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  CHONG SIEW YING monologue (1998 - 2008)
An introduction by Beverly Yong
2008

The work of Chong Siew Ying comes from a unique place. Siew Ying was born in 1969 in post-Independence Malaysia to Chinese parents. As a young graduate of a local art college, she sent herself to Paris with practically no spoken English or French, chasing dreams of becoming a "grande artiste" in that famous capital of the arts. Armed with a Beaux-Arts education and the rich and liberating experience of years of practicing as an artist in Paris, she returned to Malaysia in 1998, and has since built a life and career across the two very different contexts of Southeast Asia and Western Europe.

While many artists would focus on the conflicts and uncertainties of such a position - being Chinese, and Chinese-educated, in multi-ethnic Malaysia, living a life literally and consciously split between East and West, Siew Ying builds on its positive aspects, binding diverse philosophies and experiences into a personal artistic vision, which has laid the grounds for the universality of her work and its appeal.

This monograph traces the development of that vision over the past ten years and beyond, following a chronological path through changes of place and sensibility as well as a continuing exploration into different approaches to the human subject. A bold, lyrical and elegant painter, Siew Ying's work is profoundly emotive, embracing broad themes such as nature, human relationships and the search for meaning in life. The expressive qualities of the human form - its spontaneity, its mystery, its ability to relate joy, pain, ecstasy and loss are central to her painting.

Surveying the course of Siew Ying's practice, we find the artist exploring in depth the scale of the human emotional register.

Her early years in Paris mark a period of introspection and loneliness, of anonymous faces and figures, imagined landscapes shaped by subtle changes of mood. We see an early interest in Chinese philosophy and classical poetry married with existentialist queries. It is also for the artist a time of experiment in various media - printmaking, collage, and charcoal as well as painting in oil.

From the time of her return to Malaysia, Siew Ying embarks on an investigation of laughter, as Gary Proctor eloquently puts it, "laughter as a continuous event... an opening to forgiveness". Laughing faces people a local environment, later developing into large scale portraits of bald, almost androgynous heads laughing, crying out, holding an inner smile. Painting becomes clearly a cathartic experience for the painter and the viewer, a release from the constraints of social identification and negotiation. An important quality of Siew Ying's work is its conscious rejection of the detachment and cynicism central to much of contemporary figurative painting; even her sense of satire is light and infused with a prevailing humanism. Later on, she explores the nude, or rather naked, figure, stripping it of specific cultural or sexual references. The moments of intimacy, self-reflection, vulnerability and freedom expressed in her work pose a direct challenge to the coyness and smugness with which modern man is wont to barricade himself against a frightening world.

In her most recent work, Siew Ying takes on the problem of beauty, and by extension exoticism. In late 2006 she made a series of charcoal drawings of largely Malaysian flora and fauna, of an almost forgotten life in nature which prevails in the background of modern urbanism, moving on to a body of portraits of imagined Oriental beauties adorning her compositions with classical Chinese motifs - flowers, blossoms, goldfish, distant mountainscapes. Here is a dream of beauty that emerges from the ancient art and poetry and more current epic historical movies of a "lost" Chinese past, at once magnifying and re-inventing a stereotype, facing us with questions of where our ideal of the beautiful comes from. A new series of paintings creates an Eastern arcadia, fusing laughter and play with classical elements that take on a new colour and energy in oil.

Fully aware of the complex environment she operates in, Chong Siew Ying's work does not intend merely to provide a pleasurable escape from its difficulties. Rather, it attempts to liberate human emotion from the burden of the world's expectations. In a context where we are drowning in, or hiding from, our failings as a human society, Siew Ying has the audacity to pronounce a rare sense of belief in a universal humanity - to retrieve for us our nakedness, our wonder at ourselves before the Fall.

 
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