Thursday, April 13, 2006

Invitation to Fourth World

The Australian High Commissioner
H.E. Mr James Wise
requests the pleasure of your company at the opening of

an exhibition of new works by Sharon Chin

to be officiated by

YB Senator Dato Sri Effendi Norwawi
Minister in the Prime Minister's Department

on Thursday, 27 April 2006, at 6.30pm

RSVP by 21 April
Tel: +603 - 2146 5549 Fax: +603 - 21414323
Dress : Smart Casual

The Australian High Commission
6, Jalan Yap Kwan Seng
50450 Kuala Lumpur
Opening hours : 8.30am – 4.30pm

(Please click on the map below for directions)

Mare Clausum (Closed Sea)

Mare Clausum (Closed Sea), 2006
Installation with scaffold netting & green rope at
Australian High Commission Kuala Lumpur

Dimensions variable

(Below) 1:20 scale model of site and installation

This work was completed with the kind assistance of:

Adeline Ooi
Benovan Cheok
Brian Chin
Chai Chang Hwang
Chan Kok Hooi
Chia Tsu Wen
Chong Kim Chiew
Daniel Chong
Kak Sumarni
Koh Ee Huei
Lim Hui Lin
Lim Seok Ming
Mrs Loong
Nazim Esa
Priscilla Tan
Reza Salleh
Roslisham Ismail
Tan Nan See
Tang Pui Yi
Vincent Leong
Wong Hoy Cheong
Yap Sau Bin
Yee I-Lann

This is an installation work taking up much of the wide concourse area of the AHC. A suite of sails from a sailing ship are suspended from six pillars by yards of green rope. The sails are made from green scaffold netting.

Mare Liberum (Open Sea)

Mare Liberum (Open Sea), 2006
Reinforced concrete
Dimensions variable

There is a floor-to-ceiling glass wall that makes up one side of the AHC. Just beyond this glass wall is a narrow space about 1.5m wide that separates the interior of the High Commission from the outer wall of the building. To me, this is the most poignant of in-between spaces, caught between the outside and the inside, perfectly in limbo.

Low, flat slabs have been formed by pouring concrete on the floor and left to harden in the shapes that they have achieved naturally. They are placed in this in-between space - 17 of them to match the 17 sails in Mare Clausum.

Paper Shores

Paper Shores I – VII, 2006
Paper dipped in dye and seawater
20cm x 150cm

There are 7 works in this series, referrencing the Seven Seas. Long, narrow strips of paper have been dipped repeatedly in dye mixed with seawater.

The orange is purely personal. It was a cloudy day on the beach in Melbourne with some friends. They were surfing and I wondered at how they could bear to be in that icy grey ocean. I had on 2 jumpers, a parka and I had also brought a very large, very bright orange blanket which I wrapped around me as I stayed on shore watching them. The color of the blanket against the dull gloom of that day will always stay with me.

The first two images are installation views.

Plastic Shores

Plastic Shores I - VII, 2006
Perspex dipped in cement and seawater
20cm x 150cm

These are 7 long strips of clear perspex to match the 7 Paper Shores. They are poured over and over with a mixture of cement and seawater in varying shades of grey. They lean against the glass wall of the AHC, and lead the viewer to the work titled Mare Liberum (Open Sea).

Sailor's Knots Series

Sailor's Knots Series, 2006
Text dipped in seawater, pins, ink on paper
48cm x 38cm (each)

There are ten works in this series. Each text has been cut into strips, dipped in seawater and twisted to form lengths of rope. The ropes are tied into knots – a different knot for each text. These are pinned down like animal specimens, accompanied by a description and general usage of the knot.

The lengths of rope/text left over are collected in the last work in this series, titled ‘Spare Lengths’.

The texts and their corresponding knots are:

[1] “Keterangan Anwar Ibrahim di Mahkahmah (Fragmentasi)” - Tomfool knot

[2] “New York Babel” by Paul Auster – Grommets

[3] “On The High Wire” by Paul Auster – Bow-line On A Bight

[4] “Prologue to the History and Practice of English Magic by Jonathan Strange” by Susanna Clarke – Turk’s Head

[5] “The Seventh Man” by Haruki Murakami – Fisherman’s Knot

[6] “The Transformasi of a Language” by Salleh Ben Joned – Garrick Bend

[7] Lyrics to “Disc 1, Substance 1987” by New Order – Ordinary Knot

[8] One Love Letter (Written 25 February 2006, Kuala Lumpur) – Bow-line

[9] Three poems and their translations by Goenawan Mohammed – Open Chain

Installing Fourth World

Here are a few images of the installation process of the sails in Mare Clausum (Closed Sea). Photo credits : Tan Nan See.

