Gan Chin Lee: Painting as the Path to Social Landscape
(This essay was published at catalogue of Gan Chin Lee’s 3rd solo exhibition : In-Between, RKFA, 2015)
In 2015 tens of thousands of Rohingyas, unwanted in their homeland and duped by trafficking syndicates, were left to die in the open sea. While the world watched in shock at these atrocities perpetrated against humanity, Myanmar and its Southeast Asian counterparts displayed their indifference and racist mindset regarding the cruelty. Acting against the recurring footages that were repeatedly aired on the television, artist Gan Chin Lee rose to respond to this crisis against humanity through what he had seen at a street corner in Kuala Lumpur. With his brush, Gan brought to life an elderly Rohingya man curled up in a hidden corner of a dingy street in the Malaysian cosmopolitan. The man lives in a different reality, unaware of debates and discussions about refugees and the migrant crisis. The interpretation of the Rohingyan in Gan's work titled No Place for Diaspora Men might appear to represent any other urban dweller forced to the fringes of society, but it is also a reflection of a political and cultural symbol shunned by Myanmar and the rest of ASEAN. While members of ASEAN continue work on strengthening their political and economic influence in the last few years, many contemporary works of art from the region have received critical reception in the global art scene. Prior to artworks from the ASEAN region, contemporary art from China was the benchmark in the global contemporary art market. Gan's identity as a Malaysian Chinese may appear as an advantage in the ASEAN and Chinese markets, but Gan was unsuccessful in both despite his seemingly privileged identity. Like the Rohingyas he paints, Gan, who descended from Chinese migrants, felt a similar sense of loss and had an identity crisis as most Malaysian Chinese do; at the same time, he was unable to blend in well and be a part of the "Mainland Chinese" while pursuing his studies at the China Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing, China. The anxiety shown in No Place for Diaspora Men is not only a struggle for recognition. It also signifies one’s humility and a longing to belong. In the painting, the elder Rohingyan is juxtaposed with a scene showing young migrant workers sleeping in a cramped single room. This juxtaposition represents a strong symbol in response to the harsh realities ofsociety. A critical stance against the absurdity of social reality has always been a characteristic found in works by many ethnic Chinese and Indian artists in Malaysia. They have adopted a creative path to explore, construct, reproduce and deconstruct the history of their immigrant forefathers in order to cope with their identity crisis. However, Gan adopted a different path. He diverted his attention to the current crisis and the influx of a new generation of migrants in Malaysia. It is in the eyes of these communities that Gan fills the gaps of his past. In Malaysia, there is almost no room for an objective discussion on migrants from Bangladesh, Myanmar and other