Over the past twenty years, Chang Fee Ming has carved a place in the Southeast Asian region as its leading artist working in watercolour. In a contemporary art context where anything goes, he has chosen to bring a traditional medium to new levels of virtuosity, exploring its potential to express narrative texture, to capture the detailed nuances of the places and cultures he encounters. From his birthplace in Terengganu on the east coast of Malaysia, he has travelled through Asia and beyond, tracing the heritage of different communities, and finding stories in their everyday. He has produced powerful, memorable bodies of work on coastal life in Terengganu, on Balinese culture, on the changing face of the Mekong region, on the harsh realities of the Tibetan Plateau.
Chang Fee Ming: Imprinted Thought is the result of a different sort of adventure, one that has taken place mainly within the confines of a printmaking studio. For an artist so dedicated to his primary medium, who has always worked alone, the four weeks spent at STPI proved a fruitful exploration of a new medium and collaborative process.
In the exhibition itself, those familiar with Chang’s work will recognize various elements of his long-time interests – subjects from Terengganu, Indonesia and Tibet, and see the artist delve into some new territory, such as India, as if parts of the artist’s world have been brought together in a provocative conversation. However, the overall dynamic of Chang’s work here is transformed by the printmaking techniques introduced. A playful side of the artist is revealed, imbued with a sense of humour, and even pastiche, as he breaks out into new processes and strategies. If we follow through the process of how Chang came to make these works, we find some clue to the story they may tell as a whole.
This collaborative project aimed to marry Chang’s drawing and watercolour skills with different printmaking techniques. For STPI, working with a watercolourist like Chang whose use of the medium is so meticulous and deeply felt must have posed an interesting challenge. Chang saw it as an opportunity to expand perceptions of watercolour as a medium, even beyond his own achievements in pushing its boundaries. While printmaking is new to Chang, he had in his 30’s experimented with mixed media, collage, and found objects outside of his watercolour practice. He also often uses mixed media elements in his drawings, sometimes making them on found stationery or newsprint, and affixing stamps which relate obliquely to his subjects. Recently too he has begun to bring mixed media elements into the ‘framing’ of his watercolour works to add new layers of reading (1).
At STPI Chang worked with master printmaker Eitaro Ogawa and his team, as well as using handmade papers by papermaker Richard Hungerford in a number of the prints. Chang made a preliminary visit in early 2009 to explore the various printmaking techniques available, trying out drawing in drypoint, making trial etchings of his sketches of Terengganu, and experimenting with newsprint and handcolouring. He had already decided he wanted to play with typographic text, and had begun working out ideas for images he wanted to use. Chang’s background in watercolour meant that he understood a key technical aspect of printmaking – like watercolour, printmaking has a clear process, with little or no room for corrections.
The prints register different colour atmospheres, allowing Chang to play with the light at different times of day. Relief print is used to vary the patterns in the lady’s tudung and baju – playful polka dots, different floral designs. Chang liked the register of feeling that emerged, very different from the feel of his watercolours. With the strong outlines and transparent colour, the effect is lighter, almost poster-like.
Still close to home, but looking in a very different direction, is Chang’s Astronaut. Here, the subject is a fisherman friend from home, dressed in a loud-patterned short-sleeved shirt open at the neck and a loose semutar headdress, his arms open as if to take off in flight, with an image of the earth behind him. In 2007 Malaysia sent its first astronaut, into space. Famously, he was supposed to make teh–tarik (pulled tea) there, presumably an act of patriotism, which he was eventually unable to carry out. The text “I Miss Teh Tarik” features prominently amongst a constellation of local Terengganu dishes screenprinted over the image – “ketupat sotong”, “nasi dagang”.
Two different plates were made of this image, one with an aquatint background. Chang played here with different grades of technicolour floridness, in some cases emphasising the bleed effect of the stained paper, and once splashing Pollock-syle drips across the print. The image and its impact are at once a little ridiculous and somewhat poignant. The humour is complicit – amidst criticism of the budget spent on and embarrassment about the lack of seriousness of the space expedition, the fisherman joked with Chang about dreaming of going to space. It also underlines the distance between grandiose aspirations and local realities. Anyway, why go to space when there is so much good food at home?
Eitaro was at first hesitant about the use of text on the image, which seemed to him already complete. However, for Chang the use of text was to be the unifying theme in the project as a whole, creating the right dynamic in tandem with his drawing and watercolour skills, and printmaking techniques. Here, the text underlines the statement made by the image. Such written messages become a layer of commentary through the body of work.
The text intended for Tibetan Bull, however, had to be abandoned. Chang uses an image of a bull costume in a spiritual dance he witnessed during a horse-racing festival in Tibet. The concept here was to tie the “bull” with the Tibetan calendar, which like the Chinese calendar is ruled by the Five Elements and the animals of the zodiac (2009 is the Year of the Bull), and a calendar of key events in Tibet’s history (8), to have been embossed on the images.
In the end, Chang worked only with the concept of the Five Elements – Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal and Water, represented in the background of each print. Eitaro provided ideas for creating the background effects. For Wood, a basic woodblock print background was made using the grain of a piece of timber. For Fire, an image was chosen from various digital images of fire and made into a lithographic film, printed layer by layer to create a rich image. For Earth, a collographic process was used, with soil glued onto the plate and then inked. For Metal, gold leaf was manually applied. Finally, for Water, water was dripped onto lithographic film, exposed and inked for printing. Eitaro also suggested that Chang make two parallel sets of prints – five on Decal paper, and five on stained handmade paper. In the first, the background effects are fuller, and the watercolours by Chang rich and vivid, while in the second, the background effects are deliberately fainter as is Chang’s watercolour treatment, working closely with the textures and effects of the stained paper itself.
