There is a quilt that has hundreds of faces of dead people stitched onto it, hung from the ceiling and almost touching the ground. This is Chang Yoong Chia’s Quilt Of The Dead, a work-in-progress that commenced in 2002 and drew from obituary photographs in newspapers.
Inspired by his grandmother’s passing and the circumstances revolving around her death, this personal project soon morphed into performance art, where Chang embroidered these portraits in public as a way to connect with people about the one thing we all have in common with each other: death.
Workshops followed, where he broached the topic with participants while they immortalised a loved one - whether a family member or a beloved pet – on fabric.
Today, the quilt stands as an incomplete project currently on display at Chang Yoong Chia: Second Life, a solo exhibition at the National Art Gallery in Kuala Lumpur.
It has been almost a decade since Chang, 43, last added a new face, but it remains a work unfinished, not unlike his journey as an artist.
Second Life is a survey of his artistic journey so far, a glimpse into what this Kuala Lumpur-born artist has been up to the last two decades and a bit. The works range between 1994 and 2017.
“When I reflect on my work over the years, I often think about how I can expand on them for the future. Maybe use the materials in a different, bolder way, maybe explore more stories I can tell,” says Chang, who graduated from the Malaysian Institute of Art in 1996.
Trained as a painter, he often professes his fondness for oil. But it is evident that Second Life is an exhibition that shows off many different styles and techniques, from painting, painted objects, installation, collaboration, and performance art.
The wide-range of works in Second Life, 135 in total, are from the artist’s own collection, with others borrowed from private and institutional collections. The exhibition is curated by National Art Gallery’s Tan Hui Koon, researcher/writer Teoh Ming Wah (Chang’s wife) and Beverly Yong (curator/art consultant).
Each of the curators took on a different section of the show: Tan curated Quilt Of The Dead; Teoh (Flora And Fauna) and Yong (The World Is Flat).
“It is a treat to work with an artist as versatile as Yoong Chia. The exhibition, which showcases many different art forms, is testament to his creativity. He demonstrates mastery of so many different techniques and styles, it almost feels like you are walking through a group exhibition! We hope that this show will serve as an inspiration, particularly to young artists, and encourage them to explore different forms and ideas in their art practice,” says Tan.
Aside from smaller showcases during Chang’s residencies, almost half the works here have not been exhibited in public before, so this will be a treat for followers and newcomers to his work.
“There is a strong narrative element in his artworks. He uses a variety of forms to tell stories, whether depicting them pictorially, sequentially, through the use of text, or in his choice of utilising different physical materials.
"For me, the biggest challenge in curating this exhibition is finding and presenting the underlying message of his oeuvre amongst the many divergent ways of expression he employs, without constricting each artwork’s storytelling potential to mesmerise,” says Teoh.
Chang’s most recent residency was the S-AIR Second Artist Residency Programme in Japan in 2017.
Previous exhibitions include How Are You? I Am Well at A+ Works of Art in Kuala Lumpur last year, Body Of Water (2016) in Art-U Room in Tokyo and The World Is Flat (2011) at Richard Koh Fine Art in Kuala Lumpur.
For the general public, the strength of Second Life lies in its many curious details and unusual material used. There are his trademark black and white paintings, but there are also paintings on leaves and shells, stamp collages and miniature plastic animals.
Stranger things include a portrait made of termite wings, a web spun from human hair, a rotating egg, a tower of crab shells and a pelt rug-esque work fashioned out of scallop shells.
Take time to discover the smaller works that are perhaps a little unorthodox, but quite delightful in their eccentricity – like that skeleton suspended above a bed of nails, or that tiny bug wrapped in spider web that is set afloat in a storm contained within a shell.
“I use a lot of organic material, they used to contain life before they died, and I picked them up and made them into art. My works all have identities that can be linked back to memories, especially of my childhood and the impressions of my surroundings then,” explains Chang.
His fascination with the transformative potential of natural and found objects is a reflection of his belief in magic.
“And I don’t mean magic like illusions or David Copperfield. It is the sense of wonder and intuition that we all have in ourselves. But we live in an increasingly modernised world that dulls these senses. So these days, I try to adopt a more child-like perspective at looking at the world when making art. Looking back, I would say that I should have trusted my instincts more when I was a young artist,” he muses.
Growing up as a child in a single storey house with a small garden and a vivid imagination was enough to give him the world. He has fond memories of having many pets, including chickens, turkeys, quails, tortoises, ducks and rabbits, the last of which feature prominently in many of his paintings in this exhibition.
Born in the year of the rabbit, he fondly recalls how the rabbits he kept as a child reproduced so quickly that his parents were at their wit’s end as to what to do with them.
“Eventually we ate them. I was a child, I really did not want to do that, but my parents insisted. That memory stayed with me for a long time, and today I have many works that take me back to those childhood days,” he says.
“Much of my younger days was spent in that small space, but I imagined it to be a much bigger world. That could be why my paintings are so packed, there is a lot to look at and so many things happening ... just like how it was in my childhood so many years ago,” he says.
He could just as well be describing Second Life, where his world is as much a world for you to discover. And it is one that is packed with curiosities and many other strange, wonderful things.