Vestiges of An Artist
by Carmen Nge

All artists have works that they hide from public view. Some are unfinished works that may never be completed, some are unrealised projects, some are studies too rough or rudimentary to be exhibited. Some of these works remain unseen because they are processual and meant for the artist’s own consumption and utility.

Such works will usually come to light upon an artist’s death, as family members without the means and space to archive and preserve the complete oeuvre of an artist often choose to donate or sell them to interested parties, usually museums and art galleries. In 2015, for example, the Malaysian public was treated to the late Ismail Hashim’s huge body of work and granted access to his personal archives, including prints and test prints he never planned to exhibit. As a photographer who spent the better part of his life exposing the lives of others, it seemed ironic that his own life would suffer the same fate upon his demise.

Upon death, the vestiges of an artist’s life thus become beholden to the beneficiaries of his or her estate, for better or for worse. But what if an artist could personally excavate his own archive, sift through his tangible memories and select what is to be revealed or concealed? What if a living artist were to willingly choose to put his previously private and unseen works on display and even to offer them up for sale? If he had the opportunity to control how others would apprehend the corpus of his work, what would he choose to show and why?

It seems fitting that such questions would be addressed to Wong Hoy Cheong, the curator of Unpack-Repack: Archiving and Staging Ismail Hashim, who, more than a year after the exhibition wrapped, decided to show and make available for purchase selections from his own private collection.

The works on display exist along a wide spatio-temporal spectrum: early paintings from his teenage years; still life drawings from his years as a student in the United States; illustrations done in art class during his various teaching gigs; studies for realised and unrealised works; finished drawings; test copies, some of which contain imperfections and were never exhibited; partially completed pieces from prior exhibitions. For an artist whose career has spanned more than thirty years, it is striking to see such a small archive of tangible pieces. One expects to see thousands of pieces on view, not less than a hundred.

But those familiar with Wong’s work will know that for the past fifteen years or more, he has shifted discernibly away from the analogue towards the realm of digital art. Wong started out a painter but then dabbled in performance art, installation and video documentary, later moving on to drawing, photography and film. Throughout his career he has also collaborated with theatre directors, actors, dancers, designers, musicians, animators, educators, students, etc. in a wide spectrum of creative projects that have included crafting handmade paper, which were then bound into books, as well as map-making. Wong’s oeuvre is extensive; the materials he manipulates and the ideas he explores in his work radiate from a strong interdisciplinary and multimodal core.

Seeing as the artist has no demonstrable interest to return to analogue processes of art-making, this may well be Wong’s final exhibition of never-before-seen, paper-based works. But art historians keen to map the evolution of a Malaysian art luminary will be hard-pressed to trace Wong’s artistic development using sketches, drawings and paintings alone because so much of his artistic process draws not only from the depth and breadth of visual art history and practice, but also from ideas, theories and concepts in philosophy, politics, education and history. And these can never be exhibited in the conventional sense.

Sook Ching, 1989, oil on gunny sack, 213 × 366 cm

Study for Sook Ching, 1989, Study for Sook Ching, 1989, 
pencil on paper, 39.5 × 23 cm charcoal on paper, 12 × 19 cm

Study for Sook Ching, c.1989,      Study for Sook Ching, 1989,
charcoal and oil pastel on paper,      pencil on paper, 27 × 17 cm
65 × 50 cm

Wong’s ability to abstract ideas into iconic representation is reflective of his ability to synthesize multiple strands of knowledge into something arrestingly visual and thematically imposing. For his largest painting, Sook Ching (1990), Wong not only produced preparatory ink studies to map the overall composition of the different components in the painting and to delineate the specific poses of the figures in the work, but he also conducted video interviews with survivors of the Japanese Occupation and researched the period extensively. In the end, Sook Ching morphed into a multimedia performance art piece that transcended the canvas and that saw the artist and various performers animate his human figures using their own bodies, in a movement sequence choreographed by Marion D’Cruz.

Sook Ching, A workshop-performance
at the Kuala Lumpur International
Video Art Festival, 1990

Clockwise from top left: Study for Sook Ching, c.1989, pencil on paper, 11 × 15 cm;
Study for Sook Ching, c.1989, charcoal on paper, 11.5 × 15.5 cm;
Study for Sook Ching, c.1989, charcoal on paper, 21 × 24 cm;
Study for Sook Ching, c.1989, ink on paper, 24 × 24 cm

Sook Ching was my first encounter with Wong’s work and it helped birth my first published piece of writing about art in Malaysia. I remember slaving for days over my electronic typewriter, trying to make sense of something that had no precedent in my thinking about visual art in general, much less visual art in Malaysia. In many ways, Sook Ching oriented me towards an interdisciplinary and multi-perspectival way of understanding art-making; Wong’s practice blurred the boundaries between painting, video, performance, art, history, politics, the personal and the national. This was a lot to take in for a 19-year-old.

Whilst Wong’s multimedia interdisciplinary practice augmented in the succeeding years, his interest in painting waned altogether. His distaste for the smell of turpentine, his dislike of washing brushes and watching paint dry, and the solitariness of painting compelled him to stop this mode of creative expression in 1991. In fact, his desire to paint had already been extinguished by his realisation that painting as a medium “trapped” him.

