heading the enigma of change

 
The main constant and signifier in the multi-faceted art of Dr Choong Kam Kow is Change - one wrought from the anvils of Chinese civilizational thoughts forged in the tomes of the I-Ching (Book of Change) and the T’ung Shu Chinese almanac, apart from the peripheral esoteric science such as Taiji/Qi Gong, Feng-Shui and acupuncture.

Later on in his life, these elements assume greater meaning and relevance, for example when he was diagnosed with colon cancer and was operated on in mid-2005, when he took up Taiji as a form of therapy, rejuvenation and also an art entity.

They form part of the philosophical bedrock of his diverse art practices of paintings, prints (mostly silkscreen and embossing), assemblages and sculptures. His range of influences and explorations extend beyond the Malaysian natural and multicultural mileau to a wider Asian outreach, especially with his uninterrupted participation in the Asian International Art Exhibition (AIAE) since 1988.

Central to the local narrative is the recourse to indigenous roots, in recognizing the rich craft heritage of Asia as an integral part of the whole art kaboodle.

His accomplishments are also felt in art academia and activism with as much significance and impact. Dr Choong is also an academician-administrator par excellence, with some 20 years at the Mara Institute of Technology (ITM), now Universiti ITM (UiTM); and then the La SalleSIA College of the Arts in Singapore (La Salle-SIA). He also headed the Art Department of the United Nations International School in New York, apart from a short stint at the Inti College in Kuala Lumpur.

He re-established the Malaysian Institute of Art (MIA) as a fount of art-learning at a time of dramatic changes in global politics and commerce of art education.

In a span of 57 years of serious art-making, teaching and administrating, Dr Choong has produced thoughtprovoking works that strongly record and comment on the physical-environmental, social and spiritual space, contemplative (reminiscent and intuitive), emotive (instinctive and expressive) and detached (intellectual and methodical). The works tell about the struggles of the inner self and impinge on the cultural traditions and an ecological heritage under siege by the tsunami of globalisation.

His works encompass a gamut of materials - the silkscreen printed (textual), painterly (gestural), tactile (use of modelling paste cum acrylic in his New York Series), constructive (shaped canvas, boxy SEA-Thru panels), mock-imitative (paper-pulp and handmade paper concoctions like for the Festival Series and Trunkscapes Series with the ling-zhi appendages), swimmingly sinuous (sprayed-on gradations of colours and verisimilitude Rockscapes Series), and the ‘graffiti’ of collage, with mockstitching or weaving.

His works reveal a totality in concept, treatment and execution in adventuring terrain - beyond canvas shapes and surfaces; beyond the seen, unseen and the hidden; and subtly manifesting the Soul and Form. His dexterity in handling and combining the unconventional and normal media, often results in subtle portents of the self, identity, culture, technology, the environment as an upshot of universal truths lodged in the thoroughfare of life.

His consummation as artist, educationist-administrator and activist in the eternal quest of truths makes him the Compleat One, the Leonardo Man (the Vitruvian Man)!

The Vitruvian Man has come to symbolize the perfection status of Man at the cosmografia del minor mondo (cosmography of the microcosm, Vitruvius, c. 80-70BCc.15BC, Book III, De Architectura), and the epitome of proportion (‘Canon of Proportions’) as depicted in Italian Renaissance artist-scientist Leonardo da Vinci’s (1452 - 1519) drawing of a man in double superimposed positions with his outstretched arms and legs touching both the inscribed circle and square).

Dr Choong likes to work in series of differing subjects but with the same techniques adapted, enhanced, bolstered, refined or totally changed.

Among his early works was the Kinta (Valley) Series. The Kinta (Valley) Series from between 1961 - 65, which is about a re-romancing with the local landscapes, primarily in Ipoh, his hometown built on the tin-mining boom and made the capital of Perak, replacing Taiping in 1937 - three years after his birth to a farmer.

This was when he was exploring, experimenting and searching. He was to revisit the tin lodes and blood-red skeins of the exposed earth strata and the majesty of the Kledang mountain range when he felt nostalgic during his stint at the La Salle-SIA.

The nexus between Chinese art philosophy and Western artistic imperatives dictated his immediate Taiwan tutelage days. It included copious watercolours cum ink of his Formosa Series of still-life, urban street scenes and landscapes done all over Taiwan. The Taiwan studies, however gelled, with the Nanyang Style (Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts or NAFA) in subject matter and teaching philosophy, so Dr Choong was also influenced by Cheong Soo-Pieng (1917 - 1983) and Chen Wen-Hsi (1906 - 1991).

His first time in New York City (NYC) from between 1965 - 1968 proved to be a culture shock. From a more sedate and conventional art-making outlook, he found himself thrown into the turmoil of the abrasive, disjunctive ‘-isms’ of Modern Art - Abstract Expressionism, Pop Art, Minimalism, Hard-Edge, Conceptual Art and PhotoRealism. It resulted in his newly orientated New York Series and his Shaped Canvas Series (1969 - 72) influenced by Frank Stella (born 1936).

He was to return to the Big Apple in 1980 - 81, when he updated on the trends. While his previous New York experience was pockmarked by the Vietnam War, his second trip to New York saw Ronald Reagan being made the president of the United States in 1980, marking the end of détente and an escalation in Cold War tensions and a hawkish military build-up.

In between NYC 1 and NYC 2, Dr Choong created his sculptural SEA-Thru Series (1971 - 75), based on the I-Ching’s Yin-Yang code such as positive/negative, and full/emptiness. It comprises panels in relief with square openings that allow for reflected and refracted colours and in one, even a reflected self-image. This series is updated recently using acrylic sheets and more rainbow colours.

The years 1974 to 1976 proved a time of introspection brought about by the Akar-Akar Seni Bumi (‘Back to Roots’) agenda spearheaded by ITM as a result of the National Cultural Congress in 1971.

