When Phuan Thai Meng first got to planting all over his home and studio, the plants were indistinguishable from each other. But along the way, they branched out into different versions of themselves.
Some stretched to the sky, reaching up to the sun; while others sent out feelers in all horizontal directions, quite happy to be firmly grounded in the ways of the world.
Some grew up green and plump succulents, perfect specimens of the Bryophyllum pinnatum (also known as air plant, life plant and miracle leaf); and others morphed into gnarled offshoots, weathered by the burden bestowed upon them.
These differences are captured in the photography segment of Imagined Home(land), Phuan’s solo exhibition at Our ArtProjects in Kuala Lumpur, a rumination on the changes that occur when parameters are varied.
To Phuan, this is a phenomenon that is similarly seen in people; in how we live our lives, and how those choices and decisions shape us.
“It symbolises how external factors and the decisions we make, change the outcome we have to deal with. Like these plants of all shapes, colours and sizes, human beings can change and adapt,” he says.
Imagined Home(land) tells its story through photographs, paintings and map cut-outs. It expands on last year’s show, Hey Malaysian, Something You [ ] Leave Behind!, and continues to ponder on ideas revolving around identity, roots and migration.
His previous exhibitions include Mapping Homeland: We Are Proud Of You (?_?) in 2011, The WE Project in 2010 and Made In Malaysia in 2009.
Phuan, who lectures at the Malaysian Institute of Art, has been exploring sociopolitical issues in his art for a few years now, and this show zooms in on how societal changes affect individuals and their decisions to migrate or remain where they are.
“I look at how family and social structures have changed and continue to change. It is interesting to tease out different social patterns and trace the trajectories that different people take, such as how and why they choose to work or study abroad.” he says.
Born in Batu Pahat, Johor, Phuan is no stranger to migration and have seen many of his friends leave for neighbouring Singapore, even as Singaporeans look to greener pastures beyond their island nation.
Even the sentiments revolving around one’s hometown has evolved over time, he observes.
“In the past, people moved for better opportunities and still talked about going home one day. Today, many people don’t think about coming back. They make a life for themselves abroad, and their hometown often ends up being dead to them,” he says.
Is the same technology that is keeping us connected to friends and family no matter where we are, keeping us physically apart?
“If people close to you are the reason for you wanting to go home, then perhaps the easy connectivity we have now decreases this pressing need to return to where you came from. It is such shifting ideals, definitions and boundaries that I like to look at in my work,” he says.
Phuan explores these curiosities through different mediums in Imagined Home(land), in the imaginary lands he creates by combining multiple parts of someone’s history, and in the oil paintings that look like torn family photographs held together precariously by tape.
But look closer at the paintings, and you will see that what looks like a whole is really made up of bits and pieces borrowed from different places. These are collages pieced together rather haphazardly, but secured in place by tape.
“The fragments held together by tape symbolise our history, the coming together of different stories with different origins. Our society is an amalgamation of different people and cultures; our identities have been under construction since the beginning,” he muses.
As for the maps, Phuan has layered soil on perforated paper. These are new, imagined maps created from the different places an individual has lived in or travelled to – maps that transcend the boundaries we know in our world.
“The point here is not to obsess over the individual segments of what makes up the new map; it is enough to know that this new map is one derived from many places,” he says.
Metaphorically speaking, that’s just like all of us, and those before us.
Imagined Home(land) is on at Our ArtProjects, Zhongshan Building, off Jalan Kampung Attap in Kuala Lumpur till July 21. Open Tuesday to Saturday (11am-7pm). Sunday by appointment, closed Monday. Visit ourartprojects.com for more information.