Terms of Endearment
by Simon Soon

Like Someone In Love is a phrase that conveys a sense of giddy and irrepressible emotional affection. Yet, the artworks that we encounter in the exhibition are restrained and measured in their composition. In chi too’s recent series featuring acrylic paint injected into sheets of bubble wrap, one sees a calculated approach to explore the subject of work and value by rethinking the painterly process. How do we then reconcile the exhibition title’s unabashed sentimentalism and a seemingly regulated, methodical, and systematised method of art making? Perhaps, these two positions are antimonies in a structuralist view of painting as a medium. They constitute a binary to what painting can do or effect. Seen in this light, I suggest that the series Like Someone In Love also brings our attention towards a different register of meaning - the process of painting as a critical ekphrasis on the value of work.

chi too is known primarily as a multi-disciplinary artist. His conceptual inquiry often takes on a personal dimension, through forms of mundane repetition. Often this also subverts the conventions of the art world in the process. If Longing, chi too's first solo exhibition, signalled a move away from previously overt social political content in his documentary filmmaking and activism in order to focus on the emotive and the autobiographical, Like Someone In Love dispenses with the personal altogether. Instead, he has devised a painting system that interferes with our habitual need to invest meaning into shapes and forms.

In a sense, chi too’s present exploration of painterly process casts a critical eye on two dominant tendencies in contemporary Malaysian painting. In both trends, painting is either regarded as either a self-evident channel for allegory or a transparent expression of emotive gesture. These are approaches to painting that Like Someone In Love as a series is evidently not. In terms of his painting method, chi too begins by choosing a sheet of bubble wrap as the painting support. The process is methodical and follows a pre-determined set of procedure. It requires him to painstakingly inject a small amount of paint into each bubble air pocket with a syringe. The neatly lined rows and columns of the bubble wrap provides chi too with a compositional grid. Based on this gridded matrix, he would explore a number of configurations that take us through a rudimentary lesson on colour theory.

For example, Like Someone In Love (LSIL) #1 - #3 are basic rehearsals of primary, secondary and tertiary colours respectively. For LSIL #5, he repeats the formula but experiments with the colours black, grey and white. In LSIL #4, he moved on to a colour gradient chart and then rehearses this gradient chart in black and white in LSIL #6. The series then moves into a more compositionally complex engagement with the optical perception of colour from LSIL #7- #9, exploring notion of camouflage or how by juxtaposing different fields of colour, our perception of the same colour changes. A larger triptych of opposing colours is explored in LSIL #10. While LSIL #11 and LSIL #12 are antinomies of the colour scale, the blackness of the former representing the presence of all colours, and the whiteness of the latter representing an absence of all colours.

The painting process is characterised by repetition, requiring a level of patience and precision. For chi too, repetitive action is in and of itself an object of fascination. He has always been beguiled by the tedium of the humdrum that constitutes modern life. For instance, he has often wondered what it would be like working as a toll collector on the highway tollbooth or a factory worker assembling screw caps on toothpaste tubes. These are tasks that allow one to vacillate between drifting off into one’s own thought and reining one’s focus back to alertness. In some ways, the routineness of the action produced what chi too characterised as a state of ‘not-feeling’.

The artist’s attraction to a sense of ‘not-feeling’ can be seen as an attempt to articulate a position that is antithetical to the popular idea of painting, which is normally perceived as a vehicle for emotions, represented by the gesture of the brushwork. Conversely, the menial routine of injecting the syringe into the air pocket of the bubble wrap brings to mind a different attitude and aptitude to painting altogether, one that is more controlled and far less spontaneous. At the same time, the task at hand is neither entirely mechanical nor completely alienated.  After all, the bubble wrap paintings do not achieve a level of finishing that suggests an industrial form of cookie-cutter repetition. Mistakes are made; signs of the human touch can be faintly detected. The process devised by chi too treads between the extremes of spontaneous expression and mechanical reproduction. There is a sense that the painted surface builds up through accumulation and patience. One cannot help but feel that the finished work, though inert, carries within it an energetic charge. It is marked by both skill and restraint that indicate a high degree of endurance.

What can we make of endurance as the capacity of something to last? Perhaps, the process is an attempt to bring into discussion the relationship between work and value. This is achieved firstly through the process itself, which performs and registers the underlying conditions and value of work. For the past couple of years, two contrasting life experiences have compelled chi too to pay more attention to the question of labour. The first is when he worked in a Non-Governmental Organisation (NGO) where he encountered numerous professionals working in social enterprises and technologically driven industries. He feels that many of these entrepreneurs were pitching products and services for needs that do not necessarily exist as opposed to things we can’t do without. This leads him to question why people need help from moneymaking ventures to do good. In contrast to this, he has a very different appreciation of the concept of work while undertaking a research residency in a Terengganu village to learn traditional kite making.  Being in the east coast of Peninsular Malaysia, he saw how most of the village residents work with their hands. They include the fishermen, the boat builders, carpenters, the house builders, the coconut pickers, the keropok manufacturers, and many others running their own cottage industries. For the artist, in comparison to the rhetoric of social enterprises that is about inventing market demands, there was a sense of transparency and honesty in the rhythm of commerce generated through local village economy.

A second demonstration of the correlation between work and value is evident in the pricing of the artworks, which further connects art making to the economics of labour. chi too has devised a pricing structure of RM0.70 per paint-filled air pocket based on what he believes to be the cost of labour and materials. As he considers himself as an emerging artist, he determines the unit price based on the lower spectrum of a sliding scale of what he considers a day’s worth of work would cost. Each painting support contains exactly eight thousand six hundred bubble air pockets. By naming the price for each individual bubble wrap air pockets, he demystifies the total value of a larger painted composition by breaking down the pricing structure into its smallest unit. This inevitably brings to our attention the amount of labour that went into the making of the work. This is not meant to be a direct comment on how creative value tends to be arbitrarily priced, especially in the sales and transaction of paintings in the commercial art market. Nevertheless, chi too’s paintings profess a level of value transparency that parallels his fascination with the broader question of how the very idea of work can be investigated and articulated through artistic process.

In considering how painterly process performs the very qualities of repetitive work, chi too recasts painting as an activity more akin to craft, like the weaving of a tapestry that demands mastery of process through repetition. Painting here short-circuits its history as a category of Fine Art and its contemporary tendencies by considering a different criteria of activity altogether. In effect, Like Someone In Love becomes a metaphor for the ideals that chi too seeks to make visible - of the flight of passion and of the ardour of craftsmanship. In doing so, the paintings also become a visualisation of labour.

 
 
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