By Zedeck Siew
A red Chinese box-altar stands on one of The Annexe Gallery’s upper levels; its idol, a cross-legged figure with a white beard, looks over a space in which two-by-fours, of varying sizes and each encrusted with a layer of fresh asphalt, lay scattered. Some distinguish themselves: “Platform” has a panel raised as a ramp into one of the galleries windows, in whose frame a 1950s painting of road workers has been reproduced; in “Lake”, another piece of this patchwork road is propped open, like the viewing cover of a coffin, over a pool of water where a warning light lies, blinking. There are bits of tarry gravel everywhere.
This is Kepong-based visual artist Chong Kim Chiew’s “A Temporary Road”, installed at the gallery alongside Low Yi Chin’s “A White House” until November 29th, 2007. Occupying the upper floor are concept sketches, photographs of streets in Johor destroyed by flood, and news clippings about cracks in the Middle Ring Road 2 highway — blueprints of the broken thoroughfare below. By locating such a statement (of the impermanence of human edifice) in one of the oldest parts of Kuala Lumpur, Kim Chiew hopes “to make us think (and rethink) about our national developments and aspirations.”
The altar, itself, appears to be here to bless the endeavour, in emulation of construction contractors everywhere; I noticed, however, that there are neither offerings nor incense. At the show’s opening I asked Yap Sau Bin (he and both artists of” A White House and A Temporary Road” were part of the Rumah Air Panas alternative art collective, before it lost its Setapak base last year) about this detail. “Well, if you burn incense that means you are inviting spirits in,” he said, “And from then on there will be something living in the altar. Or, anyway, that is the belief. True or not is a different question.”
By Sunday, however, someone had left an offering, just in case: three small kumquats.
Kim Chiew’s installation is a seemingly simple presentation of self-destructive hubris — but the most fruitful interpretation I heard incorporated the shrine and its effigy metaphorically: our destruction is a result of disrespect, both to spiritual powers and common realities. In less divisive times, superstitious engineers, prudent bet-hedgers, offered supplications to everyone: not only to Taoist or ancestral deities, but to Hindu gods and other semangats of the land. Today, dogmatic religion and communal attitudes mean that the Chinese-featured old man sits alone. Not all parties are acknowledged, let alone appeased — and this is why our roads rip themselves apart, like the fabric of our social contract.
Zedeck Siew writes for Kakiseni.
Chong Kim Chiew’s “A Temporary Road” is one half of “A White House and A Temporary Road”, with Low Yi Chin’s equally proficient “A White House”. Both are meditations on human artifice and its relationship with the natural world, and run at The Annexe @ Central Market from November 9th to 29th, 2007.
First Published: 11.11.2007 on Kakiseni