heading article1s the cycle changes of choong

Jean Piaget, the Swiss psychologist, states: “ The principle goal of education is to create men who are capable of doing new things not simply of repeating what other generations have done-men who are creative, inventive and discoverers.”

Dr Jacob Bronowski, the British scientist-poet, was one soul all for the ascent of man through the power of this risk-taking, exploratory, trail-blazing imaginative visions in the sciences or the arts.

Choong Kam Kow is a second-generation Malaysian artist currently moving in the creative flux of the international art scence. He is one modernist enriched by being exposed to bedwlidering range of art and notions in the East and West as result of education, travel and persistent involvement in the plastic arts in such variegated roles as artist , curator, lecturer, dean of fine arts. He is a ball of energy and his diligence is legendary.

Committed to commitments, he has the forethought and foretaste to perceive change as that most changeless of affairs. He perceives it as a creative “must” or one could get mired in stagnation and be irrelevant like a spent force. It is axiomatic in one’s pursuit of aratistic and perceptual growth. It is inevitable, ubiquitious and inescapable. To be on the go, on the move, seeking, searching and knocking doors, means opening doors to other doors. Singapore’s perceptive art historian. T.K. Sabapatahy in defining change, allows aptly that is a “process” by which time and space are configured, actualized, lived and experienced.” (1)

To Choong, change is championed and pursued as powerful, progressive principle – a highly selective process involving culture, philosophy, innovation, environment, handling and manipulative skill. The cyclic changes of Choong, the contemporary conceptual craft-conscious composer of metaphors and analogies of birth, life, death reincarnation, festivities, symbiotic relationships and goodwill, have undoubtedly enriched the Aseam, Asian and global art scenes with his imaginative visual stances.

The changes of Choong manifested in a series of series- Kinta Series, New York Series, Shaped-Canvas Series, SEA-THRU Series, Festival Series, Rockscape Series, Rhythm of Growth Series and Earthscape Series. He loves to work in series and each series allows him to innovate and expand his visual vocabulary and meditative messages. Once the visual forces are expanded in ao series, he moves on a to another and in the process is rejuvenated by the second wijnd.

“Artist need to go through phases to find themselves.” He allow laconically. In his art affairs. One perceives dignity, honors, immaculate craftsmanship and a credible mosaic of cultures. The Kinta Series covers the years 1960 to 1965. He describes it as “His topic employed the descriptive, narrative stance and include scenes of villages and tim-mines in Perak, a West Malaysian state where he spent his childhood and boy hood day. He worked in oil, water-colour and Chinese ink in an expressionistic mode inspired by such masters as Chen Wen His, Cheong Soo Pieng and Zao Wou-Ki.

An example of the Kinta Series is VILLAGE BY THE WATER (1965) The New York Series encompasses the period 1965 to 1968. These attempts reflect his rustic Asian reaction towards the metropolitan Western world, in his case from rural Perak to the city of New York to face cultural shock and the newcomer’s bewildered syndrome.

The organic-cum-geometric visual essays he did then reflect the tension he experienced in the fast, hectic world of New York. He combined hard-edged shapes with textured patches of impasto embedded with sand and pebbles in his oil compositions. Geometrical and biomorphic shapes are also used in his etchings of the period. In them, there are the marks not unlike the efforts of Hans Hoffman and Clifford Still.

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 New York Art School. The colours are pushed or propelled backward or forward. Texture, handling and visual weight are explored deftly.

An example of the New York Series is SEA BEACH. (1967) The Shaped-canvas Series cover the years 1968 to 1971. The efforts represent his response to the call of science and technology in a nation in search of progress and development. The hard-edged configurations mirror the industrial beauty in precision. Gestural marks were eliminated. The central motif as a multiple of squares. The squares employed jutted out like an accordion. There was the interest in the interaction of colour in the mode of Victor Vasarely. Colour is shape and shape is colour. Shape reflects dimension.

The Series was a minimal formal stance reminiscent of Joseph Albers’ squaring of squares. Each painting itself became an object, one that is incorporated or integrated into the environment or surrounding. The shaped canvas represents the paradox of colour and shape. An example of the Shaped-canvas Series is VIBRATION, 1970. (Collection: National Art Gallery, Malaysia) The SEA-THRU Series covers the period 1971 to 1975. It is, as pointed out by artist and art critic Syed Ahmad Jamal of Malaysia, “a slant on semantics.” (2)

The series consist of reliefs in panels of threes, fours or fives. The series are a set of panels in relief. Each panel has a square opening. Each panel symbolizes yin and yang. There is the solid and the void, that which is fulfilled and unfulfilled. Choong was then delving into Zen Buddhism and Taoist philosophy. The I-Ching, the Book of Change, was expounded for enlightenment. Tai Chi was meditated upon. The mystical Orient and its nuances at this stage hovered prominently in his art. He has pushed the minimal concept to its limit.

