heading article2 choong kam kow cross culture creative thinking and art practice

THE works of Dr Choong Kam Kow reflect rich multicultural and multi-social practice and custom of Malaysia. Using painting and printmaking techniques, he transformed some texts of Yijing (I-Ching) Chinese Almanac and festive pastries into visual symbols in order to convey the cultural custom and traditional value of today’s society. In his work, Dr Choong considered different ways of form configuration i.e. use of contrast colours, combination of existing images and invented shapes, arrangement of printed and hand drawn images, interweaving of the verticals and horizontals, order of front and back and positive and negative spaces, and arrangement of overlapped movements. His aim was to create a personal style that has an oriental characteristic in order to express his creative desire and reaction towards the social and cultural environments. His works express traditional connotations using methods of the contemporary art practice. He combined the philosophical thinking of the East and the West and expresses the spirit of the oriental.

1. The thinking model and evolution in Dr Choong Kam Kow’s art

Westernised thinking is the key factor in the process of modernizing the art of Chinese Malaysian into the contemporary phase. This is relevant particularly to overseas Chinese artists who were educated in the West and endeavoured in seeking the root of Western culture. The direction of art learning was adjusted to suit social changes - the focus was on techniques at the very beginning before it moved into focusing on theory in the middle phase. The last phase was on cogitation mode and Chinese artists now understood that it is not enough to imitate the techniques and theory of the West. But more importantly, to create contemporary art, they have to understand how contemporary West imagines the relationship between the time and space they operate in, and to learn full mode of thinking that allows self-articulation in order to become a meaningful individual.

In his book, The Order of Things, Michel Foucault (1926 - 1984) claimed that, before the middle of 19th century, the four art theories that supported the mode of thinking of an artist were representation, articulation, designation and derivation. After the Impressionism, they were replaced by another four theories which include human finitude, the empirical and the transcendental, the cogito and the un-thought, the retreat and the return of the origin. They formulated the basic structure of contemporary thought and this quadrilateral in epistemological thought looks as if independent but they are in fact complementing each other.

2. Limitation of human

In modern thought, things are being positioned within its own inner laws, while the existence of human relates to and in connection with things and matters directly. Human has limitation because the existence of human relates to things that have a limitation. Similar to all things, human has their own origin, history and ending. Human works, lives and talks therefore human’s existence is not eternal and transcendental. Human can only be highlighted on their connections with things. The limitation of human existence can be forecasted and highlighted by empirical knowledge. In contemporary thinking, human no longer exists independently and aloofly outside all things. Human is one of the organisms among others that has limited life span and live the life cycle of birth, ageing, falling ill and death.

On the question of re-appearance of art, modern artists were indulged in questioning in what condition, basis or boundary that matters have been re-presented since the early 20 century. Can matters appear in a space deep beyond all senses. Furthermore, in such a co-existence of art and matter, that what was revealed through re-appearance, wasn’t it the limitation of artist? In Western culture, the coexistence and connection between the existence of artists and the existence of plastic art have never happened. This non-acceptance of each other is the fundamental characterises of modern thought.

“As one of the second generation of Malaysian artists, Dr Choong Kam Kow has successfully made his mark in the international art scene. He is a contemporary artist who is influenced by both Eastern and Western art education. Dr Choong has received Eastern and Western art educations, travelled many places in the world and has wide artistic vision. Apart from working as an artist with excellent achievements in his art practice, he also plays an important role in art education as a principal of an art college. He is imbued with creative perseverance, and is extremely energetic and considered as a legend in art. He has great courage in taking up creative missions, the ability to foresee and scrutinise details, and to perceive the unchange in the constant change. He insists that “observing and understanding” is an indispensible condition in art making, without it an artist remains stagnant, weak and irrelevant. These are the factors that made him a successful artist. Dr Choong showed his courage in continuously exploring, pursuing, discovering, renewing, and transforming. He constantly engaging in breakthrough and opening up new paths. This is a kind of permanent theory that no artist cannot escape or avoid.

In defining ‘change’ Singaporean art critic T.K. Sabapathy has aptly put it as “process by which time and space are configured, actualized, lived and experienced”. For Dr Choong Kam Kow, ‘Change’ is a powerful progressing theory for search and challenge. It is a kind of sophisticate controlling and handling method that involved culture, philosophy, revolution and environment. The way that Dr Choong expressed the cycle of life, the modern concept in exploiting handicraft elements for visual expression, his metaphorical creativity on growth, life, death and rebirth, and message of goodwill and harmony during festive celebration have all undoubtedly enriched the contents of Southeast Asian, Asian and even global art through his series of creation.

