LONGING BY CHI TOO
4 - 14 August 2011
Valentine Willie Fine Art (off-site)
MAP Black Box, Publika, Kuala Lumpur, MALAYSIA
View all works here
chi too are you for real?
By Eva McGovern
A friend and colleague recently asked chi too, during a long conversation ‘chi too are you for real?’ Such a question might appear, on the surface, insulting or critical but then again, chi too is a curious figure. As a filmmaker his work has focused on environmental and political activism within Malaysia. However rather than suffer the activist hangover and produce politically saturated work, his recent entry into the art world, has taken an entirely opposite direction. Rejecting the solemnity of his political past, chi too instead creates a carefully blended experience of amusement, comedy and absurdity. This, is often, about himself. Choosing a humorous form of navel gazing, he is clearly in need of some light-hearted introspection after years spent absorbing the gravitas of deforestation and the plight of the Orang Asli. The release from such a responsibility has created a promiscuous delight in different media, from poetry, performance, alternative music and interactive public art projects through to painting, installation, video, photography and sculpture. He collaborates with a number of individuals whether his loose partners in crime such as the Wonderboys (a type of band with revolving members) or the Best Art Show in Univers (a sometimes artist collective with Dill Malik and Mun Kao). He also takes part in numerous events such as the 2011 Buka Jalan performance festival at the Balai Seni Lukis and exhibits painstakingly perfected objects and moving image work in group shows in KL and abroad. chi too, therefore, is obviously enjoying his time as a visual artist. But is he having too much fun? More importantly, should we take him seriously?
Produced with obsessive regularity from 2009 to 2011 the Longing series, presented in its entirety for the first time at Black Box Map @ Publika, and supported by Valentine Willie Fine Art, is chi too’s first major solo that allows for a focused interpretation of his practice to date. This playful constellation of ridiculous and meticulously produced work may seem like humorous visual one liners lampooning the pretention of high art and the figure of the angst ridden artist. But, this is a characteristic double fake of an individual deeply driven by his emotional insecurities, laid bare through a form of ambiguous poetry. So chi too is very serious and very funny. Gravely so at times. By providing a comic entrance into his practice viewers can choose to merely laugh at the sheer bravado of an artist extrapolating the language of conceptualism for nihilist effect or delve head first into his various melancholies.
chi too’s use of humour, his peculiar materials and obsessively intense processes mimic the language and strategies of Conceptualism. His collaging of the visual and textual, with titles and images echo the jokes of Bruce Nauman and Erwin Wurme as well the wry and banal comedy of David Shrigley who push the boundaries of acceptability in Art through comic statements and crude processes. chi too’s work, therefore, has the appearance of the artist as prankster revealing both the absurdity of life and art all in one. Longing # 3 aka Longing is a Motherfucker depicts a video of the artist pulling a never-ending piece of ribbon that physically spews from a white structure into a large pile onto the gallery floor. This banality is echoed in Longing #6 a.k.a. Main Kejar-Kejar Dengan Rakyat where a highly crafted electronic motor spins incessantly but drives nothing. Upon further engagement the artist’s voice can be heard emerging from within the sculpture. He softly hums a monotonous tune that descends into a maddening chant. Both represent many human acts from the inconsequential to the profound that result in never ending unfulfillment. Or something that appears very stupid. Longing #5 a.k.a. Siapa Menang Dia Dapat depicts Fairuz Sulaiman a friend and collaborator who is videoed playing against chi too the well known Malaysian childhood game of Lat Ta Li Lat. However, the game requires more than two players in order for a winner to be proclaimed. The two are therefore locked in a continuous state of contest. As friends this pursuit highlights the tensions of young artists competing for recognition in their professional field.
But wait, this is actually, not a self-reflective act that criticizes the nature of art. It just appears like one. Ah. Another double fake. Unlike Conceptualism chi too is not questioning the meaning or purpose of art itself. Nor is he rebelling against the restraints of Modernist formalism as the Conceptualists were. Rather than dematerialising the validity of objects, he aims to create an amplified aura around them. Uninterested in ubiquitous forms of the ready made he embarks on long periods of self involved prototyping and experimentation for his chosen medium in order to create the perfect finish to express his ideology. Despite his parodies and clichés of the everyday, chi too is an artist in love with the act of making albeit in a humorous manner. However, it must be said that there is a cast of participants in his processes from the artist himself to numerous suppliers who assist in labour intensive acts (with numerous failed attempts) whether casting a block of plaster for his crystal mappings in Longing # 7 or a block of jelly for Longing # 10. Although not claiming to be a master craftsman, as always, the obsession of making is generated by chi too, expressing another type of longing, but in this case for the ideal form, texture and surface.