In the late 1969’s, Dr Choong, together with the Neo- Constructivists of the then New Scene like Tang Tuck Kang (1934 - 2002), espoused an art that is clinically analytical, non-emotional, non-gestural and even blandly nonsymbolic. Back from New York only after the May 13, 1969 racial riots, Dr Choong missed the New Scene banner exhibition held earlier. But he got together with the New Scene stalwarts in the exhibition called Experiment ’70 at Dawn Zain/Chen Voon Fee’s Galeri 11 in Jalan Pinang, Kuala Lumpur. The participants included Redza Piyadasa (1939 - 2007), Tang Tuck Kan, Tan Teong Kooi and Tan Teong Eng.

The New Scene/Experiment ’70 bloc was partly a reaction against the GRUP ‘Magnificent 7’ exhibition of Abstract Expressionists comprising Datuk Ibrahim Hussein, Datuk Syed Ahmad Jamal, Cheong Lai-Tong, Latiff Mohidin, Dr Jolly Koh, Yeoh Jin Leng and Anthony Lau.

It was a period of stasis and an intellectual crossroads that proved pivotal to his Festival Series (1977 - 98) -an Eastern Pop Art using paper-cast, handmade paper and yarns in shaping mock local savouries of the Malays and Chinese, and mounted on a painting.

The Festival Series is a ground-breaking art-construct combining painting, printmaking (embossed patterns/ silkscreen) and sculptures (ornamentative and iconic kuih paper-pulp studs) while reinforcing the Asian Aesthetics of local craft traditions. The festive celebrations symbolised inter-racial conviviality then, but the changing religious strictures and increasingly raucous race-based politics of the New Century have led to an unmitigated polarization.

To this end, the series can be taken as a gentle reminder about the good oie’ days of inter-racial grassroots harmony.

His SEA-Thru hollow-box phalanxes with cut openings (1971 - 75) updated ones in 2014 which play on reflection and shadows) are reminiscent of the er-hu (Chinese two-stringed bow violin) and the Malay mancala pastime, congkak (meaning ‘mental calculation’). Note also the brilliant play of qi (energy flow) with a polished or paintedover (later works have more Popcolours) surface that resembles either a mountain or wave.

It strikes a balance between the spiritual and the constructed, with the breath of life expurgating from the dark interiors, and rushing in again as if for refreshing succour. On hindsight, this “breath flow” presages the major Qi Gong therapy paintings some 43 years later.

A landmark expedition of artists, scientists, botanists, naturalists, researchers to the National Park enclave of Endau-Rompin in 1985 was the trajectory of a series that goes beyond the mimesis of Nature - Rhythm of Growth (Trunkscapes), Rockscapes and Earthscapes.

The works highlight the rich natural resources and tells about conservation, renewal and the cycle of birth and decay (ageing) apart from inter-dependence for survival, like the ling-zhi (Ganoderma) mushroom sprouting from dead tree trunks. In this repertoire are the mock and exaggerated ling-zhi replicas, and the patterns, shapes and colours of rocky outcrops and cliffs, river boulders and lodestones, and cavernous limestone tapestries.

The advent of the 3rd Millennium in 2000 which coincided with the Chinese Lunar Year of the Dragon inspired Dr Choong to come up with the Dragon Series - for its mythical and symbolic qualities, its power and shape, and as a civilizational essence of identity.

On his recuperation from his colon operation, he took up the life-energy healing ritual of Qi Gong and Taiji. It marked his return to Figuratives against the silkscreened/paintedover textual tapestries of Qi Gong and Taiji martial arts manual and the T’ung Shu.

As an academician, Dr Choong has taught generations of art students from primary schools to tertiary levels. As activist, he has been a curator, writer, convener/president of the Malaysian component of the AIAE, and was also prominent in other artists’ organisations, besides beinga former member of the National Art Gallery’s (NAG) Board of Trustees.

Although exposed mainly to Modernist aesthetics, Dr Choong’s art neatly sidesteps and defies the ‘–isms’ with introspective stirring of cultural conceit and infusion of indigenous craft traditions. In a brace of art materials and techniques, he gently tweaks the forms with a masterful use of materials and astute manipulation of colours to comment about life, the process of change with an epitome of beauty, proportions, tones, textures, lines and fissures, shapes and the shaped.

Symbolisms And Synthesis

Dr Choong’s Festival, Dragon and GongFu series cover a broad spectrum of investigations into the whole gamut of meaning, myths, folklore, form, substance, thoughts, expression, culture, rituals and romance.

His art reflects his being Chinese at the core of the larger Malaysian matrix and even a Nusantara ambient, with the outreach across the Malay domain in the Festival Series (Malay potpourri of kuih) and Dragon Series (the mythical ‘Loch Ness-type’ dragon lodged in Tasik Chini). The Malay crafts repertoire includes the keris, tikar and kerawang. Nusantara symbols also abound, like the bangau (prow of boats), which looks like the head of a bird, and that of the fish - a mark of fertility and hence continuity.

All these, like his Qi Gong works, form timely reminders of the Man-Nature symbiosis.

This stress on cultural identity can also be seen as a stonewalling act against globalization, which has a tendency of ‘homogenising’ and eschewing more traditional ethnic cultures, or reducing them to decorative tokens.

It’s interesting to note that the diaspora of the Huayi, the Chinese ‘Descendants of the Dragons,’ takes on different spirit, shapes and forms in the newly adopted countries of the successive generations of emigres. The Chinese, evolving over hundreds of years, were conditioned by the tropical weather, historical and socio-political perspectives and characteristics and even the inherent dialectical mainsprings: The assimilation, adaptation and interaction.