3. Experience and prior knowledge

One of the characteristics of modern thinking is prior to any analysis of truth, we set up certain judgment standards that we are unable to prove. These standards on the contradictory became reliable sources for the analysis of truth. Therefore judgment standard is prior knowledge that developed from the content of experience and it is not an existing fact. There is a loop of inference exists in between judgment of truth and false and judgment standard belonged to that of circular logic.

In modern thinking, human has become like what Foucault described about the unique pairing of experience and prior knowledge. People nowadays adopt this method and embrace all knowledge to become a possible whole. In modern thinking, the production of human knowledge is based on its mode. However, the mode is the manifestation of the real content of human experience. The content of the knowledge is what human use as the boundary for reflection that derived from a series of division and splitting on matters and things. The world of experience is the basis for human judgment. The laws that built according to this basis are also the objective standard of judgement. When analysing actual experience, modern artists attempt to connect objectivity with the feeling sketched out by experience. It is also about connecting the history of a culture and linguistics together. Therefore, the thinking method can be considered as the effort of the artists when they wished to match and reveal the distance between personal experience and prior knowledge. The symbolic forms that modern art rely on caused separation between experience and prior knowledge and yet there maintained their connection. The quality of this symbolic form belongs to ways of quasi-feeling and quasi-dialectic that connect bodily experience and cultural experience together.

The connection between experience and prior knowledge is similar to what Dr Choong Kam Kow’s statement, that “various forms (simple and rough), choice of colours (blue and yellow, red and green, complementary and contrast), combination of geometrical and organic shapes (existing and expressive configuration), juxtaposed images and printed images and texts (repetitive of vertical and horizontal relationship), the interaction of Ying and Yang (forward and backward movements) and various handling methods enable him to create a unique and outstanding personal oriental style. It is a kind of reaction and reflection towards the culture and social environment that surround him.

The transformation of style can be found in a series of works produced by Dr Choong Kam Kow including the Kinta Series, the New York Series, The Shaped Canvas Series, The SEA-Through series, The Festival Series, The Rockscape Series, The Rhythm of Growth Series and The Earthscape Series. He indulged in producing series and continuously in each series he sought new ideas and adopted change to evolve new approaches. He constantly developed new visual language and ideas and constantly and yet when he completed an idea, he would move on to exploring new areas. Dr Choong was constantly updating and improving his work during the process and insisted that an artist must goes through different stages to find himself. His works allowed viewers to understand the pursuit of exquisite, sublime, honour and richness of cultural connotation in art.

4. I think and non-thinking

The existing manner of modern artists is in an open mode that operates in a thinking activity called ‘I think’. From pure realisation it developed into full experience and entered into a non-thinking space that the operation of personal experience can be avoided. Modern prior knowledge goes against some sort of unknown silent existence that artists attempt to use possible symbolic configuration to penetrate. Modern artists are being continuously urged to be self-aware when they depart from the unknown.

Modern thinking enquires how the mode of I think can be turned into the mode of ‘non-thinking’. Artists have to juggle with contemplating existing configuration of art as well as the existence of life. The difference between modern artists and classical artists is on the way they think. The personal life of an artist is hidden away from his representative art during the classical period therefore his own existence succumbs to the art language he used. When considering about representing the world, the boundary between a classical artist and his own ‘non-thinking’ is clear. However in modern art, an artist contemplates how to connect, present and unleash the language and concept that is able to express his own existence when he produces work of art. In other words, he tries to connect I think and nonthinking together. He tries to represent the appearances of things as well as his own existence. This is one of the problems that modern artists faced.

Dr Choong’s art career began in the end of 50-over and he consistently advocates change during the past fifty over years of his studio practice. ‘Change’ is a powerful process for seeking and challenging. It is a kind of highly challenging and evolution method that involved culture, philosophy and ever revolution of environment. In order to express local culture and characteristics, he incorporated traditional culture, craft and elements of humanities into his work. His works express and metaphorically reveal the relationships and artistic attainment in regard to life and dead, reborn, festivities, goodwill and harmony.

