Chang Yoong Chia says there is always an autobiographical element in his work. So it should come as no surprise that this is present in How Are You? I Am Well, his ninth solo, currently on at the A+ Works of Art gallery in Kuala Lumpur.
Although this series of work is autobiographical in nature, he adds that it is not entirely factual. Instead, what strikes you about these black and white series is its celebration of a fantastical world. It beckons at you from an open door, an invitation into the great unknown where adventure awaits you and anything is possible.
Every story has a beginning, and KL-based Chang’s once upon a time can be traced back to a childhood memory of him gazing down into the mysterious depths of a well behind his uncle’s house.
The journey to Perak was a hot and dusty one back then. But all that was cast aside the moment he rested his hands on the edge of the well, and peered down into the secrets it concealed.
“When you look into the well, you see a reflection of yourself and your surroundings. The reflection looks like a world similar to the one you are in, yet it is somehow different. You see dark silhouettes in a mirror that move, causing reality to shift just a tiny bit. I will never forget that feeling,” recalls Chang, 43.
In How Are You? I Am Well, he has made the well a portal into another world; the barrier, or a passage, between the real and the imaginary. This is a place where dreams coalesce and logic collapses.
“I have always been socially awkward, especially as a kid, and drawing was a way for me to express myself. For as long as I can remember, the only thing I ever wanted to be was an artist. All I wanted to do since I was around 10 was to paint,” he says.
Chang majored in painting at the Malaysian Institute of Art in KL and graduated in 1996. His first solo Flora And Fauna was held in 2004. His postage stamps work, titled The World Is Flat, was exhibited in Singapore in 2011. It earned him a place as a finalist in the prestigious APB Signature Prize that year.
How Are You? I Am Well marks another leg of his journey of self-discovery. It is a rumination on all that has made him into the artist and man he is today, and his attempt to understand himself. This show has 30 works, comprising paintings, drawings and sketches.
In black and white detailing, a giraffe stretches its neck down into the well and leisurely drinks from it. A crocodile swirls in dreamy wisps in another, while a tiger watches keenly from its post in the sky. Elsewhere, a surprised carp with its mouth wide open pops its head out of the water, and a woman’s hair merges with the knotted roots of a tree.
In Candy Candy’s Right Eye and Candy Candy’s Left Eye, the cosmos twinkle back at the viewer from their faraway home – an origami crane in one eye, and a bright star in the other.
“Candy Candy was a big revelation to me. Here you see the well in all other paintings before this morph into something new. Perhaps, a metaphor for looking into a world with possibilities so vast that you cannot even start to imagine what is out there,” says Chang.
How Are You? I Am Well also has poems as part of its showcase, including the rather whimsical The Giraffe, which is penned by Chang and edited by author Bernice Chauly.
It is presented in the square word calligraphy system invented by Chinese artist Xu Bing. The poem is in English, but does not look like it as the letters making up the English words are scrambled and rearranged in square word format, resulting in an uncanny resemblance to nonsensical Chinese characters.
This decision is a nod to Chang’s relationship with both languages and cultures; like many others, he is a Malaysian Chinese who thinks in English and is comfortable speaking Chinese, but does not read or write in the language.
How Are You? I Am Well gets its name from a small painting Chang did of a pair of hands clutching at the edge of a well, which was first shown at Body Of Water, a solo show in Tokyo in 2016. This went on to become the well template Chang draws on for his current show in Kuala Lumpur.
It is also a play on the standard reply one gives when asked how you are.
“Yes, I am well, thank you. You say it no matter how you feel, so it ceases to mean anything. I am interested in exploring this protective layer, this wall that we have without realising it. How do we venture beyond this well?” he questions.
Chang’s next exhibition will be People’s Marching, which will be held in Gwangju, South Korea, in May. It is a throwback to the May 18 Gwangju Democratisation Movement in 1980, and subsequent gentrification and development in recent years.
In October, a major exhibition featuring his works from 1994 to 2016 will be held at the National Visual Arts Gallery in Kuala Lumpur.
Looking at what is lined up for 2018, How Are You? I Am Well might very well be the most whimsical exhibition of the year for Chang, because this is a story that is layered with fantasy, magic and imagination.
And who is to say these aren’t real?