By Gabrielle Low
The first part in a series documenting young Malaysian artists and their work.
Gan Siong King was giving me a guided viewing of his work, which was at once a guided tour of his house because his paintings are in his kitchen, his stairwell, his living room. To exhibit the paintings to me, he had to prop them up against the closest vertical surface not already occupied. To view them, I had to seat myself on the floor. There is something basic, simple, and wholly sufficient about viewing art in the space in which it was created. It’s also a particularly romantic idea.
Untitled with Face
You can read the painting. The black, white, and orange paints move in a vocabulary of smears, drippings, swirls.
And then there’s just black. Black smeared on black smeared on black. Layers of black paint pressed into the center of the canvas, looking as if it’s there to hide something from you. What the black paint appears to obscure, or yield – the ambiguity is what makes you stare a little longer – is a pale face that might remind you of a Renaissance Madonna, or something almost religious.
The painting leans against several other paintings on a rack in his kitchen. It is untitled.
I ask for images of his paintings (for my article, you see). He is obliging.
“Oh, and I need a photo of you too.”
“You can have my driving license photo – how unlike Kakiseni.” He laughs, cigarette dangling from lips.
How like Gan.
Gan is 30. He graduated in 1996 from the Malaysian Institute of Art.
A biography of another kind might give a more detailed account of an early childhood in Johor. It might speculate on influences, on certain watershed moments in his development. The impact, for instance, of several years spent in the mountains of Sabah, where his father was a logging foreman. Or the impact of his father’s death when he was 12. And it might guess at the impressions left on him by the family’s subsequent move to Klang.
It would also be quit fitting, in describing a struggling young artist, to talk about his resume. He has painted murals for theme parks and cruise ships as well as decorative hangings for hotels. He has worked as Wong Hoy Cheong’s assistant. He was the set designer for Five Arts Center’s 7Ten. His most lucrative job involved pretending to be a painter for a cigarette advertising campaign. Currently he is a props master for film and advertising shoots. When he’s not working to earn a living, he paints almost every day.
But Gan’s paintings are yet another kind of biography. The following is a biography of an evolving imagination.
Untitled Blacks with Shrouded Figures
The untitled painting with the face shrouded in black comes from this phase in his work. There’s an explicit relationship between the artist and the canvas. You can read the gestures of that relationship through the paint: the distance his hand had to move, the direction in which it moved, the amount force he must have used. But perhaps “relationship” doesn’t quite describe it. “Assault” may be a better word to describe the gestures and motions of painting that are guided by something resembling anger.
Sometimes the brush is sent across the canvas fully loaded with paint. Sometimes it carries less paint and the color gets exhausted in shorter strokes. Sometimes there is no brush; the paint is dabbed on with finger or thumb. Sometimes there is neither brush nor paint. The canvas is scrubbed with newspaper soaked in thinner and painted over. You can see the scrubs of newspaper still encrusted in the paint along with loose threads of canvas and hairs from paintbrushes that came undone in the urgency of painting.
Landscapes, Still Lifes, and Figures
This shift in his work corresponds with his (physical) move to his current home and studio. To Gan, his move was an important milestone in his development. I prefer not speculate on the links between psychology and geography.
The paintings from this phase return to conventional genres – landscapes, still lifes, and figures. The twist is that he melds the genres so that still lifes are painted from a close-up perspective, making them look like landscapes. Likewise, figures are composed with objects that would normally be part of a still life painting.
There is also an element of the comedic in these works – one winter landscape is a depiction of the frost collecting on the insides of freezer.
I like to think that, in the best of these paintings, the receding figures that we first saw in his untitled blacks withdraw even further to create an absence that, paradoxically, is an absence with enough content to assert itself – in the barrenness of a desert, in rumpled bedsheets that hint at the recent presence of a sleeper.
The Big Picture of Disaster aka And The Thought That I Would Fall in Love Again
Absence in this particular painting is conveyed by the melting mass of the fuselage, the suggestion of death, the mobile stairways that sit around the wreckage, stairways now leading to nowhere, as well as by the indifference of the onlookers. Somewhere at the back, five figures walk in a straight line with the stride of the Beatles on Abbey Road.
His still life paintings sometimes generate a comparison to Giorgio Morandi’s muted still lifes of bottles, vases, and other objects. Through his compositions, Morandi explored the relationships of objects within the spatial dimensions he created. Gan’s still lifes are rather different projects, concerned primarily with blurring the distinction between the conventional genres of landscapes and still lifes. To me, it is this painting that bears the strongest traces of Gan’s appreciation of the Italian artist.
Its flatness draws you into a realm with a very different understanding of space. The high drama of the scene is muted. It’s a familiar sensation; it reminds you of the images of violence and disaster in the news being accompanied by the casual monotone of the newsreader. The greatest tragedy is its normalcy. What it evokes is more “Oh, I wonder how many died this time,” rather than, “How loud were the screams of the dying?”