An example of the SEA-THRU Series is SEA-THRU (FLOW), 1975. (Collection: National Art Gallery, Malaysia) The SEA-THRU Series is for Choong a spiritual path, a bridging phase in his art development. During the years 1974 and 1975, he was introspective but not productive. It was a meditative pause, a time of self-examination, a period of “contemplation on the direction of my art and aesthetic manifestation.”

The period proved pivotal, for it led to the vital Festival Series. The Festival Series cover the years 1976 to 1990. This is a very significant, spiritual, reflective series, a soul-searching affair encompassing social, cultural, aesthetic values inherent in multi-cultural, multi-racial Mlaaysia. In these attempts, he explored the Eastern concept of space and emphasize on the importance of significant form and shape in the context of Asian/Oriental values. The Eastern aesthetics is greatly enhanced because of the format, subject-objects and material chosen and exploited. Handmade paper, and yarn were employed to create-bas-reliefs and the spray-gun techniques were utilised to create special effects. In the superb series, structure and surface and rhythm are unifying elements employed to abstract essentials and meanings.

In the Festival Series, he looked at himself and his backdrop as an Asian introspectively and became very much attracted to Eastern mores and manners as well as values and traditions. Engrossed in a multi-faceted tolerant society with a cross-cultural outlook and attitude of sharing and social grace, he wanted to bring forth a series that mirror the spirit of goodwill or muhibbah, as the vernacular is spoken.

To project heartiness, understanding and hospitality, Choong thought of traditional and seasonal festive cakes and other offerings. Hence his choice of traditional artifacts and shapes knotted to the Festival essays in paperpulps. Chinese dumplings wrapped in bamboo leaves (bak chang), red tortoise cake placed on banana leaf (angku kuih), roasted glutinous rice wrapped in banana leaves (pulut panggang), glutinous rice wrapped in coconut leaf (lepat) and other delicacies are offered to guests and visitors in friendship, peace and goodwill.

Some foodstuffs are prepared for festivities and these symbolize the festive season and mood. Choong pointed out that there is beauty and uniqueness in the traditional shapes and forms of the Chinese bak chang and the Malay lepat of Kelantan and Terengganu, the East Coast states of Peninsula Malaysia. The bak chang has a form with five corners and is not rectangular or squarish or cube-like. The lepat is a twisted form wrapped with the plant leaf knotted at the top of the shell-like pyramid twisted to one side.

The process of wrapping the foodstuffs is unusual in each case. In projecting these images and tying and knotting his compositions, he aligned himself with the Eastern craft tradition in which handicraft is inseparable from art. In so doing, he provides the link between the so-called high art and the minor arts by deliberately incorporating craft-techniques in his Festival Series. The twines and knots used are essentially craft material and methods and enriched the composition as a whole. The very act of manipulating the paperpulp as some sort of dough enhanced the physicality of the material employed. While rooted in his social, cultural contexts, Choong attains validity in the series which is universal.

5th MONTH FESTIVAL IV (Collection: Taipei Fine Arts Museum, TAIWAN and FESTIVE MOOD 85-4” )(Collection: Fukuoka Museum of Art) are two good examples of the Festival Series. The Rythim of Growth Series, and the Rockscape Series started around the year 1985 and part of the early period overlapped the Festival Series. These two series were simultaneously produced as a result of an expedition made into the virgin forest of Endau-Rompin National Park in West Malaysia in 1985. Underpinning the two series was the catch-phrase “conservation of nature”.

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, which Brother Joseph McNally aptly describes as “a resurrection of nature after the death of the tree which had previously been a proud monarch of the forest”. (3) It is the case of a lifeless organic substance nourishing the growth of another life-form. It is a comment on recycling, reincarnation and the balance of nature.

The Series is well-conceived and well-composed. It is aesthetically sound and is imbued with hidden nuances. It is a reminder of the rhythm of growth, as the title implies. The mushroom, because of its short life, is a symbol of transience, a reminder that life is but vapour, fleeting as far as one’s earthly existence is concerned. While certain species of fungi could proved nutritional and nutritious and medicinal, there are also poisonous deadly ones. There is tension in the contradiction. An example of the Rhythm of Growth Series is RHYTHM OF GROWTH IV, 1987. (Collection: Dr. P. Frazier, LA. U.S.A.)