Terra Incognita (Unknown Land) : An Essay by Lydia Chai

Fourth World by Sharon Chin is an exhibition that proposes we dream within – not out of – our ordinary existence. By creating a sense of wonderment with irritatingly banal materials, the exhibition is a working model of a utopic vision where fantasy and reality generate each other.

The title references existing economic ranks for countries; however, Chin purports that this is not meant to politically charge her discourse. Rather, “fourth world” is her personal term to denote an alternate realm that is ‘close by’ to the familiar: a hyperspace made up of dreams, fantasies and, above all, desire.

inside, outside

Driving the exhibition is a struggle for identity, to build on one’s private self despite the overload of ‘experience’ and the world ‘out there’.

The main installation “Mare Clausum (Closed Sea)” is hung overhead in the officious-looking concourse area of the Australian High Commission. It features construction materials, such as green scaffolding mesh and rope, which are transformed into a sweeping suite of illuminated emerald sails.

The green mesh, normally used to cover unfinished buildings, is brought from outside into a building; then its idea is internalized by the artist and finally manifests as a suite of sails, referring back to the world outside. The work is thus engaged in a looped journey.

A similar interplay between the personal ‘inside’ and the world ‘outside’ occurs in supporting artworks located at the periphery of the exhibition space. One of them comprises two series of seven large strips (referring to the seven seas) dipped several times in seawater solution, producing a tonal gradation on each strip while duplicating the effect of undulating waves caressing a beach. The first series “Plastic Shores” is made from perspex boards dipped in a seawater and cement mixture, while the second series “Paper Shores” consists of paper strips dipped in seawater and ink solution.

It seems as though Chin is charting the sea’s slow and gentle yet dramatic sculpting of the coastline, typically investigating the idea of shifting boundaries. The evolving land is metaphorical to fluctuating identity. Moreover, when the paper and perspex supports are placed next to each other – one absorbs ink, the other is clung to – they create a quiet dynamic between acquiescence and resistance.

mapping desire

Is it possible to construct a map of desires?

Yes. Such maps already exist in the form of historical maritime maps from the 13th to 17th centuries. Their fanciful illustrations and dedications make today’s maps seem factual and dull. In the 13th century, for instance, the globe was drawn as expanding out from Jerusalem, thought to be the centre of the world. During Ferdinand Magellan’s time, cartographers tended to insert illustrations of sea monsters to indicate unknown and dangerous territories. Rather than mapping the world itself, these maps reveal how their makers desired to view the world.

Likewise, the “Shores” series maps a longing for the world outside, a romance with the unknown. Recorded then on each strip of perspex and paper is the ebb and flow of desire.

The sails in The Fourth World are perpetually in the harbour because Chin is not searching for a utopia elsewhere; she embarks on a passage to the here and now. Hoisted high, the sails seem as hopeful as prayer flags, but are more like flagging prayers. After all, the exhibition is housed in an institution that stands for, among other things, the privilege of access.

Whether one thinks it problematic or suitably paradoxical, The Fourth World works within abjection to create hope; a sort of twisted escape from the inside-in. Desires may be trapped, but they breathe through perforations in the walls.

Lydia Chai is an artist. She writes occasionally for Kakiseni and Off The Edge. She manages an online database of articles about Malaysian art at

This essay Copyright 2006 Lydia Chai

Departure and Transit: In conversation with Sharon Chin

Wong Hoy Cheong : Can you begin by telling me more about this exhibition? Why the Australian High Commission (AHC)? How did you come up with the theme for your exhibition, and why the title Fourth World?

Sharon Chin : Well, the AHC approached me sometime last year to make a work in their space. They mentioned they were especially keen on having an installation. I assumed this meant a site-specific work, something that interacted with the space.

I approached this show with ships on the brain! Around that time I had been reading Patrick O’Brian’s series of sea-faring novels set during the Napoleonic wars. It was the golden age of sailing. To me, those ships were a perfect way to explore ideas of journeying and location – both literally and symbolically. A ship is like a mini country made of hollow oak, afloat in a vast expanse of ocean. It always departs from and arrives at a specific place, but in the course of the journey, belongs wholly to itself.

WHC : Did this idea of a ship, this microcosmic world afloat on water, emerge from the site-specificity of AHC, or was it, as you said, a personal obsession?

SC : It certainly started with obsession. My long-suffering friends were very puzzled. I would spontaneously break out into rants of naval trivia, totally boring to anyone but myself. After I visited the site a few times though, things began to take shape more formally – in terms of how to explore what the AHC actually is through the language and idea of ships. Basically I had to get more serious about things!

