It has been well documented that true happiness and contentment can rarely be found at the bottom of a shopping bag.

Artist Lina Tan agrees that things can get very complicated when it comes to this subject.

“In fact, many of us buy too much stuff and then we throw them away. We need to think twice before we make our purchases. We need to stop ourselves from buying things unnecessarily,” she says.

Sabah-born Tan’s debut solo exhibition called Stuff, showing now at Publika’s Artemis Art gallery, carries an accessible discussion about happiness, nostalgia and the centrality of possessions.

It features 20 paintings, each work offering us a renewed look at things we often take for granted.

Take your pick: there is a sardine tin, a cassette tape, a toy pig with a noose, old matchboxes, an ammunition box and an old Chinese “cooling powder” box.

They are things you would probably find in a vintage market or locked up in deep storage at home.

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Tan’s NKOTB Cassette Tape (acrylic on canvas board, 2019). Photo: Artemis Art

Tan, raised in Beaufort, a town two hours away from Kota Kinabalu, is keeping an open mind by celebrating “stuff”.

“We are surrounded by so many things, so much stuff. I quite simply stopped myself from taking these things for granted and to look at each object individually,” says Tan, who also works as a shop assistant at a vintage store in KL.

In the exhibition notes, she mentions: “I find myself often wondering why do people come in and choose to buy outdated, even obsolete things instead of new and better ones. A collection of stuff where the value is not monetary, but emotional. Reminders or reconnections with a period or a time we feel strongly about, until we choose to let it go.”

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‘There is a combination of stuff. Stuff personal to me; which evoke memories, hold stories, and I tend to look at these with an emotional lens,’ says Tan. Photo: Lina Tan

Tan, who studied graphic design, first exhibited in KL in 2015 when she was part of a show at the Dumpster pop-up space.

There, she found a niche market with her digital prints and paintings, with an initial focus of painting shapely women in kebayas. Lina has since expanded her repertoire of the female form, as well as turned her fascination for everyday objects to paintings.

With no formal training in fine art, Tan, 37, honed her skills from one group exhibition to the next.

For Stuff, which took nearly three months to complete, Tan says she was encouraged by independent curator Sharmin Parameswaran to expand on an earlier series of paintings (of vintage objects).

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Toy Pig With Hangman’s Knot Tape Dispenser (acrylic on canvas, 2019). Photo: Artemis Art

“She suggested that I should paint all these random stuff for an exhibition and have some of the (actual) items displayed next to the paintings.”

For this exhibition, Tan selected a combination of items to paint, from things that evoke personal memories and nostalgia and plain, random selections. One of the most personal and sentimental pieces is Tan’s tribute to her grandmother called Samfong Hoi Tong Pressed Powder.

The painting features the well-known face powder, commonly used by the older generation in the Chinese community.

“My grandmother used to wear this. I had to ask my mum to look for it,” admits Tan.

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Yeyow Boots & Ammo Box (acrylic on canvas, 2019).

Another interesting work is the piece called Tiger Balm Red Ointment.

Instead of just painting the bottle of ointment itself, Tan decided to be cheeky and place the Tiger Balm Red Ointment in a forest.

“You can choose to call it a ‘tiger in the wood’ or ‘tiger wood’,” says Tan.

Tan’s painting of a cassette, featuring NKOTB’s Hanging Tough album, does suggest the artist or someone else, arguably, used to be a fan of the 1980s boyband craze. Beyond the random clutter, the exhibit does make it a point to revisit the link between possessions and the extended self.

“I was challenged to look at the banal, and to then relook at it interestingly. To look at the boring, and to then get excited by it,” she says rather aptly.


Stuff is on at Artemis Art, Level G4, Block C5, Publika, Solaris Dutamas in KL till July 21. Opening hours: Tuesday-Saturday (11am to 7pm) and Sunday (12pm to 6pm). Closed on Mondays. More info: www.artemisartgallery.com