Yim Yen Sum's gauze art captures a sense of memory through fading urban imagery

  • Arts
  • Friday, 09 Nov 2018

'My method of slow-paced sewing is a contrast to the fast-paced environment of today, where rapid change can be disorienting at times,' says Yim. Photo: Puah CK

The only colour in Yim Yen Sum’s first solo exhibition in Malaysia is black. Its a series where architecture, buildings, and structures intersect in fine needlework on gauze.

The Further You Stand, The Clearer You See show at Wei-Ling Contemporary in Kuala Lumpur is history merged and mixed, a montage of historical buildings and memories woven together.

It is within the strands of thread in KL-based Yim’s embroidered works where you will find stories behind “the black”.

“This series is both a documentation and a tribute to the past, or soon to be past. It is a gentle reminder to reflect on what we have. Many traditional buildings are being demolished to make way for new developments, so I employ my needlework technique to reproduce and ‘save’ them. This is also how I preserve the heart and soul of the past, and attempt to reintroduce it into the present,” says Yim, 31.

The Further You Stand, The Clearer You See comes after last year’s Trace Of The City (Hakata) – The People I Met In Japan, held at the conclusion of a one-month residency with the Fukuoka Asian Art Museum in Japan. In 2016, she was awarded the Malaysia UOB Painting of the Year (for The Floating Castle). Yim has been practising her gauze art craft and needlework for five years now.

“My method of slow-paced sewing is a contrast to the fast-paced environment of today, where rapid change can be disorienting at times. When the familiar disappears and the unfamiliar new rapidly takes its place, it can cause anxiousness and panic. What we believe we can rely on, becomes nothing in the process. My work links the past with the present, and it also serves to balance these two seemingly different worlds,” she muses.

Yim opts for black because she sees it as ‘the colour of all emotional possibilities’ and represents the collective memory of the generations of people who lived in the buildings she incorporates into her art. Photo: The Star/M. Azhar Arif

Yim finds a comforting presence in gauze: soft, pliable and fragile. She is also drawn to its transparency, to how brightness and light is able to permeate the material.

“Culture exists in our streets, architecture, art, craft, and more so in our blood. It makes us who we are, it affects how we think, how we converse through our words and deeds. If such an important part of us disappears, what else can we believe in? How do we tap into our identity, who we are, where we came from, and where we are headed?” she says.

However, it is the most common use of gauze that plays a crucial part of her reflection on her work.

In daily life, we use gauze as a medical dressing; to dress wounds and protect it from further trauma, and Yim likens this to the current state of human relationships, and culture and tradition in society.

“It is in dire need of care and attention from us to ‘recover’, for it to continue to exist so the next generation can continue to reap its benefits. Using gauze suggests it is urgent and we have to act now, as such traditions are important to us, but they are fragile,” she explains.

Yim’s Disintegration And Restructuring Of The Persistence Memory III (embroidery on gauze, gauze dyed in acrylic, 2018).  Photo: Puah CK

Three works, which share the same title as the exhibition, is a throwback to her childhood days of playing with her friends among old buildings that have now been transformed into Tun Razak City. Here, she zooms in on the ventilation walls that used to fascinate her.

“I first noticed these walls when I went to a friend’s house after school. I wondered why there were so many holes in their walls. Some people even used them as shelves or storage space,” she relates.

But perhaps one of the most recognisable structures she has incorporated into this series would be the Pudu prison, built in the late 19th century, with its entrance arch immortalised in her work. Whisper Silhouette II is not just another page in history books; to Yim, it is the memory of the mural on its walls, family and art, all intertwined.

“My father used to point to the mural whenever we passed it, and say, ‘Look, it was painted by a prisoner! It looks so beautiful!’ This realistic mural painting caught my attention and I would try my best to remember the details of the trees. When I got home, I would attempt to draw the trees from memory, in my notebook,” she says.

A close-up of Yim's intricate needlework, which has been an integral part of her artistic practice. Photo: The Star/M. Azhar Arif

But Yim’s work is not a reproduction of reality. In many, she merges different structures and introduces additions that may or may not exist in the real world.

“The finished product might look like a complete building, but in actual fact, it does not exist. It is fabricated. The writing of our history has always been decided by those in power, they are the ones who determine what is perfect and what is to be presented to the public. But I believe to get to the truth, we can only refer to the clues left behind and examine them from all aspects,” she says.

To Yim, the structures featured in her work are like objects floating in air.

They are not weightless, but they seem to have no sense of volume or presence.

“They are like lost souls drifting towards an unknown future. What used to exist will not disappear completely. Instead, they just float among the clouds, not knowing when or who will pull it out,” she says.

The Further You Stand, The Clearer You See is on at Wei-Ling Contemporary, The Gardens Mall, KL, until Nov 21. The gallery is open Tue-Sun, 11am-7pm. Call 03-2282 8323 or visit weiling-gallery.com for more information.

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