So you get differing modern anthropological specimens from a core DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) genus of the Chinese, say from Cuba, Argentina, Indonesia, Philippines, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Brazil, Australia/New Zealand, Canada, the United States, Malaysia/ Singapore, Malaysia and Singapore.

“He (Dr Choong) injected into every artistic presentation of symbol his philosophic thinking of metaphoric content of cultural symbol which is the synthesized realization of his sensuality, sensitivity, thought, imagination and distinctive artistic quality”, wrote Dr Luo Yiping (Associate Professor, Zhongshang University, China); “The Art of Choong Kam Kow - Manifestation of Culture and Nature” (exhibition catalogue, Guangdong Museum of Art, China). 2004.

The inevitability of Change whether from human design or externally imposed forces is intrinsic to the human search and struggles, circumscribed by the twin tomes of divination - the T’ung Shu (Book of Myriad Things) and the I-Ching, both operating much like a moral compass.

The I-Ching (Yijing), assembled in 11th century BCE by King Wen (founder of the Chou dynasty), is also a Da Vinci code of morality and cultural norms, using the Bagua (‘Eight Trigrams’), a form of representation in Taoist cosmology of broken and/or unbroken lines in three tiers. The trigrams are listed as Heaven/ Sky, Lake/ Marsh, Fire, Lightning, Wind, Water, Mountain and Earth.

The play of negative-positive (Yin-Yang) space and elements also pervades Dr Choong’s works. Yang stands for masculine, active, creative, hard, bright and strong; while Yin is the epitome of the feminine, passive, destructive, soft, dark and yielding.

The I-Ching “regards both past and present as dynamic, flowing never the same from one moment to the other… All phenomena are the result of the interaction between the positive, creative Yang forces, and negative, passive, Yin forces. Yang is represented by the unbroken lines and the Yin by the broken lines which go to make up each hexagram… the 64 hexagram can be said to symbolize all the stages of change and flux operating in the universe”. (The Book of Change, by Neil Powell, MacDonald & Co under Black Cat imprint, 1988).

The T’ung Shue edict, with a history of nearly 2,500 years covering divination, physiognomy, Feng Shui, numerology, astronomy, is consulted for the auspicious dates and times for weddings, house-warming, business,construction/ renovations, but it is also variable and susceptible to change.

A third crucial element starting from Dr Choong’s Kungfu Series is the Nature-harnessing breath-and-motion practice of Qi Gong for health, longevity and enlightenment involving medication (self-healing), meditation (relaxation), and defensive/offensive combat. More than just an energy-healing discipline, it draws its philosophical basis from Daoism, Confucianism and Buddhism.

Puff the Magic Dragon

Dragon, a sacred and mythical ‘Yang’ creature, embodies wisdom, divine power, prosperity, longevity and revered scholarship. The dragon motif either coiled or flying is manifested or crafted in various forms or objects, and is believed to bestow abundance, especially with the auspicious double-mirror imprint of two identical dragons juxtaposed facing each other.

A non-sapient being, the dragon is also a barometer of life as in the 12-year Chinese lunar zodiac cycle (Shengxiao), starting with the Rat, and followed by the Ox, Tiger, Rabbit, Dragon, Snake, Horse, Sheep, Monkey, Rooster, Dog and Pig.

Dr Choong was registered as having been born in 1934, the Year of the Dog but as he was born on February 12, which was two days before the Lunar Year of the Dog, that would make him a tail-end Rooster.

But he had confided that when it came to registering his birth a few years later, his illiterate farmer-father had wrongly registered his birth year as 1934, when he was actually born in 1935, the Year of the Wood Pig. So it would seem that Dr Choong had the rare distinction of straddling three designated zodiac lunar animals!

The dragon is believed to control the sun, wind, rain and water. Assome 60 per cent of the human body is made up of fluids, the dragon boasts of bragging rights over Man. Its celestial physical attributes comprise nine entities-head (camel), neck (snake), ears (cow), eyes (demon/shrimp), horn (stag), belly (clam), claws (eagle/ phoenix), soles of feet (tiger), and scales (koi fish). Sometimes, it is used as a heavenly steed for Daoist deities such as the Guan Yin (Avalokitesvara) boddhisatva. Riding the dragon is also a sign of overcoming insurmountable obstacles.

In the Malay world, references to the dragon can be gleaned from the congkak, sometimes shaped in teakwood in the dragon’s form. Also, the mythical dragon creature said to lurk in Tasik Chini.

In his Dragon Series which started in 2000, he harnesses both the symbolic spirit and aesthetic forms-the glint and pattern of the scale, the sinuous swish of the fiery-outlined tail, and a fierce head with flaring tendrils like a plumage, qualities used to dramatic effect for a regal stamp and an overall auspicious aura. When enclosed within a circular penumbra, the majestic dragon emblem is sheer ornamentation viagra.

The dragon head is also depicted stumpy or ‘truncated’ like from animated dance routines and acrobatic feats with the head synchronizing well with the rest of the body, and with sinuous wriggles and powerful leaps.

The dragon is known for its extraordinary powers as a talisman for general protection and for succour. It can help achieve an equilibrium with the outside forces of nature, especially one that has water. It can also wreak unspeakable havoc.

The Golden Dragon Year 2000 isalso the first year of the 21st Century and the 3rd Millennium. The ‘dragon’ slipped by again in the year 2012 (Water Dragon, January 23, 2012-February 9, 2013).

Dr Choong was also inspired by dragon-dance demonstrations and competitions among the world’s leading troupes in Genting Highlands. Besides studies and his acrylic paintings, he also did watercolours on larger format moistured-paper.

He exploited the phalanx of repetitive text, mostly from random pages of the T’ung Shu, with a play of light in luminous yellow-golden sheen. The text is at first more frittered up like an explosion of confetti, and later formed into grids or ‘floating’ with certain sections obfuscated.

