Choy Chun Wei: Unexpected Trails

‘Finally, architecture is a dangerous profession because it is a poisonous mixture of impotence and omnipotence, in the sense that the architect almost invariably harbours megalomaniacal dreams that depend upon others, and upon circumstances, to impose and to realise those fantasies and dreams.’ – Rem Koolhaas

Sanford Kwinter in interpreting the work of Koolhaas, describes his mode of operation as ways ‘to convert optimism into danger and to make that danger speak’, he continues, ‘architecture becomes dangerous when it forgoes all that is ‘pregiven’ – in this case fixed types and predetermined matter – when, rather, it takes the actual flow of historical conditions as its privileged materiality (not the habitual discrete domains of geometry, masonry, stone and glass), and works these, adapts these through transformations and deformations, in order to engender and bind its form. The effect of danger derives here from the fact that this radical view of materiality is a perfectly active, fluid and mobile one: it describes a materiality that actually moves and changes as it is worked, one that envelops and releases its own spontaneous properties or traits, carries its own capacities to express itself in form – all beyond the arbitrary reach of external control.

Malaysian-born artist Choy Chun Wei’s works have been variously described as ‘urbanscapes’, ‘mappings’, ‘imaginary scapes’, ‘cityscapes’, ‘urban encrustations’, ‘emotive private landscapes’, and ‘fragmented narration and shattered surfaces’; descriptions that attempt to capture his method of overlapping, layering, assembling and deconstructing the space around him into the space of the canvas. The notion of cartography applied to his work goes beyond physical location and into the conceptual and hypothetical; it is a cartography of boundary, definition and resistance that the artist engages with, that of ‘discovering new potential in existing conditions’. This act of sifting through the driftwood, the fragments, the remains of the system, picking through the ordinary and the consumed takes on a markedly different quality when compiled and framed in his work, it becomes, as in Koolhaas’ optimism, an affirmation of life, of ‘the wildness of life – of the life that resides even in places and things.

Representations of landscapes as an attempt to participate in or envision the environment, presents a form of a worldview, reiterating, accentuating and validating a way of seeing the world, or imbuing space and surroundings with particular desires and attributes. It is a simultaneous process of emptying and filling a site that gives it the potential to be a highly charged domain. In Chun Wei’s early works from 2001 and 2002, we find these landscapes populated with a density that is almost oppressive. In the ‘Link-House’ series (2001), the demarcations of space are hard, boundaries appear immovable, and a certain breathlessness pervades the allotments. In a similar way, within the ‘Construction’ series, we find these boundaries further weighed down by a vertical development of the space from the base of the painting, expanding upwards and intensifying into fantastic citadels that remain sealed off to the eye, dissuading approach. (Fig.1) The artist describes this period of his practice as a more pessimistic time that became reflected in the largely monochromatic greys used, and the depiction of ‘dead looking buildings’ and ‘static living objects’.

From around 2004, Chun Wei’s works took a new direction – a different plane is introduced, on the one hand becoming less organised around the subject of spaces such as in houses, facades, kitchens, and on the other hand shifting from a vertical orientation to a more horizontal dimension. The accumulation of materials and layers of the work is realised as weightlessness upon the surface of the canvas rather than endeavours to build up and conceal, while pointing to an obscured interiority. It appears as if the artist enters into direct dialogue with the pictorial space itself, rather than in exertions from without. The shift during this period results in explorations of landscapes and gardens in the ‘Constructed Landscape’ series, creating textured surfaces that flatten and allow for a greater visual engagement with the work. With aerial views, the work takes on a more lofty and bountiful feel, generously spreading across the canvas, the use of collage and the layers of paint becoming a means to develop the effect of a spirited and organic growth rather than encumbrance. This change according to the artist began with ‘Constructed Landscape: Murmur of the Idyllic’, a work that won the Juror’s choice award at the National Young Contemporary Exhibition at the National Art Gallery in December 2004, a delicately nuanced work, with a calm and gossamery attractiveness. (Fig.2) The work parallels developments in the artist’s own experience of leaving home and setting up his own abode, creating a familial environment for himself. Another development around this period saw the inclusion of found materials such as in Feeding Machine (2006) and works such as ‘Living Momentos Series: Speed Passages’ (2006) (Fig.3) where drinking straws, plastic disposable cup covers, bottle caps, cigarette packs and packaging are found drifting above the juxtaposed texts and images of collaged print materials. Not a smoker himself, he however sees the cigarette butts he incorporates into the works as ‘beautiful cylinders’, harbouring a lingering trace of the person whose breath it seems to still carry. Recalling Arte Povera’s exploration of commonplace, humble and ephemeral materials, these works also attempt in employing these ubiquitous trimmings, to dialogue with the conditions of the city, where a disposable culture renders objects and experiences as fleeting and provisional. This sense of openness and acceptance towards the variety and approach on materials transforms the surfaces of his work into active spaces, where contestation and conflict occurs; the work self-consciously seems to deprecate the efforts taken to incorporate these layers and the great amount of detail. Yet the method of incorporating these signs of the urban consumer remains pleasing to the eye through the use of colours and resins that give the works a light-hearted feel.

