New Straits Times, 21 August 2010
Art: Through the eyes of a fish
by Ridzwan A Rahim

Painter Chin Kong Yee is well-known for his ‘fish-eye’ landscapes. RIDZWAN A. RAHIM learns more about the technique using the fish-eye lens of a camera

ARTIST Chin Kong Yee started out as a cartoonist. That fact may come as a surprise at first but with his easy-going and casual disposition, it was probably natural for him to get into cartooning just like many other talented youngsters of his age at the time.

But that was before he turned his full attention to painting which has enabled him to travel, garnered him a following that extends beyond our shores and earned him a reputation as one of Malaysia’s most promising artists.

Born and raised in Kampung Baru Ampang, Kuala Lumpur, Kong Yee drew comics as a freelancer after finishing his studies at the now-defunct Central Academy of Art in Brickfields in 1992. He contributed to Gila-Gila magazine, some Chinese newspapers and some other magazines that are no longer around.
“I also illustrated some stories from classical novels for a Singaporean publisher but they were never published,” said the 37-year-old.

In 1994, Kong Yee travelled to Hong Kong for training in comics. After a year, he came back to freelance but eventually quit comics altogether because he did not like the factory-like setting.

“In Hong Kong, comics are not credited to any one artist. One person writes the story, another does the inking and another just does the pencilling. I didn’t like that,” he said. The United States is one of the more industrious nations when it comes to comics, but the end result, said Kong Yee, is like drinking Coca-Cola. “You feel good when you drink it but afterwards you get fat. They’re published every month but what you get out of them may not be healthy.” In fact, one of the reasons he got into comics was to rebel against what he saw as the American cultural juggernaut. “They capture you while you’re still very young through things like fast food. Once you are sold, it will be very easy for them to sell you other stuff later on,” he said.
But he soon realised fighting the system was not a job for one man.

It also frustrated him that in comics, while there is some measure of creative freedom, he is still bound by what people want. “You must care about how people feel about what you draw. You can’t really draw what you want.” He found that the platform for him is art. “With paintings, it’s up to the individual. You can have any dialogue with your painting. You can dialogue with yourself or anyone. “I am the sole person responsible for the outcome. If I make it good, it’s good. If I make it bad, it’s bad. This is the kind of freedom that is important,” he said.

So, forget about comics. In 1999, Kong Yee switched to painting. “I wanted to be my own boss, paint for myself and for the people I care about and not just for publishers.” One of his most memorable journeys as an artist was when he travelled to Europe for a symposium. The first country he went to was Romania. “I thought it was interesting that my first destination was an Eastern European country. Lots of things look like they were 200 years old!” It was at that symposium that he met German artist Volker Hamann. The two struck a friendship and bumped into each other again later at the wedding party of a friend in Kuala Lumpur, where they got to talking about having a cultural exchange programme.
This resulted in a two-man show called (eye)-llusions, first staged in Stuttgart, Germany, in May 2006 and then a year later in Kuala Lumpur.

It was also during this period that he developed a keen eye for photography. “I got into photography through painting. Once, I wanted to paint and had to take some photos for reference. Then I started playing with photo montages and Photoshop and saw something there,” he said, adding that photographs are great for capturing moments when sketching will take too long.

Photography continues to inspire his work, the evidence of which can be seen in his latest effort called New Landscapes.

The series consists of four new large paintings of landscapes as seen through a fish-eye lens — something Kong Yee has since become well-known for.

Taking eight months in the making, in New Landscapes, Kong Yee has yet again shown his mastery of visually kneading, warping and stretching landscapes and cityscapes, this time involving Taiping, Bali Tanahlot, Lagos in Portugal and spring in France.

The 190cm x 340cm paintings look surreal but you know that these places exist, especially the lake in Taiping which many Malaysians would have been to.
“It was around 4 or 5 in the evening and there was still light,” said Kong Yee of how he worked on the Taiping Lake painting. “It was drizzling and the rain was like make-up for the land. It made it very beautiful.” The next morning, he went there again and it was sunny. The feeling was different.

“Some great moments happen only on your first visit. You can’t hope for a second time,” says Kong Yee. Not content with painting fish-eye landscapes, Kong Yee pushes the boundaries of his art-making this time.

The paintings, each painted on two canvases, can be reconfigured to create a whole new scene and thereby changing the thrust of what is initially seen by the viewer.

The Taiping Lake piece, for one, can be presented in 12 different configurations.

“The fact that they have a front or back transfers different feelings. I want to make the paintings exactly like when you are there but I also want to give the viewer more options to get that different experience.

“The funny thing is, the way you choose to see the paintings is reflective of your current situation,” says Kong Yee.

New Landscapes is at Wei-Ling Gallery ( until Sept 8.