In the last series of prints, Mentor, Chang made a portrait of his late friend and mentor in life, Ida Bagus Made, placed next to an image of Rama and Sita making love from a painting by traditional Balinese artist. Having crafted this plate in such loving detail, Chang did not feel watercolour should be added to these prints. Almost all the prints are washed in the monochromatic tones of Balinese traditional painting. In the bottom right hand corner of each print, a little image of a man from Irianjaya wearing a traditional codpiece stands atop the text: “UUP No. 44 2008”, applied with a flocking technique. The prints refer to the controversial Pornography Act (no. 44 2008) (9) recently passed in Indonesia which was of great concern to the Balinese, in whose culture nakedness and sexual acts are not seen as pornographic. Again the question of cultural values comes into play.
What is clear already from these four series of prints is that the role of the image for Chang is transformed in this body of work. In his watercolours, the images provide a direct narrative through compositional and painterly means, with some symbolic or allusive references. Here, the image becomes more of a reference or statement in itself. Images are used as counterpoints – the Muslim lady and the bangau, the fisherman and planet Earth; the modern and the ancient, the local and the universal. Chang understands the nature of contemporary print media, the reproduced image with its demand for instant impact, and makes use of it accordingly. Using text, he is also able to address topical, newsy issues, less suited to the more personal or universal narratives of his watercolours. The different ‘layers’ and effects of the print media and watercolour used in each of the works create extra layers of readings to the basic images, with nuanced differences – aesthetic and textual.
In the four mixed media and watercolour works in the project, Chang’s own ‘classic’ imagery becomes subject to a similar layering. Chang had already recently begun embellishing the mounting boards of his paintings with collage and silkscreen elements relating to their subjects, and expands on this here, playing with new printmaking effects on the borders, as well as using screenprint elements on the paintings themselves.
Chang chose four existing watercolours for the project. In some cases, he had to redesign the original works slightly to accommodate new elements. For these works, he had already planned out the elements he wanted to incorporate, mainly text, bringing to STPI various materials, as well as designs for text and logos he had commissioned from a graphic designer. Work began on these paintings in the first three weeks at STPI and was completed on a second one-week residency in July.
In Zadoi…the cordyceps Heaven!, China, made from Chang’s last trip to Zadoi, Tibet in 2007, the hand of a monk is shown holding a cloth bag containing cordyceps (10), grown in the clean air of the highlands. The border of the painting is pasted with a collage of Chinese newspaper cuttings about the melamine-in-milk issue in 2008, scanned and made into lithographs on red-stained handmade paper, and then torn up. The gold text screenprinted on the painting puns on the disparity between the healthy mountain air of the Buddhist monks, and the poisoning of the Chinese populace. At the top of the painting it reads “Cordycep” next to a specially designed logo for an imaginary brand “San An”, or “three peace” which sounds like the word for melamine in Mandarin. The text at the bottom reads “Safe to use”.
My Mumbai Groove, India is based on sketches and photos Chang took in Alibag, a fishing village in Mumbai on the way to Nairobi in 2004. The classic Chang image of the backs of women, here perhaps waiting for the fishing boats to come in, appear against a blank background, on which pages from the Tamil Almanac have been screenprinted, forming a sky of text used to read dreams, luck, the future. The Almanac text has also been printed on handmade blue paper on the painting’s border, pasted on top with images of female Bollywood stars scanned to make lithographs and cut out. The poses of the collaged figures loosely mirror the figures in painting – real working women and movie-star dreams.
Another woman from a fishing village, in Terengganu, is the centrepiece of Nasihat Nenek, Malaysia. This was a painting completed in 2008 – quintessential Chang Fee Ming, showing the body and feet of the seated woman, accentuating the creases of her skin and soft folds of her blouse and sarong, with sunlight playing on the trees and boats in the background. Outside of this tranquil haven, the local news spewed out one controversy after another through 2008 and 2009. An image of the familiar ‘Cap Lada – Chili Brand’ matchbox has been manipulated digitally, replacing the chilli with an image of a submarine, and silkscreened onto the painting’s bottom left corner. Alongside this an old pantun reads “Berhati-berhati bermain api!/Semasa kecil menjadi kawan/Bila besar menjadi lawan”(11). The puns here allude to the Altantuya scandal in which a Mongolian national was blown up, rumoured to be linked to a lucrative Scorpion submarine contract. Along the border runs printed text taken from a research paper on the lives Terengganu fisherfolk, and printed images of a scorpion fish.
Berita Dari Beijing, Indonesia was inspired by reading the Chinese art news while Chang was at CIGE art fair in Beijing in 2008, which told of the growing aggressive participation of Indonesian collectors in Chinese art auctions. Here an elderly woman from Solo struggles with a heavy sack in front of a wall bearing old torn-off notices (‘Pengumuman’). The screenprinted text on the wall quotes a Chinese art magazine: “Is Indonesia a lion with an open mouth?” next to a fake logo of an “Indonesian Auction Club” depicting a lion. The printed text along the border is taken from a UN report on poverty in Indonesia, and printed images of Chang’s portraits made on a recent trip around Java and Sumatra (2008). Two parallel societies are portrayed, one audaciously wealthy, the other struggling to survive.