Thoughts about the exhibition ‘Be Careful Or You May Become The Centre‘ by Chong Kim Chiew, O, Kim and TOPY at Wei Ling Contemporary, 25 September – 30 November 2015.

Update 23 Oct 2015: Check out Art KL-itique’s take on the show here

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(Shopping) Centre

I went to Wei Ling Contemporary for the first time to see Kim Chiew’s solo show. I had to go twice because they’re closed on Monday, and I didn’t check the opening hours. So I got to walk through the older Mid Valley Shopping Centre, through The Gardens Mall, which is the newer, premium building, and up to the 6th Floor where the gallery is – twice.

Ten years ago, I wrote an article for kakiseni.com championing art in shopping malls. I think I declared them (unironically!) Malaysia’s ‘truly democratic spaces’. Today, the website doesn’t exist anymore, and that article is gone from the internet, but shopping malls have fully embraced art, and vice versa. See: the Kakiseni festivals in Pavillion, the Iskandar Malaysia Contemporary Art Show in Danga Bay City Mall, MAP @ Publika, and the gold standard for galleries in malls, Galeri Petronas in KLCC.


Chong Kim Chiew, Unreadable Wall, 2013, Newspaper, Dimensions variable. In the foreground, part of Across Your Space, Across His (Her) Space, Across My Space by O, 2015, Photo sticker

 

Here’s a little story about what changed my views on art and shopping malls. A few years ago, I had a show in the concourse of Bangsar Village II. A couple was looking at the work very intently. This made me happy. As they walked away, I overheard one of them say: ‘wow, those lightbulbs are so nice’. He was referring to the state-of-the-art Megaman™ bulbs lighting my art.

Thus, a humbling, but rather important lightbulb moment of my own: the realization that art is a social product of a social species; it’s not an autonomous thing. Put another way: in a shopping mall, there’s no reason for people to view art any differently from a sexy pair of jeans, designer cupcakes, or lightbulbs.

What’s interesting about Wei Ling Contemporary is that it’s set quite apart from the shopping mall, in an annexe of its own, as I said, on the 6th Floor. Casual shoppers wouldn’t go there. There would be no… opportunity? possibility? for art to be overshadowed by its own lighting appliances.

So art is in the (shopping) centre, but, (and this is by design!) not really. When I think about this, the title of Kim Chiew’s exhibition starts to take on many meanings.

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TOPY, Exhibition Logo Design No.1, 2015, Painted mural

 

Avatars

There are four artists in this show: Chong Kim Chiew, Kim, O and TOPY. They’re all Kim Chiew’s creations.

It’s strange, Kim Chiew is one of the least theatrical artists I know. He means everything he makes. Look at his work from ten years ago, and these new ones under the name Chong Kim Chiew, and you’ll understand what I mean. The integrity and sincerity of the work is clear.

What to make of this gimmick? It’s not new – the artist who created an entire biennale of made up works from made up artists comes to mind. I’m also reminded of Hokusai, the famous Japanese printmaker who, every time he felt himself reaching a certain level in his art, took on a new name so that he wouldn’t get attached to his own mastery.

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O, Skin Time, 2015, Video, 480mins. Bottom image is a screenshot of my phone after I set a photo of Skin Time as my wallpaper. Only one minute difference between the clock in the artwork and the clock on my phone! The artwork is synchronized with the gallery’s opening hours (11am – 7pm).

 

Two thoughts:

1. The internet used to be THE place where you could construct someone other than who you were in real life. You could test out different personas and see how they interacted with the virtual world. My first online avatar was Zhen. I tried him out in an IRC chat room when I was 16 years old. Zhen was flirty and confident and neither male nor female, or was both at different times. She had short silver hair, and was around 25 years old.

Today, Facebook insists that we use our ‘real identities’, when nothing could be further from the truth. Facebook Sharon Chin is real in the way Levi’s jeans or Doc Marten boots are authentic – a constructed persona, a personal brand optimized for Likes and Shares. As online space becomes the ultimate marketplace, it’s in real life and the real world where we can enact or imagine new selves and new ways of being. In this sense, I see Kim Chiew’s real life avatars as a retrieval of an important kind of freedom that we have lost on the internet.

