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Isabel Ching

First published in Cheo Chai-Hiang, The Story of Money, 2010, catalogue


The Story of Money shows in Hong Kong with adjustments to the exhibition hall as specified by the artist. A frontal wall has been built such that one can only enter via its central opening. Flanking the entryway on each side is the Chinese character 當 (dang – meaning “pawn”, “suitable”, “proper”, “replace” or “represent”, or meaning “just at”, “during”, “acting as” or “should”) made of hairline stainless steel, mimicking the shopfront sign of “a typical old-fashioned pawnshop” [1] in Singapore or Malaysia. A dainty drawer opens at the top of the word on one’s left when facing the works to reveal the character “上” (shang – meaning “up”), forming the phrase 上當 or “being conned”. The other word on the right has a drawer that opens from the side revealing the word 代 (dai – meaning “period” or “to substitute”). The phrase 當代 means “contemporary”, or wryly, a “generation of pawn”. The two dang placed side by side mutate into a further idea – of being tricked by notions of contemporaneity (上當代的當) – that frames one’s entry into the hall.

35 Chinese words containing the character for cowry: 貝 bei) or 贝 in simplified Chinese are the pawned items up for view inside this “shop”. The words are formed with indented mirrored surfaces, on a rectangular-ish block of hairline stainless steel. Each block is contained in a typical laptop bag except that it appears in a variety of cheerful colours. For each word, in place of the character 貝 or 贝 is substituted a real cowry, the ancient unit of money, dangling tantalizingly from a thin thread in a mirrored alcove. Reminiscent of a pretty windchime, the cowry is sensuous and desirable, as well as completely useless in today’s terms as a value of monetary exchange. With curvaceous form and curled toothed opening, the cowry connects symbolically, and symbiotically, with its representation in Chinese character, while suggestive of a strange sexual potency. Words with cowry in the colour white are displayed on one long wall. On the opposite side: identically set-up Chinese words formed with black cowry. One walks down the length of the hall with one side mirroring and echoing the other. The idea of trickery, chance, irreality and uncertainty is augmented by installing the bags of words in the numerical formations of the rolling dice.

In his project proposal, Cheo Chai-Hiang states, “The “inter-textuality” within the work provides ample opportunities for multi-layered readings and meaning-making, especially in the aftermath of the current financial crisis in the world.” This essay explores how Cheo’s practice functions not just to communicate thoughts and ideas, but also to generate different layers of readings and requiring the audience to engage in a play of multifaceted ideas. Further, the audience is challenged to negotiate meaning based on subjective positions of differing social and cultural backgrounds. This is more so a challenge, since norms of reading seem often disrupted in Cheo’s work. The audience member has to “make meaning” – for he can no longer rely on the conventional ways of reading. Cheo’s work intervenes into the monolithic appearance of normative or dominant discourse, prying open “spaces” for alternative ideas, constructions and readings. Complications of meaning are sought by drawing together things that fall in-between, under and outside of the text of the artwork and other normative texts, with the multiplicity of readings engendered opening up spaces for critical texts and critical reading, and with that, the possibility of reshaping discursive constructions.

Destablising and Generating Meanings

Cheo’s 1972 proposal submitted through mail to the Modern Art Society – for a work measuring 5 ft x 5 ft to be drawn partially on the wall and partially on the ground, and titled “Singapore River” (hereinafter referred to as 5’ x 5’) and its rejection – is so well-known in Singapore art history. Neither realism nor abstraction, painting nor sculpture, and begging the question “is it even art?”, audiences of that time can no longer rely on conventional modes of reading and have to take non-prescribed paths to interface with what is being presented. But once the view is expanded to include the frame, one sees the artistic intervention in the drawing of a boundary that divides “the painting” from its surroundings, with the content of the painting being precisely a section of its physical surroundings. In contrast with situating art in a pristine autonomous realm, Cheo’s propositions include drawing direct relationships with the physical environment, ordinary materials and creative thinking processes of everyday life. By titling the work “Singapore River”, Cheo intends to connect with the body of painting practice where “the Singapore River was inscribed as the presiding icon”, [2] while organising a “blankness” where art conventions in Singapore no longer operate. What 5’ x 5’ presented was a break not just with norms of painting, but norms of making, thinking and talking about art in Singapore then.