Like Morandi’s compositions, the configuration in this painting is crucial. The disaster is heightened by a sense of fracture, but it’s not the wreckage that gives us the strongest sense of a crack up, rather it’s the way the lines dissect the canvas. There is a certain nausea – and I mean this as a compliment – about the crisscrossing of lines, the vertical lines of the lightposts, the horizontal orientation of the wreckage and the runway, the diagonal lines of the stairs and the broken traffic line.
The Big Picture of Disaster was painted shortly before September 11. In fact, the image is based on the scene at the Colombo International Airport following a rebel suicide attack in July, 2001. In spite of this, the painting was not intended as a political commentary. It is, he insists, a painting about his inability to fall in love.
Community Arts Projects
An Indonesian artist recently commented that art in Malaysia does not reflect political and social realities. Here is probably a good place to touch on Gan’s politics.
He has been involved, in the past few years, in several community arts projects, from Five Arts Centre’s Taman Medan project to the upcoming Asian Youth Artsmall Exchange. He is also a founding member of Spacekraft, a multidisciplinary arts collective that among other things, organised Chow Kit Fest in 2002.
While he has tended to deal with his social and political beliefs using social and political means – Taman Medan being a case in point – this does not mean that there’s a separation between his politics and his art.
In his own words:
“To a certain extent, I think my politics are part of my art (and yes, Taman Medan is an art project, like my paintings are an art project, only with different variables and outcomes), it’s about, among other things, existing in Malaysia as a young Malaysian painter of Chinese descent, and dealing with the previous generations’ imaginations and what they have done, or didn’t do. I do think comedic introverted delusions are reflections of Malaysia’s political and social realities, if not a strategy to address them.”
It’s a little tricky to mark the more recent phases in his work. Gan and I spend some time disagreeing on whether his output of witty, conceptual paintings is a shift from his landscapes, still lifes, and figures.
“There’s a difference between the two phases,” I say. “I’m not sure I see it.”
“But there’s an evolution. You’ve started stretching your understanding of landscapes and the conventional genres.”
“I wouldn’t call it an evolution. I haven’t left the last phase behind. It’s more like a diversion.” “OK… But that’s still a change.”
“OK. There is a difference.”
With his black paintings, we see what he has done and through it we have some insight into how he did it and even hints on why he did it.
It’s harder to come to terms with his conceptual works – a painting of the reverse side of a painting (Inside out upside down), pubic hair embedded in soap to spell the word “Beautiful,” reproductions of a light switch and socket, a painting of the words “I WANT TO SLEEP WITH YOU” for a fundraiser exhibition, as well as of a degree from Goldsmiths College conferring upon himself a Bachelor of Arts with Second Class Honours.
We see what he has done. We can even appreciate the skill in how he has done it. But it gets harder and harder to see why he has done it. The humor of the images prevents us from seeing why he has painted the image. It is harder to get beyond the funny idea of a painted light switch to see why he has painted a light switch. It is clever and witty. The realistic style is well-executed. It elicits some interesting questions: Is it a still life? It’s a life sized light switch, so would it be considered a miniature?
Still, even when we grasp the underlying idea behind the image of the light switch – how it questions painting itself and how it attempts to answer that question by positing that a painting is not just an image but an object in itself – its finitude of meaning gets exhausted too quickly and we are left with little else beyond that. It may be uncivilised to say, “It’s just a light switch!” But ultimately, the most concept laden light switch is just a concept laden light switch.
Self-Portrait, On Some Days I Feel Vulnerable Too
During one of our conversations, we have an exchange about self-portraits, beginning with his own. The gist of it went something like the following:
“It resembles you. But you’re not there.”
“So a self-portrait should contain some truth about the inner life of the painter?”
“Like Van Gogh’s portraits of his tortured inner life?”
“What if the artist sets out to lie about himself?”
“Then that’s shooting himself in the foot because that is a truth about him.”
“Then the absence is a kind of truth.”
“Then it becomes no different from painting a still life or a landscape.”
“So that’s a kind of truth.”
“I won’t disagree with that.”
I got over my initial frustration with his unwillingness to paint himself even when he was supposed to be painting a self-portrait. This work may well be counted as one of his conceptual paintings but I think that, in this case, the result is more compelling.
The title of this self-portrait notwithstanding (and the title, in my view, weakens it), Gan is usually quite clear about avoiding high drama in his paintings. Even his scene of a disaster evokes numbness rather than the visceral emotions that come to us when we react to disaster. His paintings do not document the eventful moments, the moments we want to report, but rather the intervals between the drama. The moment, captured by this self-portrait in a hazardous materials suit, is that of breathing, that most automatic, yet fundamental, activity of life. More precisely, he captures the moment of exhalation. I am still in awe.
Gan’s paintings are still on display in his home. A few have already been sold since I last saw them. I am not sure what hangs on the sanctified walls of the National Art Gallery today.
Gabrielle Low graduated last year with degrees in political science and philosophy. She has worked in theater and non-profit organisations.
First Published: 02.09.2005 on Kakiseni