Similarly, his orchestration of text, stencilled monotonously and randomly in a horizontal and vertical format as a mesmeric pattern, to suggest a link to the past or some kind of hidden instructional tomes. Some of the text are the Japanese kanji, actually the Kartakana, which is derived from China. Dr Choong himself is fluent in three languages - Mandarin, English and Bahasa Malaysia.

The T’ung Shu itself marked the invention of block printing in China in the 7th Century CE (Common Era) and is related to literacy and knowledge as a civilizational advance of the human race, as it has the longest continuous printed history of any book in the world, with the earliest extant printed edition dating to 877 (in the archives of the British Museum in London).

There is also his gorgeous blend of colours - chrome and lemon yellow, orange, cadmium, violet, blue and black, with the lustrous textures of a dye-maker’s eye like those in Zhang Yi-Mou/Yang Feng-Liang’s 1990 movie, Ju Dou.

Culture And Identity - The Asian Aesthetics

In his art, Dr Choong seeks to capture the myriad facets of the eyes’ mind through a rich veneer of soothing, dreamlike colours, the disparate shapes and textual stencils echoing the past and forging a tenuous link. All around, there is a semblance of structural order and universal harmony in the East-West fusion, whilst providing insights into meaning and identity, and a shared commonalty.

The quest is one imaginary and illusionist, psychological and physical, wondering and wandering, pathological and purposeful, metaphysical and aesthetic.

The Festival Series (1977 - 1998)

Since 1976-77, Dr Choong has infused silkscreen techniques into his works, with obvious more sophisticated layerings, optical illusions and pigment manipulation in later works. The overlaps of the printed matter that act as a backdrop suggest projections of timelines like historical truths unfolding before one’s eyes.

His Festival Series, using paper-pulp as mock replicas with colours absorbed into the newsprint/tissue bodymass, piques notions of Malay and Chinese cakes as a cultural construct, and a biological neutrality of the taste-buds. It revived the practice of paper-pulp art when Robert Rauschenberg (1925 - 2008) and Kenneth Noland (19242010) made it popular in the 1960’s, although this had been used centuries earlier by the Chinese, Japanese and the Koreans.

By revoking to the crafts traditions, Dr Choong is embracing, re-instating and reclaiming that integral, intrinsic quality of Asian-ness. Started in 1977, the Festival Series was a paradigm shift, rebuffing the longheld Western-centric notion of crafts being relegated to something low-brow in the hierarchy of Fine Art.

It’s noteworthy that Dr Choong had latched on to this, way before such ‘Stand-Up-Asia/Back-to-Roots’ syndrome as in the 2nd Asean Workshop, Symposium and Exhibition on Aesthetics in Manila, the Philippines, from October 8-21, 1993.

Even as early as in the Bauhaus Manifesto (April 1919), Walter Gropius (1883-1969)had written: “There is no essential difference between the artist and the artisan. The artist is an exalted artisan”.

Dr Choong reiterated that the seriesreflects the sociocultural-aesthetic values incorporating an Eastern concept of space. “The Eastern Aesthetics was well-enhanced due the format and material chosen: Handmade paper, twines, yarns were used to create bas reliefs, and spray gun technique (and air-brush) was used to create special effects”.

These are the true ‘monuments’ of intangible heritage to multi-culturalism and multi-racialism - the real mood, substance and spirit of Malaysia.

Food, like linguistics, is a fount of identity with its own ecosystem, politics and power, and has even been recognised as such by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (Unesco). Notable exotic Malaysian food includes nasi kandar, nasi lemak, yong tau foo, char koayteow, bah kutteh (pork ribs soup), laksa, chee cheong fun, roti canai and teh tarik.

Dr Choong’s Festival Series celebrates the senses of sight, ‘taste’ and ‘smell’ through a repertoire of Malaysian pastries - one created in mock shapes using paperpulp or clay and the other, later, rendered in flatter twodimensionality on painted and printed surfaces.

The paper-pulp process is laborious and time-consuming where the tissues or newsprints are soaked in water and colours, moulded and taken out to dry in the sun, and then added with preservatives and other chemicals, moulded again and given an acrylic varnish and then again spraypainted or air-brushed.

The way the kuih is presented or wrapped, for the added flavour from say the pandan (screwpine)-leaf wrapper or the way it is tied with twines in a V-shaped bind or a crossstitch or the ‘tikar’ weft onto a painted canvas, is telling on the practical home crafts. The cake in food-wrappings and moulded into different shapes include angkoo, bakchang or zhong, pulut panggang, kuih lapis and the four-angled ketupat. The angkoo are tortoise-shell (evoking the diagram of the ‘God of Creativity’ Fu Xi, who also invented the mathematical ‘Magic Square’) embossed oval or round cakes with soft sticky skin and bean-paste ‘fillings’ and which are popular during birthdays or a baby’s ‘first moon’.

The bakchang dumplings in tetrahydral shape are made of sticky gelatinous rice wrapped in bamboo or mengkuang (pandanus) leaves. The fillings include barbequed pork, salted pork fat, Chinese black mushrooms, salted duck egg, chicken, mung bean, red-bean paste and cooked peanut. It is celebrated on the 5th day of Chinese 5th lunar moon in memory of the legend of the patriot-poet Qu Yuan’s death protest against rampant corruption.

For the replica of the pulut panggang which is made of black gelatinous rice, it is burnt over the candle for more realistic smoky effect, while the four-angled ketupat,rice cooked in woven palm-leaf or coconut-leaf pouch, is a staple during Hari Raya and served with the satay barbecued and skewered spice meat. The kuih lapis is a rich layer or ladder cake.

Dr Choong once said: “The challenge in creative art for an artist is to create something reflecting distinctively his own style from nothing”.