These ideas are not exclusively personal or banal however, and chi too has not rejected his politic edge completely. His commentaries about the state of the country or the art world are painfully clear. Veiled with humour and sarcasm, he is able to escape the repercussions of such statements through his light hearted visual vernacular. Longing # 9 Aku Nak Migrate in light of the recent rallies in Kuala Lumpur to call for free and fair elections and the continual flight from the country by talented individuals, due to the state of Government policies in the Malaysia is a clear desire to be elsewhere. The facilitator for this are multiple lottery tickets installed in repetitive formation signifying a potential monetary windfall to answer the financial problems of migration and the sustainability of future possibilities. Longing # 13 presents photographic documentation of chi too’s performance at the Buka Jalan performance festival. Here the artist systematically contemplated and ‘sold’ all the artworks in the National Art Gallery by placing orange dots on their captions- a gesture done by commercial galleries to communicate when work has been bought and is no longer available for sale. Another lighted hearted gesture it nevertheless discusses the desires and commodification of art in cultural economies, a game that implicates all the players in the art world including non profit institutions such as museums.
However, despite all of chi too’s irreverence and cynicism, that tease and ridicule society, as the heart of his work is real human feeling and experience. Longing, the underlying current throughout his diverse system of signs and symbols, is a romantic emotion. It is the desire and inevitable pain experienced for a person, place or object that is absent, gone or unobtainable. A sentiment best expressed through language; longing has inspired many iconic lovers, warriors and other literary characters who have waited, ached and obsessively plotted to achieve their various needs. Sometimes ending in happiness, tragedy or a mixture of both, longing is at the heart of epic human stories. chi too exploits the various clichés associated with this emotion to present a variety of visual and textual clues to express the unnamed ghosts of his own longing that appear and disappear throughout the exhibition. Longing #4 a.k.a. A Photo Installation That Was Supposed To Be A Film That’s Really Just A Photo-Essay manipulates the strategies of art house films to present a vague narrative that fluctuates between film and photography. The important use of language in the title satires the perceived pretentiousness in creative practices that are both admired and criticized by the artist. However, if the title and text sequences are disregarded the intimate black and white images of a young woman sitting on a bed during moments of presence and absence act as iconic signifiers of lost love. This sentiment continues in Longing #7 a.k.a. I Wish There Was More Green. A white plaster slab hangs on the gallery wall encrusted with red, green, orange and silver crystals. This glittering display of minimal kitsch obscures more obsessive concerns of unrequited love. Monitoring the online status of a mysterious individual each crystal represents moments of activity, dormancy, invisibility and unavailability on Google Mail chat. Charted over a period of four months each crystal symbolizes a moment of hope and frustration as the object of the artist’s interest appears and disappears. Longing # 10 a.k.a My Dad was a True Hipster is textual pun on the objects brought together to make up this work. Suspending in a large volume of edible jelly moulded into the shape of opaque yellow square is a human hip replacement. As the jelly slowly melts throughout the exhibition the object is revealed as its prison collapses. chi too’s father passed away recently. This is one of the few truly physical traces of him that remains. The term hipster, a positive and negative term for contrived quirky ‘coolness’, which chi too both is a victim and critic of, then takes on a double meaning referring to the notion that parents are often viewed as uncool by their children and a more comic but heartfelt lament for the loss of the artist’s father.
Longing is a complex emotion. However, often our unrequited passions are kept hidden, safe from scrutiny and ridicule. chi too purposefully exposes his vulnerabilities, but behind the façade of staged farce, satire and irony. Diffusing the awkwardness of his own intimate confessions, audiences are then allowed to laugh or feel empathy for the artist’s knowing reflections on his own life. But seriously, ‘are you for real chi too, or not?’ oscillating between yes and no answers perhaps this statement is best left unresolved like Longing # 1 a monumental projection of the artists lips, not speaking but in repetitive motion. Its intent remains unclear, even to the artist. The uncanniness of this work, like his system of abstract objects pricks the recesses of audience memory whether through nostalgia or cliché. These ambiguously imagine and reveal the story of chi too, a complex artist an unfolding drama of love and loss, art and society, albeit with a whoopy cushion thrown in for comedic effect.