Chasing Chang Yoong Chia

Issue 45, December 2011, pg. 76-77, By Rachel Jena

There’s no bravado about Chang Yoong Chia, but there’s a quiet charm about his person that extends to his art. Often excessively detailed (this is an artist who has fashioned spider webs out of human hair), Yoong Chia’s work are creations that, like a stick of dynamite, carry something combustible that blows you away. One glance at his work in the Singapore Art Museum, ‘Maiden of the Ba Tree (2007) and you’ll agree. It’s made out of 35 Chinese ceramic spoons, and the delicacy of his paintwork and the tale he tells of an ageing mother and her son combine to fashion a comic book-like narrative that’s both captivating and moving.

Coincidentally, it’s the Singapore Art Museum that’s drawn our attention to this artist once again. His work, ‘The World is Flat’ from a body of work of the same name, was nominated in this year’s APB Foundation Signature Art Prize and the museum is currently showing the works of all 15 finalists. Don’t know the man or his art? It’s high time you did. There are many more but to start off with, here are five reasons why you should be a fan.

He sews and has gotten others to do so too. It’s a dying skill, but one that’s a hallmark of Yoong Chia’s early career. We’re talking about Yoong Chia’s seminal piece ‘Quilt of the Dead (QOTD). ‘Initially, the QOTD was just me stitching from images of obituaries, then it gradually became performances involving other people and workshops, he says. The work – a collection of stitched faces on a single white sheet – began in 2003 and Yoong Chia’s holding off on its completion for a climatic end.

We know what it is, but we’re not telling. Sometimes art needs some suspense and he’s clearly thought this through. After all, like most artistic types, Yoong Chia is a man of deep contemplation. You know how it goes: these unfathomable artistic types need to retreat from the world sometimes t office it anew. Like the time Yoong Chia found his Mojo in the jungle – in Kluang to be specific, whilst on the Rimbun Dahan residency. Yoong Chia says that stint was a turning point in his career. ‘Before that, I was working part0time and trying to do my work on weekends, so there was always a struggle whereas at RD, I had one year to focus on my art. And after RD, I have been lucky to (be able to) just do art and have opportunities to travel, so RD really opened up my horizons,’ he noted.

Yoong Chia worked on his ‘Flora & Fauna’ series during that stint in 2006 and these works have really come to define him. Surreal qualities and mutant rabbits are just some of the key features in these predominantly black and white works, and many of the pieces from this multi-year long series also show off Yoong Chia’s main forté, painting.

The artist’s proclivities today are a little different, but his newfound obsession with stamps is a welcome change and precisely what defines his latest works in ‘The World is Flat’. They debuted in Singapore this year at Richard Koh Fine Art and the body of works feature thousands and thousands of stamps cut up and reassembled to create intricate collages that narrate historical tales with a touch of make believe.

In ‘The World is Flat’, the world map has been depicted with national histories interspersed across continents. Queen Elizabeth II also gets a lot of face time in this series. In one work, she’s seen playing a grand piano to an audience of QEII clones all bedecked in glamorous finery and in another, she’s shown having a rather nice time in a bathtub. All these aren’t large works, mind. Imagine cutting up a postage stamp and using those tiny pieces to create further images. Yoong Chia must’ve gotten very intimate with tweezers and glue over the last year, and we’re glad he has (for a look at the level of detail in Yoong Chia’s work, there’s still one last piece from ‘The World is Flat’ at Richard Koh Fine Art in Bangsar)

And you know what? He’s tough. Yoong Chia travels and residencies have seen him trotting across the globe, but it’s not so much the glittering CV that impresses us than this one simple miracle: he’s sustained zero injuries despite working with what seems like gazilllions of stamps. No papercuts? ‘No,’ he replies without any hesitation. What a champion. And modest too, as he quickly sense our surprise at his lack of injuries an says, ‘I think because the stamps are corrugated, so it’s easy to cut.’

Ultimately, Yoong Chia is an artist’s artist. Fellow artist love him, he navigates his artworks with the finesse of a curator (he did just this for his museum-like exhibition ‘Safe House’ in 2008), and he boasts an oeuvre that has prompted gallerist, Richard Koh, to claim that he’s ‘a little ahead of his time in Malaysia’. Delve into Yoong Chia work if you like fantasy in your art and prepared to be quietly blown away. Yoong Chia may claim the world is flat, but his work is anything but.