Hubert Burda Media

Tan Joo Heng: On sand, art and passion

The Singaporean sand sculptor chats about his chosen art form.

Tan Joo Heng has been all smiles since arriving at Ola Beach Club this morning. Even when the weather takes a turn for the worse — scorching sun one moment, gusty winds and billowing rains the next — during our photo shoot, he’s still all cheery.

“Don’t worry. The winds are so strong. It means the rain will pass us by in the next hour or so,” he reassures.

Born and raised in Singapore, Tan is the country’s only professional sand sculptor and has participated in competitions and exhibitions the world over. He is back in town to present his solo exhibition, Shifting Sand 2, which features seven sculptures and an interactive exhibit as part of Sentosa’s Sandsation 2017 this month. This year also marks his 20th year in the profession.

Tan waded into the world of sand sculpting in 1997, when a lecturer at his alma mater LASALLE College of the Arts invited the class to try it out at the beach. Tan discovered his affinity with sand. “I’ve tried clay, glass and mixed media but sand is really special to me,” he says. “Each is just a small grain but [with it] I can build sculptures up to 10m high.”

Right from the start, it has been as if it is the sand that is drawing him in: “I don’t hunt for jobs or projects. Most of the time, people approach me to do sand sculptures for them.”

It was his work at the Sentosa Sandsation 1999 that led Tan to pursue sand sculpting as a career. There, he met Gerry Kirk, then president of the World Sand Sculpting Association (WSSA) in the US, who invited him to a sand sculpting event in China.

Buoyed by the encouraging response he received, Tan travelled to the Netherlands to participate in the International Singles Master Sand Sculpting Competition. He knew he was up against more experienced contenders but his spirit didn’t waver. He became the first Singaporean to win an international sand sculpting competition.

Dream Knot (2009) at the Korea International Sand Sculpture Festival

From then on labelled Vincent Sand Gogh by UK’s Daily Mail, Tan went on to land numerous awards at global competitions, including Fulong International Sand Sculpting Competition in New Taipei City in 2012 and US Sand Sculpting Challenge and 3D Art Expo in San Diego in 2014. It was at the latter where he created his most memorable piece, Seed: “It presents a high standard of carving in sand sculpting. Many professional sculptors were very impressed with its design.”

Art wasn’t something that Tan always wanted to do, however. “Since young, I liked to draw and create 3D sculptures. But I never thought of becoming an artist or sculptor, or even anything to do with art,” he says. “There aren’t many opportunities in Singapore. But I still ended up in this line. I’ve survived with this trade and I just love it.”

Why sand, I ask, which seems so soft and brittle? He smiles knowingly. He says sand is stronger than we think. “Sand can stop a bullet. When a tsunami hits, sand can block it,” he says. “Once I was in Taiwan for a project when typhoons and earthquakes hit. Many buildings fell but my sand sculpture was ok.”

Seed (2014) is the most memorable sculpture Tan has created to date

It certainly helps that the 44-year-old artist has such an optimistic outlook on life and towards his work, where he has to constantly adapt to situations. When it comes to his sculptures, it’s important that he understands the area, from the weather to the terrain, so he can better plan his work process. Midway through this interview, he quips: “See? It’s sunny already. This is very common in tropical countries.”

On dealing with collapses — it happens too often — he says he’s learnt to work around them. “Anything vertical or tapered downwards tends to collapse. It’s a challenge in sand sculpting but that’s the beauty of it,” he says. “[It’s how] sand communicates with the sculptor about what it likes or otherwise. So we have to respect that.”

But the bigger challenge he faces is in educating this region about his work and why it should be taken seriously. In Singapore’s art scene, for example, sand sculpture has yet to be recognised, unlike other genres such as theatre or digital art. So it’s difficult to receive assistance when he applies for grants or even exhibition space. Which makes obtaining job opportunities tougher: “Clients don’t understand this medium and how it can help them promote their brand or products, so I need to work harder  at selling it to them.”

Nonetheless, Tan still counts himself lucky. He believes sand sculpting can become an art form in the future: “I’ve been in this for 20 years so I’ve proven that if you really [have a passion for something], go for it and you can make it.”

For one, his work has taken him to over 70 cities across more than 20 countries. So which is his favourite destination to date? “Maldives,” he replies. “When I was there, there weren’t many people, only beautiful water, corals and sand. I could just build my sculptures. It was like paradise.”

Shifting Sand 2 happens September 1-17 at Siloso Beach.