The Rockscape Series was first inspired by the surface, tactile quality of rocks and the geological patterns of exposed and eroded river boulders in Endau-Rompin and then extended to other types of stones in other places. The Series is concerned essentially with the aesthetic quality of the rich veins of the rocks interpretated employing hand-handling and sprayed textured paperpulps. The erosion of the rocks serves as a reminder that time wrought changes. An example of the Rockscape Series is ROCKSCAPE XII, 1987. (Collection: Shell Companies in Malaysia).

The Earthscape Series, started since 1987 and ongoing, is Choong’s reaction against the dense high-rise urbanized life-style of the cosmopolitan-metropolitan city. The Series is a cyclic return to nature, to Mother Earth, the refreshing sustainer of life and nourishment, a return to open space and fresh air. It is nostalgic and bucolic, harking back to the simple childhood-boyhood days of rural, rustic Kinta Valley.

The Series is a recollection, his mindscapes of the mine-scapes of the tin-mining nooks of Perak. In executing the Series, he is not unlike a homing dove heading for its familiar haunts. Inherent in the Earthscapes is the notion held by the Chinese that life springs forth from the bowels of the earth. Implicit in the art is the Chinese’s love and respect for nature and the universe.

The physically of the series is stressed and expressed using the clay-like, dough-like paperpulps stained with acrylic colours and hand-moulded to impart a variety of marks and textures. The horizontal spreads imparts the panorama of wide, open space. It represents the rejection of the cool, calculated, clinical concrete and the boring monotonous skyscrapers with its deadpan pigeon-holes.

The Series comprises close-ups of exposed and raw areas of the open-cast tin-mines of Perak. In the Series, one could not help noting that he has returned home spiritually, having made an artistic, cyclic journey from his Kinta Valley background to various parts of his country and the world. It is a case of an artist returning to his roots, his beginnings, starting with the descriptive, narrative journey and concluding in contemporary analogies and metaphors. The artist in him has arrived. Choong has attained depth and maturity in his artworks in terms of juxtapositions and structures orientated towards cultural issues, human conditions and philosophical concepts. An example of the Earthscape Series is EARTH SONG, 1992.

Knowing Choong for what he is, an artist open to art and ideas, one safely assumes that he will resume to be in a flux of artistic activity, refined sensibility and attuned to the universe around him for all its worth. In his series of Series, one can opine that the cultural, environmental and aesthetical aspects and the various art elements in the designing process are thoughtfully analysed and synthesized, backed by sound technical knowledge of his chosen craft, in his post-SEA-thru Series, the manipulation of paperpulp.

Unity is achieved through the emphasis based upon a design concept culled from a chosen theme and stance. Rhythm is attained through the repetition of art elements and such attributes as gradation of colours, varying and alternate stressing and relaxing expressed by thinness and shallowness of lines, curves and shapes. Balance is achieved through a formal or informal distribution of interest employing the art elements and their attributes to achieve an illusional state of equilibrium in a visual essay.

In his matured efforts, he captivates one’s visual interest, engaging one in a visual feast through such devices as proximity, overlapping, layering, texturing, interweaving, invention and degrees of contrasts. In his seasoned manipulation of the art elements, he managed to create interest in an allotted space, to achieve unity in all the components, to distribute the interest in order to make a track of vision, a rhythm or movement within the space without sacrificing the state of equilibrium.

To be able to manipulate such concerns convincingly and yet inject analogies and metaphors into his art of nature, culture and philosophy require perceptual insight, maturity, meditation, imagination, commitment and, no less, long and hard hours. In his best efforts, Choong has expended the notion of art intellectually, psychologically, emotionally, inventively, materially and ideologically. Sensitivity to problems, fluency of ideas, flexibility, originality, the caliber to rearrange and redefine, analysis, synthesis and coherence of organization informed the praxis of his art.

artist, critic, curator, lecturer

  1. ‘Introduction’, in the book Change: 20 Singapore Artists – A Decade of Their Work, edited by T.K. Sabapathy, Singapore, 1991
  2. ‘Art in Malaysia, Artists and Areas of Commitment’, in the catalogue Malaysia Art 1965-1978, by Syed Ahmad Jamal, Guest Curator, National Art Gallery, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, 1978.
  3. ‘The Art of Choong Kam Kow: A Metaphor’, in the catalogue Choong Kam Kow: Paper Reliefs and Paintings, a critique by Brother Joseph McNally, Singapore, 1991

(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