Artistic Enlightenment

On a hot, summer day, artist Tan Swie Hian, 60, stands poised before a four-story-high canvas in the middle of St. Marcos Square, surrounded by Venice's celestial domes. Suddenly, Tan leaps toward the immense sheet, wielding his brush like a swordsman as he swiftly inscribes an immense poem; inky Chinese characters that tell of sleeping pillows and dreamy, butterfly wings. Singapore's most famous artist is doing at the Venice Biennale what he has long done back home in East Asia: combining East and West, through multiple disciplines, with the explosive precision of a bombmaker.

In Singapore, a...

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