Animal Instinct in Eden

“Man is categorically not the crown of all creation: every creature stands at his side, at the same stage of perfection.” – Friedrich Nietzsche, Hammer of the Gods, compiled, translated and edited by Stephen Metcalf

An observation put forth by an old friend some years ago: an artist who consciously works in black and white unconsciously subscribes to a romantic, nostalgic longing for the past. They have a bleak perception of the present and the future. Their subject matters of choice are usually old buildings, old objects and old people. This is their way of lamenting the passing of a gentler time of innocence and simplicity.

Admittedly, however, artist Chang Yoong Chia does refer to the past, but for the most unlikely reasons. He returns to the mental imprints left on his childhood imagination from watching animal and nature documentaries on TV. His first solo exhibition, Flora and Fauna, running at Reka Art Space till July 24, returns to this memory, recreating a pre­ banishment paradise, where wildlife and foliage shares centrestage with a human couple (Adam and Eve?). It is without lamentation or nostalgia.

Most of the works are painted in oil on canvas of varying sizes; some are drawn with ballpoint pen on A4 paper, and there are also a handful of drawings on miniature objects (animal bones, egg shells, etc). Although Yoong Chia claims to have no affinity for colors as the main reason for working wholly in black and white for this series, I suspect it is also due to prudent aesthetic considerations. Maybe he doesn’t want to overwhelm the viewers, after all, his paintings are intensely detailed. Maybe he was wisely resisting the obvious representation of paradise, the kind that is much exemplified by Hollywood films like What Dreams May Come. By stripping away colours from heaven, he forces us to see beyond the common and the fantasies of ideal that have been taught to us.

After pulling off his coup on Eden, Yoong Chia has repopulated it with creatures that serve more as symbolic function, rather than as mere food within the monotheistic concept of men. These specially selected plants, insects and animals, all faithfully painted from memory, are chosen because of their perceived ‘qualities’ suggesting savagery, playfulness, and sexual virility. Their indispensable presence echoes and amplifies the psychological states and hidden desires of the couple – desires left unspoken (suppressed even!) due to dogmatic concepts of morality, decency, etc, that have led us from our natural ‘instincts’ to explore and act in unadulterated manner. I say ‘unadulterated’ to mean without the ‘deviant’ trappings of propriety that adults impose on themselves.

The Oriental looking Adam painted in his salaryman mode, with silk rope around his neck tied in a slipknot (it’s called a necktie), is an indictment of this very deviation which ultimately leads to vanity. (“… the vanity, which believes man to be the great secret purpose of animal evolution.” – Nietzsche, ibid). But he is also depicted in progressive stages of undress, until finally, he is found frolicking with his equally Oriental looking Eve, both of them only in sky clad. Perhaps love is an irrational force that peels away the artificial boundaries and masks that we as domesticated primates were schooled to ritualistically don in our everyday engagements with polite society and family. In its savage and shameless pursuit of ecstasy, ‘love’ re-connects us to our bare ‘instincts’, our ‘psyche’, our ‘real’ self.

There have been ‘art experts’ who deem Yoong Chia’s works ‘ugly’ (and therefore commercially unviable).  They advised him to paint visually pleasing pictures. Undeterred, Yoong Chia soldiers on patiently without compromise. Since graduating from Malaysian Institute of Art almost 10 years ago, Yoong Chia has actively participated in many national art competitions, exhibited in various group exhibitions at established galleries (both private and national). He is a co-founder of, a collective of artists from various discipline interested in pursuing and promoting alternative/ diverse concepts of art. He has also generated some interest recently with his performance art piece entitled ‘Quilt of the Dead’ where he stations himself in selected public spaces, and sews portraits of dead people from newspaper obituaries.

At present, he is glad to come across a gallery like Reka Art Space that respects the artist’s need to hold true to their unique, oft-times not so polite, pretty or politically correct visions. It helps as well that Chee Sek Thim, the director of the gallery, is both an art educator and an artist.

It must also be an encouraging sign that than 50% of Yoong Chia’s works have been sold within the first two days. Looks like a lot of people are taken with the ‘ugly’, un-nostalgic displays of optimism and love.

“Man is, in a certain sense, the most unsuccessful animal, the most sick, the animal which has most dangerously deviated from its instincts – but, by that token, also the most interesting!” – Nietzsche, ibid.

First Published: 11.07.2004 on Kakiseni

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