Published: Aug 19, 2013 at 07:01 AM

Chang Yoong Chia: Immortalising the forgotten ones through stamps

The 38-year-old artist began to notice that his lifestyle and his way of thinking were affected by WWII.

FOR many, the Second World War (WWII 1939-1945) was a tragedy that brings painful memories - so deep that they can change a person, so terrible that they wish they could erase the memories.

For artist Chang Yoong Chia, the WWII had started a chain of events that changed the world forever and the historical events, particularly those in Germany and Malaya (then) became a source of inspiration for his works - the Immortal Beloved series - exploring the impact of the war on us.

Chang's series of 16 stamp collage artworks captured the lives of ordinary people that were entwined in the events during WWII in Germany and Malaya.

"It is hard to imagine our lives now, if the war had never happened or if the outcome was different," he told in a recent interview at his studio in Kuala Lumpur.

Though the war happened way before he came into the world, the 38-year-old artist began to notice that his lifestyle and his way of thinking were affected by WWII soon after he started working on the series.

There are two aspects in his Immortal Beloved series: Germany during WWII and history of Malaya up to current events.

Chang has always been interested in Germany, and a German envelope of the WWII era that he found piqued his curiosity.

"The first one is based on what I found in old post cards, envelopes and receipts which came from Germany during WWII, with images of Hitler on stamps. So I composed a story based on the information I found on these artifacts.

"The other is the history of Malaya, from WWII to the Emergency period until now. The works are based on what I found on stamps, post mark and receipts," Chang added.

Chang's solo exhibition, from Aug 15 till Sep 5 at Richard Koh Fine Art, Bangsar, was a follow-up to his The World is Flat series in 2009 which used the same stamp collage techniques.

The series of work, according to Chang, is his search for 'Immortal Beloved', which was the name of Ludwig van Beethoven's subject whom the great composer wrote a letter to. And because of this letter, the mysterious person was found and immortalised although only attached as a mere footnote to Beethoven's life and genius.

"It is my search for footnotes in history. It is my search for forgotten (or nearly forgotten) people who were trapped in extraordinary events or mundane events or events that some wished to bury forever. And through them, I search for myself, my people, my buried history."

'Dont Spread Rumours' - 2012

Chang said he searched for them in stamps and things connected with stamps... in letters, envelopes, postmarks, forms, certificates and receipts.

As to why stamps hold a particular interest to him, the soft-spoken artist has this to say: "Stamps are proof of services paid. Stamps are proof. Stamps are evidence."

Chang has always been interested in Germany, and a German envelope of the WWII era that he found piqued his curiosity, leading to a journey of research and discovery of what took place the war in Europe and Malaya, taking note of the differences and similarities between these two countries.

He believed that WWII was the breat."

In searching for the 'Immortal Beloved'

Chang, 38, was trained as a painter when he studied in Malaysian Institute of Art. There was a period after one or two years after he graduated when experienced a "painter's block", unable to complete a painting despite an eight-hour session in front of the canvas.

He then started to experiment with other materials to create artwork as paper cuts or folding things together or stitching.

'The Missing Letter' - 2012

"That released me from the pressure of what artists are supposed to be, like artists are supposed to make paintings or that artists are supposed to make grand statement.

"I gradually realised there are different aesthetic in artworks. You don't always need to shout, you don't always need to have a grand piece, and you can make 'small' works. You can have different pace of working," said Chang, who was dressed in a simple T-shirt during the interview.

Thankfully, he came out of the "dry spell" better than before, having acquired the understanding of what art could be and that an artwork can be produced with different materials.

"Materials themselves say something, for instance why I choose stamps because stamps are paper printed by the government, so every stamp produced is approved by the government, and so it is how to manipulate this kind of material that makes it interesting."

He added that stamps on one hand give an innocent and simplistic impression that it is for children. However, on the other hand, it is subtle government propaganda, and he is exploring on how to navigate and question between these two.

'The Piped Piper of Hame' - 2012

Apart from using stamps, Chang also collected what he called evidence - postcards, receipts with stamps, stamps with certain kind of post marks - and try to find the story behind them.

As compared to his last stamp series, which Chang used the images and information printed on the stamps that subverted propaganda messages, this time he used the stamps to try to locate the person in the past that have used this stamps.

"I imagine that history within the context of where the evidence was made or being used and also the timeline on where it's being used."

"Perhaps their way of dealing with it seeps into other aspects of their lives and we, their descendants, inherited that as well. This affects how we think, how we act and react."

He highlighted two important works from this series: Don't spread Rumours and The Missing Letter (to Dr. Solta).

Don't Spread Rumours is based on Malaysian stamps which were in circulation between 1965 and 1971, with a post mark of "Don't spread Rumours" and "Don't listen to rumours" in four languages - English, Chinese, Tamil and Bahasa Malaysia.

"Through conversations with stamp dealer, I found out these postmarks were a way by the government to discourage people from spreading rumours about the May 13 racial riots.

"And I also heard rumours about May 13 racial riots, as one taxi driver had told me about a shooting incident in a cinema, and I produce that work based on the information on the stamps and rumours I heard."

by Chen Shaua Fui