As for the title Fourth World, I wanted something that reflected a state of becoming or transition – in-between-ness, if you like. We’re familiar with First, Second and Third Worlds, and while Fourth World isn’t widely known, it does exist. Various people have claimed it for themselves – some use it to denote countries of extreme poverty, others to define indigenous communities displaced because of colonization. I think often people define themselves through the labels that are given them. Take Malaysia, we are called Third World and we call ourselves Third World – we are defined by this idea, it makes us who we are. We get lazy and stop the act of self-definition, self-questioning. These notions seem so naturalized, that they become invisible. What I want to do is to make the process, language and structure of naming, of labeling, visible.

WHC : I am interested in how you have put together a few inter-related ideas – in the title Fourth World, you suggest that labels can in fact cripple the process of transformation; in the ship as metaphor, you talk of journeying as a transitory state. But how does the AHC as a site feed into your ideas and works? What is site-specific? After all, the AHC is also a site loaded with power.

SC : Certainly. The AHC is by no means a neutral site. It is, as you say, a place of power. It is also a site of transition, an in-between space where you go to before departure. One of the central ideas in the show is about access; physical access to places in terms of gaining entry, and how that access is granted or denied.

WHC : Embassies possess power. With this power, they can act both on your physical and mental body.

SC : Yet a space that acts upon us can also be acted upon by us. Often, the way certain spaces exercise their power is invisible, just like the act of labeling. Understanding how a site or label acts, allows us to act on it ourselves. It gives us the language. Think about the term ‘globalization’. How do you explain to a person that their village has to be decimated to make way for a hydroelectric dam? Is s/he going to understand ‘globalization’? To describe a process of power, one word or phrase is never enough.

WHC : Embassies and ships exist everywhere. Similarly, terms that define economic and political status are used internationally. I see a parallel between the choices of materials and images in your works. Images of sails, knots, and shorelines, as well as materials such as construction netting, cement, and seawater are also understandable globally. Can you talk about the relationship of materials to your concept?

SC : I think materials in themselves have a language. And it is a democratic language in the sense that everyone has a reaction to materials – whether by sight, touch, taste or smell.

Living in and working in KL, I sometimes feel the material of the city seep under my skin. There have been moments when I felt the whole city would crumble under the weight of concrete and a hundred thousand cars stuck motionless in the 6pm jam. All of us, from commuters, to construction workers to architects have some kind of experience and contact with materials like concrete and scaffolding – this is the stuff of our landscape. I want to bring us into closer contact with this stuff, to allow a deeper mental understanding by physical confrontation.

WHC : In the context of art in Malaysia, materials like concrete and construction netting are often seen as peripheral to art-making. They do not belong to dominant notions of art materials like paint and charcoal. How do you feel that your work is valid as art? How are you going to convince the public that these global, everyday materials possess a language; a democratic language at that?

: If you think about it, charcoal isn’t too far off from concrete. If we can make charcoal speak a certain way, and that language is beautiful and valid, why can’t we make concrete speak a certain way? Why not scaffold netting? It’s about translation and language. I don’t use charcoal because its language does not say what I want to say – I know maybe about 5 words with charcoal. After months of playing with concrete, seawater and cement, I know 500.

I feel materiality is not explored enough in Malaysian art. With paint – maybe, but there is little discourse around other materials, or the idea of materials. There are plenty of instances of artists bringing ‘everyday’ or ‘found’ objects into art – e.g. look at me put a rusty crowbar on my painting, etc. But really that ‘found’ object seldom retains its own integrity as a material thing. What remains is a surface symbolism that is disposable and convenient.

WHC : Having taught art in Malaysia, I agree. There is little discourse and critique of the assumptions around materials, the meaning and context of materials and their materiality. But materials only become resonant through the process of translation or transformation. Can you talk more about this?

: The key word here, I think, is ‘process’. Can we say most art starts with an idea? If so, we often look for and subject materials to the realization of this idea. But as you experiment and play, the physicality of the material begins to exert its own rules. Concrete naturally wants to lie on the ground. It NOT does happily hang in the air, suspended by fishing line. Do you hang on rigidly to your idea, or do you allow the way a material acts to influence and change your idea? I’ve always found the latter works best for me.

WHC : I think you are talking about the visceral process where the physical act of working through materials feed into the ideational and conceptual, and vice versa. This leads us to the issue of the artist’s gesture and touch, handmade-ness, and the craft of art-making. How pertinent is it in this time and day?