Social and cultural processes connected to the artwork, therefore, do not simply operate in the background as per conventional ways of reading artwork. Rather, they are pushed to the fore and brought into dynamic play by the artwork. The blankness within the frame proposes opening up a multiplicity of possibilities for how art can be constituted in Singapore – art that provides something other than visual gratification, art as thoughts and ideas, art that is different from “the mould of modernity as it was shaped in Singapore.

Meanings are never settled, but proliferate, through a destabilisation achieved by Cheo’s keen sense of presenting paradox and ambiguity. Known mainly for 3-dimensional work, Cheo’s choice of material and configuration of objects is much deliberated, in order to put to disuse norms of reading and define a field of possibilities that extends to texts outside of the artwork. One of his earlier works dealing with the subject of Chinese culture, Bo Yang’s Ugly Chinese (1991) exhibited in Singapore’s National Museum Art Gallery, is a keen example. It makes direct reference in title and spirit to the Taiwanese author Bo Yang and his book of the same name, in which “Bo Yang argues that Chinese cultural traditions have, over time, been used by many Chinese rulers as a weapon against the Chinese people themselves.” [3] An installation of disparate everyday objects arranged into five quirky and ingenious constellations explore the implications of this in modern life. Liu Shu Tong (六書通) or “Understanding the Six Books”, is one such configuration. It presents a bottle hoisted high up on a pedestal of twigs, cement and metal slowly dripping water onto a stainless steel bowl below, making a “tong” sound whenever a water droplet hits the metal. Cheo sets up an auditory pun on the Chinese word “tong” or 通 (meaning “understanding”). The metal bowl sits on top of a book titled “Understanding the Six Books”, [4] the dripping water (“tong”… “tong”…) seemingly pinning down the book to the ground. The book is closed; one cannot see or read its contents, but without reading its contents and simply hearing the sound “tong”, can one hope to understand the six books? Or consider the paradox of Three Longs Two Shorts in the same installation. Five sticks – three long and two short – appear to balance on top of an irregularly shaped soapstone. But look closer, and note how the sticks are nailed in place, and the appearance of balance is in fact carefully “orchestrated”. Three Longs Two Shorts is a literal translation of the Chinese idiom San Chang Liang Duan (三长两短), used to refer to the looming possibility of doom or unfortuitous times. Why, and how, could such a puzzling situation happen where one would want such looming sense of misfortune permanently hovering over one’s head?

Cecily Briggs writes, “The objects in the Bo Yang installation invite many responses from the audience. Some with knowledge of Chinese language and culture would be intrigued by idiomatic references in the titles and the way in which these idioms have been translated into visual form. Some might make a connection between this work and certain government campaigns that periodically urged Chinese Singaporeans to return to the Confucian values of old. Others might have read the work as an ironic comment on the way some Western commentators have attributed the economic power of the ‘Asian Tigers’ to the influence of Confucian values in Asian societies. Others might detect a personal exploration of the artist’s own sense of cultural identity.” [5]

Two points are of interest here. First, there are many possibilities through which one can enter the work and generate possibly fruitful readings. Hence, the work’s depth and complexity – its many layers of meaning – shines forth through a sustained intellectual engagement with it. Second, the different entry points present different levels of difficulty for the varied audiences. This is, no doubt, partially a method for bringing about a specific role of the reader, as shall be further explored below. It is also perhaps a strategy for prompting engagement with things that can be alluded to but cannot be spelt out loud for fear of repercussions, setting the tone for the coded nature of all the works in the installation. Audience members will traverse various territories in order to engage in a rewarding play of the possibilities of reading this work. The paths taken, while not determined by the artist but by the viewer, have been opened up by the careful setup of objects, visual/auditory associations, and connecting ideas. These are potentially rich paths, but ones that are also impeded by blockages in comprehension.

