There is something beautifully wistful about Gan Sze Hooi’s Zinc Generation Lost, an interactive oil-on-canvas work designed like a window that can be closed and opened.
When tightly shut, we see what looks like a wreck of a house, all wooden planks and corrugated zinc roofing collapsed in a heap. But when the window is thrown open, the viewer sees a picture of a family seated around a table for a meal, with yet more photos on the wall of this house.
It is a warm and nostalgic take on what, to many, would be a past long gone, referencing memories that are cherished, yet slowly … being forgotten.
Like memories that warp with time, Gan has huge holes in this painting, where details are absent and we can only try to fill in the blanks and grasp, sometimes in vain, at what we think was once there.
This art piece is part of the group exhibition currently on at Wei-Ling Contemporary in Kuala Lumpur, curated by Gowri Balasegaram. The exhibition, The Past Is Never Where You Think You Left It, features the works of nine artists.
Gan aside, gallery visitors can immerse themselves in the creations of Anurendra Jegadeva, Chong Kim Chiew, Choy Chun Wei, Ivan Lam, K. Azril Ismail, Kim Ng, Minstrel Kuik and Rajinder Singh. Most of them are familiar names in the Wei-Ling Contemporary circles.
The exhibition takes its name from a quote in Ship Of Fools, an allegorical novel written by Pulitzer Prize-winning American author Katherine Anne Porter in 1962, which addresses, among other things, our infatuation with our past and the illusion of the future.
“The past is never where you think you left it” quote examines the association between present and past, and by extension, leads to one wondering how the future will look back upon the present. An emphasis on “think” suggests the temporality of perceived experiences and memories. How does the selective nature of memory change our perception of the past? And perhaps more telling: how often do we see the past through rose-tinted glasses?
“We know that our past kind of shapes our future, but what we think about less often is how the present day changes how we look at the past. Katherine Anne Porter, in her book, talks about how experience changes us, and how we are not the same people we were yesterday. As a result, the way we look at the past changes,” says Gowri, an art critic and independent curator in her early 40s.
Memory is often fleeting, at best a coherent approximation of experiences, and at its worst, erroneous and inaccurate. But in its subjectivity, who is to judge its state or the form it takes on?
“Memories are not fixed, it is made out of impressions and fragments that we stick together to make whole. The interpretation of our memories also changes over time,” she adds.
Gowri believes that such a theme is one that resonates with many people, particularly in our modern world characterised by rapid change and, perhaps, ironically, one where we yearn for the “good old days” even as we are caught up in the pursuit of present-day necessities and desires, wants and needs.
“But is the past really as good as we think it is today? And is the present really that bad?” she questions. “We yearn for the past, but yet we have done little to preserve that heritage or tradition. Additionally, we enjoy pursuing the latest, newest fad or gadget.”
Gowri, who returned to Malaysia last year, shares that it was “quite strange” being forced to confront her past in her return to a place she spent her childhood. But now, it looks and feels very different. She spent the last three decades living in Britain.
In London, she was one of the founding members of A Bigger Picture Project, an independent curating group. “It made me think about my own relationship with the past and present, but also, many of these artists spent time abroad and came back, so they found the theme relevant in one way or another and expressed it in different forms,” she says.
This is the first exhibition she is curating since her return. .
Chong’s untitled oil and acrylic monochrome seascapes series, where sea and land seem to merge, were painted after his study stint in China in 2005. In this exhibition, they are arranged around a larger and more recent work, Invisible Word, that has names of places of conflict during the Communist Insurgency in Malaya in 1948, framed against a military camouflage motif.
In Table Study – Skull, Warrior, Bird & Guide Book by Azril, he returns to the past with this daguerreotype, an image made using the world’s first photographic process developed in the early 19th century.
Lam and Choy have both made new out of the old; Lam with his old cotton T-shirts dabbed with paint in Past, Present, Future, and Choy, with his Bricolage Of Identities II collage, mainly made of discarded business cards – cut and arranged in a geometric grid.
Rajinder’s diptych silk-screen painting merges over 20 places of worship from around the world into a composite, a collective of shared consciousness and action, with each version non-identical to the one created before it. It is his take on memory, which he sees not as a recording of something, but as a concept revolving around interactions.
The past can be a funny thing. When we look back at it, our memories shift and take on a slightly different form and meaning each time, even without us realising it.
But what really changes – your memory, or you? Or are they one and the same, or a little of each?
The Past Is Never Where You Think You Left It is on at Wei-Ling Contemporary, The Gardens Mall in Kuala Lumpur till Aug 11. Call 03-2282 8323. Visit: weiling-gallery.com.