Inside, Outside

An odd couple pairing results in cool detachment and dark exploration

The Edge; Options, 19 FEB 2007, by Laura Fan

This year’s Rimbun Dahan Residency pairs the inwardly exploratory vision of Chang Yoong Chia with the coolly distant views of Australian artist David Jolly. The lush interiority of one contrasts well with the controlled focus on appearances by the other.

Chang’s work introduces a confident, mature form of visual expression to Malaysian art. His fantastical canvasses teem with life and explore the central mysteries of creation, desire and death. Using a personal iconography, he invests rabbits, bats and a male and female figure with the weight of the eternal.

Fundamentally, Chang draws upon his personal experiences to form his subject matter. For example, his A Pick-up at the Train Station, ostensibly features the end of a commuter train ride. Yet, he transforms the mundane environment into a world possessing potent erotic appeal. Putting a male figure in the bottom right corner, the train forms the visual link between the man and a seashell-clad woman, being led forward, like a sacrificial virgin, by a white and a black rabbit.

Features of Malaysian commuters can be recognised in the dress and bodies of the figures streaming out of the train and also sitting near the windows. A large crocodile visually links the female and the male figures. She steps over the egg that the reptile emerges from. The crocodile, meanwhile, looks intently at the male figure, reminding us of the danger implicitin sexual relationships. Close study reveals an enormous poisonous millipede, emphasising the power and threat of intimacy.

Whimsical elements such as a glass bubble that contains a fantastical Chinese mountain landscape in the left background and the watchful eye of an enormous rabbit in the bottom left foreground add further surreal elements to the sense of threat, desire and ritual.

The symbolic use of rabbits stems from his childhood experiences. His family kept rabbits as pets and as a young boy, he learnt about procreation, madness, cruelty and death through observing the madly breeding bunnies. They have come to represent fecundity, mortality and the mysterious power of nature for him.

Hence, the rabbits appear everywhere, dwarfing architecture and people, floating through space and overseeing the presentation of the lover. Bats, with their dark fur and nocturnal habits, came to represent the dark side of the cycle of life.

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter presents a looming bat with the ears and head of a rabbit sweeping over oil palm plantations. The enigmatically still baby rabbit in a box on the central road forms an easy meal for the looming snake just as the sleeping woman in a flowing white dress also lies to be found by the man creeping through the palms. In the same way, we too are prey to the strange hybrid creature of Chang’s imagination. Looking directly at us, the eye contact brings us into the image and the creature leaves no doubt that we are hunted.

More whimsical work in the form of a self-portrait created out of termite wings, paintings on shells and the marvelous one-minute movies – formed by painting an egg mounted on an alarm clock (the images are seen as the egg rotates in one-minute sequences) – demonstrates the total immersion in nature Chang enjoyed during his residency.

Jolly’s painting on glass, however, leaves us intact. Painted from photographs taken in his travels through Malaysia, the images possess a cool containment. Many work focus on the surface of things. The glass cladding of a building, and a closed grill or a fabric seen behind a glass on which a car is reflected comprise some of his subjects.

The image exists several times removed from its physical existence. Indeed, in the case of the images of reflections, there is no physical presence. It only exists as an image captured in memory or on film. By removing the image even further by painting it, Jolly’s work embodies detachment. Even the choice of glass as a painted ground reinforces the distance he seeks through the process of creating the image itself.

His Closed possesses a graphic quality that defies the tonal evocation of three-dimensionality. In this way, the collapsible grill appears to be super flat even as the shades evoke depth.

More conventionally lovely images of palm trees at sundown and beach scenes are lent an urbane coolness when rendered in Jolly’s technique. They consciously avoid depth but they embody a current trend towards detachment.

Art critic and historian Laura Fan is a lecturer at a private college.