Spaces, borders and identities

There are many different ways of reading an art piece. In order to decipher its meaning and get closer to the work – everything must be allowed. Above all: watching and thinking, which actually are processes of referring all visible to human experience bound to a specific time and space. According to the postmodern theories, we are living in the space age, the simultaneous, the near and far at the same time.[1] But what kind of space are we dealing with? A private, public, political, geographical, postcolonial, limited or de-territorialised space? And how is dealing with space and its limitations affecting the self awareness of cultural, national or gender related identities?

The artist Chong Kim Chiew is showing his manifold œuvre at Wei-Ling Gallery. According to the artist the very differing pieces produced since 2007 are meant to represent different artistic personalities he is dealing in his work with. Beyond Chong Kim Chiew’s art pieces we get introduced to creations of “0”, “Kim” and “Topy”, the artist’s avatars. This very pluralistic understanding of his many identities, art, but also life, can be taken as a key point for the interpretation of these not only aesthetically and materially, but also discursively rich works.

The diversity of media and styles used by originally one artist seem to be a great exhibition’s concern. Design, photography, sketches, installations, multi media canvases made out of tarpaulin, stripes, acrylic and other materials mark the gallery setting. There is the very clear yet simple and strong effect of Topy’s work “Exhibition logo design No: 1”. It is a commitment to classical design, illustrating a black graphic figure on a yellow background, throwing its own head in a waste basket, and raising questions about one selves as parts of society – like all pieces of Chong Kim Chiew’s imaginary artist-fellows.

Kim’s video installation “Skin Time” is enigmatic in its own way. The number 480’00 dented into skin and hardly readable, could be understood as a snapshot of a frozen time. The photography captures one single moment, a glance in time, and is therefore a reminder of a long gone moment. On the other hand there is the scar that bypasses the importance of time, when the memory of a certain moment in time becomes a lifelong journey, inscribed into the skin, worn always and everywhere. Seen as a canvas, the skin has now the same function as an art work which in a classical sense tends to be timeless, maybe even endless, related now only to the space it is being placed in – like here, the gallery.

Among other works even “Unreadable Wall”, made out of shredded and blended newspaper pieces from all around the world that form bricks can be seen as a reference to the negotiation of space: bits of larger information, critics, ideologies and beliefs from different world cities come together in one single art piece: diversity within unity. Undoubtedly, “Boundary Fluidity” are the most impressive pieces in this exhibition that deal with space. The very large tarpaulin pieces are hanging from the ceiling, consecutively installed in one line, whereas others lie spread out on the floor, are rolled-up and leaning against the wall or are presented as photographs and videos in an installation. It is the refined, harmonious aesthetics of the different colours, shapes, lines and words which capture the beholder in the first glance. But a closer look at the beautifully composed rosé, black, white, grey and bluish acrylic formations and criss-crossing lines reveal a deeper meaning. What we get to see are diverse overlapped maps with marked borders. We decipher places as Gemas, Malinan, Malacca or Singapur – the old colonial Malaysia stated additionally in the words “Malaya Britanica”, separated or connected through a number of fine or bold lines. Though globalization suggests a de-territorialised world, borders are omnipresent and a sociological and political fact – controlling the migration of people all over the world.

The overlapping of the many layers of different maps – belonging to different eras and political commitments – isn’t just standing for one state of being, but for many simultaneously. Like a palimpsest, traditionally a manuscript page scraped off and reused by writing over it several times again, Chong Kim Chiew’s “maps” are symbols for human multilayered history which actually is defined by continuous exiles, wars and migrations.[2] A fact that the artist is affirming by choosing a tarpaulin for the base material – a common material for the construction of temporary tent shelters for migrant camps.

As the artist himself states, boundaries are fluid. They keep on transforming endlessly – a characteristic that is related to identities too. According to Stewart Hall, Identities are never completed, in fact, they are always in motion.[3] They are the starting point of history, so it is more than obvious that history and its changes are nothing but a mirror of the unstable human identities.

From this perspective, Chong Kim Chiew’s works seem to transform the classical awareness of frontiers and borders as places of conflict into places of great potential. The many intertwined lines can be read as a grid system, a net holding together all the different spaces, places and identities. They even can suggest the growth of identities like rhizomes[4] into a lot more new identities, suggesting pluralism or hybridity as our natural state of being. We learn that “races”, as well as nations are built up artificially, through codes and ideologies.[5] That is also, why it seems inappropriate to press artists into passports – there simply is no national authenticity.[6] The only truth is: Movement is the basic principal of humanity, and movement means change and diversity.

Chong Kim Chiew is using the creative potential of all of his art work to identify himself as a hybrid identity. His overlapping maps, borders and identities are revealing an almost cartesian philosophical world order which absolutely denies hierarchy and the power of one single centre. The title “Be careful or you may become the centre” may therefore seem like an ironical threat, reminding us of the fact that uniformity does not exist in nature. If each identity can become a potential centre, the consequence is a lot of diverse centres – a “plurale tantum”[7]. As the land of all (identities) his works are symbols for heterogeneity, celebrating the equality of diversity and possibilities. For him as a versatile artist this means an unlimited creative working process in a territorially and socially still limited world: a clear benefit for the exploration of the boundaries between art and life.

Dr. Hanni Geiger

Dr. Hanni Geiger is an art historian and researcher specialized in modern and contemporary art (20–21st century) with a research focus on the interdependencies between art, design and migration (PhD thesis: “Form follows culture. Entgrenzungen im Konzept-Design Hussein Chalayans”; engl. Form follows culture. Boundary Expandations in the Concept-Design of Hussein Chalayan) / LMU Munich, grade: summa cum laude). Among others worked at the University of Munich (Institute of Art History) as a lecturer and researcher, the Goethe-Institute Croatia and the Center for Advanced Studies in Munich (research project „Exile, Migration and Transfer”). She studied art history, intercultural communication, art education and fashion design in Munich and Zagreb.

[1] Foucault, Michel: Of Other Spaces: Utopias and Heterotopias (french original edition: Des Espace Autres, March 1967), translated by Jay Miskowiec, in: Architecture, Mouvement, Continuité 5 (October 1984), p. 46-49.

[2] Enzensberger, Hans Magnus: Die große Wanderung: Dreiunddreißig Markierungen. Mit einer Fußnote „Über einige Besonderheiten bei der Menschenjagd“ (3rd edition Frankfurt am Main 1992), 7th edition Frankfurt am Main 1993, p. 10f.

[3] Hall, Stuart: Kulturelle Identität und Diaspora, in: Hall, Stuart: Rassismus und kulturelle Identität (1st edition Hamburg 1994), 4th edition Hamburg 2008, p. 26‒43. Here p. 30.

[4] Deleuze, Gilles/Guattari, Félix: Mille plateaux, Paris 1980, p. 1-15. Based on botanical rhizome Deleuze and Guattari use the philosophical concept “rhizome” and “rhizomatic” to describe theory and research that allows multiple, non-hierarchical system representation and interpretation.

[5] Enzensberger 1993, p. 15f.

[6] Rushdie, Salman: Imaginary Homelands: Essays and Criticism 1981‒1991, London 1992, chapter 3.

[7] The expression is referring to Jan Assmann’s quotation: „Without diversity there can be no unity, without difference no individuality.” Assmann, Jan: Das Kulturelle Gedächtnis: Schrift, Erinnerung und politische Identität in frühen Hochkulturen, München 1999, p. 136.