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Playing With History

  • By Azwan Ismail
  • December 29, 2005
  • 60 Views

By Beverly Yong

As children we are told the names of things – naming is one of the earliest tools we adopt to negotiate our world. We put pictures and sounds and feelings to words, they define people and places near and far. As we grow up things named grow associations, take on deeper and wider meaning, beg questions.

Naming is no simple exercise for Malaysians, however. We speak many languages, including several brands of “pidgin”, we gloss over our histor(ies), over massive racial, town and country, and economic divides. lf we try to stop and think about it, we find ourselves in a time and place which is particularly hard to identify – moreover, it is a minefield of difficult and likely dangerous contradictions. The guidelines to understanding where we are, are so (deliberately?) vague, that we may find it hard to let our consciousness take root.

Perhaps this is why as a society we seem so wary of text, and of reading, and why two bold and impressive exhibitions in July and August this year seem so very significant – Chong Kim Chiew’s Isolation House installation at Rumah Air Panas in Setapak, which ran 17 July – 14 August 2005, and Sharon Chin’s Boats & Bridges show at Reka Art Space in Kelana Jaya, from 5 – 27 Aug 2005.

The two young artists come from rather different backgrounds – Kim Chiew recently graduated from Guongzhou Academy of Fine Art in China (2001) and Sharon came back in 2003 from Victorian College of the Arts in Melbourne. The aesthetics and underlying agenda of their respective work seem to speak of two different worlds but both incorporate an interest in histories and shared narratives, a commitment to artistic process, and to an active engagement with their audience, which could prove a milestone for a new generation of Malaysian artists.

Chong Kim Chiew: Imprisoning the visitor

Both exhibitions in a sense pivoted on the idea of “identification”, making use of allegory and other forms of narrative layering, and especially the naming (as text or symbol) of people, things and places. Isolation House was a very focused work, which tied together a specific historical phenomenon – the resettlement by the British colonial government of over 530,000 Chinese “squatters” (displaced Chinese immigrants living illegally on rural tracts of land) and plantation workers in “New Villages” (or Kampung Baru) during the Emergency (1948-1960), and a specific mythical allegory – the story of the Eight Immortals Cross the Sea (Ba Xian Guo Hai), in a single space, reconstructed over a period of two months.

Visitors entered Isolation House via an open doorway from the rooftop, descending via a staircase leading to a sparse shell of the house, laid over with straw. On the walls were placed road signs naming the forty-four New Villages set up in the Selangor/Kuala Lumpur area between 1950 and 1960, including Air Panas itself, each cut out from zinc and treated with bleach to encrust them with rust. The names of the New Villages have survived, today designating residential or industrial districts which have merged in with the rest of the Klang Valley (for eg. Jinjang, Salak Selatan, Damansara). While many Chinese families can still trace their roots to these areas or may even still live there, the historical memory of these places is largely lost on the rest of us.

The original ground floor entrance grill to the house was locked, imprisoning the visitor. Placed in different corners of the house was a motley array of seven animal cages, with an eighth half-buried in the ground outside the house, each containing an object or pair of objects – the “magical” tools of the Eight Immortals, adapted to a set of new circumstances. In the story of The Eight Immortals Cross the Sea, the group encounter an ocean on the way to attend the Conference of the Magical Peach. They decide, instead of travelling across on their clouds, to use their combined powers to get across, whence the Chinese proverb “The Eight Immortals cross the sea, each reveals its divine power”. Kim Chiew cut a painful parallel between the Ba Xian and the immigrant Chinese (Nanyang Huaqiao) who crossed the South China Sea to Malaya. When the British devised their resettlement plan, they effectively separated Chinese communities in order to monitor and control them, cutting off the influence of the Malayan Communist Party. The caged tools represented the Immortals separated and disempowered. Lan CaiHe’s basket of flowers has become a basket of dry earth, Li TieGuai’s crutch is paired with a rubber-tapping bowl instead of a gourd, Zhongli Quan’s fan is made of bamboo and broken. Outside, Cao Guo Jiu’s jade tablet of admission to court is a buried wooden block, denied entry.

