Chan Kok Hooi: Here I Could Even Pluck The Stars By Hand
Visualizations of Verticality and Meditations on Materiality
by Carmen Nge
“I love film, especially Italian Neorealism. I also really love Eraserhead. Do you know that film?” Chan Kok Hooi asked me over lunch. I thought we’d be discussing art, artists and artworks for his current exhibition at the A+ Works of Art gallery, but Kok Hooi proved to have very eclectic interests. Our conversation roamed widely that afternoon: from cinema to theatre, poetry to painting, Salvador Dali to Zulkifli Dahlan, Eastern philosophy to Malaysian politics.
In many ways, the breadth of Kok Hooi’s influences is plainly evident in his oeuvre. His early artworks such as the Non Series (2003-2006) and the Carnivore series (2004-2007) embody a decidedly postmodern ethos 1 that is marked by discordant surrealistic collages of images from sources as diverse as pop culture, film, science fiction, art history, classical history, Malaysian politics and culture, etc. His I Seek You series (2007-2010) uses the veneer of photographic nostalgia to proffer a wry commentary on relationships in the age of instant messaging, a precursor to today’s social media platforms.
For his sixth solo exhibition, Kok Hooi continues work on his Jeans series, which he began in 2014. But the riotous displays of unbridled plurality from a decade earlier have now given way to a visually organized multiplicity. Comprising 13 mixed media works, the artist’s latest show is an amalgamation of his recent forays into needlework, miniature painting, and experimenting with materials.
The title of Kok Hooi’s exhibition, “Here I could even Pluck the Stars by Hand”, is taken from a short poem by one of China’s most beloved poets, Li Bai (701-762), who had a penchant for writing about nature, mountains and wine. Li Bai was a free spirit who wrote poems with vivid imagery and sensory detail, and often got drunk. Legend has it that he died from drowning in a lake. Li Bai was apparently on a nocturnal boat ride while inebriated and when trying to retrieve the moon from the water, he fell overboard 2.
The poem that Kok Hooi chose for his exhibition is titled, “Staying Overnight at a Mountain Temple” and it is a spare and simple quatrain:
The temple rises a hundred feet high. Here I could even pluck the stars by hand. To raise my voice in speech I do not dare, For fear I’d disturb the beings up there.
Deftly translated by Tan Yau Chong, the poem documents Li Bai’s fascination for the loftiness of the temple on the mountain; this is a case of double elevation: the height of the mountain coupled with the height of the temple. A hundred feet (approximately 30 metres) might not seem particularly tall; the Petronas Twin Towers is an impressive 451.9 metres in comparison. But the height of the temple atop a very high mountain makes Li Bai think he can touch the stars in the night sky. His reverence for such altitude may stem from his temple vantage point, a place associated with religious worship and solemnity. The proximity of the temple to sky deities further adds to Li Bai’s sense of deference and leads to his vocal suppressions.
The significance of being in a high place is not lost on Chan Kok Hooi, a Penangite who, like his favourite poet Li Bai, also enjoys communing with nature on his many hikes up Penang Hill, visiting temples along the way. Kok Hooi likes to take less trodden paths and vividly recounted his most favoured hike to the Lean Fah Thong Temple, one of many Lao Tzu temples in Ayer Itam. The path Kok Hooi prefers to take to the temple is less popular among hikers because it is very steep, with tall bamboo plants growing on either side. But it is precisely this sense of remoteness and seclusion that draws him.
The preponderance of elevated spaces in Kok Hooi’s life is not unusual. The artist lives and works in his studio in Penang, which overlooks a densely populated residential area of low-rise buildings as well as ubiquitous high-rise condominiums that dwarf his own apartment block. The experience of verticality figures prominently in Kok Hooi’s life as he soaks in the concrete landscape that carves out rectangular slabs of urbanity for daily consumption.
Residents of high-rise buildings have accustomed themselves to travelling in elevators and walking down narrow corridors as part of their daily commute to and from destinations beyond the home space. Kok Hooi is no different. But for him, vertical existence is not only a physical lived reality; it is also imbued with an organizing logic that spills over into the realm of the ideological and metaphorical.
High-rise condominiums are high for a reason: they can house more people even though they occupy less land and thus, are more spatially efficient and economical by design. Units on the highest floors also command the highest prices; the idea of having fantastic views or being able to look down on others is the logic governing such property valuation. No one wants to deliberate too much on the fact that during a fire, those living on the highest floors would have the greatest difficulty getting to safety.