Meanings Beyond The Text

While inviting comparisons with other artists in the global contemporary art scene who work with the Chinese language, Cheo’s investigations into Chinese language and culture are never divorced from his experiences of the language and discourse of his original home country, Singapore, and the specific vectors of meaning-making. Three Longs Two Shorts elegantly communicates ideas of how the emphasis on Singapore’s “fragile” situation – being a small nation without natural resources, whose societal fabric is multi-racial and multi-religious – works as a control mechanism, to foster a politically unquestioning public. Cheo alludes to how the noise made is louder than the actual content involved in the contemporary appeal to Chinese values in Liu Shu Tong, with the criticism made more pointed by the loss of currency of the Chinese language and its dialects, and the Chinese-educated in Singapore, through the active intervention of government policies.

In April 2009, a group show was staged at the National Institute of Education’s (NIE) new gallery opened by a government minister. Works were screened by the institute’s administrative and public relations employees beforehand. Cheo’s contribution was a work entitled When I Grow Up – a simple colourful sign in fluorescent of a child’s handwriting, in a somewhat naïve sentence-construction in Chinese that reads, “When I grow up, I wish to be a Minister”. The work was hung up high against the glass panels facing the road and visitors approaching the gallery like an attractive advertisement. The naivety and innocence in a child’s handwriting paradoxically contradicts with the political ambitions expressed. The usage of rudimentary Chinese in the work further ties in with the economic considerations that formed the rationale for the governmental push to promote the Chinese language after years of marginalization. With irony detected, the work becomes critical and mocking of the logic that permits the alignment of public service with big money. Despite the ironic “subtexts” omitted from the submission to NIE and the explanatory caption displayed at the exhibition venue, a foreign object aimed from the outside shattered the glass panel above Cheo’s work almost three weeks after the opening. The culprit remains unknown, and one can venture a guess that the unstated possibilities of the work are still glaringly obvious to some.

Perhaps audiences will find meaning obscured in Cheo’s work precisely because of the codings that can be understood only by a certain sector of people. How do we make sense then, of these obstacles to our free play of possibilities, and what does this bode for audiences who do not share these codes?

To the question – “When you make an artwork or when you do a performance, how would you like the audience to respond?” – Cheo has this to proffer in a 1997 interview:

I’m always interested in engaging in some form of dialogue with the audience; but I am reluctant to answer questions such as “What is this? What does this mean? Why do you use a mirror? Why do you use a whistle? Why do you use this? Why do you use that?”… the moment the work is placed in a gallery, that is when a work starts rather than that is when it is finished. The audience should really participate in a more active way of reading, and of course there might be things that the audience sees and I don’t. That’s when the whole learning process both for the audience and for myself could further proceed. I see my art process as a process of learning for myself rather than a process of producing objects to be treasured. In that sense, there is an emphasis on active involvement; and I’m not talking about physically participating in making the work, but intellectually getting involved in reading the work. [6]

Cheo’s work demands for the audience to “play its game” and to persevere in excavating histories, texts, knowledge systems and cultural worldviews, or to explore outside of these very systems, in order to make meaning. Those who refuse to engage will not unravel the puzzle, while those who make initial attempts to problem-solve may tire of the journey halfway through. Yet, meaning-making is also an open process – an opportunity for learning for both artist and audience. Cheo’s work precisely operates against quick and easy access to meaning in contemporary art and the passive consumption of cultural commodities, aiming instead for a “slow-release” effect as the field of possible meanings gains shape with active persistent engagement. The role of the reader thus takes on a central role in Cheo’s work.

Consider for instance the image reproduced by Cheo of Lu Xun with a spirit level which water is at the height of his eyebrows. The water elevation references the famous lines written by Lu Xun:

I position my eyebrows horizontally
And prepare to face a thousand pointing fingers.

