Visually impaired artist uses AR to explore Malaysia's multi-layered story


Wong Chee Meng's 'Together Towards Growth’ (acrylic on canvas, 2023), which is a new artwork in the 'Rasa Sayang' exhibition. The artist's new series features paintings that come to life with AR elements. Photo: Wei-Ling Gallery

Have you ever looked at a painting and wished you could step into it and explore to your heart’s content?

Thanks to technology, now you can.

Contemporary artist Wong Chee Meng’s latest exhibition, Rasa Sayang, at Wei-Ling Gallery in Kuala Lumpur, seamlessly incorporates an augmented reality (AR) component into each piece, making the viewing experience more engaging and experiential.

When you scan the QR code next to a painting, it will load an AR version of it on your mobile phone, bringing it to life by revealing its many layers and animations.

For example, for Wong’s piece A New Day, it was composed to look like the doors of the LRT. In the AR version, the doors will open and close. In the colourful whirl of Together Towards Growth, the pinwheels start to spin and the branches will move.

‘Through working on this project, I found that the uniqueness of Malaysia is the vibrancy, the energy, the story that we create and share with each other,’ says Wong about his 'Rasa Sayang' exhibition series. Photo: The Star/Azlina Abdullah‘Through working on this project, I found that the uniqueness of Malaysia is the vibrancy, the energy, the story that we create and share with each other,’ says Wong about his 'Rasa Sayang' exhibition series. Photo: The Star/Azlina Abdullah

It’s certainly something you’d have to experience for yourself.

Wong was one the first few established artists in Malaysia to incorporate AR into his works, which took a great deal of research and experimentation on his part.

The 48-year-old’s first foray into using AR with his artwork was in conjunction with Wei-Ling Gallery’s 20th anniversary exhibition last year.

Wong acknowledges that a radical new wave of young local artists – using technology and art – are sweeping the previously elite scene of fine art and its accompanying gallery circuit in Malaysia.

Wong's artwork 'A New Day' (acrylic on canvas, 2022), which comes to life as an 'opening LRT door' with the use of AR. Photo: Wei-Ling GalleryWong's artwork 'A New Day' (acrylic on canvas, 2022), which comes to life as an 'opening LRT door' with the use of AR. Photo: Wei-Ling Gallery

The painter, with impaired vision in one eye (after a motorcycle accident in his teenage years), has faced many challenges in his art career. But he has resiliently overcome career obstacles and has succeeded in presenting his view of art – the blurring of lines and multiple layers – to the art masses since his first solo exhibition in KL in 2013.

Acrylic paint has been expertly used by Wong to produce multi-layered pieces in the past, and today, he has boldly embraced the idea of new technology for this new exhibition, and is educating himself further about such advances.

“For me, it was quite a challenge because I don’t have a background in creating digital art, so I had to start from scratch – I picked up tips from friends and took online workshops,” says Wong during a recent chat at Wei-Ling Gallery.

“This AR experience reveals hidden elements behind other objects which are challenging to be shown in 2D. It can give us more interesting ways to experience art – when you interact with the AR, your other senses can be engaged.”

What makes Malaysia?

The beloved Malay folk song Rasa Sayang is the inspiration and namesake behind the exhibition, Wong’s fifth solo show.

“Several years ago, there was a lot of talk and controversy about the ownership of the song. But what I want visitors of the exhibition to really pay attention to is the upbeat energy of the lyrics and its ideas of multiculturalism,” Wong explains.

The narrative of Wong’s artwork 'Love Song' (acrylic on canvas, 2023) draws inspiration from the timeless love between Rama and Sita, as portrayed through wayang kulit puppets, rooted in the ancient Sanskrit epic, Ramayana. Photo: Wei-Ling GalleryThe narrative of Wong’s artwork 'Love Song' (acrylic on canvas, 2023) draws inspiration from the timeless love between Rama and Sita, as portrayed through wayang kulit puppets, rooted in the ancient Sanskrit epic, Ramayana. Photo: Wei-Ling Gallery

“The song belongs to the people; it is for everyone.”

In this exhibition, Wong wants viewers to take a moment and discover the layers of cultural identity, acculturation, and unity that define each piece, offering a deeper appreciation for the reflection of Malaysian heritage.

“My intention was to create a series of works that resonate with familiar elements found in different ethnic groups. So I asked myself, ‘What is Malaysia?’ and ‘What makes Malaysia?’.

“Through working on this project, I found that the uniqueness of Malaysia is the vibrancy, the energy, the story that we create and share with each other,” says Wong.

The pieces in the exhibition feature motifs and symbols that are familiar to most Malaysians – Sang Kancil, good luck knots, the hibiscus, the Malayan tiger, wayang kulit puppets and many more.

Wong mentions that people have commented on how his works tend to feature more recognisable Chinese symbols.

Each of the art pieces in Wong's 'Rasa Sayang' exhibition comes to life with AR. Photo: The Star/Azlina AbdullahEach of the art pieces in Wong's 'Rasa Sayang' exhibition comes to life with AR. Photo: The Star/Azlina Abdullah

“Artists often project our worldviews and interpretations based on our own lived experiences, culture, education and influences. We often see cultural elements as separate entities, which belong to only one group. But is that true? Are we not influenced and have we not appreciated other cultures with an open heart?

“I see Chinese culture as something I slightly know better compared to other cultures, but the beauty of Malaysia is that we have the opportunity to be exposed to and learn cultures different from our own,” he says.

A unique vision

Wong’s works are made of different images layered on top of one another and are vibrant with richly coloured hues.

His style is undoubtedly influenced by how he sees the world – through his right eye, he sees what is considered “normal”, and through his left slightly skewed eye, he sees blurred lines and double images.

“After the accident, people would stare at me and ask about my eye, which upset me and I became more introverted, as I couldn’t socialise how most kids those days would, though playing sports and games. But painting helped me regain my confidence,” shares Wong, who grew up in Taiping, Perak.

Across his new paintings in 'Rasa Sayang' that feature AR elements, Wong Chee Meng deftly peels back the layers of influence that have shaped our perception and connection to Malaysian heritage. Photo: Wei-Ling GalleryAcross his new paintings in 'Rasa Sayang' that feature AR elements, Wong Chee Meng deftly peels back the layers of influence that have shaped our perception and connection to Malaysian heritage. Photo: Wei-Ling Gallery

In an attempt to comfort his distraught son, Wong’s father took him to a watercolour painting competition, where he won third place. That was the moment that first sparked his interest in art.

Wong went on to study fine art at the Malaysian Institute of Art, where he learned to use colours to show perspective. He has been active in the arts scene since 1996.

“My works are put together intuitively, inspired by my surroundings; the things I see, the topics being discussed at that moment in time,” he explains.

As an artist, Wong says that he is always striving to try new techniques and ways of expressing his work and that embracing technology is the way forward in today’s digital era.

“Digital technology has become a huge part of our lives, so we must bring art into this. That’s why I try to inject technology and science into my paintings, so that audiences can interact with them in ways that are different than before,” he says.

In his 2020 solo exhibition, Good Days Will Come, Wong was inspired by the science of optical illusion to apply the “anaglyph 3D” effect to his paintings.

He explored colour theory using additive and subtractive colours to create three paintings in one – viewers needed to look at the paintings through different coloured lenses (red or blue) to see the hidden images.

Wong Chee Meng’s Rasa Sayang exhibition is showing at Wei-Ling Gallery in Brickfields, Kuala Lumpur until Aug 19. Exhibition is by appointment only. Call 03-2260 1106 (office hours). More info here.

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