Phuan Thai Meng showcases a diverse body of work in his sixth solo exhibition, Imagined HOME(LAND), made up of paintings, photography and map cutouts. As an extension of his previous solo exhibition, Hey Malaysian, Something You [ ] Leave Behind!, Phuan’s new exhibition continues to explore different possibilities to rethink ideas about identities and migration through different mediums. The paintings explore the fluidity of identities by piecing together random features of people from different ethnicity, class and nationality while juxtaposing the subjects with different cultural backgrounds. The map cutouts chart various individuals’ migratory journeys, ideal or realised, from birth to adulthood, and ultimately death. Phuan’s photography captures and compares the roots of the popular tropical houseplant Bryophyllum pinnatum, in order to highlight how external factors have contrasting effects on the roots of the same plant type. In this context, it mimics the human condition of how external societal factors affect an individual’s decision on migration. Despite the works coming across as visually disparate at first glance, Phuan’s paintings, photography and map cutouts complement each other and bring different elements to the topics of migration and identities.

OAP: A way to dive deeper into an issue is to explore the same thing from different angles. You have been using Malaysian society as your subject matter throughout your artistic practice.

Phuan Thai Meng: I have always been drawn towards sociopolitical issues. I look at different situations in our society from different perspectives. I’m interested in how societal changes affect individuals, and their decisions to migrate or remain. I also look into how family and societal structures have changed and continue to change. It’s interesting to tease out different social patterns and trace the trajectories that various people take, such as how and why people choose to study or work abroad. 

In Johor, where I am from, so many people migrate to Singapore to study and work. They happily give up their Malaysian passports for Singaporean citizenship. I know a lot of friends from Johor who did that. Singapore is perceived as the easiest migratory option for many Malaysians who are looking for a higher standard of living. The funny thing is that there are also so many people in Singapore who want to leave the city-state. What I am trying to do is to tease out the underlying factors and drives. 

OAP: There are two layers to your paintings. On the surface, they bring to mind torn photographic pieces of family portraits held together by tape. Upon closer inspection, the subjects appear to be formed by a collage of different features. What was the motivation behind the paintings?

PTM: When you look into how different people were coming to the country through the trading ports a long time ago, you realise that the identities of our people have constantly been under construction. It is not something new. The whole society comes from an amalgamation of different people and cultures. If the present state of things is not entirely new, then it must have come from somewhere, or from a certain time.

OAP: Relative to the subjects in the foreground, the landscape in the background is left intact. What is the relationship between the background and the subjects in the foreground?

PTM: The backgrounds reflect different periods and cultures. In one of the paintings, I left the background empty to allow the viewers to bring to the painting their own interpretations and readings.

OAP: Why do you paint the subjects in postures that are reminiscent of studio photography?

PTM: Old photographs can reflect a lot about the subjects, but I don’t think a lot of people like to take studio portraits now.

OAP: What about the map cutouts? How did the idea come about?

PTM: The idea came from interviews I did with many individuals. I was interested to understand how individuals migrated from one place to another. For example, a person can move from his or her hometown to a city for work, and to a different country for retirement. Based on these ideal migratory routes, I cut out imagined maps that lie outside of geopolitical or national boundaries. 

OAP: The map cutouts have two layers. The actual maps are made from soil on paper, layered on paper perforated with intricate details. 

PTM: I wanted to work with soil as an immediate interpretation of land. For me, it was important to relate the material to the issue. On the other hand, the photographs capture different human conditions by exposing the roots of the plants and comparing the growth of the roots. In life, everyone has a different starting point, which influences the path that one ends up leading.

OAP: Could you tell us more about why you have chosen to use the popular houseplant, Bryophyllum pinnatum?

PTM: They come in different names: air plant, life plant, miracle leaf. I also thought about other plants such as the lalang grass, but I was drawn to the name of Bryophyllum pinnatum in Chinese — 落地生根.

OAP: 落地生根  roughly translates into “staying grounded in soil”.

PTM: Yes, the plant can look very different depending on where it is grown. The ones at my house are not like the ones in my studio. The colours, shapes and sizes are all different. Like human beings, they can change and adapt. 

OAP: Some of these works were made before the election and some after. Would it be fair to say that the election outcome has broadened the possibilities to read your works?

PTM: How do you read the works now?

OAP: There is definitely a possibility for the works to be seen as an invitation to rethink the history of the country and its people, but let’s leave the interpretation up to the viewer.