The statement became a paean for anti-conformism, individualism, and the courage not to bow under the pressures of hierarchy and the shackles of culture. In Singapore, the work titled Celebrating Little Thoughts was installed at two public sites – the facades of what were then buildings in the Institute of Education and the LASALLE-SIA College of the Arts. The work was also installed in Sydney’s Street Level gallery. What stood out in Sydney was that there were two images of Lu Xun, each “fragmented by the intrusion of screens, corners and other architectural features of the gallery space.”[7] If the fragmented images of Lu Xun came together only when viewed from one particular spot in the gallery and otherwise remained irrevocably split, the consumption of this ‘foreign’ culture could only be fraught with gaps, miscomprehension and an inability to connect. The active audience member searching for an appropriate position to view the fragmented images in the gallery metaphorically performs the kind of investigation required in order to engage more deeply with the content of the work. The process is not necessarily comfortable nor easily digestible – what will one make of a Chinaman that will not bow?

By bringing out the gaps, Cheo’s work clears a space for dialogue and the beginnings of understanding and learning. The technically minor but conceptually significant adjustments made to the artwork as it shifts from site to site further seeks out differentials in the potential responses. Connections or non-connections made by the audience from a position of subjectivity are incorporated into the learning process of the artist as he opens up his work to the possibilities of such communicative failures. Thus, Cheo’s practice is sensitive to boundaries – internal and external ones – and the questioning of their geographies. While context-specific (meaning made confined to a context), it also sojourns.

Disrupting and Re-Shaping Discourse

Although Cheo’s work operates on questioning and extrapolation from the problem presented by the art object, such activities do not operate untrammelled. They move within a field of possibilities precisely fraught with obstacles that also perform the function of catalyzing the desired role of the reader. These obstacles operate variously by malfunctions [8] – of an object’s use value – but also of memory, language, logic and policy. Activating disruptions of a seamless flow of meaning and message is a strategy for making these gaps conscious, as well as a demonstration of the limits of discourses generated by the state machinery in determining meanings. What is unsaid, unwritten, unrepresented, unrecognized, is purposely given space in Cheo’s work as part of the artistic strategy to allow for critical readings. The complex ideas and multiplicity of readings that the artwork can spark off run counter to monolithic narratives and discourses, permitting these to be re-shaped, re-framed and re-imagined. Cheo’s proposals for works that are in view of the general public (as opposed to the relatively niche gallery-visiting audience) precisely illustrate the workings of such artistic strategy.

SIAPA NAMA SAYA? DI-MANA SAYA TINGGAL? is a 2007 submission for artwork in a forthcoming Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) station in Singapore, part of the new downtown MRT line. They ask “What is my name? Where do I live?” The proposal was for the Malay words to be in boxed lettering in hairline stainless steel material. Further, they are to be cheerfully interspersed with packing signs for safe handling, namely an upward pointing arrow, a wine cup and an umbrella, which will be in different primary colours. Another component of the work consists of the words “Selamat Jalan” (i.e. goodbye) and “Selamat Datang” (i.e. welcome) placed beside signs with figures of pregnant or elderly women that urge commuters to “please offer this seat to someone who needs it more than you do.”

At least two important elements foreground the work. The first is the reference to another text – Singaporean painter Chua Mia Tee’s iconic work “National Language Class” painted in the fifties, prior to Singapore’s national independence. In realist style, the oil work shows a classroom of Chinese students learning the national language Bahasa Malayu, from a Malay teacher. On the blackboard are written the words in Malay “Siapa nama kamu? Di-mana awak tinggal?” – “What is your name? Where do you live?” The second is the extensive reorganisation and rebuilding of the downtown area to integrate a new casino-leisure-business-residential district which the new MRT line serves. By inviting the audience to question ideas of self that are tied to notions of place in the quest for national identity, the work seeks multiple voices and visions of the discourse on national identity.

