Essay by Simon Soon, published in the catalogue of my collaborative exhibition with Lydia Chai, ChinChai.
How is distance, the chasm that delineates and separates, measured in art? What are the quantifiable forms that we can employ to visually express the span of space, or the gap, that traverses two disconnected points and defines its division?
Often, what is implied in the space of a distance is an invisible thread that connects one place to another, yet at the same time, makes them discrete. While early modern artists had sought to include space into their practice, such as Pablo Picasso’s guitar assemblages and Lucio Fontana’s excised canvases, it was in the works of contemporary artists such as Bruce Nauman and Rachel Whiteread that the suspension in these spaces was explored, solidifying them as a cast, finding a concrete body for that which is transparent.
In a similar vein, through rendering the intangible visible in their exhibition Chin Chai, Sharon Chin and Lydia Chai work towards articulating a negative space as a site where their dialogue takes place. It is the space around and between an image that is the subject, bordering and framing its shape and form.
But form explored in Chin Chai is neither confined to the act of defining such a space, nor experimenting with the vocabulary of the solid. It is marked by an engagement with the movement and transmission that exist within that space. So that when we consider distance, the space in between is always in a state of flux.
Distance if not cognitively recognized as stationary, is then a measure of movement, of its push and pull factor. Its dynamism has thus far allowed both Lydia and Sharon to produce works that respond to the vocabulary of a shifting space, grounds that are uncertain of its margins, performing both expansion and implosion at the same time.
This is a febrile pretext for dialogue. It is a conversation that skirts around an axis, a point that fixes and demarcates their practices along two poles – the horizontal and the vertical.
The horizontal format is explored on two levels in Lydia’s work. With her ‘dumb’ toys splayed across a ground plane, they spread messily across the floor, reversing the upright bearing of an easel painting. Unkempt wires snake along its unruly circuit, directing its chaotic current towards a seemingly pointless and ludicrous function, suggesting a moronic machinisation of objects as an irrational extension or counterpart to progress and reason.
They seem to represent a driving force that is existentially stuck, a redundant repetition that is rhythmically similar to Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. Yet something poignant can be felt in this senseless operation, as its comical state of being flummoxed reflects on the equally ‘simplistic’ emotional unit of desire as a ‘dumb’ emotion that functions, feeds and drives us without a significantly meaningful cause.
Her long paintings, however, propose horizontality as a lateral expanse. Sometimes I am tempted to view them as a diagrammatic summary of the current that are present in the electric toys, which are invisible to us. The fluid amorphous pull of earth colours stretching across the pictorial field, expanding in different directions, is a precarious form. They yield outwards, as a perfect expression of desire and hope, spreading their formless body as if in a state of bloom. This tenderness is seldom recognized, much less the ache and the ‘silliness’ of the feeling. Desire, like the machine, is sometimes really ‘simple’.
In the work of Sharon, the vertical is closely related to the postural plane, even as her series broadly touches on the subject of the landscape. Because the erect verticality of the human posture signifies a Cartesian subject whose perspective and knowledge is culturally circumscribed, landscape seen this way is not synonymous to nature. It is a cultural lens by which we can frame nature as well as project upon the natural the relationship between man and nature.
Methodologically, Sharon too displays a cartographical approach towards landscape. Whether it is her attempt at charting the terrain of the unreachable moon, unfolding into a planar survey of its former waterways or deriving her tarpaulin river bends from the shapes of Malaysian rivers sourced from geographic maps, the practice places importance on the notion of verticality as a projection of the cultural (hence the poetic) on nature.
Thematically, both moon and river find a common point in the ceramic discs, in which the outlines of selected rivers in Malaysia are imprinted on its surface. These chart a stranger world, suggesting a planetary system that is far beyond what is familiar to us, lifting us above the ground which has traditionally framed landscape subjects and conventions.
There is also sense of stasis in the way flow is arrested in the works of Sharon. Running rivers are fossilized, the hovering and rotating moon mapped out. They read against the kind of mechanical energy in Lydia’s work, so that when paired together, they produce an awkward rhyme, one that reads the product of reason as horizontally emotive force and landscape as essentially a vertical (cosmic-ward) archaeological and cultural discipline.
In many ways, the bodies of work fall comfortably into complementary opposites, which pronounce their differences through a pairing of themes and subjects. Landscape and artifice, horizontality and verticality, rivers and machines, ground versus the sky, circuits and linear flows. But this is further complicated when Lydia’s machines and painting models reveal an emotional response that is more resonant with ideas of the landscape, and Sharon’s landscapes are archived and arrested forms belonging to the sphere of cultural production.
The bodies of work do, however, reach some level of convergence in the sculptural diary, Hush. Under the deft fashioning by Lydia, Sharon’s personal diary, carved with a blade until almost erased of content, stands as a quiet monument to a moment of intersection. But there is a sense that it is almost a black hole in the entire scheme of things. The mythological moment of unity is a paradox, because it is in this instance that the individuality of the artist collapses. Traces of an individual past erased. Submitted to a moment of fulfillment, union is also a state of quiet indifference.
I like to think that to a certain extent, the type of artistic dialogue that eventuates in Chin Chai can be read as a structuralist guide to what is essential to installation art, and that one of the chief formal property of the medium is a personal space rendered public through the dialogical translation of space as both vertical and horizontal. Read together, the works of Sharon and Lydia speak as modules or a binary code that has explores their reduced complementary forms as space giving.
This articulates the expansiveness of the space as stage for storytelling, for inventing mythologies. A fictive space; personal universes.
Moreover, this structural exploration also illustrates what is essential to the exhibition. By filling the room and creating a mis-en-scene, the building blocks towards an imaginary volume suggest a communicative history beyond the specificity of the works present. Collectively, they transpire beyond the project’s timeline, to hint at a mythological beginning. Like Lydia’s creation story of two continents held together by an isthmus, conversations like these are bridges, hinting at the first exchanges of a friendship.
Simon Soon is an independent curator currently completing his Phd in Sydney, Australia.