22 August 2013

Immortal Beloved @ Richard Koh Fine Art

Following on from his previous exhibition "The World is Flat", Chang Yoong Chia continues his stamp collage commentary on colonialism in "Immortal Beloved". Turning his attention from queens and empires to the personal story, this collection reflects deeply upon the commoner and their cultural identity, as juxtaposed against renown world leaders whose achievements are in itself propaganda material. Acting like a resourceful museum creator, the artist ambitiously creates narratives from paper memorabilia, instilling his artistic license into brown letters and wrinkled stamps. These source materials are also framed and exhibited alongside the specific work it inspired, giving respect to an obsolete object that augments the message to respect history. 

My Dear Motherland (2013)

A letter from a Chinese teacher to his emigrant sister in Malaya, flanks 'My Dear Motherland' and its companion piece 'My Dear Motherland: New Village'. The superb composition of the former depicts a passage of letters, building a literal bridge that links the scrawny migrant writer to the majestic Forbidden City. Along the way peasants harvest rice and mine tin, haul pigs and collect durians, each character bearing an optimistic resemblance from Chinese socialist images. Across a moat consisting of cordoned houses and a monstrous tin dredge, lies the black hole of a palace entrance. Decorative dragons roam the sky, a symbol akin to the panda in 'The World is Flat', where China is perceived as a mystical country with a formidable fa├žade. Little is known behind its stately crimson walls, and as a descendent of Chinese migrants, the artist poses the pivotal identity question - do we really want to re-enter these walls?

Details of stamp collage, from 'My Dear Motheland', 'New Village', and 'The Missing Letter'

'My Dear Motherland: New Village' magnifies the barricaded areas for Chinese settlers in 1950, a British reaction to a communist threat it perceived. 'The Chakra' makes reference to Indian migrants whom toiled the rubber plantations, which produce is a coagulating material that enriched the colonial peninsula, its importance recorded in Malaysian postage history. Pictures of palm plants cover the ground while a Japanese sun hang overhead, denoting a past of hard labour and selfish oppression before other plantations became popular. Local stamps from our youth populate these collages, creating a strong visual interest that may draw the viewer away from exacting details. Shredded glass surround the New Village, protecting it from a lone communist hiding in the jungle outside; Snake and Queen heads dot the rubber tree space, while tonal variations are presented beautifully in the sun rays shining upon the leaves.

The Chakra (2013)

Drawing a parallel between Nazi Germany and British colonialism, or perhaps just making the most out of what he got his hands on, Yoong Chia portrays Adolf Hitler in a dominating fashion. The reconstruction of the Futsches Reich stamp from Operation Cornflakes, a WWII propaganda campaign by the Americans, is compared with a head made out of Mother Mary images that symbolises the destruction of European families. Expanding upon this theme in 'The Piped Piper of Hamelin', the artist combines his craft, historical commentary, and interest in fairy tales, into one panoramic and colourful composition. A couple of sphinxes with Hitler heads gaze upon the action from the riverside, while others lurk between the landscape, exacerbating the feeling of doom that this character is singularly responsible for.

Father, Mother & Child (2012)

The masterpiece in this collection, 'The Missing Letter (to Dr. Solta)', focuses on a personal story with reference to an empty envelope. The work's composition traces the outline of Hitler's head, but projects a great sense of pictorial depth. Burning cities line the bottom, while flanking the left side is an uplifting design, of the addressee in a concentration camp uniform. Anguish and love resonates within the colour scheme, from romantic lilac to orange flames, green grass to blue sky. The artist utilises symbols to maximum effect, pasting any image he comes across that fits into the artwork's context. Nurses, angels, soldiers, skulls, swans, cupids, books, stars - even Rembrandt's 'The Jewish Bride' appears on Hitler's nose. Resurrecting redundant materials is Yoong Chia's way of working, and he demonstrates his skill with aplomb. When medium, method, and narrative, coalesce into such wonderful aesthetic, the viewer is left spellbound and speechless.

The Missing Letter (to Dr. Solta) (2012)

'Immortal Beloved' and the "Great Men Reflected" series form the largest and smallest works respectively in this collection, the stamp cut-outs questioning the value of idolising great individuals, by literally reflecting on their deaths. Exhibited also are works that comment on Malaysian politics, as one expects from local art nowadays, where visible outlines and wordiness render it less attractive. Dated postmarks of 'Don't Spread Rumours' are a disheartening reminder in the Teoh Beng Hock tribute, while 'Don't Let the Sun Go Down on Me' reignites the Singapore-Malaysia tension last seen in 'Jambatan Asmara'. Political messages aside, the usage of postmark chops to create expressionist lines in the picture background, projects a creative use of line to convey a state of emotional despair.

1969 post marks with the words: "DON'T SPREAD RUMOURS" in 4 languages; Don't Spread Rumours (2012) 

On the surface, framing and exhibiting the medium (stamp or letter) serves as an immediate reminder to the viewer, of the effort required to construct each collage. But dwell longer on these images and one realises that this act actually reinforces the process that takes from the exhibition title - the process of searching and analysing from a single source material. Sifting through mountains of stamps, evaluating the colour and texture of each sectional area, then gluing the cut-out in a certain orientation, is an arduous task. Compositing a collage from these tiny strips recalls an iterative decision-making procedure, that resorts to randomness the more meticulous one is. Unlike painting, there is no looking back once the marks are made (i.e. strips are pasted), insofar that this process echoes the exhibition's commentary on history as it was documented.

Don't Let the Sun Go Down on Me (2013); Detail of postmark lines in background 

With works that advocate the personal over the national, "Immortal Beloved" perfectly illustrates that with globalisation, nationhood increasingly becomes an obsolete notion. Human beings are made for communal living which countries and empires traditionally facilitate, but in this age of individualism, these agencies only serve to benefit the few at the cost of the commoner. Like Beethoven, this love letter of an art collection will never be send to its intended recipient, but perhaps it can like its source material trigger a personal search. As the artist's wife Teoh Ming Wah noted in the well-written catalogue essay, "Thanks to these daily life objects, the time valve is unplugged. The lives, daily's 'seen'/'unseen' are released". And immortalised, for our physical and mental consumption.

...To End All Wars (2013)

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