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From Within The Picture Plane, To Without, To The Universe

by Teoh Ming Wah +

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Teoh Ming Wah is a Malaysian Chinese language writer and cultural worker involved in bridging histories and communities through her research, writings and cross-disciplinary collaboration between artists. Teoh received her BA in Sociology from the National University of Taiwan. 

After graduating, she joined the Organization for Urban Res (OURs). Since returning to Malaysia in 2002, Teoh has been active in the performing and visual arts. She was an investigative journalist and later sub-editor for Oriental Daily’s Opinion section. She is a regular columnist for Malaysiakini.

Dec 2017

It was a night filled with the hubbub of a small party. It began with the festive opening of the popular art exhibition in town, then the group moved to an open-air restaurant for supper. After feasting and drinking, I drove Gan Siong King and Chang Yoong Chia home. When we arrived at Gan’s door, his neighbor’s five dogs started to bark; this somehow extended the festive mood of the night. When Gan stepped out from the car, he asked us, “Do you want to come in?”


Gan Siong King is mostly referred as Gan, I have never heard anyone address him in his full Chinese name. Nor have I visited his studio before. This was the first time.


We followed Gan into his single-story terrace house. Once we stepped into his living room, I was surrounded by paintings hanging on three sides of the retrofitted white hardboard walls. A wooden table as big as a door stood at the center of the rectangular living room, where his audio and video recording equipment was hanging near the table. Through an arched door, the left side of the living room was connected to a closed air well with its walls being renovated into a white display space, and a red couch opposite one of the walls. In the corner of the air well stood an easel and a storage rack modified according to his need, filled with a neatly arranged palette, oil colors, and brush pot.


Gan and Chang, who both graduated in the year of 1996 from the Malaysian Institute of Art’s Fine Art Department and majored in oil painting, quickly engaged in a conversation about painting. I was strolling the room, amazed by the space, which at one point, seemed like a white cube while another time, a cabinet of curiosity. Meanwhile, I was drifting in and out of the conversation, having heard Gan stressed that painting doesn't have to be just about image-making while Chang mentioned that problem-solving shouldn’t be through technicality. I picked up fragments of information that came through me.


Before we left past midnight, I told Gan that the “scenes/shots” he painted are insufficient in quantity to “edit” into a new permutation and combination, he agreed. They both must have thought that I was drunk…


This article is the outcome of the invitation that night. Two months later, Gan contacted me and invited me to write a piece for his Open Studio project. Then, we met and talked for the second and the third time… we began our “preview” for the Open Studio.

* * * *


Do we always see what we want to see?


That night, I saw the language of image in Gan’s oil paintings and this sparked my intention to have further conversation with him.  I pointed out to him that even though he didn't use a camcorder to capture the images for this particular body of work, his creative process reflected that of an artist who shoots movies or take photos.


Perhaps I was confused by the appearance of his studio when I entered it. The artist has shaped his creative space into an abstracted, modern display space – white walls and the elimination of details of his personal life. However, the oil paintings on the white walls were not arranged in a familiar horizontal manner but according to the style of Baroque era, in which paintings of varying sizes arranged to fill the walls without any obvious connection. The images of bird beaks, the color wheel, the first satellite Sputnik 1, Mendel’s peas, robotic female body, and so on, hung on the wall, looking like a cabinet of curiosity – an embryonic museum. In addition, the various “in progress” stories being developed by the artist led to misinterpretation.      


Oil paintings with different sizes, which looked like a small collection of novelty pieces, reminded me of the photo-based painting by the German artist Gerhard Richter. Like Richter, Gan had repeatedly stressed that the photos he chose from the Internet have no fixed meaning(at the time of the open studio?). The human figure, objects, and sceneries have many possible symbolic meaning, and are currently being developed. In this era of visual overflow, Gan challenges himself with the question of why painting has to be image-making. By reproducing photo images in oil painting, the audience’s usual perception is challenged as well.


However, it is undeniable that the close-up images on the canvases hung on his walls carry a huge amount of information from the real world. The artist’s painted images are specific. They have their own respective background. From the bust of Charles Darwin and Space Dog Laika, an audience can trace the crucial moments of historic scientific discovery. The reality framed by the artist is no ordinary scene from our daily life. These images from science, and which were not created from the artist’s imagination, might seem objective and neutral, but the distinct will of the artist could not be concealed.


Through my conversations with Gan, I realized that when he chooses a certain photo online, or when he arranges his oil paintings in his studio, his eyes are his lens, and his mind, his editing machine. The studio reflected Gan’s unshaken obsession to control the shooting and editing of images, just like a movie director. And the finished paintings turn into camera framed images. One wonders what the process of painting means to him.


On the other hand, Gan hoped that the eyes of the audience who visit his open studio could be a mobile camcorder that would rearrange these framed images – the oil paintings – to fit into their personal narratives.


He said, “During the opening period of the studio, I will add more paintings, change the arrangement of these paintings. I want to hear the different views of the visitors. If the conversations and engagements can bring out a surprising interpretation, that would be fun!”


Interestingly, in my many conversations with Gan, he never told me which artist has a huge influence on him, instead he would mention that he loves the scientist Richard Feynman. He believes that artists and scientists have something in common. Both makes sense of the world through meaning making, whether through observation or self-expression.


For me, Gan’s seemingly reckless provocation through the painting process is actually an attempt to slowly “capture beyond the frame”, the mysteries of the Universe.


* * * *

My interpretation of his painting, leaping from the studio space to image editing and to the Universe, exceeded Gan’s required 800 words. While this article was written without any reference, I would like to view this as a small outcome of an exercise assigned to me by Gan.

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