It’s 2012 and the world is going to end.
Or so says interpretations of the ancient Mesoamerican Mayan calendar. For some this means the beginning of a new philosophical era, for others it marks the apocalyptic destruction of life itself. Perhaps the human race deserves such an ending. Our nature to exploit and destroy not only each other but also our planet seems an innate weakness, destined to repeat itself. Ethically bankrupt we unwittingly plot our demise through the power plays of politics, economies, consumption and violence. Science and religion further compound this bleak prognosis through hypothesises and prophesies foretelling various forms of cataclysmic extinction. So, having sown the seeds of our own undoing, a return to ground zero seems inevitable, and something extremists might say is almost necessary.
The end of the world narrative has been a compelling subject matter, deeply embedded across time and cultures, inspiring various literary and visual forms of storytelling. After all, the unimaginable has limitless interpretations, each more horrific than the next. Malaysian photographer, Eiffel Chong, revises the dystopian sentiments of human deterioration and destruction into poetic laments that utilise the theatre of photography to hyper-realise, exaggerate and distort perceptions of the human and natural world around us. Fascinated with the many realities and metaphors of death, Chong seizes upon the ultimate form of destruction in his first solo exhibition Before the World Fell to Pieces at Valentine Willie Fine Art, Kuala Lumpur. However it is not disaster in progress but rather the ominous calm before an unthinkable demise that he selects to framework two bodies of work: A Matter of Life and Death and A Fragile Thing Called Man of which this publication presents in its entirety. As an anthology of images and stories Chong shares his obsessions with mortality and excess by using landscape and objects to create an ominous survey of society.
A Matter of Life and Death has been an ongoing series for the artist since 2006 and the body of work Eiffel Chong is most well known for to date. It embodies his intuitive production processes, what the artist describes as ‘hunting for ghosts’, a practiced attraction to loud silences, saturated with mystery and isolation. He begins with an intuitive documentation of places inspired from his research or arbitrary wanderings around Malaysia. Visually drawn to the connection between objects, landscape and space he creates dramatic mysteries of the uncanny through specific formal approaches to subject. After scrutiny and reflection, surreal narratives are then inferred through a careful choice of titles that suggest narratives of politics, history, alienation, and states of collapse. For example, A Slow Boat to China relates an image of an island with the continuing taunting of Chinese Malaysians as ‘pendatang’ or immigrants by extremist politicians who call for their return to a fictitious national Motherland. Tales of Dai Nippon Teikoku Rikugun, Vol. XIV: The Fall of Malaya depicts an ominous Kelantanese coastal view of the landing site of the Japanese during World War II referencing the violent repercussions of the occupation. City of Funeral Pyres and The Sky Foretold the End of the World is a pre-apocalyptic warning of an impending Doomsday set in the city of Kuala Lumpur. More cryptic in sentiment is Mental Disease that presents the recovered findings of the artist’s corrupted portable USB flash drive that contained digital files of his work. This Frankenstein of images displays the fragility of technology, and the results of what happens when something is brought back from the dead, mutated and transformed into the unexpected. Chong’s darkly romantic evocations and ‘mini deaths’ are thus haunted by memories on the brink of being forgotten. This is the dislocation of time and specificity, of text and image, the connection point of the seen and unseen. The rest of the series whether buildings in progress, empty billboards, clinical interiors or seductive trees each exudes a type of narrative tension, the anxiety of what could happen next, filled with the spectres and errors of man.
If A Matter of Life and Death infers human excess and failure through landscapes of absence, A Fragile Thing Called Man casts an anonymous series of human characters that focus on the physical vulnerability of a frivolous civilisation. These miniaturised sites of leisure and daily urban life, are emphasised by titles such as Bachmann Scene Scapes – Evergreen Trees: 1 – 4 inches (200g per pack) CHB 1902 – 2020 that reference model toys and as such, the insignificance of human life. This brings to mind the much quoted analogy that if the world was defined as a 24-hour clock, Man would have appeared only 1 second ago, and the sum total of our entire human history would amount to 1/10th of a second. Our perceived conquest of the world is therefore, nothing more than misguided arrogance. And yet Humanity believes it reigns supreme, the most important living element on Earth. Chong exposes this farce, presenting civilisation as a defenceless toy-land oblivious to the forces of its destruction, be it an imaginary Godzilla or an all too real black hole, earthquake or nuclear war.
The epicentre of such disasters appear to be on Malaysian soil, unfolding across Putrajaya, Genting Highlands, Broga Hill, Kuala Lumpur and Cameron Highlands. Such specificity is complimented by Chong’s formal exercises in lens focus, colour, pattern, movement and stillness that become a mixture of technical mastery and creative intuition. Here, he uses a Hasselblad camera to create dramatic relationships between figures and landscapes. Working with a popular photographic technique called tilt shift, where the lens is moved in a certain way to create selective focus, Chong scoured the country for high vantage points in order to produce his sweeping vistas. The blurred edges of each bring into absolute clarity the minutiae the camera is able to reproduce, a visual feast of foliage, water rapids, cars, buildings, and human activity. By emphasising smallness and detail, Chong highlights the inferiority of our perceived supremacy reducing purpose to pointlessness.
Eiffel Chong’s A Matter of Life and Death and A Fragile Thing Called Man are undeniably beautiful and technically exact. Even without titles his aesthetic and conceptual intentions are clear. Clinically atmospheric and sharply dramatic he presents a sinister vision, the result of an obsessive photographic mind searching and claiming the things and places around him. By revealing and reframing the real, he succeeds in presenting a society unaware of the last and final act of karmic retribution. A visual travelogue of the last days before the world ends. Before the World Fell to Pieces (and framework of these two bodies of work) is therefore, a deceptively poetic exhibition that belies a critical judgement of Mankind as an excessive and deteriorating civilisation. By manipulating our relationship to landscape and place, multiple readings of politics, history and nostalgia unfold across Chong’s two most ambitious bodies of work to date. Literally functioning as a higher being, his visual selections, therefore echo the potential sentencing of the gods, frowning at how humanity has manipulated the world around us.
At any point, it could all fall to pieces.