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Rabbits’ Eyes and Seascapes

by Gabrielle Low, 07. 02. 2007

On January 28th, 2007, the art world’s luminaries and big-spenders converged on the Kuang estate of the architect Hijjas Kasturi and his wife Angela Hijjas. They were there to view and appraise the work of two young artists, the past year’ Rimbun Dahan artists-in-residence.

The Rimbun Dahan residency programme provides its artists with accommodation, a studio, art supplies and living expenses, allowing them to focus on their art without the distraction of exigencies -- such as having to work to keep a roof over their heads. Perhaps the greatest advantage afforded by the residency, however, is the exhibition itself. The prestige associated with the programme (now in its 13th year, it remains the only visual arts residency programme in Malaysia) and the number of art collectors, gallery owners and curators on the Hijjas’ invitation list, ensures that the showcase attracts considerable attention, and establishes the artists’ reputations before an important audience.

The opening was the kind of social event that calls for banquet tables, trimmed canopies and a photographer hired for the evening. Amid the social banter and the clinking of glasses, guests discussed the artwork, using adjectives like ‘interesting’, ‘dark’, and ‘real’. The ones who found it hard to discuss the work under scrutiny that Saturday evening were, perhaps, the artists themselves: Chang Yoong Chia and David Jolly.

The Failure of Speech

“I can’t talk about my work,” Yoong Chia told his audience a week later, during the Artists’ Talk at Rimbun Dahan. “I can’t talk about the meaning in my work.”

I like to think that a lot of good art is produced because speech fails us -- because eloquence in speech can escape us, because we can only think of something clever to say 20 minutes too late, because we care too much about social mores, or because there may be a deficit in the very nature of speech.

Or, perhaps, because ordinary conversation, even between friends, often fails to surpass the banal. This is the dilemma: here’s something I want to tell you -- but if I talk about it, I will probably spoil the story for you. So I will paint it. Or write it. In seeking those alternative means of expression, we might chance upon something original and compelling: art.

In saying that he couldn’t speak about his work, Yoong Chia was, perhaps, pre-empting questions like: who are the man and woman? Why is the man in a shirt and necktie? What is the skeleton doing to the woman? What do the rabbits and the insects signify? What does it all mean?

After all, Yoong Chia’s paintings look like they are rife with meaning. Each piece in his Flora & Fauna II (like the paintings in the original Flora & Fauna, exhibited in 2004) is a dense tangle of plants, animals and humans. Each of the paintings is a world created, not just with its own mood, but with its own physics, its own geography and, of course, its own ecology.

The association with magical realism is particularly apt. To rephrase something the South African writer André Brink once wrote: the magic appears real and the real appears magic. In some of this collection’s best pieces, Yoong Chia does exactly that. Animals ride the KTM Komuter, a man covered in leaves staggers towards the viewer with his mouth open; in ‘Night Comes’, a pair of rabbits are lost in a French kiss. There are hybrid creatures: animal heads on human bodies, a rabbit-dog composite, rabbits with human eyes (Yoong Chia’s, perhaps?).

We may encounter a familiar image and then think we understand why it is there. Yet, as our eyes move across the canvas, the same images enter into new relationships, implying different interpretations -- and we question those meanings that we had just assigned. The unexpected juxtapositions render meanings fluid, elusive, uncertain.

The layers of meaning seem endless, due to the compression of detail on the canvas -- or, in many cases, on the various forms of organic material Yoong Chia uses: eggshells, as in the excellent ‘Hair Story’; crab shells for the ‘Armour’ series. Some of these details are minute stories within a larger story: a satellite dish in a jungle, a fish behind a tree trunk, a face-off between a cat and a school of fish in a pond.

The giant bat-rabbit in ‘The Heart is a Lonely Hunter’ is so intricate that we can see the blood vessels on its wings. Sometimes, the details are disconcerting. An orang-utan looks like he has been crucified -- yet the creature stares at us with knowing eyes. Or is he casting an accusatory glance? Perhaps it’s the ambiguity that is most disconcerting. I don’t think it is possible to identify with unequivocal certainty what each of Yoong Chia’s symbols represent. Do the rabbits embody malevolence? Can we say that the male figure on the canvas is Yoong Chia -- or is the rabbit a more truthful self-portrait? I think that dispelling the ambiguities, if at all possible, would diminish the impact of his work. It is the explosion -- not the finitude -- of meaning that engages us and makes us want to look at his paintings a little harder.