Dr Choong tirelessly seeks ‘change’ and breakthrough in his studio practice and he considered that breakthrough brings new style. The transformation of different styles can be found in his ‘Series’ works. Since the late 1950’s, he produced the Formosa Series, Kinta Series, New York Series, Shaped Canvas Series, SEA-Through Series, Festival Series, Rockscape Series, Rhythm of Growth Series, Earthscape Series, Dragon Tradition Series and Kungfu Series. Every series has its own unique idea, subject matter, metaphor, method and uses of material.

5. Origin and history

During the 18th Century, Western artists imagined that natural order is like a chart where everything is in a web of interconnection in this chart. When an artist moved from one point to another in the order, he is as if moving around in an inner space of a standard container. Or, when he travels from one end to another end he is as if directed by a smooth and similar appearance, where original language of a configuration is treated as the appearance and shape of a thing, and the facsimile of colour, volume and space. In this kind of thinking, the development of chronology is situated within a chart, and the development of chronology in the chart form an all -in-one browsing function. A starting point is outside as well as inside the real time. The starting point is also the crease of the beginning and what happened in the history all went through the crease.

Time is what is designed by human to use as a thinking model. Things have no memory but human has. Human uses personal experience to set up the time for things (chronology) for their own benefit as well as for the precision of memory. Timetable provides human the process of contemplating experiences. However, people nowadays do not solely consider time as a glossy twodimensional chart. It has its own life, the beginning and the end. The beginning of things relies on human’s memory.

Dr Choong grew up in Malaysia, he taught in a primary school for two years after graduating from his teacher training course. He had an opportunity to study fine arts at the National Taiwan Normal University in Taiwan fifty-seven years ago, where he experienced the Chinese culture and art that he was looking forward to. He felt encouraged and honoured. During his four years in the university, he learned under a team of excellent teachers and was taught by great masters like Huang JunBi, Fu Xinyu and Liao Jichun. Taught and guided by these masters, Dr Choong worked hard and sought improvement, transformation and innovation. The four years in the university remains as the first turning point of his life and career.

Dr Choong went back to Malaysia in 1961 to work as an art teacher and continued his art practice. Due to the limitation of information, he wished to study overseas again to broaden his horizon of knowledge. In 1964, he applied for the Fulbright Scholarship at the Malaysian-American Committee on Educational Exchange (MACEE) and received it to further his studies in art in New York in the following year. This is the second turning point of his life and career.

Dr Choong felt honoured to be able to study fine arts in New York during the 60’s. It was the time when New York was the centre for world’s modern art. During his time in America, he visited museums and galleries and studied the works of many masters. He also enrolled in Pratt Institute Graduate School in 1965 for a Master’s degree of Fine Arts course. During the same period he was offered a full-time position to work as the Head of the Art Department for the United Nations International School in New York and thus he had to convert his study to the part-time mode. During his four years in America, he made great efforts to study the concepts of contemporary art and painting styles of the various art movements and enriched his understanding on Western art as a whole. The four years of exposure in New York had built up his confident and provided him with thinking direction and right attitude in art making.

In the spring of 1969, Dr Choong travelled to 18 countries across Europe and West Asia and mainly visited art museums, galleries and cultural heritages that enriched his knowledge on world’s art movements at the time. He was employed as a lecturer at the Mara Institute of Technology (ITM) when he returned to Malaysia and subsequently became the head of fine art and then senior lecturer for 20 years. In 1980, he received the second Fulbright Scholarship and went to America to pursue study and research on contemporary art and education for a year. Dr Choong took every opportunity to explore and widen knowledge on contemporary art and painting styles again and that can be considered as the third turning point of his life and career.

In 1989, Dr Choong retired from ITM and took up the post of senior lecturer and in the following year, became the Dean of the School of Fine Arts, La Salle College of the Arts in Singapore. He brought changes to the curriculum and course structures of the college during his five-year tenure there. He established academic link with the RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia to offer RMIT’s finalyear degree course in Fine Arts at La Salle campus to enable Diploma graduates to pursue their degree studies without having to further their studies in Australia. It was the first private art college in Singapore to provide such academic programme. At the end of 1994, he returned to Kuala Lumpur to take up the appointment as the VicePresident of the Malaysian Institute of Art (MIA) for five years and brought positive reform to the college. Dr Choong built links with universities in Britain, Europe, Australia, China and New Zealand and promoted close international academic collaborations and exchanges. In 2000, he became the CEO and President of MIA and continued his reform in order to improve the status of the college. In June 2000, Dr Choong was nominated by the Ministry of Culture and was awarded ‘Bintang Ahli Mangku Negara’ (A.M.N.) by Seri Paduka Baginda Yang Di-Pertuan Agong XI (the head of state) of Malaysia. In 2001, he received the ‘Most Outstanding Alumni Award’ from the National Taiwan Normal University for outstanding achievements in art practice and art education. And, in 2006 he was conferred Hon. Doctor of Arts by The Robert Gordon University, Aberdeen, Scotland for excellent achievement in visual arts and art & design education.

