The woman in Chang Yoong Chia’s Flora & Fauna series, speculated as the artist’s muse, emerged out of his canvases and together they collaborated on a new body of work—Safe House: Flora & Fauna III. What’s the story behind this magical occurrence?

Taken separately, the artworks in this show appear to pursue the same aesthetic concerns previously seen in the first two exhibitions in Chang's Flora & Fauna series. However, when seen as a whole, the influence of his collaborator, Teoh Ming Wah, becomes apparent. Her fascination with cultural history underscores her work of linking personal stories into collective narratives.

“I decided to work with Ming Wah because of her continuous exploration and questioning of the concept of the museum as well as her sensitivity to spatial-human relationships. I felt her involvement could inspire me to work in a different way, as well as make up for my own weaknesses in certain areas,” said Chang.

Pirate's Bounty
Oil, Wooden Cabinet Drawers, Fork and Broken Wine Glasses
43 x 26 x 12cm (x2)

On his canvases, Chang created a private world of imagination and personal memory based on his childhood love of nature that is derived from playing in his garden every day as he was growing up. He also collected discarded organic objects that, to him, evoke such memories. He often questions how he can transfer this private world onto 3-D objects without causing it to lose its meaning and magic.

In Flora & Fauna I, there are already traces of this in works where eggshells, small pieces of fish cartilage and dog bones were used. By finding similarities in the shapes of these objects to things seemingly unrelated to them, he managed to transform these found objects into artifacts from his memory and imagination. In 2007’s Flora & Fauna II, he has been increasingly using unconventional and fragile materials like seashells, eggshells, insect wings, spider’s web and leaves that require custom-made cases to protect and display them. The choice of materials and the way these works were displayed were starting to resemble artifacts found in natural history or anthropology museums.

Teoh’s understanding of Chang’s aesthetics, filtered through her own thought processes and means of expression created Safe House:Flora & Fauna III , an archival space that invites the viewer's contemplation.

A Shoulder to Cry on II
Oil on Pig Bone
16 x 9.5 x 4cm (front & back view)

“I hope that when visitors enter this space, they will feel that this is both an objective and subjective space. Perhaps some people might think that they have arrived at a natural history museum but suddenly realize that it is Yoong Chia’s personal museum. This museum contains his private recollections and memories but, at the same time, it’s also the collective memories of both our generation and our ethnic community, who were born in this country and who grew up here,” said Teoh.

“This space at first seems like a serious and intellectual environment but it’s also a place full of pleasant discoveries and human touches,” she elaborated.

The current trend of museums is to reach wider audiences and cater to broader public desires and expectations. Museums are not only marketed must-see cultural-tourist destinations, but also as impressive modern architectural marvels, all at the expense of the quality of the exhibition. In response to this phenomenon, which scholars sometimes refer to as “mission drift”, Chang and Teoh attempt to return to the intrinsic function of the museum : as a place of collection and exhibition.

Safe House, conceptualized as a museum is an important development in the oeuvre of an artist who is more closely identified with the medium of painting.

Buddha Before his Enlightenment
Oil on Seashell
23 x 17 x 6cm

In Chang's words, “My Flora & Fauna 3-D objects are often perceived as being auxiliary to my paintings. I want to make them independent of the paintings. Ming Wah pointed out that my use of found organic materials is unique, but not conceptually strong. So Safe House is a chance to focus on the objects’ possibilities.”

During their museum visits in Europe and Asia, Chang and Teoh were fascinated by the way exhibits were displayed and methodically catalogued, especially those from anthropological and natural history specimens. The stuff animals, or fragments from a lost civilization seem to become different things, have different meanings in their glass cases, after being remove from their place of origin.

An example would be the display of the human heads of Papua New Guinea that are adorned with feathers from birds of paradise. They contained in them the life and spirit of humanity but at the same time, also reflect that country's culture, way of life and ecology. Behind glass boxes, they exude an air of stability and security, and a certainty that their culture will be forever preserved.

And so is Safe House, the museum a metaphor for an artist’s safest house?