The effectiveness of this work lay in its emotional force, with the site functioning like a map of triggers. The physical layout and aesthetic conjured first a specific mood – a sense of descending into a strange place in the past, feelings of imprisonment, disenfranchisement, erosion, powerlessness, punctuated by the signs and objects. Then, as one tried to make sense of the place names and symbols through association, we began a process of translation that took us through a “cultural experience,” a line of thought encompassing a central Chinese myth and a critical and formative episode in the history of the Malaysian Chinese community, “rhyming” ideas and references. The use of allegory to comment on contemporary political situations in itself has a place in a Chinese classical artistic tradition, adding to the sense of continuity and undercutting our experience of the work, nudging our response depending on where “we” think we come from. A final poignant note in the context of the show was that Rumah Air Panas is to be razed in the coming year to make way for roadworks.

Sharon Chin: Exceptionally lovely words

Sharon Chin’s Boats and Bridges worked from a more personal experience, at the same time bringing in a much broader gamut of cultural references. The exhibition as a whole was integrated and developed on various aspects of her work and process over the past few years, pivoting on two specific motifs. The boat and the bridge linked and floated as elements in a playful yet serious investigation of interpretations. Bridges was an installation incorporating boundary tape weighed down by plaster casts moulded by plastic bags – boundary tape was used in a previous work made in Melbourne where the tape was hung out on a windy day. The “boats” were the shapes made by the plaster casts and also silhouettes of their cross-section, appearing in drawings, and in an elaborate wordfinder game laid out on the floor of Reka Art Space. Text therefore figured heavily in the work, as the dialogue of a broken love story in “Sometimes Words Are Useless”, as quotations from emblematic literary tracts from the likes of Lewis Carroll, Mishima and Anais Nin in Inner Continents, as the words to be discovered by the audience in strange or familiar categories in Boats. Sharon starts from the presumption that names are random, quizzing, making us find meaning, never assuming our position, yet questioning if we can identify “5 countries in political strife” (Iraq, Afghanistan, Tibet, Iran, Myanmar) or “5 lebuhraya (ldp, nkve, persekutuan, sprint, kesas), or “5 exceptionally lovely words” (thicket, frond, vermillion, gossamer, murmur) – so that we assume different distances from her position, and in this way different connections to her.

The use of text and narrative in Malaysian art is not new, although it has seldom been explored in such an eloquent way. What I personally found riveting and significant about these two exhibitions was the personal emotional commitment and thoroughness involved in their exploration of names and symbols. Both bodies of work countered ideas of naming as the masking of truth, as an ideological tool, as something imposed. Rather names are something searched for, excavated – expressing a faith in the personal search for meaning.

In Chong Kim Chiew’s Isolation House, the sadness and pathos of the humbled Immortals personify a breakdown of identity but yet also an adaptability to change. In Sharon Chin’s homage to boats and bridges, we find hope for survival and communication. The sheer extent of effort and craft in both these exhibitions, however ephemeral, the sense that in both bodies of work the artistic content is as strong in the nature of process as it is in concept, the effective exploitation of the sensory nature of words, in neither case expressed as monologues, strike extremely powerful chords. Both Kim Chiew and Sharon express a sense of rupture and loss in two entirely different realms, both using a mapping grid. They have tried to piece together parts, the randomness of the imposed name – whether kampung baru or the flood of ideas and things that make up one young informed arid sensitive woman’s thinking about the world. Words and symbols can define our thinking about who we are but they are also a means of subverting our assumptions. These are two small strong voices engaged in a personal fight to negotiate our world in their own terms, who have created two of the most significant and sophisticated bodies of work to have graced local art scene for a very long time. Kim Chiew in his statement talks of “seeking possibilities and ways for art to survive in the wilderness”, and I feel these two art “events”, however transient and undocumented, have led the way.

~~~

Beverly Yong is a gallery director, who also writes on art.

First Published: 29.12.2005 on Kakiseni