Hit The Ground and Blossom
A solo show by Seah Zelin
10th December 2015, Thursday
6.30 pm – 10.30 pm
Exhibition runs from 10th – 31st of December 2015
TAKSU Kuala Lumpur
17 Jalan Pawang
54000 Kuala Lumpur
T: +603 4251 4396
F: +603 4251 4331
Mon – Sat: 10am – 7pm
Closed on Sundays or by appointment only
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The Future is Shiny
Hit The Ground and Blossom 落地开花
Through the telescope of history, we see that Seah Zelin’s paintbrush once sang in hues of black and white. We spotted this at a two-man exhibition in 2013. The tunes played out in visceral displays of painted gestures that formed manmade scenes from IKEA catalogues, and the works were centred on the sociopolitics of the day and a dystopian view that all roads in life lead to the global grip of capitalism.
Today’s works differ. For one, the monochromatic palette has given way to the intervention of gold leaves, shades of rose and blue, and the rust-coloured markings of bitumen. Quite noticeably, too, the humble linen canvas now shares the limelight with aluminium plates and even a swimming pool. Zelin, the artist, is singing different melodies.
But beyond the musical analogies, these shifts are clear signals of change, both in terms of artistic virtuoso and in life. Spurred by Zelin’s 2014 participation in a seminal exhibition that saw him travelling to the Saatchi Gallery in London with three other Malaysian artists (Anne Samat, Sabri Idrus, and Kow Leong Kiang) and discovering new benchmarks to aim for in terms of artistic output and representation, the works in Hit The Ground and Blossom are a result of the artist looking through his own future viewfinder and prophesying that change was necessary. “I found that it wasn’t enough for me to get to that stage with what I had then,” he recalls of that decisive moment.
Elevating the medium and playing East-West notes
Mediums lay at the starting line of this new journey, and Zelin’s practice swerved towards the context of each medium and how Western traditions have been transformed within local or regional contexts. This has some parallels to Zelin’s own eye-opener in London, and the artist has married this with a focus on draftsmanship, the very essence of fine art.
Still lifes were an almost natural choice, then. A genre that lies at the cornerstone of Western art traditions, still lifes offer a great test to painting skills and the main reference point in Zelin’s works were Flemish Baroque paintings called ‘Pronkstilleven’. More specifically, the artist’s three ‘Vase of Flowers’ paintings – the first works to exit the studio for this solo exhibition – borrow heavily from Jan Davidsz. De Heem’s painting of the same title, with elements even spilling over into the artist’s more abstract diptych, ‘Fall’.
Other forms of references abound in the artist’s aluminium plate works, with the metal hinting at the digital age and how easy it is to create and subtract today. “I find aluminium to be a medium that can represent the “Undo” key in computer language. Physically, aluminium allows for amendments – paints may be removed totally without leaving any marks – and at the same time, aluminium is used in most high-tech inventions, like 3D printing. These are my visual experiences nowadays, therefore, I adopted the 3D wireframe construction method into my practice,” he says.
Surprisingly, the effect from this digital-first approach has resulted in Cubist or Constructivist flavours, and the action of applying, removing, layering, fragmenting, and connecting has developed into more abstract results than before. “My work is becoming more symbolic and abstract, and I believe forms and mediums can say more than the images,” attests the artist.
For most audiences, though, the Eastern notes in Hit The Ground and Blossom will not go amiss. There are distinct Peranakan and Islamic motifs present in Zelin’s deconstructed compositions, where the cobalt blue elements mingle with the shiny veneer of the aluminium plates, and works like ‘Tetris_Round 1’ and ‘The Blue and White_Route A’ lure the eye into piecing all the broken pieces together.
This was all part of Zelin’s modus operandi to inject a more regional identity into his works. “I found that I had to attach my practice to some context in the region – Malaysia as part of Southeast Asia – and this wasn’t included before in my practice, because it wasn’t related to the global phenomena,” he explains. The ‘global phenomena’ that he refers to was a key point in older works, whereas today’s series is a more concentrated look at the issues close by, particularly on cultural migration and his own beliefs. As a Chinese-Malaysian, Zelin questions the racial label assigned to him “all the time”, and there’s palpable confusion stemming from national propaganda that promotes the concept of a single people, a homogeneous society, a ‘1’. As an individual, Zelin fights this classification. “The more and more alike we are to each other, there would be no more individual cultures.” Does this worry him? “A little bit,” he says without hesitating.
Swimming in deeper waters
The material gestures and themes in the aluminium and paint works all add up to a grand culmination, a mammoth achievement of a site-specific installation in TAKSU’s swimming pool. This isn’t Zelin’s first time dabbling in the physical sorcery of installations. Earlier this year, his fishing net trap installation turned heads at Art Stage Singapore, and today’s work is a natural evolution of that.
At time of writing, the work had yet to be built, but Zelin’s descriptions promised scale and national metaphors. “The pool will, as usual, be filled with water, with the aluminium plates painted with patterns (20cm x 20cm each) floating on the surface, covering the entire pool. You’ll merely see some wavy forms in between the plates, as it will appear just like a ground covered by tiles. The difference is that these “tiles” are reflective, and it’s only when I turn on the pipe that you will get to see bigger waves and the ground starts shaking and turning unstable. This “ground” refers to the current Malaysian condition,’ he explains.
In this respect, Zelin’s bitumen-stained still lifes do point west, but the aluminium-based works are clearly eyeing the East. With the installation, the interpretation is even more micro-leveled, with the artist’s thoughts not only swimming within the context of Malaysia, but also the very context of the pool and the gallery’s unique residential setting. “To have a show in a bungalow reminded me of the truth that artworks are a decorative piece to collectors. One has to confront in order to react, and the installation is a reminder to the viewer about the surreal experience they are having in a luxurious home, which could be an illusion, an unstable experience,” he adds.
Underneath it all
With the installation, Zelin’s desire is to confuse viewers – “Are they looking at the wave of ground or water?” – and this longing hints at art’s greater power to have us question what we see and what everything ultimately means. For Zelin, this entire series has been about questioning the signs and signifiers that we are tied to, and essentially, his identity and Malaysia’s at large.
“In my condition – a Chinese as the second largest race in an Islamic country (Malaysia) and an Asian who practices Western Ideologies – my works reveal the crash, transformation, and restoration between Western, Islamic, and Chinese Ideologies and its influences,” says the artist, but succinctly, what he’s hinting at is that his works represent the very truth of being Seah Zelin today. Globalisation may have been a stronghold in his past, but actually going global with his art has, ironically, brought the artist’s observations much closer to home. “I think it is important to keep individual differences, especially now,” states the artist, and the entire body of work in Hit The Ground and Blossom channels the importance of multiple cultures blooming and the inevitable rises and falls that are part of life.
The work ‘Fall’ is a good summation of things. “It’s the opposite of ‘Blossom’. To me, it is not the end, but a part of the cycle – blossom to fall/fall to blossom for completion,” he says, adding that the fall is not something to be afraid of. After all, even through rubble, new structures can be built again. “To me, the transfer of western art to Asian, the exchange of Islamic culture to Chinese are all positive signs, as this is how things evolve, different values will go through a lost and found route again and again. And at last, I bring a hope into my conclusion that all the current unstable changes happening in Malaysia will result a blooming of new values at the end”.