A cloud of dust rises from the rubble, with people and their dreams strewn in all directions. It is a dreamy purple and orange world, one where gravity has no power and time is suspended.
But perhaps you would like to draw a little closer and ponder on the excavators below spelling out a different reality.
This is The Departure, the final piece of the puzzle of Leon Leong’s Cracks In The Wall exhibition now on display at the inaugural Kuala Lumpur Biennale at the National Visual Arts Gallery in Kuala Lumpur.
“The Departure was the most demanding piece in Cracks In The Wall to produce because of its sheer complexity. Working on this painting was hell. I fell sick and spent a week in the hospital, and when I got out and got back to work on this painting, it took on a life of its own. I kept adding and changing stuff, and it just kept growing,” says Leong.
Cracks In The Wall is a mixed-medium installation exhibition comprising 42 paintings, drawings, prints, video and stories of the Razak Mansion and its community in Sungei Besi, KL. The public housing project, renowned for its modernist architecture, was launched in 1967 by the then Deputy Prime Minister Tun Abdul Razak Hussein.
Razak Mansion was home to over 600 residents from three generations. Many have relocated to the new 1Razak Mansion project nearby.
When Leong got wind that these old flats were to be torn down, he decided to see the place for himself. He walked around and soaked in the sounds and sights of 50-odd years of history.
And then he went home and cried.
“I didn’t really know why I felt this way, but the emotion was intense. To think that Razak Mansion was going to be levelled off … it stirred up complex emotions, like that sense of helplessness when you are watching someone die but cannot do anything to stop it. I was also thinking that future generations would not be able to see this place and that made me sad,” says the Ipoh-born artist, who had his first solo exhibition Optimistic Melancholics in KL in 2015.
That show was based on his travel and experiences in Istanbul.
Meanwhile for this Razak Mansion project, Leong had never set foot on its grounds before that fateful day of his visit in November 2016.
He did not know anyone from the community. Yet, there was this inexplicable feeling that prompted him to take this place on as an art project that ended up spanning a year.
One visit was all it took to convince him that the project he had in mind required him to get up close and personal with Razak Mansion and its people.
“The gracefully-aged building with plenty of green space and common courtyards made it seem almost idyllic, yet it was not boring. It was full of life. I saw a truly diverse community, sharing the kind of closeness that was enviable. It was a place where the new coexisted beautifully with the old. I could see the present in front of me, but also feel the past, like the peeling paint revealing part of Razak Mansion’s original turquoise colour underneath,” he relates.
Leong was intrigued with how the past and present intersected in this place, a past he had only read about and did not know well. He wanted to find out how the residents were bonded through bloodlines and friendships, and reckoned that he would only gain that insight from interacting with the elderly, visiting their homes and hearing their stories.
He knew he wanted to paint the residents live, and to do that he had to be there full time.
“I had to see Razak Mansion from the inside, so I rented a studio to live and work among the residents,” he shares.
Though it was not without its challenges, it proved to be a very rewarding experience.
“Gaining their trust was a process of constant negotiation and adjustment. They are not hired models, they had daily chores to attend to. I had to learn to be patient and more receptive to change,” he says.
But even though he was a newcomer, he was made to feel like part of the community. In his own words, he felt cared for and was much loved.
“When the residents left me with the spare keys to their homes when they were out, or cooked extra food during mealtimes so I wouldn’t have to eat out, I knew I must have been doing something right,” he says with deep poignancy.
“I felt like I gained a few families, maybe even lived a few lives more. I know this sounds silly, but I am always curious about other people’s lives and wish I could live out more ‘lives’ than this one I have,” he adds.
Leong’s portraits in Cracks In The Wall are painted on pegboards, its perforations a nod to Razak Mansion’s brick brise soleil feature that serve to block some of the sun coming in, while allowing for ventilation.
Painting his subjects live afforded him the luxury of observing them at work and at play, giving his work a certain authenticity that would have been hard to tap into if he had worked from photographs.
“This project was not mine alone, I felt like it was a collective one. It was a collaboration. I fed off the energy of the residents and we built something together,” he elaborates.
Leong ended up staying for six months, moving out only in May last year.
He made several more visits since then, to work on murals and witness what he describes as the “slow death of a giant” when demolition works commenced.
Cracks In The Wall, however, does not linger on the actual tearing down of Razak Mansion.
“We all know what death looks like, so I wanted to grant it some dignity.
“I am not an activist, nor a scholar. I did not start this project with any specific message in mind. I just wanted to capture as much as I could from those last days of Razak Mansion, like collecting evidence before it vanishes.”
Making art has always been an intensely personal journey for Leong, and Cracks In The Wall is no different.
“I did it because I was compelled to do it,” he says.
If there is a good reason to do what he did, then this would be it.
Cracks In The Wall is part of the KL Biennale at the National Visual Arts Gallery, off Jalan Tun Razak in Kuala Lumpur. It will run till March 31. Opening hours: 10am-6pm. Visit www.leon-leong.com for more information.