The established Malaysian painter discusses his Europe-inspired exhibition and touches on his life as an artist and developing an iconic style.
Sampang-born artist Chin Kong Yee presents his signature fish-eye lens paintings in his seventh solo exhibition at Wei-Ling Contemporary in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
The name of Malaysian artist Chin Kong Yee (b. 1973) immediately reminds of expansive fish-eye lens paintings that capture the everyday life of a particular place. Surrealistic in style and executed on diptychs, this established Ampang-born artist’s works were designed to be rotated, with every arrangement offering a different view of the place he is tackling. At one point, one would admire a famous city landmark from across the street; and in another, the visitor is surrounded by man-made structures, with the night sky above their heads. Moreover, playing with the environment, the artist alternates settings that look familiar and assuring to places uneasy to walk in, presented as the unknown, looking too overwhelming to be in.
Entitled “Dancing with Shadows”, this show continues his surrealistic take on places, only this time, the artist is depicting spots he has visited in Europe on jute canvases. Like his previous works, the pieces in this exhibition, though based on personal encounters, make time ambiguous. Audiences can’t pinpoint if his diptychs frame a moment in the past, present or future, as his brush seems to paint all three. A graduate of the Central Academy of Art in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, Chin has had solo exhibitions in his country and in France. Moreover, his works have been included in group shows in several other countries, such as China, Korea, Singapore, Germany and Romania. His awards include 2004 Artist in Residence, Pangkor Laut Resort, Malaysia; 2002 Artist in Residence, Tanjung Jara Resort, Malaysia; and 2000 Honorable Mention, Philip Morris Group of Companies ASEAN Art Awards.
In conversation with Art Radar, he tackles the element of time in his works, his signature fish-eye lens approach and his life as a painter in Malaysia.
Congrats on the opening of “Dancing with Shadows”, Kong Yee. Since this exhibition is informed by your travels to European cities, we would like to know your first impressions of Europe.
My first visit to Europe was in 2004, for the 5th Summer Academy of Modern Art Symposium, one-week art residency program in Turda, Romania, sponsored by the National Art Gallery of Malaysia. I had a unique experience there, as right after the residency, I decided to travel to Bucharest to accompany some of my Chinese artist friends for a few days, as they do not speak English at all. There in Bucharest, we got robbed. With the only cash I had left in my pocket, I decided to return back to Turda, where a local friend helped me out by hosting me at his place. That was how I ended up staying one month in the country.
His kindness and hospitality became one of my first impressions of Europe, despite what happened in Bucharest. The fact that we both communicated without necessarily speaking the same language also impressed me. It was the type of communication that went beyond culture and language. I guess eye contact and body language matter in getting to know a foreign society. Ever since the trip to Romania, I’ve traveled more than six more times to Europe.
What have been your favorite memories in its cities?
Every memory is important. However, meeting people and engaging in social interactions with them always make the memory of a place stronger. I once got a scholarship to study German for one month in Berlin, where the work Hamburg City Hall (2016) was born.
There, I had a Japanese classmate who quickly became a good friend. Again, the communication between us was unique, as we did not speak any common language – except the German that we were still trying to learn – yet we spent almost everyday together. That friendship contributed in giving me significant memories of Berlin.
And, has Europe always inspired your body of art?
I wouldn’t say Europe in particular, but the act of traveling itself. The fact that I encounter different cultures and people with various backgrounds as I travel makes a great importance for my art. There’s always a certain distance between the European cities that I visit and myself as a tourist, that makes these places inspiring for me. They might not have the same impact on me if I lived in these places. If I were raised near the Eiffel tower for example, Paris or France wouldn’t be as interesting to me as it is now.
“Dancing with Shadows” is your seventh solo exhibition with the gallery. How did Wei-Ling Contemporary find you? How has the gallery contributed to your growth as an artist?
I started working as an artist in 1999. Between that year and 2003, I had done several group exhibitions with different galleries, but none that ended up as a long-term project. We had trouble selling my artworks as during those years, Malaysia, like many other Southeast Asian countries, was facing a severe economic depression, which was also why I had to live back at my parents’ home. My paintings filled up their home and space soon became a problem. I received a lot of pressure from my family to stop being an artist and to find what they would call a “normal job”.