More than a quest of a creativity Holy Grail, he has combined tradition, heritage and cultural values into his well structured and sophisticatedly layered works of subtle evocative colours. They are venerations of beauty with a self-healing prowess, yet truly reflect a process of struggle and an intimation of self that lies at the heart of his art.

In this period, he won the Minor Prize in the Painting and Graphic Art Open at the NAG in 1977.

The Good Earth (At The Heart of Nature)

In the Endau-Rompin exhibition at the NAG which followed the landmark 1985 expedition, Dr Choong unleashed his twin series of Trunkscapesor Rhythm of Growth (1985 - 1992) and Rockscapes (1985 - 1991). Straddling Johor and Pahang, the gazetted national park has a geological history of some 248 million years with plant fossils dating back to 140 million years.

The works explore the relationship between Man and Nature, and Man and the Universe. The core values are reflected in Pearl S. Buck’s China-based novel, The Good Earth, which emphasises on the cyclical nature of the earth. “Roots, if they are to bear fruits, must be kept well in the soil of the land”.

More than mimesis of ‘Art Imitating Nature,’ and a facile physicality, Trunkscapes showing slivers of mock lingzhi (Ganoderma) sprouting on dead tree trunks reveal both an inter-dependence and attachment of succour/nourishing in the balance of Nature, and also as a parasitic survival instinct. Consumption of lingzhi is believed to confer long life. With the lingzhi and trunks ‘bud-grafted’ from its forest environs into a museum-display confines, sequestered and magnified and with great verisimilitude, the sculpt-paintings comment on the rhythm of growth and conservation, and creates a new simulated and restylised reality of truth.

All the works are cleverly sculpted, moulded or cast using paper-pulp with the acrylic colours added either in painted form or embossed/silkscreened, or sprayed on or airbrushed.

Wrote artist-critic Teng Chok Dee: “The Rhythm of Growth Series used mushrooms and fungi as subject matters to show the element of time in growing things as well as the symbiotic relationship between the dead wood and the living mushrooms and fungi”. Writing in The Art of Choong Kam Kow: A Metaphor, Sculptor-Artist-Academician, Singapore, 1991, Brother Joseph McNally dubbed Dr Choong’s Trunkscapes “a resurrection of nature after the death of the tree which had previously been a proud monarch of the forest”.

These manifestations are further inspired by visits to other natural habitats such as Bako Park in Sarawak, Mount Kinabalu in Sabah, Tasik Chini and Pulau Tioman in Pahang, and the Kenyir Dam in Terengganu.

Although there is a painted version, the Rockscapes Series follows similar methods of paper-pulp and handmade paper to produce slabs that when put together resemble rocky sandstone plateausand ridges, with the colours spray-painted, brushed up and stained to create a faience of the musculature skeins and steles of the rock surfaces.

Earthscapes comprising acrylic on handmade paper is rougher-hewn in textures, darker-coloured with blood-red skeins, a Mindscapes revealing the inner beauty of the “bowels of the earth” and the sheer vitality of the land. It resulted from his nostalgic recollections of open-cast tinmining landscapes during his childhood days in Ipoh when he was working in Singapore, surrounded by a concrete jungle of skyscrapers.

The works are also viewed in the context of Chinese art in its appreciation of space and the qi (congenital temperament) elixir of the Shan-Shui (‘Mountain’ and ‘Water’) elements.

One series often overlooked is his Lakescape Series (1987), again paper-pulp and acrylic, with coloured ball studs in a lotus-shaped receptacle resembling a congkak - inspired by his trip to Tasik Chini in Pahang, a Unesco Biosphere Reserve and reputed to be the second largest fresh-water lake in the country.

In this period, he won 2nd Prize (Landscape) in the Permodalan Nasional Bhd Art Competition in 1985 and 3rd Prize in the Association of Bank Mural Art Competition in 1988.

Gong Fu and All The Right Moves

This Gong Fu Series starting in 2005 is inspired by Dr Choong taking up Qi Gong after recovering from a colon cancer operation in mid-2005 as well as a visit to the famed Shaolin Monastry in Zhengzhou (Henan province), China (another Unesco Heritage Site), in 2003. There, he watched in awe the pugilistic monks with shaven heads or crew-cut pate demonstrating the combative moves.

Dr Choong himself practices Taiji or Qi Gong daily for internal curative care and also extrapolating his breathing techniques and manoeuvres onto canvas, achieving self-actualising as he assumes the gong-fupersona depicted on canvas.

It’s like practising proxy Tai-ji, with the breathing control and exercises of the depicted figure or figures oozing from every fibre of the canvas.

In a pantomime of gestures, hand movements slice through the wind like a sharp scimitar, to harness the forces of Nature and create a certain equilibrium of Oneness. Thisself cultivation is something tactical and purportedly resolves various obstacles of living.

In his art, the kungfu (wushu) paintings are a parallel ritual of self-effacement, self-renewal and self-healing. The physical manoeuvres and the breathing control in cultivating mind, character and health are a kind of therapy, in assisting recovery.

His artistic expressions also act as a catharsis, where he tames and purges the internal demons of want and surfeit, and where he detoxifies the imagined detritus accumulated over the years of bad practices.

All these are manifested in his art which are often meticulously structured, brilliantly textured with an obvious tactile quality, while playing on soothing even contemplative colour tones and gradations through the use of the brush bristles, air-brush or silkscreened patterns.

His work incorporates silkscreen prints of texts and symbolic decals, Chinese art brushstrokes, and in recent years, depictions of realistic human figures and direct calligraphic strokes juxtaposed against the printed.

In some works, the rectangle/square within the same geometric formats of joss-paper (gold paper or ‘spirit’ money) exudes an illusion of dimensionality and depth. He also plays on illusionary light, altering emotional states of excitement and setting the mood and temper.