Self-Portraits

How do you describe yourself, other than by stating what is tediously biographical?

Almost everything that has been written about Yoong Chia states the following in one way or another:

Chang Yoong Chia is 32 years old. He is from KL. He graduated from the Malaysian Institute of Art. Until the Rimbun Dahan residency, he was a gallery assistant at Reka Art Space. He lived in a room at his parent’s home, near Old Klang Road.

These facts say nothing about his imagination, his concerns as an artist, his disposition as a person. Yet his work seems to depict what is deeply personal -- emotional and psychological states; an alternate biography that we should know about. “I have always been interested in making artworks about myself,” Yoong Chia declared, in a manner that was so frank that it was hard to accuse him of being self-absorbed.

A naked male figure surfaces in many of the artist’s previous works; just as he uncovers his body in those works, the created worlds and created beings in Flora & Fauna II suggest that he is laying bare the ideas, thoughts and images that cross his mind.

To the viewer, this can be a discomfiting experience. It is tempting -- when we stand before these paintings and see the creatures of his mind snarl, glide, crawl, lurk and scream -- to walk away and say: “What could be going through his head?”

But the things that go through Yoong Chia’s head are probably not very different from what goes through our own. There is curiosity, desire, fear, confusion -- a lot of confusion. His people grope around for something to hold onto; they wander aimlessly and curl up in bed with eyes wide open; in ‘Web’, they slip and fall as they try to make their way up a vast spider web.

“I’d like to focus on honesty in your work,” I said to him. Honesty, not in the sense of not telling a lie, but honesty in the sense of acting according to our natures: our nature as a species, and our individual natures -- what existentialist philosophers call authenticity. (It is fitting that animals have such a prominent place in his work. Animals act according to their natures. It is humans who often don’t.)

“How do you know I’m being honest?” Yoong Chia asked me almost immediately, with a tone and a smile intended to stir doubt. His quick comeback suggested that he’d discussed this before, and probably at some length. He was right; I didn’t know. I still don’t. But I’m not inclined to psychoanalyse Yoong Chia. If anything, looking at his work compels me to psychoanalyse myself.

I have come to realise that it’s not the strange creatures that make me uncomfortable. It’s not even the sense of fear and confusion that are disturbing. What makes me uneasy is my familiarity with those sentiments: I can recognise fear and confusion because they are emotional states that I have experienced myself. The creatures and landscapes of Yoong Chia's mind become portraits of ourselves.

Perhaps the reason it is difficult to articulate meaning in Yoong Chia's works is because they are meant to be felt before they are understood. Or, to be more exact: they are meant to be felt, in order to be understood.

Bigger Pictures and Reflections

David Jolly’s Liquid Nature -- much like Yoong Chia’s work -- refrains from making explicit statements. “I like to allow viewers to approach the work in their own time and way, leaving it to their own interpretation,” he told his audience at the Rimbun Dahan Artists’ Talk. “I like work that is not too obvious.” In one of his pieces, a solitary palm tree with a single wilting frond pierces a wide expanse of sky. The image of the bare tree against the blue sky, while poignant, is not so much a statement as it is a question mark without the question.

It is interesting that, in spite of the photographic realism of his paintings, David achieves this open-endedness -- a result of his distinctive medium: oil paintings on glass.

David begins by capturing images on his camera and developing them as slides. A slide is then projected onto paper, allowing him to produce a schematic drawing. Once completed, the drawing is placed beneath a sheet of glass so that it can serve as the outline for his painting, which is executed in reverse. The smoothness of the glass means that he has to paint in layers, beginning with the foreground and slowly progressing backwards.

