Profile: Tan Joo Heng

Published on 31 August 2015

His unconventional medium notwithstanding, award-winning Singaporean sand-sculptor Tan JOOheng continues to make waves.

BY pamela ho

“Because sand sculpture started on the beach, where kids make sandcastles with pails, people think it’s not really art,” says sculptor Tan JOOheng, 42, who holds a diploma in graphic design from LASALLE College of the Arts and a degree from the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology.

Since 2000, Tan has clinched over 10 Sand Sculpting Championship titles around the world, from Europe to the United States and all across Asia. His work Dirt Is Good, created for laundry brand OMO’s ad campaign, went viral and led to international media attention. A Japanese crew flew to Singapore to film him; and the UK’s Daily Mail newspaper even hailed him as “Vincent Sand Gogh”.

While this art form did not start off attracting professional artists, these days, it is their domain. Tan reveals that his team of international sculptors for Sands of Time, an SG50 initiative by Sentosa to tell the Singapore story through sand, are all professional artists with design knowledge.

“Whether I’m an artist or not, it’s up to others to judge. If my sculptures were not on a beach but commissioned for a museum or an international arts festival, maybe more people will see it as art,” he reasons, adding that sand sculptures can stay intact for over a year, if displayed indoors.

Having worked briefly with glass and clay, Tan reveals that sand poses unique challenges. “Sand will collapse. Anything that’s top-heavy or vertical or hollow — we call it a ‘cut-through’ — is very difficult to do. How the sculpture will look depends on the quality of the sand.”

Sand found in rivers, for example, has been compacted for years, giving it a clay-like quality. “Such sand holds better, so you can do vertical and cut-through designs,” he explains. “Like in San Diego, the sand was so good, I decided to change my design and go vertical all the way — 3m high!”

Sadly, Tan cites Singapore’s small market and lack of job opportunities as another challenge. As such, his work takes him overseas much of the year: he’s showcased in over 60 cities across 20 countries.

Since 2013, Tan has organised the Taiwan World Sand Sculpting Championships and is artistic director for the Fulong International Sand Sculpture Art Festival, where he proudly flies the Singapore flag helming a team of 30 international sand sculptors.

“Honestly, I never wanted to be a full-time sculptor. Jobs just came to me,” he says with a chuckle. “I get the feeling the sand chose me.”

To find out more about Tan’s works, visit www.sandworkz.com.

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