Zan’s latest series of works, exhibited at Art Porters Singapore, capture the familial and environmental fragmentation that he has come to be so familiar with. There is a lingering melancholy that a series of work conveys as the eye fixes on the partial outlines of people superimposed onto canvases with candy-coloured backgrounds. These figures, standing in a row as if being photographed, seem to be there and not. Where a face should be, there is a gaping hole, so the beholder forms no bond with the people portrayed; they are merely shapes. What we notice instead are the pebbled surfaces which fill in the bodied forms. These are rocks and one particular work is entitled ‘We Used to be Together, Strong like Stones’ (H125 x W175 cm). The title invites the viewer to contemplate, to ask “What happened?”, suggesting a need to interrogate the work further to discover its layered meaning.
When probed, Zan reveals that the people on these canvasses (a series of five entitled ‘Tough Like Stone, I Thought’), are family members and their positions mimic old family photographs which he had transferred onto the canvasses, printmaking being a technique he employs. In the process of creating, Zan is remembering. He recalls an idyllic childhood spent in Borneo’s forests where his grandparents had a house. They have passed on now, he tells me. In remembering, Zan is processing the loss of familiar faces, of familial bonds as he admits to the divorce between his parents that has affected him profoundly, transferring these painful memories of loss and trauma onto the layered surfaces that he has created. If the canvas is a palimpsest, then these series of 13 mixed-media paintings are manuscripts into Zan’s unconscious, revealing his working-through of trauma layer by layer. As the eye runs its course over the canvasses, we see the hairline cracks that are inevitable during the creative process of transfer. However, this is no accident, since the artwork is meant to represent the cracks in the relationships that Zan is alluding to in his personal life and memory. In an uncanny way, the unconscious has come to the artist’s aid: in his choice of material and method, he has found catharsis.
In the same series, ‘Tough Like Stone, I thought’, Zan is able to show how our memories become fragmented as time tumbles away. Our memories are also affected by the changing landscape because when our surroundings change, they lose their tangible hold on us: we can touch the land, feel the water from streams, handle the leaves and twigs that grow wild but we can’t go back to that paradise that was once complete and whole. Zan’s characteristic etchings or carvings, as he calls them, into the canvasses, signify his attempts at finding a way to ingrain himself into his work, to leave his mark. When his memory fades, there are at least permanent markers that can help jog recollection. For collectors, this is crucial. When the artist passes, as all of us will eventually, his canvasses in your collection will remain. In Zan’s case, he leaves his marks for the collector through the unique woodcutting technique and processes that he has developed.
Technically, Zan is a wizard. He carves into layered canvases to bring out the colours beneath, colours which he has mixed with gesso in order to create a solid surface that his woodcutting knife can etch into. Inspired by nature, his pieces are infused with images from the environment of his childhood in Sabah—the paradise that he grew up in. This paradise is slowly fragmenting as modernisation and urbanisation edge their way into the landscape although the Sabahan jungles are still very much present. This paradise is ebbing away too as the people he associates Paradiso with are also fading away from memory. In this series, Zan is expressing his yearning for an idyll and sharing his nostalgia for a way that used to be with his viewers and collectors through the psychoanalytic processes of re-membering.
In my conversation with Zan, I discovered that he is an astute observer of nature. He allows the land and its companions to talk to him, helping him to heighten his sense of appreciation for our/his natural habitat. There is a child-like innocence about the young man that tugged at my heart. He showed me a couple of photos and asked if I could guess what the small brown balls in his palm were. It turned out that they were not seeds, as I had guessed, but a type of insect he calls the roly-poly. As he laughed, I caught a glimpse of that little boy who is yearning for things to be as they were: a paradise of childhood innocence when things were doing fine.
‘Retrospective of Paradiso’ is an important exhibition that cannot be missed as it pays homage to Mnemosyne, the goddess of memory. What is life made of but memories of our environments and of the people who hold it all together for us? Additionally, the title makes a subtle reference to Milton’s epic poem, ‘Paradise Lost’, which begins in medias res working backwards, recounting Satan’s banishment from Paradise and his attempts with his followers to destroy the Earth and Mankind. This is of course not Zan’s aspirations, although, he does admit to attempts at destroying his canvasses in the carving process while beginning his story in medias res, choosing to memorialise the passing away of his grandparents and his parents’ divorce visually, and then working backwards to recollect his lost paradise unconsciously. The destruction he refers to is the process of woodcutting. This etching into the canvasses brings respite as the physical act of destruction brings psychical release for this talented young artist.
Retrospect of Paradiso can be found at Art Porters Singapore, 64 Spottiswoode Park Road, from 12 September to 4 November, 2108. #chokyuezan #artporters #sharinghappinesswithart