“I was trying to nurture a transplanted element [painting] in a Malaysian context and failed,” he reflects, in an interview I conducted with him about five years ago. The painter in him was cultivated overseas, when he was a student in the U.S., but upon his return, he soon found the medium alienating. In an effort to create autochthonous work that reflected his Malaysian context as well as his activist work with Parti Rakyat Malaysia and later Parti Keadilan Rakyat, Wong began to embark on projects that required him to collaborate and co-create with others.

Being an artist who sees his work emerging out of his context rather than only from his imagination, Wong is extremely open to flux and adaptation. Projects conceived through collaboration with others enable the cross-fertilization of ideas and their constant evolution. The dialogue and negotiation that these ideas engender are hallmarks of Wong’s creative methodology to this day.

Apart from his work with political parties, Wong’s ease with collaboration can also be attributed to his education in the U.S., where he was introduced to Paulo Freire, the Brazilian educationist, philosopher and political activist, who promulgated the idea of critical pedagogy and an ‘education for liberation’ for the oppressed classes. Wong spent over 18 years teaching design and fine art upon his return to Malaysia; a few of Wong’s closest collaborators are, in fact, his former students. Wong no longer teaches, although he still devotes his time to political activism and grassroots volunteer work in the Selangor state government and local councils when he is in the country.

For the past 6 to 7 years, Wong’s art-making has been on the back burner whereas his political work has occupied almost all of his time and energies. When it comes to possible future art projects, he takes on projects selectively and sporadically, visiting far-flung corners of the globe that could not be more starkly different: from the luxurious Villa Serbelloni on Lake Como, Italy, to the derelict, former state-owned lodgings in Ekaterinburg, the gateway to Siberia, Russia. Interestingly, after finalising the selection of works for this exhibition, Wong almost immediately embarked upon a half-year long sojourn to South America, whereupon he could not be reached for any interviews.

How or even if these new locales will feed into his future as an artist is anyone’s guess. For as long as I have known him, Wong has constantly resisted stasis; his capacity to learn is boundless, his desire to challenge and be challenged is prodigious and his energy, inexhaustible. He is the preternatural wanderer, an artist who moves in and out of intellectual, political and creative fields of enquiry and thought, constructing threads and networks of connection where before there were none.

Doghole, 2010, single-channel video, 22 min

Wong is rooted to his locality, in that he feeds off his immediate surroundings, historical moorings, and the people he comes into contact with, but his influences and sources of inspiration are global. He embraces a kind of dynamic rootedness: a concrete and corporeal sense of place that is imbricated within the vicissitudes of time. Wong’s ideas are often recursive—they repeat and re-emerge in different forms, in different climes, and in different times. Themes from Sook Ching (1990) would later re-surface in his experimental short film, Doghole (2010), which combines live action with animation, history with magical realism. A noticeable historical thread links both works even though their respective artistic and affective trajectories diverge.

Women of Chow Kit (4), 1990,   Woman with Rice Sacks, c.1978,
ink on paper, 19 × 29.5 cm   oil pastel on paper, 21.5 × 28 cm

Maid in Malaysia: Virgin Mary, 2008, Duratrans, 150 x 300 cm

Similarly, his Women of Chow Kit series of ink drawings from 1990 is reminiscent of an oil painting from his teenage years, Woman with Rice Sacks (c.1978). Thematically, these works also resonate strongly with Wong’s photographic series, Maid in Malaysia (2008). The artist’s interest in depicting working women from all walks of life endures, even after a period of thirty years, but his mode of portraying them has evolved substantially.

Left to right: ISA Detention – Free The 16, 1987, ink on paper, 55 × 37.5 cm;
Internal Security Act, c.1988, gouache on paper, 47 × 33 cm;
Study for Tahanan, c.1988, charcoal on paper, 53.5 × 38.5 cm

Left to right: Original drypoint acrylic plate, 1989
Study for Tahanan, c.1989, gouache on paper, 30 × 21 cm
Study for Tahanan, c.1988, pencil on paper, 16.5 × 17 cm

Study for Tahanan, c.1989       Study for Tahanan, c.1989,
charcoal on paper, 54 × 39 cm       charcoal on paper, 55 × 40 cm

This recursion is also evident in Wong’s sustained investment in visually representing key events in Malaysian history, notably colonialism and the detention of Malaysians under the Internal Security Act (ISA). The latter is depicted in works that span more than a decade: ISA Detention – Free the 16 (1987); Internal Security Act (c.1988); his studies for Tahanan (1987– 1989) using different media; and most recently, works from his monumental travelling petition-scroll Tapestry of Justice (1998–2004). The works in this exhibition are visible residue from the spatio-temporal formation within which the artist has lived, worked and created, but they do not undergird the full scope of his artistic practice. The fact that Wong loves to experiment with a diverse range of media and materials is irrefutable but this does not mean he experiments for the sake of experimenting. His mastery of materials has always occurred in tandem with the confluence of history, place and idea—all of which exist within his horizons but are subject to a surfeit of forces beyond his control.