2. I keep thinking about that street trick, where someone shuffles the cups and you have to guess which one the pearl is under. It’s called a shell game. The art world is itself a game, and like all marketplaces, has become increasingly sophisticated and boundary-less as a result of being fuelled by digital networked technology. Media theorist Douglas Rushkoff calls it ‘capitalism on steroids’.

Kim Chiew’s avatars are like a hall of mirrors, where the self can duck and hide, and evade the surveillance eye of the market or institution, all while participating in the game, in plain sight. I could put it another way: the show is a shell, but it hides the pearl in the shell.

IMG_9290_webO, Your Place and My Place 1, 2, 3 (detail), 2015, Inkjet print, 18 x 24cm. As an interesting comparison, check out Gan Siong King’s hyper-realistic socket paintings

 

O and Kim, Space and Time

I’m charmed most by O and Kim, #sorrynotsorry @chongkimchiew and @TOPY.

O’s stickers that run up the walls and across the floor of the gallery are so subtle, so effective. Kim’s Skin Time is probably my favourite piece in the show. It’s On Kawara for the digital age, a clock for humans stuck in a perpetual now.

These joke-like works have deep enquiry at their core: an investigation into space, and time. They don’t treat these subjects as existential punch lines, but as wonderful mysteries. The wall stickers make you look at the concrete floor more closely, and they make you look at the walls. They make you aware of the space you’re in: in this gallery, in this building put together and maintained by human labour.

Skin Time makes you feel time in your body, makes you think about how unnaturally the human inhabits digital time in which one second seems the same as the other. But the human knows that each minute is different. The human lives in real time.

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O, Across Your Space, Across His (Her) Space, Across My Space, 2015, Photo sticker

 

Prices

There is a trend of leaving price tags off artwork labels, and this show is no different. (I remember Gan Siong King did a hyper-realistic painting of an artwork label a few years ago, with price.) Price labels and red stickers that showed a work was sold were almost fetish items in local galleries – are they passé today? I don’t know anymore, I’m not really… in the loop. Did this change happen as auction houses started to operate in the local market?

Anyway, I make it a habit to ask for the price list at every gallery show I go to. Why hide it? I’m really curious about this!

 

Erasure and Unreadability

Obliteration exists in one way or another in all of Chong Kim Chiew’s works in this show.

There is a wall of bricks made from eight years worth of pulped newspapers.

There is a painting made of little squares of cut up paintings.

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Chong Kim Chiew, White Over White, Black Over Black – Map, 2011, Acrylic and marker on canvas with cutting, 200 x 300cm

 

And finally, there’s the centrepiece of the exhibition, Boundary Fluidity – an ongoing series of unreadable maps painted on industrial tarp, and a video showing these paintings in various locations – crumpled in a heap in an empty parking lot, hanging from a branch sticking out of the ocean, laid out under a pattern of shadows dancing in afternoon light.

It’s important to look at these works from the back. Seeing them as blue rectangles hanging in space, something clicks into place. Kim Chiew is a brilliant site-specific artist – he has an intuitive grasp of the poetics and politics of space. It’s a sensibility, a sort of artistic tic that can’t be learned or manufactured. It’s what separates good installation art from that of artists who just take up a lot of space with a lot of stuff. See: most biennale artworks.

He’s a less intuitive painter. The best of these paintings are the ones that you wouldn’t bat an eyelid at if you saw it shading a nasi lemak stall from the sun. Their layers are weathered and buffed into a homely abstract beauty – equally suited to hanging above your couch, or covering a pile of bricks by the roadside. The least successful are the ones that look most like paintings.

I think Chong Kim Chiew has to exist in order for O, Kim and TOPY to be. It’s Chong Kim Chiew who will feed and clothe the others. His works are the most marketable today, the ones that will make most sense to the art world. Is that why they are full of erasure? Is that why, seen from the front, they are unreadable?

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Chong Kim Chiew, Boundary Fluidity, 2014 – ongoing, Acrylic and marker on tarpaulin