6. Cross-material, cross-disciplinary and trans-cultural characteristic of art

Michel Foucault considered that we should not neglect the crucial intersection between time and space. Handling of visual materials within a cultural structure suggests a process of discovering new methods for the intersection of visual, time and space. From today’s point of view, elite culture and anthropology sources seem to point at contemporary visual culture in different directions, and yet visual culture contains elements of exchange and hybridization that can be called cross-culture in simple term.

Nicholas Mirzoeff pointed out that non-Western visual culture studies should adopt flexible and fluid method to apply culture instead of using traditional anthropological perspective. This concept is what Cuba critic Fernandi Ortiz’s ‘transculture’ meant. It suggests that one should not adopt his own culture solely and this is exactly what acculturation means. However, the process may involve the disappearance of one’s own culture or ‘de-culture’ that produces concept and result that brought by the new cultures. For this it can also be called ‘neo-culturation’. Therefore the development of ‘transculture’ can be divided into three processes. Firstly, it involved specific level of absorption on certain new culture. Secondly, the disappearing of old culture and lastly, combined new and old cultures into a coherent unit.

The inherent quality of ‘transculture’ does not happened merely once or as shared experience. It is about each and every generation using the personal method to renew the process. Nowadays in post-modernism society, those who firmly believed in the past that they live in the core of culture have also experienced the conversion process of culture. ‘Transculture’ is not operating in an opposition position in post-modernism society continuously. Instead it provides method to analyse our life that is saturated with hybridization, hyphenated and synergetic globalised Diaspora phenomena. If we question how to differentiate visual art now with art from the distant past, it can be considered that visual culture plays certain roles continuously and able to redefine culture as a kind of ongoing transformation. It is penetrative and forward looking ‘transculture’ experience rather than being clearly defined as inheritance of the past.

Neo-historicism and trans-orientalism

Today in the West, a new type of history studies (introspective and dialogic) is born. They wanted to create a kind of new history that relates to the rhythm of life, work and death. Mass culture is not merely the reflection of various social interests. It is also a stage for the discourses of conflict and resolve. And through conflict and resolving, specific identity and subjectivity can be formed. Nowadays people are no longer interested in building barriers. Some people consider politics as a game that is controlled by interests and others consider that politic is an epiphenomenon that is determined by social relations. In contrast, scholars of history from different traditions now value the studies about political discourses and culture. Now we gradually believe that in the political field there is confronting autonomy in nature.

The development of Malaysian modern art began in the 1920’s. Watercolour paintings that depict scenery of the nature were common. Fishing village and padi-field were the common subject matters too. Creative freedom since 1930’s turned into a creative momentum for artists. During the 1950’s some of the artists that went through the professional training raised the standard of Malaysian art. The Independence of Malaysia in 1957 not only allows the local artists with new aspirations and spirit to gain exposure. It also represents the important historical moment that united the people of Malaysia. All these became the important elements for Malaysian’s artistic expression later on. The National Gallery (now known as National Visual Arts Gallery) established in 1958 has become an important catalyst for the development of Malaysian art.

Between 1958 and 1960, Modernism began to influence the development of art in Malaysia. On one hand art organisations has become more aware of the fundamental role that art principle and perception play under the ideology and historical background of art-making. On the other hand, since the recognition came from the Ministry of Education, the importance of art education in school has gradually risen in Malaysia. In 1967, the Mara Institute of Technology set up an art and design faculty in order to raise the standard of art and design to meet demands. The Malaysian Institute of Arts was set up in the same year and it was followed by the Kuala Lumpur College of Art in the following year. In the beginning of 1970’s, the Arts and Humanities Faculty of Universiti Sains Malaysia also began to offer art courses. The offer of various art and design courses to interested students by these art institutions made it possible for them to study art and design in their own country. Such developments in art education have tremendous influences on the development of contemporary art in Malaysia.

