Vol. 22 No. 1, JAN/FEB 2012

A Wide-Eyed Wonder

Chang Yoong Chia, The World is Flat, 2010, postage stamps and glue

The narrative expressed through the work of Malaysian artist Chang Yoong Chia is complex one and is informed by a wide range of social, historical, and personal observations. His criticisms of what he has lived through and what he sees are well considered and subtle.

By Kathleen Suraya Warden

Today’s brightest Malaysian contemporary artists are unique. They are making art that is not only unlike anything else produced in Malaysia but also quite unlike anything else in Southeast Asia as well as the rest of the world. It is art that only their particular lives can inform. In the case of Chang Yoong Chia, his work is dependently identifiable as Malaysian when its themes are investigated, and it is made with a more personal approach than social, one that incorporates his own Chinese-Malaysian identity and displays the elements that makes him so different from many of his peers. The distinction between his personality and those of the mainstream majority was obvious when Chang was very young and in school. Having never jettisoned his childhood imagination, Chang’s art now orbits around children’s animals, natural or everyday objects, storybook-style narratives, and incredibly detailed composite visuals. The artist also sees certain materials as magical. "If I can’t get into that mode while doing my work, I feel my work has failed"1

A Kuala Lumpur native, Chang's experience of the Malaysian public education system, including a Diploma in Fine Art from the Malaysian Institute of Art in 1996, informs his practice now. "My childhood memories are very important to my work. I had an uneventful, protected but happy childhood. I was a very sensitive child therefore my everyday experiences were amplified, filled with magic and imagination according to my childish mind," says Chang. "In school I felt restricted because imagination was not encouraged and my desire to escape into my fantasy world intensified," Chang ‘s art may be considered pure fantasy, but this is only on first impression. In actuality, it often contains mature commentary and imagery surrounding adult themes-particularly sexuality, death, and depression.

Like many Malaysian artists, Chang Yoong Chia, 36, does not have a positive political view of some of the systems and policies in his country, but unlike many other artists he rarely addresses these outright in his work. Instead, his protests are expressed through heightened whimsy, and, if his work contains radical content, it can therefore be seen as rebellion directed at Malaysia, or at humanity as a whole – which he considers preoccupied with fast gains - or simply telling of his own experience. He stated in an interview, "The education in Malaysia is generally unsupportive towards fostering creativity, and even less towards art. They are more interested in training people for practical occupations." But in general Chang is keenest in discussions of materials and art-making rather than any other topics, fostering the disguise of a childish front that has become his trademark.

1 All quotations from the artist unless otherwise stated are from interviews/correspondence between the artist and the author, September – December 2011

But it is only a front, or only part of who he is. At depth the artist possesses a quiet intellect. He has traveled extensively, having been invited to several residencies, and studied on his own accord aspects of not only languages but also the cultures, art history, and conflicts of the past related to the places he resided. "I am by nature somebody who likes to stay home," he says, "so it was initially challenging for me when I went for artist residencies. Everything was unfamiliar. Maybe because of that I tried much harder to understand the places, read up about them, go to markets (where I think the local people interact), and observed local customs and ways of life. I especially enjoyed the places that have a lot of history, where the people are still dealing with consequences."

In 2006, Chang was granted the Rimbun Dahan Malaysian Artist Residency, which has generous studio and living space just outside Kuala Lumpur, and his awarded placements since indicate just how greatly the well-known local residency can influence the careers of homegrown artists. He visited the UK, Germany, Korea and Taiwan in 2007, and then in 2008, traveled again for the JENESYS residency in Sapporo, Japan. "During these residencies, I always tried to incorporate local elements, materials, and customs in my work. I think these residencies expanded my work greatly, I’m more aware of what’s happening outside Malaysia." The artist seems to have wolfed down his exposure to the outside world, so much so that he says that he is not sure if he will continue to live in Malaysia or relocate elsewhere.

Chang Yoong Chia, Man with No Country, 2011, postage stamps and glue

Several of Chang's notable pieces have benefited from residency opportunities, including the ongoing Quilt of the Dead, which began in 2003 with just the artist embroidering pictures from the obituary sections of the newspaper onto cloth and connecting the patches. The quilt evolved to become a sort of regional community project; "I started to get other people involved, first as onlookers to my embroidery performances and later, with the help of my collaborator and wife, Teoh Ming Wah, invited participants to workshops where they would embroider images of their own departed loved ones. The idea was to create environments where people discuss death and what death means to the living, and perhaps also to serve as an opportunity for remembering, healing and celebration."

The performance and workshops took place in Korea – where participants embroidered portraits of the May 18 Democratic Uprising – Taiwan, and Japan. The quilt (unfinished) was recently displayed for the public in Kuala Lumpur. "We hope to conclude the project by doing workshops that deal with Malaysia (and) when the quilt is ten by ten feet, the project will end,” the artist says.

