Malaysian artist Eiffel Chong photographs liminal spaces between the private and public.
An exhibition of the work of Malaysian artist Eiffel Chong is on display at Kathmandu Photo Gallery in Bangkok until 28 October 2017.
The current exhibition “A Trace of Mortality” at Kathmandu Photo Gallery in Bangkok presents a number of series produced by Eiffel Chong over the past fifteen years and is the first retrospective style solo exhibition of the artist’s work in Thailand. Born in 1977 in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, Eiffel Chong graduated with a Masters in International Contemporary Art and Design Practice from the University of East London and is currently a photography lecturer at an art institution in Malaysia. Art Radar takes a look at the works in the exhibition.
Institutionalised Care in Malaysia
The artist shot the series of photos entitled “Institutionalised Care” in hospitals in Malaysia, whose health care system has undergone a series of changes under the Mahathir administration. Between 1996–2000 the government implemented active privatisation of the economy, a plan dubbed ‘Malaysia Incorporated’, part of which was focused on privatising hospitals and hospital services, which had remained publicly administered since Independence from British colonialism in 1957.
While privatisation plans were interrupted by public protest, the private healthcare sector grew exponentially during this period. It is with this shifting landscape of health care services in mind that the images in “Institutionalised Care” gain meaning. Chong explores the hospital as a liminal space, existing somewhere between a hotel and morgue – the place where care and spirituality meet uncomfortably with the administration of populations, statistics and the bureaucracy of death. The gestures at homeliness – the flowers, the carpet, a velvet curtain – jar with the chill of an abandoned medical chair, a metal bed, a computer showing a brain scan. Chong sets out a vanitas of the care apparatus through a still life of hospital furniture.
Speaking about the work’s focus on the theme of death on his website, the artist writes:
Institutionalised Care is a study of the ‘sign of death’ in the medical centre. It could arise from the viewers’ past experience, sickness (as in claustrophobia, etc) or knowledge from the mass media, movies, etc. Every individual image suggest ‘death’ though they are images of equipment that are supposedly to be safe, as in saving people’s life.
The artist adds:
This series of works educate us that however limitless our wealth or power may seem, the reality of our eventual demise cannot be avoided.
Seascapes from the Dutch tradition
“Institutionalized Care” demonstrates the artist’s interest in 16th- and 17th-century Dutch painting – an aesthetic leaning also prevalent in the series “Seascape”. Eiffel Chong captures a series of local seascapes in a manner evocative of the work of Dutch seascape and landscape painters, such as Van Goyen. Key characteristics are the monochrome approach in which the scene is approached through one colour value and the creation of an artificial vantage point, which creates the illusion of standing at a distance, on the shore opposite the scene.
While many of the paintings of the North Sea tradition depict bustling ports or tumultuous storms, Chong’s images are comparably empty and suggest a stillness and unity, which the artist confirms is the subject of this series. Importantly, the vantage point appears to be actually in the water. Commenting on this aspect the artist writes on his website:
I aim to bring us at one with Nature through this series of photographs, reminding us that we are not apart from Nature, but rather that we are a part of it.
Depicting Liminal Spaces
As in “Institutionalised Care”, Chong returns to an exploration of liminal spaces that traverse private and public administration and services. Chong chose sites whose ownership is either in dispute or areas where private land meet public. This exploration of the division of land makes Chong’s reference to Dutch landscape painting all the more relevant: the European landscape tradition itself emerges in the context of tense battles, protests and class war over the land.
The landscape painting tradition emerged in the context of the so-called “enclosures” in Europe, where new systems of administration, division and classification regulated the use and ownership of the land. Key landscape works were thus, often, ideologically positioned to either support farmers’ movements and peasants’ uprisings or erase their bodies entirely from view in the creation of the “picturesque”. Chong intervenes in this tradition with a critique of the divisions between nature and culture, emphasising a unity and critiquing regulation and private property.
On the Future of Humanity
Other series on display, such as “Haunted School” and “A Matter of Life and Death” also pose questions about naturalised institutions, key to 20-century life – the school, office space, fairgrounds and shopping malls. Chong captures these places that in the age of globalisation, internet-based learning and consumption, are beginning to show signs of decline.
More than a straightforward critique of these spaces, Chong reflects on their role in informing people’s experience and asks what will become of them in the future. About the series “Haunted School”, the artist writes:
Beyond connotations of the safe and sound, below the surface of the equanimity of easy community are the tensions of power play, of social control, of the forces of conformity. The stress over grades, the mild taunts of other children, the bullying, the hectoring of misanthropic teachers, the long march through the endless years and the inexorability of approaching adulthood with its dark and relentless challenges.
Departing from ecological and anti-capitalist perspectives, Chong comments about the series “A Matter of Life and Death”:
It is about stories of long forgotten memories, or hidden from the public. Each story gives rise to another memory, anecdote, or tirade against an imagined enemy. Though it is only fictional (or some, historical), it still acts as a warning to us: We could mess up; we could lose all this; our world could be a past if we are not being careful.
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- Malaysian art comes out of the shadows: gallerists’ view from the ground – July 2013 – Malaysian’s art scene: justifiably overshadowed by Singapore?
- Major museum acquisitions for Malaysian contemporary artists Chong Kim Chiew, Yee I-Lann – July 2012 – the museum collection of two artists points to increasing ties between Southeast Asia and the broader Asian region
- J Anu uncensored: The artist on Big Brother and the future of Malaysian art – interview – November 2011 – Malaysian artist J Anu talk to Art Radar about freedom of artistic expression, after his painting ‘I is for Idiot’ fell foul of religious bloggers and the Malaysian police
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