Dr Choong finds the appellation, Jen (or Ren) - a Chinese word for an all-embracing, all knowing ‘tolerance’ both within and without - a core guiding principle for the practice. The word, Jen, is written in graffiti fashion and in larger size, indicating the live-and-let-live compromise as well as an inner struggle over a restless and more mercurial spirit within. Tolerance is all about ‘control’ and maturity.

‘Jen’ is like a nirwana of ultimate discipline.

The internal force and rhythmic movements come with the stances, sometimes solid and awkward, either with both feet firmly planted on the ground or one leg raised with bent-knee poised to strike, and some with a shifting of the weight to one foot to distribute the force to it. The hand gestures with the fists clenched like an iron ball are shown ‘snatching’ at the wind.

Graceful the gestures may be, but they can harden and turn deadly in retaliation for a lethal blow.

The depiction of the robes on canvas shows them flowing down naturallyand creased, accentuated by the movements, with the waistbands fluttering like a ponytail as the exponent moves his body.

The single gong-fu exponent is coiled in a defensive mode in order to attack, and when there are two figures, they are shown in tandem in a twin routine or pitted against each other.

One work measuring 122 cm x 152 cm shows five figuresbunched together in elegant poses, like in a balletic choreography. This is Dr Choong’s Les Demoiselle d’ Avignon.

In one work, he veers into the swashbuckling Japanese kendo sword-fighting with the kendokas wearing helmets with grille masks and throat flaps for protection and for a certain anonymity. This piece was done for his solo at the Fukuoka Asian Art Museum in Japan in 2006.

A work with the ‘Asian Blue Sky’ theme on environmental ecocide shown at the AIAE held in Mongolia in 2010, takes on a dramatic turn with the gong-fu exponent practising in the open wearing a surgical mask as smoke spews prodigiously from the furnaces of factories in the distance.

His Taiji unison of mind and body also recalls the sculpture series with the same name by the great Taiwan sculptor Ju Ming (born 1938).

To Dr Choong, the Qi Gong Series marked a return to painting figures since his student days at Pratt and less so, his Taiwan sojourn.

In the figure-ground perspective, the background is sometimes ambiguous with the figures floating in thin air, while in others the effect of a receding ground is achieved by having bigger elements dissipate into smaller ones or from brighter hues to darker shades.

Dr Choong has also allowed for gestural marks, with hand-written calligraphy in larger sizes over silkscreened text ‘mural’, to add to the ambiguity and to break the printed-text monotony.The textual background also acts like a protective armour, the way the wi xi (Tibetan beads) function.

His Gong-Fu Series is reminiscent of his former student Amron Omar’s Silat Series, and as Choong reveals, it was he who broached the idea to Amron when he was teaching at the then ITM.

NEW YORK, NEW YORK

A pang of nostalgia when studying at the Pratt Institute in New York inspired by the golden hues of the setting sun in Greenwich Cove in Connecticut led to Sunset (oil on canvas, 130cm x 127cm), the first of his New York series done in 1966. The omnipresent sun reminded him of home, thus the juxtaposing of two worlds, the top sun bigger than its purported reflection below.

The crimson hues of the sun are set against aggressive bold strokes signifying the land mass in the tripartite cosmology of Sky, Earth and Water. The hard-edge shapes and textural nuances mark the East-West dichotomy as well as the perennial tensions between Man, as symbolised by the New York skyscrapers, and Nature.

The painting found its way back to Malaysian shores after 45 years for the Henry Butcher November 2013 art auction, but it was bought-in. The work was first shown in his solo exhibition at the New Masters Gallery at 19 East 57 th Street on May 4, 1968 - his second solo there.

The works done between 1965 - 67 are imbued with Oriental textures and brushstrokes and exude a heavy-duty tactility due to his use of modelling paste, inviting comparisons with Han Hoffman (1880 - 1966) and Clyfford Still (1904 - 1980). Then, he had signed his works as ‘Kamkchoong’ (note: the last name, ‘Kow,’ is represented only by a ‘k’). previously ‘Choong kam kow.’

The exhibition received glowing tributes from then Pratt Institute Graduate School director Associate Professor (Painter) Dr Ralph L. Wickiser (1910 - 1998) and Pratt Institute dean of art school Albert Christ-Janer (1910 - 1973), both art critics and artists themselves. Dr Wickiser praised Dr Choong’s works as “universal in nature’ while Christ-Janner was impressed by Dr Choong’s poetic imagery and technical accomplishments. New York art critic Cindy Nemser described his works as “a fine synthesis of human immediacy and intellectual detachment”.

Apart from Wickiser and Christ-Janer, Dr Choong was also taught by George McNeil (1908 - 1995) who ran the evening programme as well from 1948 - 60; and Walter Rogalski (1923 - 96), the Head of Printmaking.

The United States then was undergoing great social ferment of the Counter-Culture/Flower Generation and protests against the Vietnam War. The swirling trends of Abstract Art… the reactions of Robert Motherwell (1915 - 1991) and Franz Kline (1910 - 1962) to PostImpressionism, Robert Rauschenberg (1925 - 2008) and his Pop assemblages, Hoffmann “with his non-defined areas”, Clyfford “still very flat coming at the end of Abstract Expressionism”, Willem de Kooning (1904 - 1997) and Jackson Pollock (1912 - 1956).

Teng Chok-Dee wrote: “The Series show the application of formal contrasts resulting in visual dynamics. Illusions are concocted and activate the space of the object in the mode of the New York Art School. The colours are pushed or propelled backward or forward. Texture, handling and visual weight are explored deftly”.

In 1967, Dr Choongwon the 1st prize (Drawing) and 2nd Prize (Watercolour) in the Virginia Art Show, and the Consulate Award in the Sumi-E Painting annual show.

