Diaaalogue Editor Susan Acret spoke to Malaysian artist Wong Hoy Cheong about the universal themes in his work and his views on Malaysian art
Susan Acret: The subjects of racial harmony, colonisation, and the movement of people and their histories are ones you have interrogated for a long time. They are universal issues, rather than purely Asian issues . . . can you describe how you alight on the ideas that surface in your artwork?
Wong Hoy Cheong: I guess there are many factors, reasons. Growing up in Malaysia, perhaps the most complex multiethnic and cultural country in the world, gave me windows into other cultures, moralities, religions, foods, etc. Then I went to college in the US, and that again opened my eyes to new thoughts and ways of seeing. For the first time, I was made conscious of my "race" and otherness. For the first time, I felt I was an object rather than subject.
In the 1990s, through a few projects that explored the travel and migration of plants, my notion was reinforced of the flow and ebb of people as being just like plants, throughout the history of our existence. Globalisation already existed before it became the buzz word. The Malay language for example, emerged out of global experiences and exchanges; it drew from languages such as Arabic, Sanskri, Hindi, Chinese, Portuguese/Spanish, and English.
Your project Re:Looking (Venice biennale, 2003) is a video/installation of a fake documentary about Malaysia’s colonisation of Austria, complete with website: www.relooking-mbc.com. In turning history on its head, does the Asian coloniser make the same mistakes as the western colonizers of the past?
Of course, all forms of colonisations and imperialisms, despite appearing in various disguises, are about domination and subjugation, and the robbing from cultures and communities. Asians are and would be no better than the rest. History has shown us this. Look at China and Tibet. Indonesia and East Timor.
In 2006 you produced a photographic series called Chronicles of Crime, which re-created famous Malaysian murder scenes. This seems to me quite a departure from your previous works. What inspired you to create this work?
Actually, I see it as not very different from other works. Many of my works are about the archaeology of various aspects of communities, the retrieval of marginalised and forgotten stories or histories. Crime, as you have just said regarding migration and movements of people, is universal. It is something people despise but yet they are deeply fascinated by its presence. CSI, the American TV series about the archaeology and investigation of crime, has struck a chord in people the world over.
The inspiration: why do we hate crime but love reading crime novels or watch slasher movies or animatedly discuss the latest crime and the gossip around it? I wanted to explore this perversity which sucks us in.
We are seeing a boom in the market in particular countries in Asia. How has the landscape of contemporary Malaysian art changed over the last few years? Are there new galleries, museums, exhibitions, and more focus on local artists?
Yes, definitely. Much has changed from the early 1990s. While the infrastructure is still rather weak, there is an emergence of younger Malaysian artists and younger serious collectors who are informed about regional and global trends in art. I think for Malaysia, the "newness" is in the awareness of an existence of a world outside of Malaysia; whereas previously, the level of parochialism fed by nationalistic/racialistic concerns, was rather stultifying and frightening.
How do you juggle the sometimes competing demands of artistic inspiration and commercial viability?
I was rather privileged up to six or seven years ago. I had a teaching job that brought me a regular income. I did not have to worry about making money from my art. Also, I didn’t really care about the commercial part of it. If what I made appealed to the collectors and they bought the works, that’s great. If not, no big deal. But since I have stopped teaching and moved into trying to make a living purely from art, it has not been so easy, but still am privileged enough to make enough money.
Interesting political times in Malaysia at the moment . . . how is the current environment different to that under the previous prime minister, Dr Mahathir?
Malaysian civil society in a way has come of age. The clock can’t be turned back. There will be a lot of ruptures and contestations for years to come. But it is necessary. And we have been lucky to have done it through the ballot box without the kinds of terrifying upheavals—particularly for the status-quo conscious middle-class—other South East Asian nations went through.
Let us hope the current limp and racist government will not turn to drastic measures, like mass detentions or emergency laws, to hold on to their last vestiges of power.
Can you tell us what are you currently working on, and what exhibitions you are participating in during 2008?
I am currently working on six projects to be completed from now until the middle of 2009. Three of them are in Malaysia; the others elsewhere. In the next few months, I will be developing a new work for Taipei Biennial 2008. It is a photography project and it is about the globalisation of Indonesian and Filipina domestic workers/maids. Or rather they have become global icons of migrant labour desired by middle-classes all over the world.
The other project is a survey solo exhibition in Singapore that will happen parallel to the Singapore Biennial 2008.
- Tue, 1 Jul 2008