heading article1s from culture symbol to art symbol

Reading The Works of Choong Kam Kow

Contemporary German philosopher ernst Cassirer uses the sytem of symbol to determine the nature o f Man. He thinks that on certain forms or aspects that all phenomena capable o frevealing meaning from the perception are symbols. Therefore: The man's world of life basically is the world of symbol. All the cultureal forms are forms of symbols.

If we view the works by famous Malaysian artist Choong Kam Kow from the viewpoint of the science of symbol, one will agree that the world under his brushes is a symbolized world and its distinctive character is from culture symbol to art symbol.

Choong Kam Kow was brought up form multi-racial and multi-cultural society of Malaysia. Doubtlessly, the abundant cultural symbols of Malaysia are the important elements in formulating his art experience and the immensely transformed and employed parental form in his creative process. The fundamental factor for his work to be so influential is basically the transformation of distinctive symbols of Malaysian culture to formulate his own art symbols.

Symbol encompasses the meaning of symbol and the form of symbols. It also includes the substance (visual iamge etc.) of symbol and the expression o fsymbol (mode of expression, presentation etc.) Among these four aspects, the most important aspects are the meaning of symbol and the form of symbol. They determine the substance of symbol and the expression of symbol.

1. To view Choong Kam Kow's works form the level of meaning of symbol

Based on the meaning of symbol, Choong Kam Kow devides his works into four series: the Festival series, the Rhythm of Growth series, the Rockscape and Earthscape Series. In these four series, he injected into every artistic p;resentation of symbol his philosophic thinking of metaphoric cotent of cultural symbol which is the synthesized realization of this sensuality sensitivity, thought, imagination and destinctive artistic qualilty.

The festival series is most capable of materiazing Choong Kam Kow's symbolized artistic thinking and symbolized artaistic act. in Malaysian culture the fesstival is an important representaion of cultural practice. It contains the richness of Eastern cultural contenst and traditional values. Choong Kam Kow has apthy grabbed the symbolized meaning of the festive culture. he uses the important composite symbols of Malaysian festive cultre the local Malay cakes and Chinese dumpling Chung and wood carving patterns etc. as creative elements and transformed these cultrual symbols form the reality into art symbols for his own works. In the process of transforming these symbols, he perfectlyh expressed his understanding and appreciation of Malay culture, traditional cultrual practice, the universe and Nature.

In this series, he often uses twine / yarns to weave ofr tie the 3-D festive Chung, kueh ketupat onot the printed or embossed textural / tactile handmade paper background, creating semi decorative low relidf-collage composition, or uses silkscreen to print local wood carving patterns or asuspices symbols onto handmade paoer with embossed effects thus creating a kind of contour pattern. The artist exploits the festive cultural symbol of jubilee joys and expressed beautifully the co-existence of Malaysian multi culture, the festive spirit of mutual respect, care and "muhibbah". The juxtapositon of frontal symbols are structured in spcae and the combination of figurative syumbols and abstract symbols, not only illustrates clearly the artist's profound understanding and his personal appreciation of shapes, it also enhances tremendously the rural sense offestive symbols and at the same time strengthened the contemporary sense of such form of symbol.

Deeply influenced by the Eastern philosophy, the works of Choong Kam Kow are mostlly the realization of idea about life in Nature. The rhythm of Growth and Rockscape series are the fruits ofsuch idea. There are two types of realistic symbols; The first is based on the motif of lingzhi (fungi). Through the depiction of the growth of lingzhi and the decaying dead wood to symbolize the ironic relation between the dying and rebirth of all things in Nature. he uses pictorial symbols to convey his notion of the life; The other type is based on rock information. He uses highly subjective colours to portray the constant changes of erosion process taking place on the cliffs to convey the eternal and the ephemeral phenomena of life in Nature. In this series, he either uses acryulic to express idea on canvas or handmade paper of sometime handmade paper collage. Brilliant in colour and rich in textures, all are combined and composed to manifest his intriguing understanding and passion of life in Nature.