Resembling attractive shop signs, SIAPA NAMA SAYA? DI-MANA SAYA TINGGAL? enacts the allures of living in Singapore for Singaporeans and foreigners alike, while highlighting that which has dropped out in the haste of nation-building. While the older generations may recall basic lessons in the Malay language when Singapore was allowed only limited self-governance by the British colonial administration during the years after WWII and there was concern with creating a Malayan identity and culture, younger generations of non-Malay Singaporeans may not understand the Malay language nor see any use in it. Ironically, the latter may better identify with the packing signs that when used out of context, signal to them the perks of being Singaporean – “upwardly mobile, good lifestyle (wine and dine) and cozily sheltered security”.[9] Or absurdly, with the symbols that remind one of the relentless courtesy campaigns Singapore is known for! As Singapore’s national language gradually loses its currency, the language itself becomes entangled with overlapping frameworks of race and class, exacerbating the language-race-class divides. In globalizing, “foreign-talent” friendly Singapore, past anxieties of linking up with a Malayan identity seem alien. The artwork proposal also calls forth questions surrounding the (in)compatibilities between materialistic, competitive values and civil society.

The potentiality of Cheo’s proposal dwells within the gaps in communicative ability and historical memory and the ruptures in cultural practices embedded in language, and to one’s ties to place in a constantly re-invented landscape. Such potentiality is activated at the moment of interface with the audience. Alternative voices to the dominant construct of identity are invited. Who am I? Where do I live? The public from all walks of life are incited to investigate and reconnect with marginalized elements, to claim identity as a discursive construction that needs to be negotiated, and to re-shape state-generated discourse in a way that values individual and multiple viewpoints. [10]

Teh Tarik (Courting After School 1950’s Style), a part of Singapore Biennale 2008, is installed at the façade of an old building visible from the main road. Two sets of mugs formed from Chinese words pour into another set of teacups formed from their English translation, in an imagery of “teh tarik”.[11] Seemingly, Cheo has painted a cheerful enough picture of “exchanges”. The potential for a lively dialogue with other literary works is set-up. Both cups from which the tea is poured are composed of excerpts from a Chinese language novel – Little Incidents: Between Me and Myself – by an eminent Singaporean writer and Cultural Medallion awardee previously involved in Singapore’s leftist past, Yeng Pway Ngon. Yeng’s quoted text further cites Lu Xun (in Autumn Nights), whose cultural status in Singapore remains uneasy, having been an inspirational figure for leftist student activists and artists.

The selection of texts that dwell in the realm of romance obscures any clear message, while adding layers and possibilities to the ways in which the work may be read. Albeit sensitively translated, reading the English text does not facilitate entry into the world of intimate personal thoughts indicated by the content. The circular form of the language is oddly stiff! Yet in the original (Chinese) text, such repetitions give a sense of beauty to the prose and are devices for bringing out literary meaning and inexpressible emotions. When translated, the original is irretrievably lost in the exchange.[12] Lips that do not touch, two similar but separate trees… Repressed, impossible desires for union between the two languages are also augmented by the texts selected, such union being deemed crucial for gaining a competitive edge in contemporary life as the world power axis shifts. In the absurdity of the repetitions in English, Cheo disrupts easy access, giving undeniable presence to the suppressions of the original that occur in translation and the value gaps that exist between the two languages.

Therefore, one sees Cheo’s sense of irony at work in the seemingly trouble-free mixing and transformation of languages – the tea that pours from a Chinese mug to an English teacup is a magical fluorescent pink! Teh Tarik precisely problematises such wishful thinking – one simply cannot be naïve that language can be reduced to the merely functional, or that a merely functional approach to language leads to greater understanding. One asks when encountering Cheo’s work what the current mode of trouble-free mixing hides. Exploring these silent spaces, one navigates the disconnects between language-based communities, between generations of Singaporeans, between past political struggles and “white-washed” versions of history. Also having relevance to The Story of Money are aspects of a rather radical import to certain narratives, policies and systems: Is the bilingualism advocated an easygoing and “functional” commingling of languages, or is there concealed a history of violent suppression? Is such a functional and pragmatic approach to language itself ideologically-loaded?