The perception of art education and visual language in the beginning of the 1970’s is reflected in art making later. In the eyes of the new generation of artists, art is not merely about expressing emotion and feeling but a knowledge that requires in-depth studies. One can see the new configuration of Malaysian modern art from exhibitions such as New Scene (1969), Experimental ‘70 (1970), Documentation 72 (1972), etcetra. These exhibitions were curated by a group of young artists who came back from their overseas studies and taught in the Mara Institute of Technology and other educational institutions. The works in the exhibitions not only showed new directions in art, but also challenged the traditional art making direction and aesthetic criticism directed by conventional subjective critics. These artists considered that the nature is not the sole inspiration. They attempted to seek special visual quality through structured principles of art. Dr Choong is one of these artists who actively advocated such mode of artistic thinking in the 1970’s.

The National Cultural Congress in 1971 brought new breathing space to the model and meaning of Malaysian art. During the same period, Malaysian artists began to find their own roots and explored subject matters that reflect the spirit, legends and myths of Malaysia for their works. Artists found contemporary subject matters through the awakening of the value of philosophy, the context of the country and religious belief. In the following 80’s and 90’s decades, Malaysian art was in a healthy development. The rapid development of economy, the increase of art organisations and professional art courses, and the rise of local support in art and the increased number of art collectors, it brought new trends to Malaysian arts. More choices of materials, techniques, methods, concepts, contexts and awareness have also given young artists wider creative space. Obviously, installation art and digital art also became important practices by young artists.

Malaysian art opens its door to new areas. The idealism generated by the country’s multiracial cultures and religions will continue to represent the mainstream development of the art in Malaysia. The evolution of art and culture of the country is also influenced by the vitality of ‘original thinking’ and diversification of ‘Trans-orientalism’ elements. In the development of contemporary art, the originality and unique ‘trans-culture’ elements became the advantages for Malaysian Chinese artists.

Transculture and the third dimension

In a trend that adores the idea of generalisation, Homi K. Bhaba considered that the position of marginalised culture has considerable good vision. He considers culture that being suppressed and non-mainstream ‘vulnerable culture’ is capable of rewriting the colonial culture that has been in a leading position. The idea of ‘rewrite’ is not only on the power of discourse or cultural strategy; it can also be politic, economy, culture and value critique. Therefore the idea of ‘rewrite’ can be considered as the Third World Culture seeking for legalization. It is an important precondition to avoid worsening of marginalized living condition and discourses.

All the modes of transculture are consistently in a process of mixing. For Homi K. Bhaba, the importance of mixing is not merely about retreating two types of origin and to allow the third to emerge. To the contrary, for Homi K. Bhaba, mixing is to allow a variety of positions to appear in the ‘third space’. The ‘third space’ replaced the history that built it and established new and powerful deconstruction and new political motivation. All these are readied wisdom that has not been understood fully. The complete mixture of transculture process ignited something new that has never been perceived before i.e. a new era that brought negotiation between meaning and significance.

Homi K. Bhaba’s critical theory represents the new era for the development of contemporary Western postcolonial theory i.e. postcolonial criticism for the globalization era. In simple term, the unique characteristic of this criticism dissolved the Western empire’s hegemony culture through its complex mixture strategy. It helped to bring the third world criticism to the centre from the edge that can lead to the realisation of cultural pluralism. Nowadays, artists from Taiwan, mainland China and overseas ethnic Chinese are all facing Western empire’s hegemony culture. The priority is how to work hand in hand to use the strategies of ‘transculture’ and the ‘third space’ to direct the development of art of the Chinese origin in the future.

As a Chinese-Malaysian artist working in a multi-cultural environment, Dr Choong faces the question about his own position and cultural recognition in art. Generally speaking, the unique characteristic of Western mainstream culture was to emphasise individuality, independence, progressive, innovative, centrifugal, competitive, openness, variability, futurity, scientific, rationality, subjectivity, experimental and skilfulness (it is not about what is emphasised in traditional art such as communal, dependent, passive, conservative, mindfulness, collaborative, closeness, stability, past, mysterious, perception, subjectivity, prior-knowledge and unnaturalness). Respect ‘differences’ and emphasise ‘selfidentification’ are the core spirit of multi-culturism. Self identification promotes improvement that can create lively and transformative culture, and respecting ‘differences’ is about fair competition and a way to promoting democratic society.

