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Interview with Chang Yoong Chia

Sep 2009

AAA's Enoch Cheng spoke to Malaysian artist, Chang Yoong Chia about his works, including the series Flora & Fauna and Quilt of the Dead, the use of materials, and his experience participating in residency programmes.

AAA: The series Flora & Fauna spans your entire body of work. Why don’t we start with that? Could you tell us how you first came up with this subject?

Chang Yoong Chia (CYC): When I was growing up, I spent a great deal of time in my parents’ garden. We had a lot of plants and animals that served either as pets or food, or to beautify the garden. It was a pleasant place, visited by other animals and where I observed the diversity of life. But it was also a place of misery and death, particularly for the live animals that were slaughtered for food. From early on that garden was, to me, a self-contained ecosystem in which my imagination could dwell, play and develop.

After experimenting with different mediums, techniques and subject matter for some years, I wanted to discard many of the things that I had learned and to find a way to evoke the sense of mystery and enchantment I felt as child. I started my Flora & Fauna series in 2003 so that I could reacquaint myself with these memories, imagination and feeling which I thought I had forgotten.

AAA: In the same series, as well as in a number of your other works such as Newton’s Funfair, Grey Series or even earlier works, you show a very mysterious and mythical perspective on narrative. Your works could be related to folk stories from East Asian cultures. Are you recreating stories from tradition, or are you telling a contemporary tale? Also, your portraits often appear in the paintings. Can you elaborate on the reasons for your presence?

CYC: I like telling stories with my work. Telling a story is like a slow, meandering way of getting to a point, but once you have arrived at the point, what you remember is the journey and the feeling of it. Mostly, I’m just interested in telling my own stories and expressing my feelings and experiences. That could explain why my self-portrait appears in many of my works and, more specifically, in my paintings. My self-portrait functions as a mirror image in which I can observe and scrutinize myself. Through it, I can also imagine the painted environment surrounding it. I can feel the breeze passing through its hair, the ground beneath it, the sky and clouds above it, and the other characters that inhabit the same painted environment.

Being a Malaysian of Chinese descent, I have inherited some of the cultures and practices of my Chinese roots which, in turn, come out in my work. However, I have never been to China and read very little Chinese, but I don’t feel I’m wholly Malaysian either, so I sometimes use elements of Chinese art and craft in my work as a way of questioning my own identity.

AAA: I read that you have a very spontaneous way of painting in that the picture evolves unintentionally as you paint. At the same time, however, you pay great attention to detail, especially to animals and plants. How do you manage to retain both awareness and sub-consciousness when you create your works?

CYC: I work on one piece of work at a time and usually it takes a month to finish a painting. Before I paint, I have a very vague idea of what the final picture will look like. When I paint, I try not to be too concerned about the end result and just let myself enjoy pushing paint around the canvas, enjoying the physical aspect of painting and trying to get myself lost in the picture. The marks on the painting gradually become recognizable images and I work on them in increasing detail until they ‘belong’ in the picture, so that the relationship between each image is logical and that each image is there because it needs to be there. When that is achieved, I realize the painting might not look like the vague image I had in my mind but it is something very close to it in spirit. I just trust my feelings and instinct.

However, I do not believe one could paint subconsciously. Painting, where one has to make thousands of mini decisions quickly, is too much of an active process for that.

AAA: Another unique characteristic in some of your works is the way you arrange them in specific settings. For example, you have shells mounted in boxes, eggshells placed under a spotlight or spoons all hung horizontally on the wall and, most recently, you have organized your works in a museum setting in the exhibition ‘Safe House’ that you worked on with Teoh Ming Wah. This makes us consider how art is perceived in the eyes of an audience. In what ways is the display of your work important to the individual pieces?

CYC: Before, I thought of the display and exhibition space merely as necessary decoration for the works of art. However, having started to make works out of unconventional and fragile materials, I realized that the method of their display is important to their physical protection and, more importantly, it heightens the original quality of the materials, protecting the integrity of the original material.

I also now perceive the viewing of an exhibition as an experience. When my shows are hung I am very mindful of how and where the audience should enter the exhibition space, how they should walk around it and where they should exit. This is because when a visitor is viewing an exhibition he is actually being led by his eyes, moving from one work of art to another, and his body follows. I want to create a fluid, linear and unobtrusive exhibition space so that the audience will enjoy looking from one artwork to another without their movement being hindered. ‘Safe House’ was very much an exhibition where Ming Wah and I explored the idea of display and space. We also played around with the juxtaposition of personal memory and scientific description, between private and institutional space.

AAA: You have painted on shells, spoons, plates and even on animal bones which reminds us of very traditional, if not primitive ways of art making. Why did you choose to use such techniques?

CYC: Years ago, I read a book by James Elkins called What Painting Is. Basically, the book describes the similarity between painting and alchemy. For both, the most important thing is not the end result itself but the process and use of materials that leads to the end result. The process is magical.

