Lockdown camper: Malaysian artist/farmer takes refuge at indie art spaces in KL


  • Arts
  • Thursday, 25 Jun 2020

Liew has been in Malaysia, and away from his Japanese wife and daughter, for more than 100 days now, camping out at various art spaces in the Klang Valley. Photo: The Star/Art Chen

As you walk into KongsiKL, two large, dried up branches, which have been suspended upside down, beckon you into the large, almost empty warehouse.

The crisp leaves hanging off the branches look like they have been burnt to a cinder by the scorching Malaysian sun.

It is the collaborative work of two artists, Liew Chee Heai and Low Pey Sien, both of whom have taken turns doing what can loosely be termed as “residencies” here.

The branch installation is as stark, chaotic and thought-provoking as the space in which it is housed. KongsiKL is an experimental art space that has been operating since 2017, located on one of the oldest major roads in the Klang Valley, Old Klang Road.

It shares a compound with several other warehouses at Gudang Yee Seng 2, so unless you’ve been here before, you’ll feel totally lost until you arrive at the backlot where the letters that form “KongsiKL” are visible. The space has been set aside by local developer EXSIM Group for the cultivation of creative and cultural vitality.

An early MCO self-portrait done while Liew was living in Kuala Kubu Baru. He began venturing out into the forests, but the spread of the virus left him feeling alone and separated the outside world. Photo: Liew Chee Heai An early MCO self-portrait done while Liew was living in Kuala Kubu Baru. He began venturing out into the forests, but the spread of the virus left him feeling alone and separated the outside world. Photo: Liew Chee Heai

The pandemic outbreak has given an artist like Liew a chance to showcase how an individual’s art can adapt to difficult circumstances.

With his man bun and light brown eyes, Liew could easily pass off as a foreigner. The seasoned traveller who spent the last 15 years of his life living in the Miyagi Prefecture on the quiet island of Tashiroshima (Cat Island, population 30), on the west coast of Honshu, in Japan, was, in fact, born and bred in Kepong, Kuala Lumpur.

Soon after graduating from the KL College of Art in 1997, Liew decided to leave Malaysia because he found it “noisy”.

“There was too much race politics going on at the time. And I enjoyed the idea of travelling to other places. Other peoples’ stories are so much more interesting than mine so I liked the idea of exploring the world. If I were to sit at home and paint, it would be just my perspective. Only when you go outside your own space, on an adventure, will you reap some form of return.”

Liew has been in KL for more than 100 days or so throughout the movement control order (MCO), away from his Japanese wife and 15-year-old daughter, camping out at various art spaces in the Klang Valley. The artist had returned to visit his local family for Chinese New Year in February and got “stuck” soon after when overseas travel was banned.

A work taken in KL’s Chinatown when Liew spent part of the MCO living at LostGens’ Contemporary Art Space. Photo: Liew Chee HeaiA work taken in KL’s Chinatown when Liew spent part of the MCO living at LostGens’ Contemporary Art Space. Photo: Liew Chee Heai

And so the unexpected opportunity of exploring spaces was presented to him. Liew began the MCO at Little Giraffe Story House in Cheras, and headed off to the Bunker in Kuala Kubu Baru (Selangor) a few weeks later. He then spent time at LostGens’ Contemporary Art Space on Jalan Panggong in KL, before finally moving to KongsiKL.

His art during this time tells a story. From desolate images of single figures trapped within four walls, to photographed self portraits, masked and alone; to paintings of faces (zoom meetings, perhaps?) and glimpses of the forest; then stories told in striking snapshots of migrant workers in the city; culminating in his stay at KongsiKL where Liew has been growing vegetables, indulging in photography and video (his main body of work) and doing performance art... without an audience.

“This is my garden, ” he says pointing to a small plot of land outside the warehouse where he has begun planting okra, chilli, cucumbers and eggplant. Getting his hands dirty, working with soil, is something close to Liew’s heart.

'Farming and living off the land is also connected to my art. To me, everything is one piece,' says Liew, who is now living in KongsiKL. Photo: The Star/Art Chen'Farming and living off the land is also connected to my art. To me, everything is one piece,' says Liew, who is now living in KongsiKL. Photo: The Star/Art Chen

In Japan, Liew works as a farmer.

“From a young age I was inspired by Henry David Thoreau’s Walden: Life In The Woods and intrigued by the idea of a sustainable life in the forest. I feel happy when working off the land, when my body is covered in sweat and I am using energy from my own body to get something from the earth, ” he shares.

He grumbles about how more people ought to know how to grow their own food instead of just buying and buying, and more buying.

“Farming and living off the land is also connected to my art. To me, everything is one piece. And the earth is full of drama.”

When he travels, Liew carries with him his camera, computer, sketch book, lens, tripod and some clothes.

“I enjoy photography while I travel. It is not as easy to do other forms of art while travelling because I don’t have a studio or equipment with me. So I got used to using my camera as my medium. I wouldn’t strictly call what I do ‘photography’; it is more of capturing ‘performances in front of a lens’.”

He particularly enjoys spending time observing and documenting “humanity” in the slum and red light districts all over the world.

“I have been to Bangladesh, India, Turkey, Lebanon, Thailand and spent time among the lower income earners in these places. There are so many stories in their faces. Kolkata (a favourite destination) is wonderful because it’s so crazy, crowded, noisy and dirty. Every second is so interesting on this big stage.”

Indeed, it was this penchant for the marginalised in society that led him to photograph the migrant workers in Petaling Street in April. Liew returned to where he was comfortable, revealing that his inner self was beckoning him to go out, despite the heavy policing of the streets at the time.

“I didn’t have the comforts of a family or a television to keep me entertained indoors. So I decided to walk the streets and look for the stories that lay out there.”

Going forward, what are his plans? For now, he says he will try to build a career here in Malaysia using his skills and talents, so his family can come over someday. There is no shortage of ideas around him.

“My mind is always in motion – it is like a dream factory. But it is not just about making material things, it is a conversation that goes on inside me. This is my religion. I trust and believe it will guide me to a better life.”

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