Published: Aug 12, 2013

Chang Yoong Chia: "I feel invisible when I am outside Malaysia"

Malaysian artist Chang Yoong Chia first caught our attention with his piece, "Jambatan Asmara", which perfectly encapsulates the Malaysia-Singapore relationship—the subject of a feature in our August Made in Malaysia issue (watch out for Rachel Jena's "The Causeway Collision").

We chat to Yoong Chia about his work, a signature of which is the employment of everyday objects—stamps, dog skulls, pig bone, snail shells—as paint and canvas.

Jambatan Asmara (Johor-Singapore Causeway), 2011. Medium: stamps.

What are your thoughts on the Malaysia-Singapore relationship?

Malaysia and Singapore are like a divorced couple—a failed marriage that has decided to move on. Both act proud and suspicious toward the other. However, because they were once together, they know of each other’s weaknesses and strengths but are unwilling to tell. I think there’s a lot we can learn from Singapore about ourselves, and a lot of things we can teach them as well, but there are simply not enough honest dialogues.

Lilliput, 2011. Medium: stamps.

Your latest “paint” is stamps. Why stamps? And does the art determine the medium, or the other way round?

When I was growing up, everyone I knew collected stamps at some point of their lives. Stamps were among my first introduction to a much larger world. The images and information on stamps are all state-sanctioned and therefore represent what their respective countries want us to know. We are now living in the age of the internet where stamps are going obsolete, where information comes from every direction, where everyone can create content and points-of-view. So, stamps represent for me the end of the era of "official" world-views.

Queen E's Private Moment (When Will the Bubbles Burst?), 2011. Medium: stamps.

My first series of stamp collages, The World is Flat, explores and subverts the explicit and implicit propaganda messages found in the images and information on stamps, while my second stamp collage series, Immortal Beloved, explores imagined hidden stories from stamps and things associated with stamps: post-marks, letters, envelopes, receipts, etc.

The choice of medium is very important to me and I have been exploring various media in my career. Each medium has its own characteristics, malleability and symbolism, leading to different possibilities in transforming them into artworks. But it’s the urge to express that drives the need to make art.

What was the inspiration behind your Flora and Fauna series—both subjectively and stylistically?

When I was small, I used to spend a lot of time in my garden. It’s not particularly big, but with a precocious imagination, it became a whole world of imaginary foliage and creatures that interact with me on a daily basis, that corresponded to my will and logic. With the Flora & Fauna series, I wanted to return to that state of innocence and wild imagination, with things that I was familiar with as a child.

The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter, 2008. Oil on canvas.

You've opted for some pretty exotic choices of "canvas" for your work in this series—including dog skulls and teeth, snail shells, and pig bone. How do you get ideas on what material to use and how do you go about procuring them (the dog skulls/teeth especially)?

I got them through rummaging through other people’s garbage, or picked them up at the side of the road, or they were the inedible parts from a leftover meal, and on rare occasions, I buy them.

Pisces, 2006. Oil on snail shells.

It’s interesting that you mentioned them as exotic. To me, they are the opposite. They are ordinary things or things that people don’t want. I like the idea of taking things people look down upon and making them precious and magical.

I found the dog skeleton buried on a beach in Sekinchan, bleached clean by the sun, salty air and sand. Two other dog skulls were mailed to me by a Taiwanese friend, they are originally found on a rocky shore.

Your Grey series takes a darker turn. Can you talk a little about what you were thinking when you were working on it?

Prior to the Grey series, I had been unable to complete a single painting for three years. There was a lot of anger and anxiety bottled up and, I suppose, the Grey series was my way releasing all that plus exorcising some hidden ghosts in my psyche.

Sedan III, 2008. Oil on dog skull.

Your art tends to tell a story. What inspires you?

I like the meandering nature of storytelling that makes you experience the journey rather than just getting you to a point. I’m constantly looking at ordinary things, and through the process of art-making, transform these ordinary things into "magical experiences".

How has your Malaysian heritage influenced your work?

I find as a Malaysian, I’m able to understand other cultures easily and incorporate their influences into my work. Also, I find Malaysia’s past engaging because the different viewpoints of our history has yet to be studied properly and discussed openly. There are still many obscure details about what made us who we are, which I excavate and regurgitate back into my work.

Arabian Nights, 2008. Oil on dog teeth mounted on wooden box.

You've had some exposure and success internationally. What is it like being a Malaysian artist in the world?

I find the kind of multiculturalism found is Malaysia tends to be confusing to many, especially to people from monocultural countries. On the other hand, it’s easy for Malaysians to relate to other cultures.

Greco-Roman, 2003. Oil on canvas.

Untitled, 2002. Oil on canvas.

Unfortunately, few people within the art world are interested in Malaysia. As an artist, I feel invisible when I am outside. Artists from certain countries tend to get and hog all the attention. This is could either be an advantage or disadvantage as they don’t know what to expect of me. So I bid my time, do my work and surprise the hell out of them!

You can catch Yoong Chia's exhibition Immortal Beloved from August 16 to September 5 at Richard Koh Fine Art in Bangsar Village II (Level 2) . See more of the artist's work at

Words by Emily Ding