Stripping Down: In conversation with Chong Siew Ying
Interview by Chai Chang Hwang (Translated from Chinese)
26 February 2004, Kuala Lumpur

Would you give us a brief introduction to the coming show, for example: the themes, the types of artwork, the number of paintings,etc.?

The exhibition is set for August, and I have yet to decide on how many art pieces will be chosen for the show. In this show, I explore the theme of human body, as an expression of human relationships, and the bond between human and space. Here, I mean not simply physical space but also emotional and spiritual space.

The word ‘nude’ in Western art context, means being naked or bare. I have no intention of simply repeating the convention of glorifying the beauty of human body, but rather seek to express the spiritual side of it. Metaphorically speaking, all human are born naked, and we face the world naked. Gender is of little significance here. The figures in my paintings often carry a sense of loneliness, perhaps in some way or another reflecting my state of mind - he/she can be described as the reflection of my inner self, or even my reincarnation.

Really, my paintings are more inclined towards the spiritual or psychological aspects of expression, which are tied to aesthetic concerns.

Do you think it is true that female artists tend to be better at or have a preference towards the theme of human body – of " love & sex " – especially when nudity can easily trigger sexual thoughts?

Looking back through art history, the masters in this area mostly come from our male counterparts. For centuries, women was only model for male artists…

…Male artists tend to have a different viewpoint…

…Of course, this is because women and men have different ways of interpreting things, and hence differ in emotion and expression. However, women in comparison to men tend to be more sensitive, more meticulous and work in depth…I'm not sure if this applies to me, though.

Looking at the progress of today’s art, a number of prominent female artists on the international art scene use their own naked bodies for expression, and I would like to hear your thoughts on this.

Yes! There are quite a number of women artists who not only paint themselves as the subject, but also paint the male body. On top of that, their works often have sexual connotations, or even bluntly illustrate a sex scene, or exaggerate on the sex organs, as though they are shouting: "We can do it too!"

Although I have nothing against this, such a provocative approach is the least of my intentions. The human body as a subject has many possibilities, and this will never come to an end, as long as the artists keep having different things to say.

Society says that we should wear clothes to cover our body; this is also the symbol of a civilized society. However, most figures drawn by artists are in nude. Can you share with us your views pertaining to this topic? Does your work share the same implication?

First of all, I would like to clarify that the nudity in my paintings makes no reference to social issues. Nudity has a different, transcendental significance in my work, and a personal significance also.

When you refer to the naked body "representing pure nature", do you mean it is "closer to nature"? The practice of wearing clothes has had a few thousands years of history and I am a person living in the 21st century. I do not deny that my paintings do to a certain extent portray the beauty of the human body. In life, though, I have always believed that a clothed body is far more attractive that a naked one. I would feel more insecure without clothes on - the body is far safer with clothes on.

The human body has been perceived differently in different ages and cultures - for example, when Edouard Manet, (1832-1883) depicted a naked women in the painting Olympia, he was scrutinized by the society as being inappropriate, and was refused permission for exhibition. As a modern female artist, how do you view your own paintings of female body?

The image of a naked woman lying down can be purely aesthetic, but in the mind of someone else it can seem pornographic. Every art work can be ambiguous, and this may even stimulate the viewer's perceptive and emotional response. To me, this is a positive thing.

In my paintings, the nudes, if not standing, are mostly sitting. There are no seductive or teasing postures. The first point of departure in my work is simply 'smile' - the smile is always intriguing. I find it far more challenging to create a piece of work that carries a sense of well being, that can leave a lasting impression in the viewer, as compared to something that is simply provocative.

In some of the paintings, the bald figures make it difficult for us to tell their gender, this isn’t merely an attempt to creating ambiguity, is it?

I use baldness in order to emphasize facial expression. I believe that when a person is rid of hair, his/her appearance is changed dramatically, and the expression of the body, which is my subject here, is as a result, augmented.

You just mentioned that the you are going to place some flowers over the male subjects. Do the flowers carry any feminine connotation?

In fact, I imagine that placing another layer of shapes to the human figures can enhance the dimensionality of the painting. I want to create another space and time and this is about memory, and not about the male-female relationship.

Memory plays a strong role in my work. When we recollect things, fragments of our memories flash through our minds like film footage. I see these images as transparent. They are there, yet they are not quite there. I choose flowers because I adore them, and they also create strong visual impact. Moreover, flowers have a symbolic relation to time. The time between blooming and withering is very short, fleeting.

I can’t really explain why, but whenever I look at the smiling faces in your paintings, there is often a feeling that they are only smiling on the surface but underneath, there is a sense of melancholy…

Just now I mentioned how interesting it is to have different reactions from different viewers, who might interpret the same facial expression in the painting in various ways - some may see it 'crying' or ‘screaming’, and yet some may see it as laughing happily.

My point is, sometimes, we experience emotions that we ourselves do not comprehend, I wonder if you have had such experience before?

I am very conscious about how I feel. When I am happy, I am truly happy; when I am sad, I really do feel sadness. It is only when someone is in touch with his or her true emotions of happiness and sadness, that he/she truly alive!

I won’t deny our subconscious can play tricks on us, but this is beyond our control. I have paintings completed during hard times – for example, the year when I had just returned from Paris, I was doubtful about my future, feeling alone and helpless -- now when I look at those works, I am puzzled with the sense of peace and calmness that prevails in the works. The subjects neither laugh nor cry.

With regards to composition, your paintings are often void of the obvious signs of time and space. The paintings are often images of the human figure with a distant background. They are minimal, yet they are rich in visual effect. Is that intentional?

I've travelled alone through deserts, mountains and beaches, and that feeling of space always finds its way subconsciously into the paintings -- I intend to reduce space and time to the level of nothingness - so that a place could be anywhere, located in any time, a space for imagination.

Certain postures in my painting are recurring: a little girl on her toes or a man looking up the sky. As a child, I always dreamt of exploring the world, to experience different things.. I enjoyed traveling, meeting different people, and from their faces probe into human emotion. This is why I choose the human being as my subject.

You go to your studio everyday, you seem to be very disciplined. When you are not painting, you travel, staying for a short period of time from one place to another. Your life seems to be in a constant flux between "stopping and moving". Does your art show the same feeling about tension of life?

Yes! I continue to experience what life has to offer, earnestly experiencing every moment of it. Imagine if one person shifted house for seven times in ten years, and lived in several countries –each time he/she has to make a choice between what to let go and what to keep, both emotionally and materially...

Change has become a way of life, and it is in these changes that the passion for life is ignited, as well as the passion for creation.