Cheo challenges us to interrogate what we’ve been told, retrieve repressed pasts and provide new alternative interpretations to dominant constructs of history and contemporary life. He looks to the “little incidences”, “little thoughts”, little solutions and little everyday practices – the ordinary and the accessible – to search out spaces that exist outside of dominant discourses, the constant negotiations of identity, and the complexities of cultural interchange and evolution. These are the sites where new conditions of possibility emerge.

The Story of Money

Continuing his interest in the possibilities of communications and translation, Cheo wanders to new ground to extend his testing. This time, the medium of communication explored is not just language, but money, which moves from person to person according to its particular methods and constitutes a means of social interaction. The Story of Money invites the audience to embark on a journey of discovery from the departure point of the symbolism and aesthetics of the Chinese ideogram at its nexus with money – deepening and expanding the concerns of Cheo’s practice. Interconnections are further complicated and multiplied, values are variously invoked and overturned, and meanings are ever more complicitous with social and cultural processes, and site. By replacing the Chinese money character with cowry used thousands of years ago as a currency of exchange, the presentation disrupts and intervenes into the system of language. The gaps opened up bring out ambiguous histories, hidden values and the invisible processes of exchange, with implications on the accumulation of capital and the abstract transnational circulation of money and cultural values in the globalising world.

The works turn on the visual bricolage in the formation of Chinese words and phrases and, if one knows the Chinese language, the linguistic bricolage in mutations of meanings when character units or words are placed together, communicating notions of evolution, linguistic practice, exchange and value. For instance, 代 (dai – meaning “period” or “to substitute”) on top of the money character 贝 (bei) becomes 贷 (dai – meaning “loan”, “borrow or lend”, “shift responsibility or shirk”, or alternatively “pardon or forgive”). Each word therefore presents its own unique mutation when the money character is added, with language development inseparable from the evolution of the idea of money – language, identity and money are revealed to be interwoven in complex ways.

The value-laden word 贽 (zhi – meaning a “formal gift presented to a senior at one’s first visit as a mark of esteem”) is little used these days, but one could speculate on the entanglement between past cultural practices and the roots of culturally tolerated corruption in contemporary life, as well as the systemic changes that brought about such development. Words like 贺 (he) and 贽 (zhi) that dot the exhibition hall show quite directly how money affects the structure of social relationships. Although some words selected connote positive values while others convey negative ones (like 贪 tan, meaning greed), the undeniable presence of dangling cowry in every word dispersed throughout the wall lengths brings focus to the startling common basis in them. The words in orderly and identical formations, with white cowry on one side and black on the other, are able to communicate ideas of the role of money in the formation of social and value systems.

Blatantly obvious today is how the prized cowry of the past has no inherent use value. It gained its value only because of social processes whereby it could be exchanged for goods – its value is its exchange value. In the work, the real object (cowry) placed beside, above or below an abstracted language character unit, forms a third entity – a different abstract idea created from a composite of the first two elements – shown in a text card above the Chinese word. Even with no understanding of the Chinese language, the gaps can be sensed as meanings/forms make leaps from point to point, with the invisible processes of history and exchange brought to the fore. Hence, 36 White Cowries and 36 Black Cowries act as visual aids to provoke questioning about what lies in the gaps that serve the function of interrogating the nature of money and its role in society. Hanging in the art gallery as aesthetic objects, the field of possible meanings for The Story of Money stretches to problematising the art object and its audience, adding ever more complexities to the intersections of meaning between money, art and art reception.

Cheo’s exploration into the territory of the “love relationship” between English and Chinese continues, this time, deepening its entanglement with economic motivations. A combination of the modern forms of the Chinese language are utilized in The Story of Money – traditional Chinese, simplified Chinese and the romanised version hanyu pinyin, invoking the hybrid practices of the Chinese language today and the “little solutions” of communication in the globalizing world. This complicates the evolution of language practices and its relations in areas that extend from his previous works. The availability of an English translated definition in 36 White Cowry Shells and 36 Black Cowry Shells, as well as a phonetic system for speech separate from the writing system allow for graduated differences in language proficiency, with a more subtle approach necessitated towards the access to cultural ideas and nuances through language.

