How often do you get so many flowers on the walls of Richard Koh Fine Art in Kuala Lumpur? Probably not since Thai artist Natee Utarit’s solo show It Would Be Silly To Be Jealous Of A Flower last year, with oil paintings framed on a green wall.
Eiffel Chong, however, goes down the photography path with his current show, which alludes to different facades of life and loss in his perfectly posed shots of flowers, both alive and dying – and fake.
Mud And Mashed Hydrangea Leaves And Salad Of Dandelion Greens is a colourful exhibition for the most part, but it is one tinged with nostalgia, melancholy and a steadfast resolve to push on no matter what, despite its cheerful disposition at first glance.
The show’s title, as we discover, is inspired by George Orwell’s Animal Farm, a political satire of a totalitarian society.
This follows on the heels of last year’s showing of A Trace Of Mortality at Kathmandu Photo Gallery in Bangkok, and 2016’s Seascape exhibit at the Start Art Fair in London.
Most of the photographs in this Kuala Lumpur show were taken during Chong’s stint as a visiting lecturer at Chiang Mai University earlier this year. This period somewhat coincided with a turning point of sorts in his life, or even an epiphany or two, although Chong, a fulltime photography lecturer in KL, might be reluctant to go with words that ring so grand.
During his stint in Chiang Mai, he often made weekend trips to Bangkok to discover new places to photograph.
“I have always loved Bangkok and considered it the most exciting place in South-East Asia. I loved the energy and colours of the bustling, modern city. But then I gradually came to realise that it exists in a bubble. The rest of the country is not like that,” relates Chong. On a visceral level, he laments the clearing out of the flower markets that he delights in, and along with it, much of the vibrancy and charm of the city he once knew.
“The (Thai) government has a vision of ‘cleaning up’ the city, so yes, there is progress, but at what cost? I can’t help but feel that something has been lost along the way (in Bangkok), something in terms of culture perhaps,” he offers.
That was when the idea struck about using flowers as a metaphor for all that is wrong with the world, using his ruminations on Thailand as a springboard, and highlighting universal issues that plague us all. These are simple ideas that are as relatable as they are commonplace.
In this exhibition, a trio of anthuriums, warped and deformed, shine in the spotlight. Are they outcasts of society?
In another work, roses are protected from the world with foam mesh nets carefully placed around each bud.
To Chong, who turns 41 in November, it is a throwback to the sterile environment of a hospital, with white masks and frail bodies fighting a losing battle. Flowers have been used by Chong before, especially his Institutionalised Care (2007) work, which reflected how gifts of bouquets are usually abandoned in hospital wards.
In this new exhibition, there is a certain way that Chong explores the dark side of exuberance. There are pom-pom flowers, rising tall and proud in a sea of yellow and white, not unlike skyscrapers reaching to the heavens.
And wilting flowers seldom look as lively as they do here, with stalks stuffed into energy drink bottles. These are the embodiment of everyday Thai living that Chong observed.
“It is an artificial energy booster to get you through each day of modern living. But no one can cheat death at the end of the line. Nature will take back whatever belongs to it, just like these flowers fading away even as the colourful energy drink bottles stand the test of time,” he says.
Indeed, the theme of death is pervasive throughout this body of work, but Chong is quick to point out, not in a morbid way.
“It is just reality, a reminder of our mortality and the fragility of human life. It is something that has been on my mind a lot since I turned 40 at the end of last year and was hit with a barrage of bad news about loved ones falling ill or dying,” he says.
The exhibition series kept Chong occupied in Chiang Mai.
“I usually walked to the flower market from my hostel when I was in Chiang Mai. The trip usually took me an hour to reach (about 6-7km). I’ll sometimes go back to my hostel by Grab because of the huge amount of flowers bought.
“The florist initially didn’t want to sell me the deformed Anthurium flowers for the reason that they were deformed and not beautiful. I insisted that I wanted them and I loved the flowers because they were beautiful. She sold me the flowers with a big discount,” he recalls.
It is fitting then, that Chong ends this series of work with photographs cloaked in black to signify death, but also as a clever device to coax viewers to look beyond the darkness and reflection of themselves, in order to see the flowers beneath.
“In life, you seek answers even if there are none. The search might not be easy and you will have to come to terms with many hard truths. But when you learn to look beyond yourself – just like in these black photographs – then maybe you will know yourself better,” he says.
Chong’s flowers might flutter and dance in the breeze less than before, but do they remain fresh and sprightly in his mind’s eye? When, if not now, would be a better time to stop and smell the roses?
Mud And Mashed Hydrangea Leaves And Salad Of Dandelion Greens is on at Richard Koh Fine Art, 229, Jalan Maarof, Bangsar in KL till Aug 30. Open: 10am to 7pm. For more info, call 03-2095 3300 or visit www.rkfineart.com.