This increasingly emotive orientation in Chun Wei’s work appears through his residency at Rimbun Dahan in 2006, as well as a deeper consideration of abstract ideas and the relationships that can be evoked through his works. In ‘The Construction of Metaphysical Site I’ (2005), ‘Changing Mindscapes’ (2005) and the ‘Mental Sketch’ series (2006) (Fig. 4), strong colours or deliberately muted shades, though less forbidding than the monochromatic greys of the past, are used in a freer fashion, creating almost unstable conditions within the work that invite greater visual engagement. As the artist describes of the effect he was looking for in his choices of colours used as both ‘spatial and subtle’, however more telling perhaps is his method of working. He characterizes it as a construction rather than a picture, composed of painting, pasting and cutting, though not in any particular hierarchy of methods, and moving from section to section, working quite closely to the canvas, only stepping back occasionally to view the full breadth of the work. Chun Wei’s relationship to his works is one that is inherently immediate and personal, he undertakes the task of expanding the possibilities of the materials he has on hand, again as the Arte Povera artists did, into a process that attempts to find a visual language of his own, a process that he admits he finds pleasure in as well. While not in the formal language of Angela de la Cruz’s paintings, stretching action painting and the limits of the canvas, and probably more akin to German artist Kurt Schwitter’s collages and assemblages constructed from materials he had taken off the streets, Chun Wei’s works contain a certain spontaneity and randomness, yet there is a sense that the direction the work takes isn’t quite as casual as it seems. Chun Wei’s explorations of materials and attempts to fuse them with acrylic gels and resins into the landscapes and perspectives he produces sees the inclusion of straws, plastic coffee swizzle spoons, tags used on bags for bread with their use-by dates visible, texts and images from magazines, packaging materials, newspapers, cardboard sheets, bottle caps, traces of the double cheese burgers he consumes and sawdust in the most recent works presented at the exhibition at Wei-Ling Gallery. Hardly precious items, but in the hands of the artist they become curious and mutable. Speaking of moving through matter and looking for new possibilities, in relation to architecture but applicable to art as well, Kwinter describes a vitalist universe where ‘by manipulating the focus, viscosity, direction and ‘fibrosity’ of these material flows, complex natural and artificial reactions take place, and from this, the ‘new’ and the unexpected suddenly become possible. All techné is at bottom the husbanding and manipulation of these fluid relations to produce new shapes of order’.

Within Chun Wei’s new works presented at this exhibition is found a refreshing dynamism that seems to have begun with a series produced for the Art for Nature 2006 exhibition. Titled ‘Glitterati’ and ‘Glitz and Glamour’, the works enter into a dialogue with the urban environment picking up on its confluences and flows of media, through the incorporation of materials from popular magazines such as Her World, HELLO, LifeTV, Le Prestige and Marie Claire. Naturally these magazines were not purchased for the work, but have fulfilled their usefulness at hair salons; again, as with his earlier materials, these too are transient objects, quickly consumed and as hastily tossed aside. Navigating the barrage of advertising imagery, the artist continues his survey of the consumer environment, interspersing these with other printed materials from corporate instruction booklet, annual report charts, sale brochures, flyers and catalogues. ‘Trappings’ (2007) a triptych and ‘Fabricate and Parade’ (2007) (Fig.5) following from the mentioned series also sees the introduction of the body into the work, incorporating faces, eyes, mouths, arms and legs from fashion and trend magazines including Couture, Female, Her World, OK!, Stuff, Vogue, Inside, Legend, the Malaysian Women’s Weekly, Cleo, Juice and New Tide. The flurry of news and announcements found in the popular media that stridently impresses upon one’s consciousness emerges as splintered tracts in shattered reflections upon the canvas. I have had the privilege of watching these works develop, the progress of layer upon layer, transforming the canvas from abstract swatches of colour into a highly detailed and condensed compilation; spaces that were once solid hues were gradually overlaid and plated such that only slivers and fractions remained, though this time less as if a landscape as a kaleidoscope, drawing patterns and reflecting relationships across the variegated surface. The work seems to herald another shift in Chun Wei’s work, from the vertical composition, to a flattening and expansion of space, to the present as a multi-dimensional theatre in flux, where act of creation is an attempt to see beyond the immediate, the boundaries and limits of the objects, paints and resins. While still bearing the trace of the architecture of scaffolding that so fascinates him – the notion of temporary and mutable frames and forms, these recent works seem to present a less than idyll landscape. As bodies and figures converge and diverge on this unbounded surface, they appear as recesses and apertures, tracking across the broken surface and lending a narrative feel to the works. Introducing a new depth to the canvas surface, the works take on a texture that demonstrates a maturation of the artist’s process and his attempts to find new limits and boundaries to operate from. No longer a simple landscape, or fragments of spaces, the recent works build upon the process of returning or circling, as the artist describes, ‘akin to the looping of a movie strip’. While land and landscapes have been associated with the body in analogy and transposition, in Chun Wei’s works, they do not merge, and it is this tension between the boundaries of one body (figure) against another body (space) that makes it compelling. Embedded within the work, one encounters texts the artist has found. Without endorsing their values, these texts bring a certain humour to the work, gently chastising our consumer-oriented and unexamined way of life. ‘Improve your immune system and total well being’, with Royal Jelly with Ginseng, says one; ‘Washing instruction, handy tips’ says another, recommending that one ‘read the care labels carefully’. These images and texts, woven together, represent the impressions and expectations that often hamper our attempts to be as we would otherwise, diverting us from our own interpretations.