In the Earthscape series, he passionately probes into the two important symbol elements: earth strata of excavated cavity and the memory of open-case tin mine site from childhood in Kinta which reveals the significance of humanity. He feels that the close relation between man and earth has become so remote in the process of modern development. Based on the concern of environmental problem as result of modern urban development, he created this series from his memories. The symphony of brilliant colours has loudly manifested the vitality of Nature and expressed the nostalgic passion of his homeland.

The art symbols in Choong’s works reveal his thorough understanding of Eastern philosophy. His works manifest the profound meaning of ying-yang relation of I-Ching. All this, is the basis why his works can have such important influence.

2. To view Choong Kam Kow’s art from the level of form of symbol

Form is the basis element which configures the symbol. According to ancent Greek philosopher Aristotle that the formation and development of all things is caused by four causes of material form, force and purpose. The most important ones are material cause and formal cause. He explicityly mentioned that form consists of only a singular trait, that is the existence, reality and basic cause of things. This is because people always perceive, recognize and differentiate realistic matter through form. It is on this notion that Aristotle defined “beautiful” as form.

For Choong Kam Kow, art symbol is kind of distinctive symbol differed from culture symbol, His works concern not only the culture symbol in the content of custom science but also the deepest bottom levels of art symbol and pure form of image. It reveal on one hand, the relation between the culture symbol and art symbol and on the other inner relation of art and form. It is the fundamental process which determines that art as art. He sees the main function of symbol is to formalize the experience and through such form to project objective the experience. All works of excellence should contain such function o form. Only artist who possessed such function capability is able to fully express his own cognition and passion about things and his works will be able to manifest his personal distinctive style.

Choong Kam Kow’s probe into form of symbol is focused on the making and exploitation of pulp and handmade paper. He believes that it is impossible to express through the form the quality of things without the presence of tangible materials. Material is the basis of art perception. In the long journey of his art practice, he probed and developed a kind of coloured pulp best suited his creative demand and used its special character and process in the various approaches of his creative venture, thus enriching the cultural contents of pulp material and his own humanity spirit is also profoundly penetrated into the process of art making and the exploration of such material. Paper pulp therefore become a very special and important form for expressing his distinctive creative thinking, creative symbol and creative activity.

Choong Kam Kow always maintains an open-minded approach in the exploitation of material and application of techniques. He is able to employ to employ various method to discover the cultural significance from the material according to his own apprehension and need. He thoroughly projects the characters of material by skillfully activating the quality of handmade pulp paper to express his and only his idea and taste of art creation.

And in the Rockscape series and Earthscape series, he simply mixed bright acrylic colours with pulp and laid out the colurs pulp according to his plan to form the work before the pressing and drying process. He was able to control the intermingling of colour texture and thickness of paper according to his need. Therefore, it is rich in texture, natural in image shaping and the endless variation of colour tone is so refined and penetrating.

As for Choong Kam Kow, artistic expression is an act to view the world through the use of media. The practical creative process is the process of dialogue with the media / materials; media as form and media as art. All the presentation of art concepts and art forms are built upon the understanding and control of media. Therefore, it would be impossible for Choong to project his idea and form without the support of such handmade paper material.

The works of Choong Kam Kow are of remarkable quality and full of fascinating power. The presence of such alluring power is that he has firmly captured the fundamental key by transforming culture symbol to art symbols. At the same time, he sued media and symbols as vehicle to project the perception of life in Nature. Once he captured the culture symbols, he obtained the profound understanding of reality. Once he captured the art symbols, he obtained the sublimation of mind-image and mind-will of life.

In his works, there is a strong presence of dualistic symbols and elements such as tradition and modernity, East and West, nature and humanity which are complementing and harmoniously co-existing. He has built up an organic entity o fart with a content which is profoundly abundant and philosophically Eastern.

Dr. Luo Yi Ping
Doctor of Fine Arts, Central Academy of Fine Arts, Beijing, China
Associate Professor, Faculty of Communication and Design, Zhongshang University, China

(Original printed in "THE ART OF CHOONG KAM KOW - Manifestation of Culture and Nature",
 Guangdong Museum of Art, China 2004)

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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