countries. Stringent immigration laws and policies are more often than not daunting and impeded by opaque rules. Gan's depiction of migrants in his works mostly showcases them as individuals, which he finds serves as a mirror for self-reflection. Perhaps to Gan, drawing a portrait of himself, of diners enjoying seafood at street side stalls in Taipei,or images of expressionless young adults finishing their meals at mamak stalls, is similar to the restlessness and anxiety felt by migrants in a new land. They, the migrants, are his mirror. Through his paintings and observations of these communities, the young artist senses their feeling of loss, having been stripped of their identities, similar to his own experiences studying abroad. Through his work, Gan has tried to capture the realities of the identity crisis faced by the migrants as an extension of contemporary Malaysia. The depiction has not only become a bridge that connects his internal expressions with the external social context, it also serves as a coping mechanism for the artist. In Reunion Island, his depiction of the diners’ faces, which is an emphasis on the details of expressions in his earlier work, has been replaced by another type of symbolic art form. Sitting on stools propped along a food stall at a poorly lit street, the diners are seen communicating with each other, but they also appear to be gradually losing their recognisable features. This is explained in the deliberate use of black paint to mask the subjects’ bodies or faces, as if they are fading into the darkness of the night. All the customers in the restaurant are seen to be merging as an entity. In his Self and the Other I painting, some of the figures appear translucent while other faces are drawn in white paint. The depiction of these pale street characters brought to life on canvas is a great contrast to those fading into the darkness. The anxious and solemn mood portrayed in the street scene is distinct from the painting on the right, which illustrates female bodies symbolising a desire for consumption. The juxtaposition allows plenty of room for imagination. Ethnic Chinese, Indians and other minority races in Malaysia are very much aware of the pain of going through an identity crisis. Would looking at a bigger scar - such as the crisis faced by the Rohingyas - mitigate the painful experiences? While handling the historical scar of the "new village", Gan chose a macro perspective in an attempt at reconciliation. In Post Colonial Encounter, he did not point directly at the historical scars, but chose to fill the streets of the new village with people from all walks of life. The new village, constructed by the British colonialists, is not only a historical scar for the ethnic Chinese but it is also filled with migrants from different backgrounds. The term "colonial" in this context has multiple interpretations. It is through this contemporary ethnic landscape that Gan has found a path to fill up the historical gaps. It is not a mere reflection of the future, but also of the heart of the artist. Realistic painting does not seem to be a favourite of contemporary