For overseas Chinese, art making is: 1. to experience and grasp the impulse of the living environment and era (for example the trend, ideology, mode and materials). 2. To reveal a unique personal style. 3. To inject a little bit of ‘ambiguous and marginalised’ unique oriental quality. What is ‘ambiguous and marginalised unique oriental quality? It is about the un-disposable oriental sentiment that reveals a sense of the inadvertent in Zen’s manner. Dr Choong’s works handle successfully the ideas, modes, mediums and materials that he wishes to express. His works express his personal style fully and reveal a hint of ambiguous and edgy oriental sentiment.

The Hybrid Era of Cross-medium, cross-boundary and cross-culture

The disappearance of mainstream modernists’ theory brought comprehensive liberation to art, what followed was the interpretation of theory in art and tremendous changes in medium and method - various ‘isms’ including structuralism, deconstructionism, feminism, postmodernism, post-colonialism and various complementary mediums including photography, video, digital, installation and body arts. The multivariate and openness era not only represent the liberation of Western art, its aftermath also touched non-Western art and helped to bring them into international stage. Today, non-Western arts are able to use non-Western medium and genre for contemporary art making, and any modes, mediums and cultural works can never be restricted by ‘contemporarism’. The thorough liberation of art enabled non-Western arts to progress in the same pace as Western art but in different directions and uniqueness.

The monopoly of Western modernism has now ended and art of the ‘post-historical era’ no longer has to follow the “evolution of form” and “pure medium”. Art no longer has to be pure painting or sculpture and the subject matter no longer has to be art itself. Artists can use and mix any materials in their works to express any theme. Non-Western art has since retrieved its autonomy and no longer belongs to the ‘art colonial’ of the West. For the art of the overseas Chinese descendants, it is in a good position to melt the traditional and contemporary, the East and West into a pot. Although some of the styles originated from Europe and America or China, there are in shifting changes. This is an era of complex mix and confusion and the art of overseas Chinese present a multivariate phenomenon to mark the era it belonged.

Multivariate phenomenon not only can prove the era where overseas Chinese descendants belonged, it also reflects the “post-historical era” of Western and Non-Western art. “Post-historical era” became the medium between Western and non-Western art where it moved into a vital period of international art’s exchange nowadays. It enabled a hybrid model of cross-medium, cross-boundary and cross-culture to appear in new generation of contemporary art.

Viewing the works produced by Dr Choong in the past 57 years, one can see that he has always insisted on concept, innovations, endless explore, pursuing change and avoiding being stagnant in certain frame. His retrospective exhibition at the National Visual Arts Gallery (2014) will be presenting some 268 works from 15 series including those from The Festival series, The Dragon Tradition Series and The Kungfu Series.

The Cross-cultural Festival Series (1977 - 1998)

“The spirit of sharing festive joy, mutual respect and goodwill is in the heart of every Malaysian. The configuration of forms for various cakes of the festive seasons, offerings, craft elements and artefacts is intended to convey the spirit of sharing traditional values and goodwill”.

The Festival Series was produced between 1977 and 1998. He used the oriental concept of space and Asian’s value to explore new technique in art making. It remains one of the most important and meaningful series of works produced by Dr Choong. He used handmade paper, wool string, hemp, press, spray, etcetra to create a unique mixture of two-dimensional and relief images. The structure, surface texture and rhythm formed an unusual and unique painting structure. Dr Choong’s configurations from this series are so outstanding and unique as figurative images are found in abstract configuration and yet the assembly of real objects is based on the concept of abstraction.

Dr Choong incorporated the notion of unique Asian and Malaysian culture, traditional value, and the spirit of mutual respect and goodwill into the work. It was a great challenge to express such content and after further exploration he decided to use festival as a theme. As Malaysia is a multi-racial society, festival is a theme that fits well into expressing the notion of mutual respect and living in harmony among races. In Malaysia, people of different races visit one another and celebrate festivals together. Therefore, Dr Choong chose and incorporated into his compositions the forms of various traditional cakes of festivals, pastries, dumplings and their wrappings that use materials such as bamboo and coconut leaves. He casts them using paper pulp or use silkscreen to print the images on handmade paper, and ties them up on the surface of his canvases or large sheet of handmade paper using wools and hemp to create paintings that incorporated three-dimensional relief elements. The series symbolizes festive celebration and reveal the rural mood and cultural characteristic of native soil. It is an unprecedented and unique attempt that embraces a strong Asian characteristic. “The Festival Mood 85-4” collected by the Fukuoka Asian Arts Museum is the iconic piece of the series.

