Beware As You Become The Centre – the three faces of Chong Kim Chiew
by Sarah Vogeler

“The path I choose through the maze makes me what I am. I am not only a thing, but also a way of being–one of many ways–and knowing the paths I have followed and the ones left to take will help me understand what I am becoming.”

― Daniel Keyes, Flowers for Algernon

It perks you up immediately when an artist says, “There are a number of personalities in me, and it never gets lonely. They never leave me in peace, and want to go to different places at the same time, and though at times we end up nowhere, that is still somewhere. No?”

Yes. No. There really is no accurate answer to that line of interrogation. It is like revisiting John Lithgow’s Raising Cain, without the daddy issues, but the lines “Hickory Dickory Dock, Cain has picked his lock, He’s done a bad deed, Now Josh comes to bleed, Hickory Dickory Dock” stays throughout. And Chong Kim Chiew’s varying degrees of works do appear, at the first, second, third glance, as if accomplished by different people. His latest offering, his solo (and ‘group’ show) debut with Wei-Ling Contemporary, carries a title ominous, dark, macabre even. Beware As You Become The Centre is a hodgepodge of works comprising a video installation, a photo installation and a series of tarpaulins tortured with acrylics, tape and knifes all done by the artist’s three avatars: 0, Kim and Topy.

Beware As You Become The Centre is six years’ worth of work, first conceptualised when he was invited to a close friend’s art gallery in Guangzhou, where he had also studied art from 1997 to 2001. At the time of these writings, except for his tarpaulin massacres, none of his other works were available for viewing, which to an extent, makes explaining them that more challenging.

He showed illustrations of his installations, so meticulously drawn one could visualise what the final inventions would look like. In his words, “This exhibition attempts to deconstruct the capabilities and limitations of a solo creator, to seek various possibilities in terms of connections, disconnections, and how creations can become multifaceted coming from one single entity, and fragmented into personalities which are poles apart”.

A writer would have favourites, or rather would revisit a particular piece over and again. In this case scenario, it is Topy’s wall painting, Exhibition Logo Design No: 1, a monochromatic insignia of an androgynous persona standing perpendicular as her/ his decapitated head sits in a waste paper basket. What is Topy saying: times are bad but we shouldn’t lose our heads? Or times are so bad we’ve already lost them without realising it? This avatar’s rebellion against convention, the war inside his head is vehemently piercing; he pitches, he hits, uncaring of the outcome, because in this particular realm, beheading is a fondness dreadful, and we wonder in the end, if any remain alive.

Now we arrive at 0’s inkjet print, Your Place and My Place. Set against a grainy stark-white background, the solitary light switch makes for a severe minimalist piece, 0 utilising everyday objects for a forceful and psychosomatic effect. It is retrogression to Martin Creed’s 2001 Turner Prize winning Work No: 227. Sure, Martin’s entry was not exactly popular, one chagrined artist threw eggs at it in a fit of rage, but Tate Britain did purchase it in 2013 for its permanent collection, Martin’s disquietingly empty room with lights pre-timed to go off every few seconds. 0’s own entry has almost no content, he envisions the space as a medium to be cast, like clay, and this clever, biting and sensorial work gives a whole new meaning to the term ‘viewing pleasure’. Your Place and My Place is 0’s way of saying, “You explain it and I’ll listen, and if it unnerves, better still. Just tell me why”.

Up next is Chong Kim Chiew’s Unreadable Wall, a bizarre fortification of bricks fashioned out of newspapers. As Mark Twain wryly observed, “If you don’t read the newspaper, you’re uninformed. If you read the newspaper, you’re misinformed”. So what does Kim do? He mashes it all up, turned them into mortar, plastered each one on top of one another like some expert bricklayer, and there it is: a brand new way of absorbing information. It is perhaps, what the brain resembles like from too much, from too little, from nothing. Unreadable Wall is Kim Chiew’s gleeful politic, his own epistles and revelations for making the ill-informed even more so, and the mad madder.

From the snippets previewed, Kim’s video installation Skin Time, of the time 2.04 embossed on actual skin just begs for wild rhetoric. In this universe of flesh, Kim Chiew’s feverish installation is testament to Bertolt Brecht’s, “The human race tends to remember the abuses to which it has been subjected rather than the endearments. What’s left of kisses? Wounds however, leave scars”. Skin Time is an exploration of things ephemeral, of illusions, of life being equally enigmatic as it is vulgar. And when one has been hurt terribly, the bleeding never really stops.

And there is more. Much more. His acrylics and markers on canvas, as seen in White Over White, Black Over Black Map is a gruelling account of his love/ hate/ indifferent attitudes to current political events, the breakdown of maps observed in other pieces a sober reminder of what could and would happen if we remain in our comfortably-soporific state for extended periods of time, and the broken-down flag in Boundary Fluidity represents lands made sterile from unforgiving, brilliant tempests which rage viciously.

In Beware As You Become The Centre, these three artists’ works are gritty and beautifully unapologetic. As he splits from his primary physical form and takes on different roles, we see three sets of ego: him as the royal court jester with the chilling sense of humour, we see him as the instigator/ rebel questioning traditions and accepted ways, and we see him as the contemplative entity who cunningly howls of fury and love.

Sarah NH Vogeler
18 September 2015