Shaped Canvas Series (1969-1972)

PARTLY inspired by Frank Stella, Dr Choong’s version of Shaped Canvas was with assembled Hard-Edge configurations and geometric precision alluding to the I-Jing. The impetus came from notions of technological progress in New York and the economic growth of Malaysia 13 years after Independence.

With a phalanx of integrated square blocks (canvas on board) assembled like a disconnected Rubik Cube for a sense of monumentality, the canvas represents a paradox of colours and shapes, change and evolution. The colours used reflect the Optical play of Victor Vasarely (1906 - 97) and the Minimalism of Joseph Albers (1888 - 1976).

SEA-Thru Series (1971-75)

THE SEA-Thru Series of objects/sculptures are from 1971 and 1975, with recent updated editions. Artist-critic Datuk Syed Ahmad Jamal branded it “a slant on semantics”. Each set of panels in threes, fours or fives is imbued with the conflicting tug of Yin-Yang couched in Zen Buddhism and Taoist philosophy.

With an industrial finish and character, it is a sound board with the perceived vibrations and ventilation from the cut square, playing on the contrast between koan (emptiness, void) and solid matter. Recently, he revisited the series with updated materials using Perspex, plastic and wood and rainbow polka-dot colours, and with a decidedly human touch.

It is presented either hung or spread out on the floor with a walk-around interactive feel.

In his essay, ‘Space Continuum’, Dr Choong wrote: “In my work, the canvas does not act as a ‘window’ which may be ‘looked through’. Rather, it functions as a surface where colours and materials are organised to interact and integrate, thus inviting the viewer to ‘look at’.

‘Picture frontality’ with ‘suspension format’ like the hanging scroll is emphasised. The interplay of solid and void, tactile quality and visual texture, illusional and physical space, real and imaginary forms gives rise to a kind of curiosity which arouses the urge to touch, feel and examine closely’.

In one work based on the Wu-Xing (Five Elements) of Nature - Earth, Metal, Wood, Fire and Water, three bottles are filled with different types of water - spring water, rainwater (polluted water) and well water.

In another work, a peep at the reflector inside the ‘womb’ presents a self-portrait of the artist in a play of perspectival construction. There is also the interactive welcoming appellation, Apa Khabar? With the illusion of volume, the works also bear comparison with Andy Warhol’s Brillo Boxes.

THE ART-DUCATED AND ART-DUCATIONIST

Dr Choong was exposed to the twin pillars of Chinese art traditions and Western aesthetics during his Taiwan studies but it was in New York that he was confronted with the more disruptive forces of Abstract Art.

After his secondary education in 1954, he took a course under the Teacher Training Scheme in order to become a primary-school teacher. He saved up some money to pursue Fine Art as a career and opted for the National Taiwan Normal University, which awarded him a partial scholarship in late 1957. Taiwan had similar language and culture, and it was a cheaper option to Singapore (NAFA or the then oneyear-old Nanyang University) and Europe.

Taiwan was a one-party State-controlled political entity which had imposed martial law (until 1987) and the cross-straits antagonism with mainland China erupted in a second major crisis in 1958, but the intervention of the United States (US president Dwight D. Eisenhower visited Taiwan in 1960) prevented an escalation of hostilities.

His batch included fellow-Malaysians Tan Chiang Kiong (born 1932), Tan Puay Jin (born 1932), KohYeh Chiu, Tan Guan Hin (born 1928), KhorEan Ghee (born 1934, now Singaporean). Tay Mo-Leong (born 1938, now Dato), had graduated from the university’s college in 1960 - a year before the group.

The university’s Art Department, founded in 1947, was reputed for its fine pedigree of teachers, some of whom taught Dr Choong: the ‘Waterfall King’ Huang Jun-Bi (1898 - 1991), Zong Xiao-chen (Calligraphy, Poetry), Ma Pai-Sui (1909-New York, 2003, Watercolour), Berlin-trained Pu XinYu @ Puru (1890 - 1963, taught Philosophy of Art from 1950 to 1963; a cousin of Puyi - the Last Emperor of China), Wang Chuang-wei (1909 - 1998, seal engraver-calligrapher), Japantrained Lin Yu-Shan (1907 - 2004), Chen Huei-Kun, Thailandraised Lin Sheng-Yang (later migrated to Brazil), Yu Chuin Chih (Psychology of Art, later migrated to Hong Kong) and Perak - born Cheng Yue-Po (later migrated to the United States).

Most of the lecturers had fled China together with Generalissimo Chiang Kai-Shek and his Kuomintang forces after the victorious Communists proclaimed the Republic of China on October 1, 1949. Besides, China was in turmoil with the end of the 2nd Sino-Japanese War (1937 - 45), the Great Leap Forward collectivized agricultural communes (1958 - 59), its liberation of Tibet (1950) and its entry into the Korean War on the side of Pyongyang (North Korea 1951 - 53).

Many Malaysians continued going to Taiwan for further studies despite the degrees then not being recognized by the Malaysian Government, and many of them ended up teaching at Chinese independent middle schools on their return.

The latter Taiwan art graduates included Sia Boon Chuan, Lim Peng Fei, Chew Ching Ling (all graduated in 1963), Low Kong Wen (in 1965), Chong Choon Woon (1996) and Cheng Haw Chien (National Chenchi University, 1974).

Dr Choong earned his BA of Fine Arts in 1961 and on his return, taught Art at the Perak Girls High School in Ipoh.

In 1965, he held his first solo exhibition at an association hall in Ipoh. There were no art galleries then, as Malaysia was only eight years old (Singapore was expelled from the federation in 1965).

That year, he won a one-year Fulbright-Hays scholarship under the newly established Malaysian-American Committee on Educational Exchange (MACEE) to study Modern Art in New York. In 1966 - 67, he headed the Art Department of the UN International School in New York. While there, he also enrolled himself into the Pratt Institute, where he obtained his Master’s Degree in 1968.