The Cross Era Dragon Tradition Series (2000 - present)

“The Dragon Tradition Series express the dragon tradition and dragon spirit that trans-regional, cross-era and manifests the dynamic force of the Chinese. He uses printed characters from book of Chinese almanac, texts from the Yijing (I- Ching ) and re-configures the shape of the dragon, and applies vibrant colours and lively brush strokes to form compositions that express the spirit of dragon and certain symbolic meanings associated with the dragon”.

The year of 2000 was the beginning of a new millennium and it was also the Year Of The Dragon in lunar calendar. Dragon is the mascot for the Chinese that represents grandness, progress, striving for success and improvement. Dr Choong used the dragon as the theme to start the series. The configuration of the Dragon Series was inspired by the traditional Chinese’s folk paper-cutting or Malaysian wood carving dragon. Dr Choong hand painted with acrylic colours as well as silkscreened the canvas with vibrant colour with gradations to express his idea. He also used the Chinese traditional almanac texts and the printed texts found in the book of Yijing (I-Ching), together with the random Chinese calligraphy stroke to form interlaced background. The configuration of the dragon was inspired by traditional paper-cutting technique but the forms were re-treated and re-shaped in order to make them livelier.

The concept of the work is to combine dragon design with the printed texts of ‘kaishu’ style found in ancient prints to reflect the anticipation and expectation of the people on the new millennium. It reflects how the overseas Chinese descendents living in the modern world adopt the traditional custom and culture. It also expresses how they wish to preserve and manifest their own culture. The series is unique, using modern method to express traditional spirit and connotation. In summary, the series express the notion that the spirit and tradition of the dragon has long been existing across regions and through eras. The Layers of Dragon tradition 1 in the collection of Guangdong Museum of Art, China is the masterpiece of the series.

Cross region’s Gongfu Series (2005 - present)

“The Gongfu Series expresses the Shaolin and Taijiqigong exercises of different schools and traditions. Chinese Kungfu is about circulation of ‘qi’ or breath and the interaction of body and mind in harmony. It is about revitalizing the body and mind and helps to maintaining healthy condition”.

Dr Choong utilised various Shaolin and Taiji-Qigong actions and postures as well as added spontaneous calligraphy and printed texts into the work to suggest profound cultural symbolism and meanings. He transformed the same breathing actions and postures into visual language to allow the techniques of Shaolin and Taiji kungfu to reveal on two-dimensional surface in order to express the Eastern thought and spirit.

In recent years, Dr Choong’s canvases depict various Shaolin and Taiji-Qigong actions and postures to express the vast vitality and natural harmony of our body. He gathered and froze the various breathing actions and postures on his canvases by ways of painting and printing to symbolize the rhythmic and harmony breathing, vitality and energy in our body during practice. This is the reflection of his own experience in Taiji kungfu practice which has helped him to stay fit in recent years.

Dr Choong started the series after he had his colorectal cancer operation in 2005. He began to practice Chinese breathing exercise and used it as a complementary therapy. He learned Taiji later to help keep fit. As a result he began to use various gestures of Taiji as the subject for his work to express his personal experience. His intention was to share with the viewers his experience of practising Chinese traditional martial arts and hopes that the martial arts form could be popularised in the multi-racial society of Malaysia as well as to the world.

In reality, practising the Shaolin Gongfu and Taichi-Qigong exercise is for fitness and self-cultivation. It is an important activity that should not be lacking in our everyday life. More and more people outside China are also practising Kungfu for the same reasons. In The Kungfu Series, figures, traditional images, printed texts and calligraphy interact and compliment one another. It is the unique style of expression of Dr Choong.

In Dr Choong’s more recent series of works, one can find that he is an important artist in promoting cross culture, reflecting regional characteristics, and sustaining the spirit of the tradition.

Dr Pedro Tseng, PhD
Guest Writer
Dr Pedro Tseng is an experienced art critic who graduated from the National Taiwan Normal University with a doctorate in art review. He is now the fellow for Taiwan Academy of Fine Arts and has published more than 30 books including “Key Discussion on Western Aesthetic: from Renaissance to Postmodernism”, “Zen and Modern Art”.

(Original printed in "CHOONG KAM KOW RETROSPECTIVE - Cross Culture • Trans Era",

 National Visual Arts Gallery, Malaysia 2014)

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drchoong kam kow
Dr. Choong Kam Kow is a well known
senior contemporary artist,
a leading art & design educationist and
an independent curator in Malaysia