Ghostly visions of oil palm trees, environmental decay haunt Tiong Chai Heing's art

Tiong stands in front of her work 'Impermanence I' (oil paint, fabric and epoxy on canvas, 2019). Photos: Suma Orientalis

Contemporary artist Tiong Chai Heing has always been fascinated with the life cycle ... of oil palm trees. It's a peculiar choice. However, the 33-year-old has a backstory behind this fascination.

She spent her childhood in an oil palm estate in Yong Peng, a small town in Johor. Her father was a plantation operator.

The shrivelling palm leaves, the surrounding overgrowth and an entire (estate life) ecosystem that often times goes unnoticed have been part of Tiong’s artistic inspiration.

For her, the fallen oil palm leaves capture the very idea of life and death. Tiong has gone on to produce an entire series of works based on her experiences of growing up in an estate. Her latest solo exhibit Impermanence Is The Antidote Of Frailness keeps close to this theme.

The exhibit, featuring nine artworks, is currently showing at Petaling Jaya-based gallery Suma Orientalis.

Impermanence is Tiong's second solo exhibition, which comes nearly 10 years after her solo debut, which was part of a residency at Hom Art Trans in 2010. She also participated in group exhibitions such as Pameran 101 Di Mana Young (2017), The Contemporary Propulsion-Influence And Evolution (2015) and A Meter Diameter Show (2013).

In 2015, she won the top prize in the Established Artist category in United Overseas Bank (M) Bhd’s (UOB Malaysia) annual Painting of the Year competition for her charcoal pastel and watercolour painting titled Stifling.

Over the years, her art has been increasingly informed by environmental issues, especially deforestation, and the delicate balance between man and nature.

“No matter how well a tree has grown or how successful we are, there will be a day when all our worldly concerns cease to matter anymore. That is when life ends," says Tiong, a graduate from Dasein Academy of Art in KL.

She talks about the time she discovered that moths would lay eggs on old palm leaf stalks and tree trunks, which would eventually be fed on by the larvae.

Frailness 1 (watercolour on paper, 2018).

“It’s a classic example of the trees losing their lives and in turn nurturing new lives. Nothing is permanent and life goes on."

Getting deeper into the subject, Tiong believes it is difficult for people to live without struggles and desires.

“I think this is the source of frustration in most people. Things only becomes clearer when man understands that impermanence is the final destination ... this understanding is the truth of life,” she explains.

Tiong's art is primarily oil paint and watercolour-based, but in this exhibit, she adds chiffon and lace with beads and sequins to the works. She extracted them from used wedding gowns to create a rough and craggy texture.

To achieve this burnt and bruised effect, she coloured this choice of (found) material before fixing them onto the canvas using epoxy.

Tiong’s very own experience of living and caring for her younger sister, who is autistic, has also influenced her artistic ideas.

“I think subconsciously, this idea of being unwanted has been adopted, or absorbed, in my paintings. The ageing palm trees in my works are unwanted and the image is enriched with unwanted materials as well,” she adds.

A triptych called Impermanence I, at first glance, looks like a serene portrayal of an oil palm estate. But, upon closer inspection, the painting seems to jump at you ... it’s almost like the oil palm tree leaves are poking out of the painting.

Tiong’s use of old wedding gown materials add a 3D effect to her latest series.

“Ideally, a wedding gown is only used once in a lifetime. This is my attempt to bring up the idea that most people are so used to having disposables. It's a reality that is difficult to change, ” says Tiong.

Impermanence Is The Antidote Of Frailness at Suma Orientalis, 11, Lorong 11/4F Seksyen 11, Petaling Jaya, Selangor till June 2. The gallery is open daily from 11am to 7pm except on Tuesdays and public holidays. Call 03-7955 7111. Visit:

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