The very nature of the piece, homely, sad, and introspective, is a reflection of the unique personality that Chang injects into the field of Malaysian contemporary art. In addition to bringing several regional communities together in its own way and connecting some of his residency experiences, the work also led to personal and professional growth for the artist: "I'm particularly proud of this work because (it) ups the opportunity for me to communicate on a very personal level with many people who normally would not have involved themselves in art. It was also a way to negotiate my feelings towards not properly mourning the death of my grandmother when I was 17 years old.” And most significant, it also led to the confirmation of his preference to take refuge in materials, particularly those which require time and focus to use, which would dominate his later output. "(Quilt of the Dead) convinced me of the power of ritual and working with common materials (in this case a needle and thread) to bring out their symbolic meanings."

One such work, based on the common Chinese ceramic spoon, is the beautiful Maiden of the Ba Tree (2007) made for Chang’s Narratives series. The series used single objects such as seashells and plates to tell a story grouped together. In Maiden of t he Ba Tree, 35 of the familiar spoons each contains a tiny painted scene with a fragment of text that, lined up, tells the story of a mother who loses sight of her son and feels abandoned, though he is actually always there. The images are faithful to the traditional decorative style of widely available Asian ceramics, with an old Chinese woman against a banana tree, an monkeys, cranes, mountains never looking out of place on the base material. In the mother’s loneliest moments black crows enter the spoons, eventually filling the sky to a complete black. A goddess-type figure appears, as they do in other works in the Narratives series, in the likeness of Chang’s wife (and, it could be argued, a kind of muse for the artist) Teoh Ming Wah. Teoh, who has written catalogue texts for the artist, insightfully found that Chang’s Narratives contain the strange mixture of "a mysterious realm that is both supernatural and illogical" and "classical" depiction of "Confucian values." 2 The artist has of course, since childhood, turned his own environment to fairytale and thus the seeming contradictions emerge.

Teoh, fully aware of the personal bend to Chang’s creations, noted in the same essay that the artist’s narratives, "instead of emanating from any textual references, are derived from his personal exposure to, and ingestion of, elements of Eastern and Western cultures" 3 This may be the main reason that the work was acquired by the Singapore Art Museum, and is proudly displayed when possible so that visitors may read the spoons in order, and marvel at the feat of producing and combining miniature components so that collectively they make a bog, highly emotive impact.

The palpable contemporary nature of Maiden of the Ba Tree is not lost in its unmistakably Asian characteristics derived from earlier times. In fact its unassuming style serves to highlight issues as localized as familial piety, and as universal as the loneliness within a generation gap, representing the artist’s (and peers’) very situation and point of view. If the Singapore Art Museum can travel the work for regional or Western audiences to experience one day, it should.

As with Quilt of the Dead, Chang found working on Maiden of the Ba Tree was a chance to bring out the “power” of the materials, and a journey of self-discovery and artistic development. “As I’m trained as a painter and have no knowledge of ceramic works, I could only paint on top of the spoons but I like working within this limitation. It forces me to really look at the object. To find what I consider its history, poetry, and magic and bring it out in the best possible way.” With regard to his plucking from Chinese customs and culture, it seems the artist is not fully aware of how much he has absorbed from the influence of his heritage. “Being a Malaysian of Chinese descent and able to speak Chinese fluently but not write it, I feel neither fully Chinese nor fully Malaysian. I’m quite surprised that I was able to create a melodramatic narrative somewhat similar to Chinese folk tales translated to English.”

2 Teoh Ming Wah, ‘Narratives’ in catalogue for Chang Yoong Chia solo exhibition at Annexe Gallery, Kuala Lumpur (2009), The 2nd Seven Years: Quilt of the Dead, Flora & Fauna IV, Narratives, pp.26-31.

3 ibid

Chang Yoong Chia, Love at First Sight (detail), 2011, postage stamps and glue

It is indeed a complex identity the artist holds. His latest series, related to his most recent solo exhibition in Singapore, and upcoming new works reflect his position as a Chinese-Malaysian, of an age still able to easily evoke remnant effects of the sway of British colonization over Malaysia in everyday life, who is also a citizen of the world and young, active contemporary artist. He has progressed to a new material, no less ordinary and sweetly meaningful as materials of his past works: postage stamps. From British, Malaysian, American, and European stamps Chang Yoong Chia made several collages in a series entitled The World is Flat that once again explores his influences and childhood, including the hobby common to his generation: collecting stamps. Each collage is of such wonder and detail that it emanates a kind of peaceful rebellion against convenience and corner cutting in the modern world. He was interested in the "laborious process”, which he said, "really tested my physical and mental endurance.” Collecting, sorting, preparing, and cutting up thousands of stamps for a series over several months gave the artist no choice but to focus and take care, and thus enjoy life. 4 "There should be a better (and slower, less destructive) way of living, and I hope my art practice reflects that,” he said in his statement for the series.