During these critical times, both from a financial and personal context, Wei-Ling contacted me, as she was about to open her gallery, and wanted to work with me as an artist. We quickly did a ‘studio visit’, which was basically in my Mother’s kitchen. My first solo exhibition with Wei-Ling Gallery in 2003 came through very successfully. The works were sold out and I could finally free my parents’ place from my paintings. It solved everything for me. My story would have been very different if this didn’t happen.
It’s important that a gallery and its artists’ grow together. Especially being the gallery’s first artist, that growth is critical for both Wei-Ling and I. I felt that it all happened at the right time with right people. It was like a fairy tale that came true.
You are known for mastering the Actuality Accorded Painting (AAP) style. When did you start developing this style?
Taking part in exhibitions, competitions and residencies encouraged me to work with a friend to define my style of painting, and that was when we came up with this term. It is not a technique, rather a way of thinking. AAP is an expression of a perception.
Perceptions are like flowing waters in our body. They are carried naturally without us having to design or construct them specifically. When painting, I try to show my personal insights of the reality, so even though my paintings are based on real observations of my surroundings, they are presented the way I perceive them.
The viewers themselves are also free to perceive my paintings differently. This explains the multiple positions and orientations in which my paintings could be displayed. A great story exists not because its quality, yet by the way it is told. Once again, it’s the perception that counts.
Did you learn this technique from the Central Academy of Art of Kuala Lumpur, where you studied, or was it something that you developed on your own?
I learned and trained my basic art knowledge there, including the hand skills that made me an illustrator and cartoonist. In consequence, when I decided to become an artist, I didn’t need to struggle. I was able to paint effortlessly. I then achieved my style through personal artistic explorations.
Your paintings play with the element of time, portraying the past, present and future altogether in a diptych. Why would you choose this approach when tackling a place? Many painters, after all, opt to record a particular moment in time when presenting a destination.
Time and movement are abstract and intangible. The concept of time is ideological; we refer the past to memory, the present to perception, the future to expectation. As if writing a story, I would paint step by step so as to present the three aspects.
Your paintings are described as surrealistic. Did you look up to any surrealist painter while growing up?
French Post-Impressionist Paul Cézanne influenced me most when it comes to painting. I like how he would filter the realities using his personal viewpoints. I noticed instability in his visuals, as he believed that the world is made out of vibrations. From that, I learned that as an artist, it is essential to express other ways of seeing, which can be seen through the fish-eye effects that I applied to my paintings.
We are curious about the research process of your paintings, since they’re heavily detailed. Do you take plenty of photos when you travel?
Seeing with bare eyes, our mind will automatically filter our sight. We wouldn’t have full control of what we remember and what we do not. On the other hand, cameras help me capture moments and situations by choice. Despite the use of photography, it is essential for me to be present at the place. I have to experience it by myself; photos that others send from their travels wouldn’t function as my artistic material.
What about a city or a place captures your interest?
A city is always made out of collective memory or consciousness. Buildings are made by individuals, formed based on multiple decisions and for various reasons. The city changes infinitely due to many factors. That’s how places fascinate me!
You are one of Malaysia’s established painters. Do you think that painting as an art form still has a strong place in the current contemporary art scene?
Painting mattered during the Stone Age, and it still mattered during the Golden Age, so why not today? It is the most practical art form, which is why it stays as my first choice of practice throughout years. Certainly, there have been many developments in materials, colors and technique within painting, yet the act of painting itself if timeless.
You’re part of the artist collective the F Klub. How important is it for you to be surrounded by people who are also working in the arts?
I used to be part of the collective. I find it important that artists unite. History proved that when artists work and stand up together, they are able to make significant changes, as in artistic revolutions.
What would you say is the hardest challenge of being an artist in Malaysia today?
All over the world the challenge is the same; if the passion is gone then it’s gone. When the passion is there, nothing – not even the government, the people, the social pressure – can stop you.
“Dancing with the Shadows” by Chin Kong Yee was on view until 2 September 2018 at Wei-ling Gallery, Lot No RT-1, 6th Floor The Gardens Mall, Lingkaran Syed Putra, 59200 Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
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