Cloudy with a chance of Zen

Seah says he spent more than year to complete his 'Too Much, Too Empty' series. Here, he can be seen working on a copper sheet at his home studio in Ampang, KL. Photo: Zelin Seah

There is something very meditative about contemporary artist Zelin Seah’s latest solo exhibition called Too Much, Too Empty at Richard Koh Fine Art (RKFA) in Bangsar, Kuala Lumpur.

The exhibition, Seah’s sixth solo, which runs till Dec 21, features 15 artworks, including two site-specific installations.

Each semi abstract work is a conversation piece surrounding Seah’s usage of colour, medium of choice (copper) and his purposeful brushstrokes.

KL-raised Seah, 39, spent more than a year to complete this new series. It is as introspective as it is prayerful.

“My series is about the daily routine many of us find ourselves in. We have so many things to do but we may find no meaning in doing all that. There’s a void of sorts that takes us away from the spiritual and I wanted to highlight that," says Seah in an interview at the gallery.

He achieves this goal with the use of negative space, an often overlooked element in art. With his strong brushstrokes, Seah, a fine art degree graduate from the University of Central England, Birmingham, painted cloud forms on copper, conjuring up an abstract world.

“I wanted to make a series that is not about what you see but what you don’t see. You can see so many things happening when you look at my paintings, but at the same time, you won’t recognise anything. When you think you are about to see any form, that’s the time you will lose it, ” says Seah, who is also an art lecturer.

Seah's 'Cumulonimbus' (mixed media with etching on copper, 2019). Photo: Richard Koh Fine ArtSeah's 'Cumulonimbus' (mixed media with etching on copper, 2019). Photo: Richard Koh Fine Art

His previous solo shows include Sequential Narrative (2011), Local’s Only (2015), Swimmer (2016) and In Awe Of Things (2018).

For this new exhibit, Seah wants to the viewer to break from routine and to allow their mind to wander.

“The clouds that fill the negative space of different religious art have always fascinated me. You see, they are never the focus, but are ever present.

“In this body of works, I imitated the different forms of clouds, suggesting possible motives and forms in the space where a higher being is absent, mirroring the different stages of packed daily schedules where the mind’s spiritual imagination is lacking, ” says Seah, who also reveals that he had made a conscious choice not to own a smartphone.

Seah is quick to note that his usage of colour, from dark, earthy tones to stirred explosions, is not a reflection of his emotions.

“I’m colour blind. I never had a particular reason to use a particular colour. I see colours differently, I cannot use them to describe an emotion.

“For this series, I used such a colour range because you find them on religious paintings. The clouds are usually painted in these colours and they have a meaning to them, ” says Seah.

Seah's 'Capsule' (wood and copper sculpture installation, 2019). Photo: Richard Koh Fine ArtSeah's 'Capsule' (wood and copper sculpture installation, 2019). Photo: Richard Koh Fine Art

He adds that though mixing colours was a big struggle in his earlier days, he eventually discovered a method of his own using mathematical calculations to mix them to get the desired effect.

Interestingly, Seah’s choice of using copper as his canvas is also not by accident. It is not an unfamiliar medium to him.

He had already experimented with copper at last year’s In Awe Of Things solo exhibition (under RKFA) at KL’s Art Expo Malaysia.

This time, Seah chose to use copper for its spiritual significance.

“Copper is a material that you can easily find in temples or religious sculptures. So the combination of cloud and copper come together naturally in this series as profound components of mankind’s spiritual imagination, ” says Seah, adding that he did a fair amount of research and experimentation before he settled on a technique that worked.

“I’m trying to describe the space where God is absent through my paintings. All religious art have a common feature and that is the clouds that fill up the empty space next to the deity. What if there’s no God? What if there’s only clouds?”

Seah's 'Cloud: Please Update The System' (mixed media with etching on copper, 2019). Photo: Richard Koh Fine ArtSeah's 'Cloud: Please Update The System' (mixed media with etching on copper, 2019). Photo: Richard Koh Fine Art

Also, he says copper functions as a timer in his work due to oxidation.

“Because of the reaction of chemicals, copper tends to change its quality in time. And I wanted to show these changes.

“Nothing lasts forever. I wanted to show that. In a way, this acts as a reminder of mortality.”

Seah takes this notion of spirituality to another level in his Capsule installation which is shaped like a cuboidal pod with a cylindrical cavity that can fit one person.

The Capsule is the standard size of a capsule hotel space, combining the motif of the gallery’s wooden flooring, which forms the outer shell of the installation, and clouds on copper sheets, which makes up the inner shell of the installation.

Seah spent several months painstakingly painting the clouds on 70 copper sheets.

“This capsule is like a sanctuary in the wilderness that blends into the environment and it’s nice to make a work that can talk about whether art can be a sanctuary for someone.”

Too Much, Too Empty is on at Richard Koh Fine Art, 229, Jalan Maarof in KL till Dec 21. Open Tuesday to Saturday (10am to 7pm). More info: Call: 03-2095 3300.

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