Essay published in catalogue of my solo exhibition Boats and Bridges.
The impetus behind Sharon Chin’s installation “Boats & Bridges” is the artist’s recent homecoming from overseas study to KL.
“Boats & Bridges” is a poem in two parts. In the corridor of Reka Art Space, the installation titled “Bridges”, there are plaster casts of plastic bags laid out in groups on the floor. These plaster sculptures appear to anchor streamers made of barricade tape that gather at the top of a large pillar at one end of the corridor. In the main room is the installation titled “Boats”. The entire floor is covered in a grid drawn with chalk, with each grid containing an alphabet, like a word puzzle. Interrupting the grid are irregular shapes that echo the plaster sculptures in “Bridges”, on top of which viewers are to stand on.
The whole work is deceptively happy and serene: the plaster casts sit still and rock like cradles when touched; the streamers rise up joyously from the ground; the gridded letters drawn with chalk on the floor imply a fun game to be played.
However, there is a great underlying struggle going on in the work, a nagging unsettledness. It does not arise out of the expected feeling of displacement the artist felt upon her homecoming to KL. I would like to identify two main themes in the work that reflect this inner struggle. The first is the idea of flux, that matter and identity change within time.
The second is the sense of desire that permeates the work, from the personal desire of the artist for her vision, to social desires like consumerism, to the general desire of a nation to develop and progress.
One cannot help looking at the “Bridges” installation without considering its process. You can almost hear the gloop gloop as you imagine the artist pouring plaster into a plastic bag. The plaster solidifies until the bag becomes a membranous sac, which she then peels off to reveal a perfect cast of an enclosed space which existed at a specific point of time and which exists no more. A perfect cast of a Moment.
The notion of space-time being petrified as such would not be as prominent if the casts were of a solid object. No, it is the literal flexibility of the plastic bags, of the plastic space within them that makes every unique wrinkle and crevice in the casts so poignant. Plastic bags are always between destinations, hence it makes sense that this work is placed in the corridor, for it is a moving space, a funnel. The barricade tape also lends to the idea of flexible space because its usual function is directing traffic and shifting the perimeters of a space.
Iconographically, the bridge is a neutral territory. Think of what it’s like to drive along the Causeway; there is no feeling of harassment, paranoia, of being under any authority or scrutiny. For a short while, you are in a place that is defined by negation, not-Malaysia, not-Singapore. Similarly, the corridor is not a true place because it is in flux. To Sharon, such a space is perfect for stopping to contemplate.
The bridge is also a site of struggle, traditionally a contested place of challenge. What is the artist struggling with? Chang Yoong Chia writes of the work as being “deeply poetic and meditative”. It is both these things but never serene.
Malaysia is a country undergoing great change, forecasted by the Deutsche Bank to be the third fastest developing nation after India and China. This change is signaled by ubiquitous cranes, barricade blocks, barricade tape, unfinished lebuhrayas etc. Sharon borrows these signifiers of construction and architectural development and brings them into an emotional realm.
Consider, for instance, the work’s optimism in that the ominous AWAS wordings are subdued and the red stripes are emphasized to become celebratory, overall forming a welcoming curtain.
At the same time, the optimism is a resigned one, because of the overriding abjection in the installation. The barricade tape reaches longingly upwards from the weighty plaster blocks and clings desperately to the large, solid, and inert pillar. The tension between the barricade tape, the plaster blocks and – their fulcrum – the pillar illustrates an ambiguous desire, perhaps for stability, be it on a personal, social or national level.
This abject desire recalls Sharon’s other work, “Rise Rise Rise”, showing concurrently at Valentine Willie’s Fine Art, where joss sticks that initially signal hope turn out to symbolize desire, for they are never to be lit.
Amazingly, the plaster sculptures in “Bridges” are not a critique on the wastage of plastic bags or of commercial consumption. Instead, they are commemorations of the individual Malaysian’s daily life, his/her wants and desires that drive the bustle of Malaysian life, and that get this country going. Not since that famous scene from the film “American Beauty” has a plastic bag been looked at so lovingly, but the sentimentality is forgiven, embraced even.
Chalk, to me, is a very Malaysian material. It recalls the mammoth limestone mountains of Mulu, Sarawak, and those towering sentinels lining the PLUS highway through Perak. This is what I think about when I see the plaster forms in the “Bridges” installation.
Chalk features more noticeably in the “Boats” section. The entire floor is covered with a word puzzle, drawn in chalk. Within this jumble of alphabets, the viewer is prompted to find words that are meaningful to the artist, and hopefully, to themselves. A list (eg. “5 fantastic places”, “5 people I have slept with”…) is provided as a guide to words that could be found.
This part of the exhibition is about how alienating or disorienting language can be. As people walk over it, the chalk will disperse and the alphabets will disappear, showing the nebulous nature of language. Here, there is a desire for articulation.
Both themes of flux and desire are interlinked, because desires are in a constant state of flux. Meanwhiles, it is this continual change that produces desire. The two spiral together as in a whirlpool.
This is the homecoming that Sharon presents to us, a feeling of being consumed by the vortex and the struggle to simply be in its calm eye. But I suspect that she thrives on the struggle. I might go so far as to say it’s neither a boat nor bridge that she wants – it’s a bloody surfboard.
Lydia Chai is a Malaysian artist and writer, currently residing in Auckland.