Study for Tapestry of Justice (AP), 1998,
collected thumbprints joined by petals and leaves, 26 × 19 cm

When Wong conceived of Studies for Lalang I, II and III in 1994, the memories of government crackdowns in 19871 were mixed in with his daily battles with the indomitable weed plaguing the surroundings of his then wooden shack-cum-studio in Kuala Kubu Bharu, Selangor. Researching ways to destroy the weed led Wong to a deeper understanding of the plant’s rhizomic structure—its ability to create a powerful network of roots that allowed it to thrive and resist eradication. This new knowledge eventually enabled him to draw comparisons between the weed and Operation Lalang, the Malaysian government’s mass arrest of its detractors in 1987. History (Operation Lalang), place (his backyard) and idea (rhizome as botanical and philosophical concept) converged in the humble plant (lalang)—a readily available and convenient material at Wong’s artistic disposal.

Study for Lalang I, 1994, Study for Lalang II, 1994,
charcoal on paper, 56.5 × 76.5 cm charcoal on paper, 56.5 × 76.5 cm

Study for Lalang III, 1994, Installation view of Lalang at the
ink on paper, 44.5 × 52 cm National Art Gallery, Kuala Lumpur, 1994

Wong’s intensive research into the materials he chooses to work with reflects a high level of curiosity coupled with a keen intellectual rigour. He welcomes the physical, visceral experiences that different materials give him because they not only challenge his own notions of working, they also inspire him. Wong sees the exploration of new materials and art forms as integral to his craft. But he is never one to rest on his laurels; in many ways, his wanderlust is part and parcel of his unquenchable need to extend the limits of his endurance, comfort and understanding of not just art, but all dimensions of existence.

These days, Wong’s apprehension of art is all encompassing and indivisible from life itself: “Art is about living, not just creating things to sell within the four walls of your studio. Art doesn’t determine why I live but living contributes to my art. I’ve never wanted to be an artist. Being alive and living is an art.”

Last night, I was reminded of this quote from five years ago when, in a rare stroke of luck, I made contact with Wong just as he was leaving Lima, Peru for the famous Iguazu Falls, situated on the border between Argentina and Brazil.

It was the day after Christmas. He told me he was recovering from the worst cold and cough he had had in over twenty years, which he contracted while adjusting to extreme temperature and altitude fluctuations in the Andean Highlands. Yet his spirits were unusually high and he shared photo after photo of his months of journeying.

Then, in the midst of photo sharing, Wong asked me to read Paulo Freire’s last book, Pedagogy of the Heart, because he thought it would help me write this essay and he had been reading it while travelling. He wrote me a snappy review of the book and promptly sent me a PDF copy via email; then it was back to sharing photos of the ancient ruins of Machu Picchu and the giant tortoises of the Galápagos.

I almost could not believe it: there Wong was—traversing the continent that is home to Che Guevara, Augusto Boal, and Paulo Freire—unwell but undeterred and on the move, immersed in his material and corporeal present, yet very much in tune with his philosophical and cerebral self. Of course, I stayed up all night and read Freire’s entire book in one sitting, and I understood why this giant of a thinker had Wong so much in thrall.

Reading Freire helped me to realise that this exhibition is inconsequential; it is a capitulation to the demands levied on all artists: the display and sale of the fruits of their labour. For Wong, the works in his show are fruits of a labour he no longer engages in. The pieces of art mounted and framed offer incontrovertible proof of his existence as an artist but they are vestiges of art-making. They neither represent who he is nor who he was; they document what he used to do but what he has done is irreducible to who he has become.

By continuing to make a life from the yields of prior art- making without making art in the present, Wong Hoy Cheong has compelled a rupture in our expectations of an artist and muddied its attendant definitions. He does this not as an affront to us but as an affirmation of his need to transcend an identity he has outgrown and to heed Freire’s call to “deeply liv[e] the plots presented to us by social experience and [accept] the dramatic nature of reinventing the world”.2

Video still of Hoy Cheong's visit to the grave of Paulo Freire, 2017

1 According to the artist, many of his friends were detained under the Internal Security Act (ISA). Within a week of the detentions, Hoy Cheong and others formed a support group for ISA detainees, which later evolved into the human rights organisation Suara Rakyat Malaysia (Voice of the Malaysian People), better known as SUARAM, in 1990.
2 Freire, Paulo. Pedagogy of the Heart. New York: Continuum, 2000, p.73.

Carmen Nge is currently Assistant Professor at the Faculty of Creative Industries, Universiti Tunku Abdul Rahman (UTAR). She has been writing about Malaysian culture and specifically the visual arts, for the past 13 years. Last year, she co-edited a book, Ismail Hashim: Essays, Interviews and Archives, with Wong Hoy Cheong. Carmen has also written art catalogue texts for the National University of Singapore Museum and Galeri Petronas Malaysia and published in Broadsheet: Contemporary Visual Art+Culture, the art journal of the Contemporary Art Centre of South Australia. She teaches broadly in the subject fields of Malaysian media and culture, critical thinking, science fiction, and games design at UTAR.