This painstaking process -- developed over the course of two years, during David’s 1993 to 1995 residency at 200 Gertrude Street, in Melbourne -- yields some striking effects that would not have been achieved with any other medium. The reflective quality of glass means that we can see not just the image he has painted, but also the silhouette of our own reflections as we stand before the image -- as if the artist’s work really does hold a mirror up to the world.

It is tempting to imagine what effects these paintings might have if they were bigger objects. However, the use of glass as a surface for painting severely limits the size of the work; all of David’s paintings on glass are a standard 55.5 x 44.5 cm.

Still, he does have a distinct way of making his images larger than they are: by suggesting to us what lies beyond the frame. The act of viewing his work is not just about contemplating the image that is before you, but also about situating yourself in the world that the painting opens up for you. In one painting, the familiar undulating exterior of the Twin Towers appears as a reflection on the glass façade of a nearby building. The reflection implies the presence of the Twin Towers somewhere behind the viewer, adding another dimension to the artwork. But David goes further: the pattern of the reflection is broken by an open window, and yet another layer -- what is within the building -- is added.

Ordinary Moments

The glossy effect rendered by the glass in David’s work is oddly appropriate, given his main thematic concern: modernity. A glistening technicolour Buddha statue in Penang, surrounded by a mosaic of tiny mirrors, is depicted so precisely that you can almost feel the thick layer of varnish coated onto the statue. But the result goes beyond being merely a realistic rendering -- the gloss and glimmer in which the Buddha’s serene image is wrapped hint at the dichotomy between spirituality and materialistic kitsch. The piece extends an invitation to contemplate not just a cultural artefact from another place, but also, the world that we live in today.

In another painting, a half-completed flyover breaks off in midair. The horizon is obscured by traffic -- a cement truck, a four wheel drive -- and the disarray of heavy machinery at a construction site. A matrix of criss-crossing power cables occupies the centre of the painting. This is not a tourist’s Malaysia. Instead, the artist offers a commuter’s eye-view of the ordinary and the commonplace, captured on his camera as he travelled around the country. It is David’s way of confronting modernity, with its everyday banality, seen here in a Malaysian context. He does nothing to embellish these ordinary moments, nor does he attempt to heighten their poetry or drama. Yet his paintings appear beautiful, nonetheless -- not because he has conferred beauty on his subjects, but because he has drawn our attention to their muted beauty.

There is a randomness to the images: the metal grating over the front of a shophouse, lily pads floating on a pond that is catching the last glints of sunlight, white mullions alternating with black glass on a building’s façade. Again, he takes realism to another level, going beyond how the painting merely looks. There is something very real about the randomness of these ordinary scenes -- because after all, we don't get to choose what we see in our everyday lives. He dispensed with drawing artificial connections between the disparate scenes he saw across the country, acknowledging that his stint in Malaysia gave him the freedom to “let the eye wander.”

At times, David goes further by challenging us to shift our vantage point. One watercolour depicts the rather drab upper half of the Regent Hotel on Jalan Bukit Bintang. What the eye is immediately drawn to, however, is the word ‘Regent’, spelled out in cursive script atop the building -- something that can only be seen if you care to take your eyes off the shops lining the sidewalk and look above.

This strategy is applied to even greater effect in a series of seven paintings centred on Terengganu’s Pulau Lang Tengah. We are first presented with a painting of an old black and white photograph of Pulau Lang Tengah. In the next five frames, we are on a beach on Lang Tengah, looking out at the seascape: a continuum of blue upon blue, a marked reference to the gray-scale of the first painting.

What shifts subtly from one frame to another is our angle of view, discernible from the changes in the painting’s tone. As the perspective shifts, we come to realise that it is the viewer, not the seascape, that is changing. By the final painting, a 90-degree turn has been completed and the viewer finds in front of him the continuation of the sandy beach on which he was standing the whole time. The presence of the beach is implied in the blue seascapes but is only made explicit in the final frame. The effect is subtle but startling. In contemplating David's depictions of the external world, the viewer is, oddly enough, compelled to return to himself.

Gabrielle Low is a member of Five Arts Centre, and a contributing writer to Kakiseni. Her most recent essay on the site was a two-part account of a month-long residency in Cambodia in late 2006.