Depictions of heaven and hell, or representations of the rich and poor, are also conveyed using high vs low symbolism. The 1% inhabits the rarefied air at the top of the pyramid of privilege whilst the rest of the 99% subsist within that stale stratum where the rubber meets the road. According to most religious teachings, however, the road to redemption does not discriminate—there is no fast track to salvation even if you have all the billions in the world to spend—but in the hierarchical scheme of things, few aspire to eke out a living among the lowlife. Even if it were easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than it is for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven 3, most of us would still rather be rich.
In this context, it is unsurprising that a great many luxury condominiums these days are built by the most marginalized of the poor: foreign migrant workers. These are workers who occupy some of the lowest strata of Malaysian society yet they spend their working lives on scaffoldings in the sky, building upwards for owners who either look down at them or do not see them at all. The confluence of up and down, high and low, top and bottom is nowhere more pronounced and heartfelt than in such vertical residences.
Kok Hooi is very much aware of such contradictions and in fact,
was inspired to use secondhand jeans as canvases for his works in this exhibition. While watching construction workers in Penang, he noticed that jeans seemed to be the trousers of choice for them. As an artist, he too wore jeans while working and in this regard, he and the construction workers shared something in common. For him, used jeans are like hands: they visually carry the vestiges of labour in their wear and tear, and their various shades of discoloration. Seeing paint splatter on his own jeans then spurred him to think about making art out of the denim material.
Kok Hooi sourced for used jeans from the same places where construction workers would buy theirs. Despite their universal blue colour, jeans are incredibly diverse in terms of the types of wash — stone-washed, acid-washed, enzyme-washed, bleach-washed — or the dyes used. Jeans may also go through special factory processing to obtain certain effects, e.g. sandblasted or distressed/ripped jeans. Kok Hooi selected suitable pieces for his work based on choice of colour, texture and length.
Although he liked working with the jeans material due to its shape and the possibilities it afforded, he found it hard to apply paint onto its surface. Jeans are generally more elastic than canvas so, when stretched, they have a tendency to become loose more easily; they also have very rough surfaces. These two characteristics of jeans made them difficult to paint on. Kok Hooi had to use acrylic paint exclusively because if he had used oil paints, he would have needed to prime the jeans first, which would have resulted in a less natural look. Nonetheless, the quick drying nature of acrylics meant he still had to apply many coats of paint to the jeans before he could get an intense or vivid colour. To avoid making mistakes, he worked slowly, planning the colour scheme and composing the elements in each frame well in advance. To give his artworks more depth and dimension, Kok Hooi further added multiple layers of needlework to his painted and unpainted jeans canvases. Due to the meticulous art process and fine detailing involved, one work could easily take him months to complete to his satisfaction.
Since the dimensions of jeans are narrow and long, it makes sense that Kok Hooi’s artworks are thusly shaped. His art conforms to the natural cut length of the material and he took great pains to work within this constraint of form because he wanted the shape of his works to be a reminder of the human legs that were once encased in the jeans. In many ways, the verticality of his artworks aptly matches the vertical orientation of the workers as they build and move, powered by their jean-clad legs.
Taken from the Latin vertex, meaning “highest point” or from the late Latin verticalis, meaning “overhead”, the word “vertical” naturally conjures up images of tall objects towering above us. Our apprehension of verticality requires us to tilt our heads up so that our eyes can accurately capture the height of a vertical object; this is also the case when we view Kok Hooi’s artworks in this exhibition.
With the exception of two artworks, the bulk of Kok Hooi’s works compel us to crane our necks and lift our gaze, forcing us to simulate the experience of looking at tall buildings. It is as if the artist is challenging us to position our bodies and to move our eyeballs in ways we have not done before.
The most neck aching of his works must surely be Taller Neighbours, which stretches all the way to the 16th floor of a high-rise. The soaring vertical height is offset by the rather uniform array of windows, all of which are sewn onto dissimilar squares of jeans, some of which bear the marks of wear and tear, and others which look fairly new. By reducing each apartment unit to a window on a square of jeans, Kok Hooi forces us to confront the paramountcy of verticality. Unlike his other works, the windows in Taller Neighbours do not allow us to look inside the residences; thus, we apprehend their height, not their depth.
Next to the 5th floor of this vertiginous tower is a miniature artwork depicting a curiously crowded elevator cubicle of unclothed passengers, their buttocks bare before us. Instead of round heads, everyone sports elongated oblong craniums that resemble apartment blocks with windows. Some heads have five windows, others three, and one person even has six windows. Perhaps the number of windows corresponds to the floor where the respective resident’s unit is situated. Perhaps the high-rise-shaped heads are a metaphor for how much a person’s mental space is pre-occupied with thoughts of his or her residence. Regardless of how one makes sense of the elevator passengers’ heads, there is no denying the diminutive size of this adjacent artwork.