art. Realistic painting has roots in the religious and social aspects from the Western tradition that gives a sense of "dignity" to the subject, which could not be achieved through other forms. It is through this form that people from different social classes became icons of their time. However, as far as the painter is concerned, realistic painting is a path that requires in-depth analysis and observation. This enables the audience to dissect the social landscape from the beginning to further explore the meaning of the work of art. In Gan's work, we see many pale faces of the migrants, the restless looks, the boredom and messy arrangement of cutleries, as well as opaque bodies painted from a humanitarian perspective. He has turned these into a lively landscape. The subjects seem to possess a certain ownership on canvas and reclaim their dignity as individuals. It is at this moment when these dignified faces are observed by the audience that the artist is able to let go of the feeling of being rejected and uprooted, and to be able find his sense of belonging.
2015年，被人蛇集團受騙而漂流於海上的羅興亞人（Rohingya），在難民船中奄奄一息；正當世界因此而震驚時，東南亞各國表現出了他們的冷酷與種族主義。相對於在電視新聞上反覆播放的畫面，畫家顏振利卻透過了吉隆坡的街角，來回應這次的全球人道危機：在顏振利的畫筆下，一名羅興亞長者疲憊的捲曲在街角，他的身軀彷彿隔絕於難民和移民議題的爭論之外，自成一套生存的系統。 在顏振利的作品《No Place for Diaspora》中，畫作所描繪的羅興亞長者，看似僅是社會關懷視角下的身軀，但其身軀的政治性和文化性，即是其身為一個被緬甸和東協（ASEAN）所排除在外的身體。這種被「排除」的身軀，亦正是畫家顏振利所擁有的身軀。近年來隨著東協政治經濟影響力的成長，東協地區的當代藝術正在被大量引介至全球藝術市場之中；早於東協，中國的當代藝術發展也早就成為了全球當代藝術的重要地標。顏振利身為大馬華裔，看似身兼了跨越兩者的優勢；但實際上顏振利被同時排除於兩者之外：顏振利繼承了多數大馬華裔所擁有的失落、和身分認同焦慮，卻又不可能在留學北京中央美院期間，成為「中國人」的一份子。 《No Place for Diaspora》所呈現出來的焦慮，除了面臨認同與所屬之外，還包括了尋求「安身」之處的卑微要求。在作品中，羅興亞長者的身軀和年輕移工的工寮場景並置，營造出特殊的場景；其強烈的符號，亦回應了畫題所直述的社會寫實場景。除了對於荒謬的社會現實進行批判之外，不少大馬華裔或是印度裔藝術家常會以探勘、建構、再現、解構移民史或大馬近代史來作為抵銷認同焦慮的重要創作路徑。然而顏振利所採取的卻是另一個路徑：他將視角看向不斷湧入大馬的新移民，透過新移民所投射的未來，顏振利的作品填補了缺席的過去。 在馬來西亞，要客觀的討論來自孟加拉、緬甸等地的新移民是相對困難的，因為移民政策總是和不受歡迎的政府決策被綑綁在一起，譬如著名的6P whitening Programme，即是一例。但是對於顏振利而言，對於移民的描繪，更多時候是回到個體的角色，來作為自我心境的鏡射。或許對於顏振利而言，描繪自畫像、描繪台北街頭海鮮攤的食客、描繪在mamak stall用完餐後的空虛年輕人、和描繪這批眼神略顯不安和焦慮的新移民，其實是同一件事情。這些移民彷彿是一面鏡子；透過針對移民的描繪和觀察，年輕畫家在他們的臉龐及眼中看到了自己於留學時期所萌生的認同焦慮。透過這種描繪的路徑，對於認同的焦慮從內在的心境感受，向外延展至當代的大馬社會處境；該描繪除了成為聯結內在心境和社會環境的橋樑之外，它亦可能是畫家自我療癒的工具。 在作品《Reunion Island》中，藝術家早期對於「食客」表情的細緻描寫，被以另外一種符號化的形式所取代；在黑暗中的路邊餐館，人們既參與交流，又在這種交流的過程之中，漸漸的喪失可辨識的主體性。這也是為何在畫作之中，許多坐在餐桌前的人們，其身體和臉龐被刻意以黑色顏料塗蓋，彷彿其已經消失在黑夜之中，和餐館中的所有人融合為另外一種整體。在作品《Self and the Other》中，甚至可以看到有些人物已經呈現透明化，有些人的臉龐則以白色的筆觸覆蓋；這種透明、穿透和蒼白的街景人物，和消失的黑色人物呈現出了極大的對比。這種壓抑和焦慮的場景，和右側聯作中，展示身體又充滿消費慾望的女性人物，呈現出了極大的反差，並牽引出互相對映的聯想空間。 大馬的華裔、印度裔和其他少數族裔，承襲了一種與生俱來的認同焦慮，這種創傷經驗透過凝視更大的傷痕（譬如羅興亞人的人道災難），是否反而有可能獲得部分的舒緩呢？在處理「新村」這個歷史的傷痕時，顏振利就採取了另外一種更為宏觀的修補路徑：在作品《Post Colonial Encounter》中，顏振利並不試圖直指歷史的傷口，反而任由形形色色、生存於現實空間中的人物填滿了新村的街道。因為英國殖民而創建的新村，不僅是大馬華裔的歷史傷口，如今又被各類的移民填補了空間上的空缺。在這裡，「Colonial」一字有了多重的解讀，而透過正視當代的族群地景，顏振利找到了一種延續歷史空缺的路徑；這個路徑不只指向未來，亦通往畫家內心的世界。 寫實繪畫似乎並非是「當代藝術」的寵兒，但正因為寫實繪畫傳承某種來自西方傳統的宗教性及社會性，對於被繪者而言，寫實繪畫引入了一種其他形式難以擁有的「莊嚴」特質；社會各階層的人，似乎有可能透過這個途徑，而成為代表其所屬時代的「聖像」（icons）。對於繪畫者而言，寫實繪畫則是一種深入剖析及觀察的路徑，令人得以從社會的景觀出發，探索景觀背後的層次。在顏振利的作品中，我們看到一張張蒼白的移民臉孔、焦慮的眼神、飯後杯盤狼藉的無聊氣息、甚而是透明的身軀，都被顏振利所採取的人道主義視角，將芸芸眾生幻化為一片人間的喧囂景觀。在這片景觀之中，被描繪的對象似乎重新具備了某種主體性，得以回歸個體的尊嚴；讓觀眾直視這些被尊嚴所充滿的臉龐，正是被繪者或畫家自身得以擺脫被排除及失根的感受，重新建構歸屬感的時刻。