Ong Yi Lyn is a writer and illustrator. A leap of faith after a stint in the visual effects industry sparked her foray into art and cultural writing at Poskod.my. Her later works took on an interdisciplinary approach and can be found across various print and digital publications such as Malaysia.my, Stories from the City, Cukaria and Englishjer's 100/100 anthologies. She also worked on the visuals for “Hey There, Young Sailor”, a music video by Malaysian indie folk band The Impatient Sisters, which was awarded the winning prize for the 2016 British Library Labs Awards – Artistic Category.
At the back of Feeka Coffee Roasters on Jalan Mesui, a staircase leads you upstairs to a new art gallery. In recent weeks, this unexpected location has drawn many art enthusiasts. The gallery’s current exhibition is Gan Siong King’s latest solo show, The Pleasures of Odds and Ends – Landscapes, Figures and Still Lifes.
A graduate of Malaysian Institute of Art (MIA), Gan received his Diploma in Fine Art in 1996 by majoring in oil painting. Since then, he has participated in several other exhibitions like Tukar Ganti at Valentine Willie Fine Art, Singapore (2008) and The Painting Show at The Annexe Gallery (2008). The March Surprise at the Project Room in Valentine Willie Fine Art in 2009 was his first solo exhibition.
While known for his oil painting, the term visual artist seems most apt when describing Gan. His other works include directing a music video for local band Furniture as well as a series of shorts featuring contemporary Malaysian calligrapher, Ong Chia Koon. He was also a production designer for Liew Seng Tat’s Flower In The Pocket, Fahmi Reza’s Sepuluh Tahun Sebelum Merdeka and Tsai Ming Liang’s I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone.
Arriving at the gallery after finally locating the staircase, I gave a cursory glance at the artworks on display while taking a breather from the unforgiving afternoon heat. Oil paintings of various sizes were hung around the white walls and at first glance, seemed like any other art exhibition.
My attention was captured by a rather huge heart-shaped jewel painting (“Bodhisattva”) located right at the entrance of the space. Another, larger piece depicts a deconstructed prosthetic torso with a striking blue background (“Absent/Present”). Walking around to have a closer look, I realised that several other individual pieces had been intentionally placed together to relay a larger story.
Ranging from a simple colour wheel to outlandish looking contraptions, this collection takes you from familiar territory to the unknown. “Bliss” is one such piece. Instantly recognizable to all Windows XP users, the whimsical painting of blue skies and a rolling green hill is a familiar sight among the sea of other more obscure science related images.
Painting from reference is not uncommon. However, when it comes to these references, Gan himself asserts this point publicly, something that others rarely do. The images which he paints are photographs sourced through the internet and then painted to its best likeness.
There is a subtle pattern to the arrangement of the artworks. To tap into Gan’s mind and discover the influences behind these paintings, he has incorporated multiple QR codes to help guide us along. Once these codes are scanned, they will link you to a series of videos related to that particular imagery. Think of it as an audio commentary of sorts.
“I don’t see paintings as an aesthetic object only, I see painting as a physical manifestation of ideas,” says Gan. By incorporating the QR codes, he has opened the door wide for the audience. You can either enjoy the paintings as they are from an aesthetic point of view or pick up the clues he left for us and discover a whole new dimension.
Therein lies the beauty of The Pleasures of Odds and Ends. Almost like a scavenger hunt, Gan has crafted a unique participatory journey for his exhibition. He leaves you breadcrumbs to follow if you’re willing. The videos are only a starting point for that journey.
Of the entire show, “Sisyphus” would have to be one of my favourites. It is named after the Greek mythological character of King Sisyphus who was condemned to roll a huge rock uphill only to watch it fall back down and for him to endlessly repeat the mind-numbing act.
A circuit board comes to mind as you view the image with fine details of interwoven wires drawing you in. Painting this would have been a laborious and Sisyphean task itself and an allegory to the title. Moreover, it is strongly reflective of the artist’s interest in the idea of repetition and patterns.
To help you delve deeper into the imagery used for the painting, the QR codes lead you to two videos. One is a full-length BBC documentary (2008) on how our memory develops and functions while the other one seems to be an introductory video on the properties of magnetic cores by the US Army (1961). From viewing the image to reading the title and eventually watching the videos, one is able to get a grasp on how the artist cleverly injects puns, humour and indirect references to certain issues through his painting. Everything is interconnected on a more intrinsic level and alludes to the layers of meaning and inspiration beyond the visual representation of the painting.
On a hunch, I Googled “magnetic cores” and the search led me directly to the very same image which Gan had referenced. In fact, it was the first hit I got from the search. Mission accomplished. Almost. How much further I would like to go down the rabbit hole of magnetic cores and memory related subject is now entirely dependent on me.
In Search of Meaning in Faraway Places, 2014
“So I started with trying to take the creative act outside of making an image, to making a show. The show to me is an experience that is made with paintings,” Gan tells me in an interview. To me, this captures what The Pleasures of Odds and Ends is about. The “show” – the richer, fuller experience – can only be had if the audience is not passive.
Somehow, it is almost apt that in this era, the audience experience has been taken out beyond the constraints of a physical gallery space and into a more digital form. With the digital device and the QR codes, the artist feels omnipresent. One is able to move fluidly from viewing a painting to watching a video related to it in a matter of seconds.
The internet, though filled with endless possibilities, is often also dismissed as a distraction from other more tangible things. In The Pleasures of Odds and Ends, Gan has used this bottomless virtual pit to his advantage. Instead of drawing the audience’s attention away from the painting, it seeks to enrich the overall experience. Thus, Gan’s art allows us the guilty pleasure of reveling in the odds and ends of the virtual world.