Kok Hooi told me that when creating the piece, he was very much influenced by Islamic miniatures, an ancient artform dating as far back as 1000 AD. Islamic and particularly Persian miniatures, are small paintings on paper, oftentimes illustrations for a book or sometimes compiled into small albums called muraqqa 4. Kok Hooi himself is no stranger to miniature paintings, having previously created small-scale artworks for his Paper Dolls and Photo Store series, both done in 2008. The acrylic paintings for these two series typically measure no larger than 20cm x 16cm and resemble old stamps, due to their deckled edges. Each work is highly compact, with elaborate backgrounds and finely drawn human faces.
The artist’s careful attention to detail is also evident in the elevator piece. The interior space of the elevator is painted with incredible fidelity, from the way the light bounces off the metallic walls to the shadows cast by the inhabitants of the lift. The size of the work, relative to the main piece in Taller Neighbours, is also a reflection of how tiny apartment dwellers are, when compared with the buildings within which they live. Despite the large numbers of people occupying tall condominiums, the scale of human existence is still dwarfed by the towering edifices erected in their name.
If the elevator image illustrates one way of moving vertically within a tall building, then Starry Night and Sweet Sweat illustrate another. Both works showcase a cross section of multiple sets of staircases, which are typically found next to elevator shafts as an alternative route powered by bipedalism, not electricity. Devoid of humans, these staircases become abstract shapes against a textured textile background and take on a sculptural quality. In both works, impressions of verticality are subsumed by patterned expressions.
Sweet Sweat refers to the markings of a worker’s toil soaked into the jeans he wears; the uneven absorption of bright acrylic colours resembles streaks of sweat. Yet a worker’s perspiration is sweetened by the fruits of his laborious creation: the more staircases he builds, the greater the stature of his construction. Gazing at Starry Night, our eyes are drawn to the twinkling stars evoked by the silver sequins sewn onto multiple layers of dark acrylic paint applied to the jeans fabric. We can easily imagine a construction worker gazing up at the night sky at the end of a long day, quietly contemplating the magnitude of his daily achievements.
The only artwork that breaks from the vertical plane is Long Long Journey, which depicts passengers on a LRT (light rapid transit) train. Like their elevator counterparts in Taller Neighbours, these travelling folk are also depicted unclothed. Although this work was completed before the momentous results of Malaysia’s 14th General Elections held on 9 May 2018, the title reminds us of the protracted journey ahead as we attempt to face a future stripped of unseemly vestiges of the past.
Despite being confined to the moving train, passengers from all walks of life go about their daily activities, nonchalant about their state of undress. Their insouciance calls to mind similar blissfully naked human beings thronging city streets and kampungs in two seminal works, Kedai-kedai (1973) and Realiti Berasingan: Satu Hari di Bumi Larangan (1975), by one of our nation’s most free-spirited pioneers of Malaysian art, Zulkifli Dahlan 5. Art historical references populate many of the art pieces in Kok Hooi’s
exhibition. Salvador Dali’s iconic melting clock from The Persistence of Memory (1931) surfaces in Original Dream, and shares a window ledge with Fujiko F. Fujio’s manga icon Doraemon. Japan’s most beloved time travelling robotic cat loves to bend time as much as Dali’s timepiece so it is particularly fitting to see them positioned together so endearingly. For fans of the adorable cat, an incredibly exacting facsimile of Doraemon in his original colour can be found in Melancholic Lullaby.
Original Dream also pays homage to ancient Egyptian religion through the depiction of two birds with human heads. Ancient Egyptians believed the soul to be made up of three parts: the ba, the ka, and the akh. Ba represents the soul in a state of mobility between death and the afterlife, and is commonly represented by a bird with a human head 6. Such diverse allusions certainly confirm Kok Hooi’s far- ranging interests.
Apart from referencing others, Kok Hooi also seems to enjoy referencing himself and the subject matter of his work for this exhibition; he also finds the most ingenious ways to incorporate his signature into each artwork. The tools of his craft: paintbrushes, paint rollers, dirty palettes, colourful tubes of paint, needlecases, spools of thread, scissors and measuring tape, also figure prominently in many of his pieces. As proof of his preternatural ability to create miniatures with exacting detail in vivid colour or using precise needlework, the artist sews tiny reproductions of jeans onto the jeans canvases of Melancholic Lullaby and Morning Song. In Handwork Serenade, Kok Hooi surpasses even himself by painting an unbelievably teensy replica of his very same artwork, seen through an open window.