: Ah, the ‘Craft’ Question! I think it’s no longer all that relevant in the context of global currents of contemporary art, though it does surface now and again to say hello. In Malaysia however, it remains a point of discourse – questions about the value of art, technique and so on still seem to be quite important.

My take on it is that there is a close relationship between art and action. I love this quote by Yukio Mishima, one of my favorite writers: “Never in action had I experienced the chilling satisfaction of words, never in words had I experienced the hot darkness action”. A lot of my work is an accretion of simple gestures and actions. French artist Annette Messager once said she likes an ‘economy of means’. So do I. Acts like hanging, pouring, tying and dipping are democratic and anonymous. They are easily understood and approached, yet are full of potential for poetry and sophistication. Elizabeth Presa (an Australian sculptor I greatly admire and am very much influenced by) uses these methodologies extremely well. I do not like to conceal the touch of the hand in my work. I want people to know at a glance how it has been made. But don’t mistake me, I’m not talking about the expressionistic gesture!

WHC : Let’s move on to something quite different. You are one of the few visual artists who also write. Why do you write?

SC : I think as much writing as possible is needed here in Malaysia, for documentation as much as anything else – how will we have an art history if no one writes?

An artist writing on art could be seen as a conflict of interest, I guess. I try to make clear the position I am coming from. I feel I approach things in terms of the intentions of the artist, and how successfully or unsuccessfully they have translated into the work. This is where art criticism comes in - how sometimes an artist has such fantastic intentions and the catalogue essay is brilliant, but the work falls short. I think what is really missing here are critical evaluations. We have a lot of “this artist wanted to do this”, and art writing revolves around celebrating the intentions but does not delve into whether the artist has achieved what s/he set out to do.

A pet peeve of mine is that there is far too much space devoted to the description of an artwork in art writing. We are getting art reportage, not criticism!

WHC : In a recent review in Off The Edge (pg.64, Issue 16, April 06), you wrote: “…we seem to be much concerned with having as many dialogues as we can about the same discourses, instead of questioning how these discourses come to be staged, and how they become powerful and dominant.” Another artist-writer, Safrizal Shahir also argued along similar lines in Sentap (pg.8 – 9, Issue 02, Nov 05 – Feb 06) – that we do not have, and deny ourselves, of learning, understanding and utilizing the language of contemporary art, and therefore are crippled in our partaking of global contemporary art discourse. It seems that to me this is the crux of the problem in art discourse. Can you talk more about this?

SC : These are questions of language, discourse, tools… and their power. I think unconsciously we problematize this idea of ‘global contemporary art discourse’. We don’t want to seem derivative. It seems we want a distinctly Malaysian art discourse. We want roots, we want to boleh all on our own. But we forget that ideas in and of themselves are democratic things – it’s not about being ‘Western’ at all. By using the discourses that are available, wither they be ‘Western’ or ‘Middle Eastern’ or whatever, we are trying to explore things that are important and contemporary to us now. We think that by using the ‘their’ language of contemporary art, we would become the nail, when in fact, we would be picking up the hammer!

Wong Hoy Cheong is a visual artist who exhibits in Malaysia and abroad. He occasionally curates and writes.

Monday, April 10, 2006

Sales Inquiries

For all inquiries regarding sale of artworks in Fourth World, kindly contact:

Chee Sek Thim
Director, Reka Art Space

GL29 Block C Kelana Square,
17 Jalan SS7/26,
Taman Kelana Indah, Kelana Jaya,
47301 Petaling Jaya,
Selangor DE

t/f : 03-7880 5982
m : 017-872 7721
e :

Thursday, April 06, 2006

Artist CV

Sharon Chin
b.1980, Kuala Lumpur

Bachelor of Fine Art (Foundation Year)
Elam School of Fine Arts, Auckland, NZ

Bachelor of Fine Art (Sculpture)
Victorian College of the Arts, Melbourne, AUS

Boats & Bridges, Reka Art Space, KUL

Art + / - 1000, Valentine Willie Fine Art, KUL
You are Here, Valentine Willie Fine Art, KUL
Annual Reka Open Show, Reka Art Space, KUL

Fourth Baldessin Foundation Travelling Fellowship Exhibition, Monash University Faculty of Art & Design Gallery, Melbourne, AUS

VCA Graduate Exhibition 2003, Victorian College of the Arts, Melbourne, AUS
Wallara Travelling Scholarship Exhibition 2003, VCA Gallery, Melbourne, AUS

Kaidan Short Works Project, The Store Room, Melbourne, AUS

Wallara Travelling Scholarship 2003

Writer-Researcher : Malaysian Arts' Initative
Art Writer :, Off The Edge, The Star
Gallery Assistant : Valentine Willie Fine Art, KUL