In describing Koolhaas’ method of working and his optimism, Kwinter draws an analogy with fighter pilot Charles Elwood Yeager’s ability to manage complex maneuvers, pushing the envelope and working on the edge, ‘for the architect, this means to take your focus to infinity, do not linger on objects but rather enter the space tactilely and prospect the space in search of breaking developments. Scan for changes and fluctuations, then respond as if part of a cycle, as if you had always been a causal part of those flows’. Chun Wei’s recent works appear to operate as well on the level, developed with a keen sensitivity to the course that the work can take and at the same time challenging and transforming from its original ambitions. In ‘Intimate Wall’ (2007) (Fig. 6), creamy colours are daubed gently over the found text polished with the glazed yellow paint, creating an unexpected subtly dappled effect that may be seen as a further development of his earlier ‘Mental Sketches’ series. Similarly in ‘Organic Tracks’ (2007) (Fig. 7), his proclivity for topography develops a more rhizomatic approach that briefly surfaces his personal physical and conceptual developments and circumstances, in search for more natural and integral formulations. In teaching pilots how to fly, Yeager is remembered for a quintessentially simple piece of advice, to ‘fly the bullet’, referring to the condensation of the series of complex decisions and calculations needed in a dogfight into an instinctive response, ‘don’t even think about turning. Just turn our head or your body and let the plane come along for the ride. When you take aim, fly the bullet into position’, a depiction that seems apt in understanding this artist’s works. Speaking with the artist, it would seem there almost isn’t an end-point to each work, layers of resin applied do not signal completion, and within his studio, any moment might see a work transform further as new elements are applied. Perhaps the works find stability having arrived at the gallery, having left the artist’s hands; but then again, perhaps this is not entirely the case as our eyes sweep across the work, scouring for hidden details. Following a line of sight that is not preordained, we savour the unexpected journey – of each detail as it rises to our attention, and again as it then drifts and settles back again into the variegated surface, it is a journey that does not seem to end, and one that is gently guided by our own senses.

© June Yap, Curator, Institute of Contemporary Arts Singapore, 2007
Fig. 1 ‘Construction Series 7: Façade’ (2002)
Fig. 2 ‘Constructed Landscape: Murmur of the Idyllic’ (2004)
Fig. 3 ‘Living Momentos Series: Speed Passages’ (2006)
Fig. 4 One of the works mentioned: ‘The Construction of Metaphysical Site I’ (2005), ‘Changing Mindscapes’ (2005) or ‘Mental Sketch’ series (2006),
Fig. 5 One of the works mentioned: ‘Trappings’ (2007) or ‘Fabricate and Parade’ (2007)
Fig. 6 ‘Intimate Wall’ (2007)
Fig. 7 ‘Organic Tracks’ (2007)
Rem Koolhaas, Lecture 1/21/91, in Rem Koolhass: conversations with students, USA: Rice University School of Architecture & Princeton Architectural Press, 1996: p.12
Sanford Kwinter, Flying the Bullet or When Did the Future Begin, in Rem Koolhass: conversations with students, USA: Rice University School of Architecture & Princeton Architectural Press, 1996: p.68-9
Ibid. p.69
Ibid. p.71
Ibid. p.81
General Chuck Yeager, ‘How to Win a Dogfight’, Men’s Health, November 1994