Open windows are a recurring motif in many of the works on display and they point to the artist’s desire to reveal that which is hidden behind closed doors. Condominium Cowboys blatantly alludes to the infamous National Feedlot Corporation Sdn Bhd (NFC) corruption scandal, where the purchase of cattle was compromised by the procurement of luxury condominiums using taxpayers’ money. In Kok Hooi’s work, the cows do not seem to be too perturbed by such financial impropriety and in fact, have taken it upon themselves to occupy the condominiums instead.
Exposed wood frames take on new meaning in Condominium Cowboys, serving as a metaphor for the exposure of many such investment debacles by whistleblowers and non-governmental (NGO) activists. In Morning Song, exposed wood frames serve as makeshift clotheslines, supporting newly laundered clothes of varying types and sizes that are hung out to dry in the spirit of Bersih 7.
However, in Sorrowful Song, the frames are painted over and their exposure less visible. A recognizable navy blue colour is dominant in this work — it is a colour commonly identified with the flag of the former Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition government. In Kok Hooi’s work, the white balance scale logo in BN’s flag has been replaced with white panties. The arresting image of white panties carrying dirty blue stains was previously used by the artist’s in a work aptly titled 50 Years of Sorrow (2013). Sorrowful Song is indeed a fitting companion piece and a shrewd interpretation of BN’s fall from grace.
Many of Kok Hooi’s works are certainly rife with political commentary. The spectre of political aide Teoh Beng Hock’s untimely and mysterious demise while in MACC 8 custody in 2009 looms large in both Beautiful Surfaces and Homeland Sweet Homeland. The chalk outline of Teoh’s lifeless body is, by now, a familiar leitmotif in the arena of national scandals. In Beautiful Surfaces it is partially obscured by a whale splashing water from a swimming pool that also house a submarine — a Scorpene, perhaps? Open windows a few floors up look into blood splattered rooms that no amount of paint can cover up.
Of all the artworks in the exhibition, I found Homeland Sweet Homeland to be the most powerful. The work resembles a thick cushion that bears the faint traces of falling bodies — not just Teoh Beng Hock’s but also the bodies of countless and nameless foreign migrant workers who have fallen to their deaths while attending to the task of building for our nation and its people. These jeans are brown, like the earth from which sprout beautiful green weeds, struggling to survive in the cracks and fissures of their seams. These are the weeds that will live on, long after our sky-high properties are bought, sold or abandoned.
Part of the potency of Homeland Sweet Homeland has to do with its orientation; unlike other artworks, this one would be placed flat on the ground. After spending a lot of time standing, looking up and down, or looking side to side, viewers will finally be compelled to kneel to see this work up close. To be able to see microscopic ants establishing a path for their ilk, we would need to expend effort to gaze painstakingly close because if we don’t, there is a lot we will miss.
This is true of all of Kok Hooi’s artworks on exhibit — they invite us to spend time to peer in as well as to look up and out, to scrutinize and to examine and to really take in what no-one has taken the time to see before: not just the monuments we so proudly live in but also the human beings who made them.
1 A commendably comprehensible summary of the main characteristics of postmodern art can be found here: http://www.tate.org.uk/art/ art-terms/p/postmodernism.
2 Schirokauer, C. and Brown, M. (2013). A Brief History of Chinese Civilization (4th edition), Boston, USA: Wadsworth Cengage Learning, p. 120.
3 A saying attributed to Jesus in the Bible (Matthew 10:24 and Luke 18:25).
4 Froom, A. E. (2001). “Collecting Tastes: A Muraqqa’ for Sultan Murad III”. Journal of Oriental Studies IV: 19, pp. 1–14.
5 Kok Hooi recognizes a kindred spirit in Zulkifli Dahlan by painting a faithful, though very much scaled-down reproduction
of Kedai-kedai, in New Paradise, an artwork regrettably omitted from the exhibition but that also features urbanites engaged
in everyday activities, such as shopping and hanging out in malls, in their birthday suits.
6 Mark, J. J. (2017). “The Soul in Ancient Egypt” from The Ancient History Encyclopedia. Retrieved from https://www.ancient.eu/ article/1023/the-soul-in-ancient-egypt/
7 Bersih is the moniker for a coalition
of NGOs set up in 2006 with the intention of reforming the electoral system in Malaysia. Bersih the coalition later organized a series of local and global street protests (2007-2016) to galvanize a citizens’ movement of the same name, which called for clean and fair elections for Malaysia. The colour yellow is synonymous with the Bersih movement as
it was used in all their paraphernalia.
8 MACC refers to the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission.