists such as Anish Kapoor.
One of her professors encouraged her to try stone carving, and she felt an immediate affinity with the material. “Working with stone was very touching somehow. It gave me an emotional feeling,” she says. Later, when she visited London, the work of sculptors like Barbara Hepworth and Henry Moore had a profound impact on her. “England gave me a chance to explore new ideas,” she reflects. “It really opened my mind.”
By 1984, Han had returned to Singapore and taken up part-time teaching to support herself while pursuing her art, but it would take about a decade before she could become a full-time artist. Made with granite and marble, her early pieces were abstract sculptures inspired by her childhood. “I was brought up with nature, so my thinking was always focused on that,” she says. “I worked with organic shapes and got ideas from certain parts of plants: a leaf, seeds or pods.”
At first, Han struggled to find materials and gain support. She found herself travelling to remote quarries in India, Italy and China to source stone. “It was very dangerous as the roads to the mountain tops were difficult. You were lucky to come back alive,” she muses. “But I had to go, I had no choice, and actually that kind of experience makes life richer.”
Slowly, she made a name for herself in Asia, exhibiting at such institutions as the Fukuoka Art Museum in Japan and the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art in Seoul. She was also accepted into a series of international residencies that gave her a chance to experiment in outdoor settings. Working with abandoned stone from a quarry in Portland, England or a chunk of limestone in Christchurch, New Zealand, she created sculptures with a raw, primordial aesthetic. Using simple carvings and roughly hewn shapes, she captured the essence of natural phenomena such as flowing water and the movement of wind.
In 1995, her efforts were finally recognised by the Singapore government, which bestowed on her a Cultural Medallion award, one of the most prestigious art accolades in the country. From her 55-tonne granite installation at One Marina Boulevard to delicate floral-inspired sculptures at Changi Airport, Han’s creations can now be found across the city. She has also become an ambassador of sorts, with her work placed at the Permanent Mission of the Republic of Singapore to the United Nations in New York and the Singapore embassy in Washington DC.
Last year, Han made headlines with a breakthrough show at Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts. Exploring sombre themes of man’s abuse of the Earth, her installations ranged from a row of porcelain bones on crushed charcoal to a barren forest of black tree stumps accompanied by an apocalyptic video: “The whole environment was very dark. When people walked around, some cried. It’s the kind of mood I wanted to create because deforestation is not a happy thing.”
Asked what’s next, Han says she’s working on a project commissioned by Esplanade for Singapore’s 50th anniversary celebrations next year. She’s also heading to Paris for an artist residency at Cité Internationale des Arts. Relentless in spirit, she has no plans to rest in her eighth decade. “If I don’t go to the studio to work I feel sick,” she insists. “I need to keep active every day.” It’s clear that the same curiosity and sense of adventure that fuelled her as a child continue to inspire her today. As STPI Head of Communications and Projects Nor Jumaiyah marvels, “She’s like a seven-year-old in a 70-year-old’s body.”