That book has had a great impact on me in terms of how I choose my materials. I paint in oil because it feels like skin and flesh to me. It’s actually linseed oil and pigment taken from the earth, or nature, so it’s natural and ancient. I don’t use acrylic paint because it is plastic. It is a by-product of the petrochemical age.

I like using materials that are readily available in everyday life. These are the things that surround us and are part of our existence, but they are also poetic in the way that everyday life is poetic.

I like using discarded organic materials like shells and bones because I find them beautiful but also because they are the inedible parts that people discard or don’t want. I collect them and make them into beautiful, desirable things that people would want. In my work I give these dead things a second life.

The medium of ceramics is a very old and human creation. It’s made of earth. It’s humble, utilitarian and homely but it’s also very stable. It won’t rust, corrode or dissolve. Ceramic wares also have very specific histories to them. China (the country) is called China now because the West lusted after its porcelain. When I use ceramics in my work I try to bring out its history.

AAA: Talking about craftsmanship, we must talk about the Quilt of the Dead, which we know is a relational piece, first started at the Fukuoka Triennial, as a means to mourn your grandmother and contemplate the meaning of death. Is the project still running? Can you share with us your reflections on the whole cyclical process of life and death?

CYC: Yes, the project is still running. It will end when I amass enough embroidered images of deceased people to fill a 10 x 10 ft quilt.

The impetus for starting Quilt of the Dead came from my curiosity for the photographs of dead people I see in the obituary section of newspapers everyday. Everyday people die. How did they die? How did they live? What about the people they left behind? We are the people who are left behind, how are we now? I realized that death is the one thing that unites all of us. I wanted to create a work that engages the living by doing something for the dead. Embroidery became the act by which to achieve that.

Embroidery is a good metaphor for the passage of life: the length of the thread is your lifespan; your experience is the thread when it passes through the cloth to make the embroidered image; your death is when the embroidery is finished and the thread is cut by a pair of scissors.

My grandmother’s death was the first real death I experienced. My feelings about her death were further complicated by my relatives who were arguing with each other about what her religion was when she passed away. The wake was performed in a compromised Taoist, Buddhist and Christian ritual. Religion was never an important issue for me but it disturbed me nevertheless. I do not see life and death as a cyclical process. I just believe that when we are alive, we should try to be true to ourselves, so that we don’t accumulate too much emotional baggage and hopefully, when we die, we don’t have any regrets.

AAA: What you have learnt about this project from the audience?

CYC: I have learnt that rituals for the dead are really for the living. Some audiences and participants of my Quilt of the Dead workshops thanked me for giving them an opportunity to remember their departed loved ones. I am particularly moved when the participants tell me how the deceased person they were embroidering affected and enriched their own lives. It is during these workshops that the participants are able to talk to each other about their deceased loved ones.

I had a participant in my workshop who embroidered her departed husband, who passed on twenty years ago, whose photograph she still carries with her everyday in her locket. Another participant’s husband passed on just a week prior to the workshop and she saw a rainbow that seemed like a sign that he is in heaven. Another participant lost her one- year-old son forty years ago and wonders what he would be like now if he were still alive. Another told me how her departed brother financially supported her education, making her the person she is now and another who lost her student during an outdoor excursion and watched him fall to his death. These are all moving stories; they are tragic, beautiful and poetic.

I have learnt that the living carries their dead with them. The dead do not leave us; they live on as aspects of our personalities.

AAA: You have participated in several residency programmes in different parts of the world. How did the programmes challenge your artistic career and how is the experience important to you as a Malaysian artist?

CYC: I always feel invisible when I’m on residencies overseas. A lot of people have no idea about Malaysia, or are simply not interested. I feel I always have to shout in order to be heard. But it’s also an advantage because I feel that people don’t know how to read me. Because of Malaysia’s cultural diversity, I find it easier to look at things from another person’s point of view, more able to adapt to different environments and learn different languages, as well as to incorporate different cultural elements and working ethics into my work. I became more confident in myself as an artist.

I also became more interested in history as a result of these residencies. For instance, I was in Berlin for two months. During those two months Berlin slowly unfolded its layers before me as I found out more and more about its past. By the end, my feelings towards the city and its people had changed drastically. For me, it became a city full of character and hope, while still coping with its past. Gwangju in Korea and Okinawa in Japan are also like that.

I think we act the way we do because of things that happened in the past. By understanding history, we understand ourselves.

AAA: Finally, in your new installation work we can see a different approach to the subject in terms of its medium, form and colour. What is your latest artistic development?

CYC: I’m currently preparing my solo exhibition to be held this November. Except for a few pieces, it’s a collection of pieces I have been working on for the last five years that have not yet been shown in Malaysia. It’s a mini survey exhibition of sorts. I have a feeling that after this exhibition I will take a long, hard look at the things I have done before and see what I will do in the future. For now, I’m leaving my options open.