Chang Yoong Chia, 80 Sen Definitive Stamp, 2011, postage stamps and glue

Each work in The World is Flat makes references to the interaction of man throughout the world over time, or to certain important figures in history – from scientists to politicians to "the person most portrayed in stamps:” Queen Elizabeth II. Amongst the largest collages is his Noah's Ark, complete with animals in pairs, and a political map of the world, in full color, which on closer inspection contains historical scenes appropriate to their geographical location. The effectiveness, of sourcing color tones as well as imagery from postage stamps, is immediate and mind-blowing for the viewer, who is double-hit with both the nostalgia of the (dying out) object – the postage stamp, and the pictorial description of moments in history that the artist has managed to literally build out of it. In addition, the collages each contains varying combinations of humor, prettiness, innocence, and melancholy – as is the style of his previous works – and thus belie the artist as their creator.

Chang Yoong Chia, Queen E’s Solo Performance 2010, postage stamps and glue

On his map Antartica is populated by upright, Emperor-like penguins, made from fragments of the Malaysian 50 sen stamps, which in reality show a White-rumped Shama or Murai Batu. The map’s China full of pandas, as well as images that reflect the opium trade hey-day, and Japan is surrounded by a chain paper cranes in a range of authentically styled colors and prints. At sea, ships sail, dolphins play, and birds migrate overhead in a V formation. In short, the incredible patience that must have been involved on the artist’s end, taking the imagery to such places of accurate and exciting activity, gives the works exquisite dynamism and an air of impossibility.

Some of the small collages in the series are even more striking, for their smallness, and for the way in which Chang has pieced together bits of completely unrelated stamps to appear so much as if they belong together – it is like he has solved puzzles. The Merbah Beringin bird on the Malaysian 30 sen stamp is transformed into a realistic looking cat in the hands of the artist, who said that he enjoyed the respite of the making the smaller, faster works. But those contain no less detail and cleverness. In Three Bouquets (2011), a play on the traditional stamp adornment of native flora and fauna, the artist has bunched flowers from politically opposing nations together into things beautiful, sociable, and unfortunately, unlikely. Of The Followers (2011) Chang says, “I appropriated stamps with the image of seeing-eye dog as satire for paths taken by world leaders, and how they had decided to take these paths.” 5

4 Artist’s Statement (2010) The World is Flat series.

There is also a funny, delicate narrative piece of 54 separate collages. Entitled Love at First Sight (2011), this work depicts a version of humankind’s progression, beginning with Adam and Eve, through invaders pillaging villages and murdering natives, and ending in a capitalist society complete with suits and ties. The clarity of composition and the sing-song cadence of the text (each miniscule letter also built from bits of stamps) can easily entertain a viewer to distraction from the material of postage stamps, which of course – "originating from Great Britain …once the biggest colonial empire in the world" 6 – forms an integral part of the overall message of the art.

Chang Yoong Chia, The Darwin-Wallace Theory of Evolution, 2011, postage stamps and glue

"I'm interested in using stamps because almost everyone around my age and above used to collect stamp when they were children, (and because) stamps used to evoke curiosity and wonder about other countries. The images and information on stamps are usually state-sanctioned and therefore only portray the positive sides of countries (but) stamps are disappearing, so stamps (now) represent to me an end of the era of ‘official’ world-view. And as Malaysia was also a British Colony, it is interesting to find my own culture and history through using stamps.” 7

Once again, Chang Yoong Chia is exploring his world, by addressing "the world as we know it" in his art. For audience his ability to manipulate familiar materials is part of the appeal, but only because he is able to do within the wider context of profound meanings relevant to Malaysia and Southeast Asia today. If his art were only about the materials, it would lack the substance that can keep us glued to it for hours; the integration of all things that fascinates the artist, including physical objects, and matters of the heart and mind. “I’m currently working on a new stamp collage series," says Chang. "Hopefully it’ll materialize into a new solo show in the near future. But I’m also very greedy… I am constantly searching for new materials to explore."

No doubt, despite his love of travel, his work will never take him far from Malaysia and Southeast Asian region. "As a Malaysian my culture is a composite of a lot of different influences. I’m very interested to discover if this is also true in other Southeast Asian people (and) to see more of what other Southeast Asian artist are doing. Are there similarities between them and Malaysian artists? Do we share the same values? Can we learn from each other?" If this is any indication, followers of his career can rest assured that Chang Yoong Chia will forever be inquisitive and questioning, especially of his most familiar surroundings.

Kathleen Suraya Warden is a contributing editor to Asian Art News and World Sculpture News. She is currently living in Australia.

5 Interviews with the author on The World is Flat series, mid-2010 – early 2011.

6 Artist’s Statement (2010) The World is Flat series.

7 Ibid.