The increasingly prevalent usage of hanyu pinyin also goes hand in hand with the rise of “global Mandarin”. Cheo presents a collocution between global Mandarin and English, giving a picture of the role of money in shaping the voices of the future global village. The work is set up so that the gaps between the forms of language as it evolves “before one’s eyes” are brought into focus – its hidden text – as well as the loss of values in these gaps. The disparity in one’s understanding of the various forms of the language and its translation are also made conscious at the moment of reading the work, thus activating the subjectivity of the reader in meaning-making.

There are many valid and possible areas of engagement, some of all may have been predicted by the artist. In any case, neither authorial intentions nor contexts of reading can completely govern meanings. The Story of Money is organized to play on non-linear meanings, in order that a multitude of readings is generated from the differing discursive positions of the audiences. Cheo’s work interferes in the semiotic system and makes conscious the ways we subjectively receive and think of language, while allowing spaces for critical responses to the role money and language play within the framework of capitalist and national ideologies. Money, language and identity are inextricably and irrevocably interwoven in the work, with its effects variously contradictory and complicitous, and its movements multi-directional. Related processes are not easily comprehensible, and hence, not easily consumable. Audiences are provoked to think of the place and role of money in society, and the possibilities of reframing and re-imagining its value in human life.


Notes

[1] From Cheo Chai Hiang’s proposal for The Story of Money, 2009.

[2] T.K. Sabapathy, “Cheo Chai-Hiang: Agent of Change”, Cheo Chai-Hiang: The Thirty-Six Strategies, Casula Powerhouse Arts Centre, c2000, pg 11.

[3] Cecily Briggs, “Journeying and Sojourning”, Cheo Chai-Hiang Thoughts and Processes (Rethinking The Singapore River), inter alia, at pg 89.

[4] The Six Books refers to ancient Chinese texts that set out the construction regulations of Chinese characters in six basic principles.

[5] Cecily Briggs, “Journeying and Sojourning”, inter alia, at pg 92.

[6] Lee Tong Soon, inter alia, at pg 29; Cited in T.K. Sabapathy, “Cheo Chai-Hiang: Agent of Change”, inter alia, page 5.

[7] Cecily Briggs, “Journeying and Sojourning”, inter alia, at page 102. Briggs includes more details on this work and its different manifestations.

[8] The idea of malfunctions – “the removal of an object from its assigned value” -is used by Jeannine Tang, ibid, in relation to the act of making-do.

[9] Stated in Cheo’s said proposal, 2007.

[10] Indeed, this proposal was reconsidered and reprised in a group art exhibition, Not That Balai, in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia in 2007. The words “SIAPA NAMA SAYA? DI-MANA SAYA TINGGAL?” were spelt out in mirrored form, reflecting the image of the viewer before it and provoking self-questioning. Later, at the gallery of the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts in Singapore (2007-08), this work was combined with other separate installations that played on symbols (including packing signs) and slogans, which collectively raised interrogation of Singaporean identity at its nexus with language, pragmatic values and materialism.

[11] A tea drink which Malay name literally translates to “pulled tea” and often prepared by Indian vendors in Singapore and Malaysia by pouring with dramatic flourish the milk tea from one mug to another repeatedly to create a bubbly froth.

[12] Thanks to John Low, who has read this paper in its draft form and contributed this and many other insights regarding Cheo’s work.

Isabel Ching is an independent curator and art writer based in the region of Southeast Asia. She also lectures part-time in the Masters of Asian Art Histories programme at the LASALLE College of the Arts. She was formerly Assistant Director of Osage galleries. Recent projects include exhibitions in Singapore and Hong Kong centring on Filipino conceptual artist Roberto Chabet and installation practices in Myanmar. Current research interests include contemporary art in The Philippines, Singapore and Myanmar.

Editorial postscript: After working and living in Singapore for more than 10 years, Chai-Hiang and his wife, Cecily Briggs are locating to Malacca in July 2011.


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