On his return in 1969, he taught at ITM for the next 20 years, holding positions such as lecturer, Head of Department of Fine Art and when he “retired”, senior lecturer. At ITM, he helped structure the syllabus and develop the credit system.

He said that he never followed trending in art or let his beliefs in personal practice cloud his teaching module.

He took a second bite of the Big Apple, when he was awarded a Fulbright-ACLS Research Fellowship in 198081.

At La Salle-SIA (1989 - 94), he was promoted to Dean a year after joining as senior lecturer. He revamped the school’s Foundation and Fine Art courses and collaborated with Australia’s RMIT to conduct the BA of Fine Art final year course at La Salle-SIA, a “first” in Singapore.

On his return, he had a brief stint at the INTI College in Kuala Lumpur until he joined the MIA as vice-president from 1994 - 1999, and then as president-Chief Executive Officer (CEO) from 2000 until 2009.

As artist and educationist, he is driven by a simple principle. “Whether one is an artist or an educationist, one must achieve excellence. Similarly, the institute one leads must be a centre of excellence”, he says.

At MIA, he set two over-arching goals: Maximise and Economise. He restructured, consolidated and strengthened the syllabus content and courses involving over 300 subjects and eight departments, and increased the intake of non-Chinese academic staff.

He implemented the American Credit System to determine the performances of the students, to help facilitate international recognition and credit transfer.

This proved useful when the Ministry of Education implemented the Private Higher Educational Institutional Act requiring all courses to be approved, monitored, validated and accredited to the National Accreditation Board (LAN), now the Malaysian Qualifications Agency (MQA).

The MIA achieved full accreditation from LAN in 2002 for all its seven courses. Credit transfer or advance placements were established with some 21 foreign universities in Britain, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, the United States, Taiwan, France and China.

His management style was to foster team spirit and unity of purpose. Even in Education, Dr Choong believes in Change. “Education is a changing organic entity. It is not something set and unchanging”, he avers. “Changing times demand changing strategies to meet the changing demands. You must continue to chart new directions”.

For his contributions in Art Education, he was conferred an Honorary Doctorate by the Robert Gordon University, Scotland, in 2006.

THE ART-IVIST

As an activist, Dr Choong fits the role of the 5 Big C’s - Curator, Co-ordinator (Facilitator), Communicator, Critic/Commentator (writer), and Competition juror.

He is the chairman of the Federation of Asian Artists (Malaysian chapter) since he first took part in the AIAE in 1988 when Fukuoka hosted the event. Since then, he has taken part without fail in every edition which is held at selected alternate venues all over the region. Under him, Malaysia thrice hosted to great success the AIAE - the 5th Edition in 1990, the 13th Edition in 1998 and the 24th Edition in 2009 - all at the NAG.

The AIAE networking also led to invitations to private group exhibitions in Ankara (Turkey, 1990), Fukuoka (Japan, 1991) and Bandung (Indonesia, 1991).

He was also active in exhibitions under the umbrella organisations of the Asia-Pacific Confederation of Arts Education (Aspacae) and the American Universities Alumni Malaysia (AUAM). For his contributions, he was conferred the Ahli Mangku Negara (AMN) title by the Yang DiPertuan Agong in 2000. As a member of the NAG’s Board of Trustees from 2004 - 2007, he was in its Acquisition Committee from 2002 - 2006.

His works are in the national collection as well as in outstanding institutions such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York, United States), the Fukuoka Asian Art Museum and the Kyushu Sangyo University Art Museum (both Japan), the Frederikshavn Art Museum (Denmark), Taipei Fine Arts Museum and the Taiwan Museum of Art in Taichung (both Taiwan), the Guangdong Museum of Art (China) and the Singapore Art Museum.

He has guest-curated several exhibitions including the Contemporary Malaysian Art exhibition in China in 1999 (Beijing) and March 2004 (Guangzhou) besides the reversed Contemporary China Ink and Brush exhibition at the NAG in 2004 (January). From 1965 to 2006, he has had 18 solo exhibitions at home and abroad (United States, China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Britian, Japan and Denmark).

EPILOGUE

Guangdong Museum of Art director Wang Huang Sheng opined (‘The Art of Choong Kam Kow - Manifestation of Culture and Nature,’ Guangdong Museum, 2004): “His (Dr Choong’s) art reflects his ceaseless probes into culture and history, theory and practice, humanity and matters techniques and media and the mastery power of these aspects. He has possessed the intellectual spirit of the present era and beyond and used it to probe into his cultural surroundings, integrated and synthesized, to define new meanings and values”.

Dr Choong’s oeuvre touches on the ephemeral nature of life and opening new vistas of interpretations and appreciation, and also on an almost divine affinity to Nature and most importantly, one’s sense of being - his deep-seated Chinese roots and philosophy in the wider matrix of a multi-racial Malaysia. His works touch on the protean quality and dynamic flux of an uneasy nexus between traditional values and contemporary life, identity and modernization.

It’s an intuitive, instinctive response to changes in social happenings, the environment and the individual.

To change is to innovate, to move either backwards or forward in an uncertain destiny. In tears or joy, the art is a celebration of the joy of living and being, and the sheer plenitude and mercurial elements of Nature.




Ooi Kok Chuen
Guest Writer

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

 National Visual Arts Gallery, Malaysia 2014)
 
 

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

FEDERATION OF ASIAN ARTISTS
MALAYSIA COMMITTE CHAIRMAN
NATIONAL TAIWAN NORMAL UNIV. ALUMNI
ASSOC. SELANGOR VICE PRESIDENT
 
HON. DOCTOR OF ARTS (RGU. SCOTLAND, UK)
MFA (PRATT INST. USA) BFA (N.T.N.U. TAIWAN)
FULBRIGHT-ACLS RESEARCH FELLOW