It is the very first institution one encounters upon stepping out of the sanctuary of home. Steeped in respect and reverence, it is one’s rites of passage to adulthood. Yet it is also an arm in the state machinery in manufacturing obedient citizens by instilling routine, discipline and a highly selective host of knowledge.
School, for Malaysian artist Eiffel Chong, holds such beguiling ambivalence. “School connotes a nurturing womb of safety and care, but beyond the surface are relentless pressures to perform and conform, instances of bullying, taunting or even tensions with teachers,” says the 36-year-old Kuala Lumpur native. “Could it be more like a tainted Eden?”
He unleashes his imaginations of this simmering sense of anxiety and horror in the series “Haunted School”, created during his final year of degree studies in photography at the London College of Printing. Framed in tight, claustrophobic angles and composed with an artful play between light and space, the monochromatic prints are fraught with dramatic tension and a sense of sinister foreboding. Portraits, ordinarily renderings of childish innocence, now appear grotesque and macabre.
Informing the work, which is photographed at a school sharing the same grounds as his hostel, are childhood memories of ghost stories circulating about his school being a former campsite of Japanese troops during their occupation of Malaya in World War II. “I guess I have Russell Lee (the author of the True Singapore Ghost Stories series) to thank for this idea as well,” laughs Chong, whose practice draws inspiration from artists like Sally Mann, the Düsseldorf School of Photography as well as fiction writers such as Haruki Murakami and Yoko Ogawa.
“Haunted School” marked the start of Chong’s preoccupation towards the subject of the institution. Like invisible realm running parallel to daily life, institutions exert an invisible, oppressive force in disciplining and punishing the population while reinforcing domination and unequal power relations in society. “Under Control”, Chong’s first solo exhibition in Singapore at 2902 Gallery, presents his meticulous photographic explorations on a selection of “authoritarian” symbols lifted from our daily environment.
Following “Haunted School”, Chong turned his lenses to another institution in 2005 – that of healthcare. Featuring hospital equipment shot in a direct, straight on portraiture format, “Institutionalised Care”, delves into the dualism of the hospital as where life and death sit cheek to cheek. While hospitals are evolving into sleeker facades mimicking hotels with premium service, Chong questions the persistence of dread and fear among patients towards such spaces. “Shouldn’t the modern technologies, medicines and machines help us to ‘defeat’ death? Or are they the harbinger of death itself?” he says. The ambivalence took on a more personal resonance with the death of his grandmother half a year into start of the project. “I drove her to the emergency department and experienced a sense of loss. Then, I started to see hospital in another light,” he recalls. Sterile and clinical in aesthetic, the pictures are testimony of man’s ingenuity at innovation and innovation at prolonging life as much as proof of the inevitability of death and the immateriality of his achievements. The tension orchestrated from Chong’s compositions also points subtly at the presence of the “medical gaze”, wrought by the power inherent in esoteric medical knowledge and authority that dehumanizes and objectifies patients. The process of gaining access to these highly surveilled spaces was by no means an easy one.
Furthering his fascination with spaces that discipline and control, is the series “Theatre of Cruelty”, where Chong manifests his study of the prison institution in the confines of zoos. Focusing on zoo enclosures, the work seeks to represent the contradictions in human nature inherent in these sites. Furnished with an assortment of props to recreate the spectacle of naturalness, zoos are embodiments of man’s exploitation and consumption of wildlife. Yet, they are also human efforts to preserve and conserve, to substitute perceived disorder in nature with rational order. While there may be no spectators in his eerily desolate frames, Chong seems to allude to a larger message: that we are in actual fact, passive observers and active participants in the many brutality and tragedies of life.
Lastly, “Royal Malaysia Police” examines the institution of criminal justice alongside the phenomenon of physical deterioration and ageing. The series showcases re-photographed identity pictures of police personnel and offenders, which Chong discovered when he chanced upon an abandoned police station in his native country. “Walking into an abandoned building is like stepping into a time machine. It’s an adventure I love,” says Chong, of his attraction towards neglected spaces, “Bringing a camera along is just to document everything that I see and experience when I ‘time travelled’.”
Scattered around and covered with a layer of dust, most pictures were still decipherable while some others have succumbed to varying degrees to the tropical humidity and moisture. The tarnished visages of these anonymous policemen contradict the image of immaculate reputation law enforcers are tasked to upkeep, hinting at a darker undercurrent of corruption and abuse that have perverted courses of social justice. Moreover, the varied visual effects from the physical deterioration of imagery – a literal death of photography – sparked in him, a sentimental enquiry about the displacement of identity and erosion of memories. They reminded him of Oscar Wilde’s novel “The Picture of Dorian Gray”, where the protagonist trades his soul and morality for eternal youth and beauty, only to have a special portrait of him reveal his sins and inner depravity through disfigurement and ageing. Coincidentally and ironically, the criminal mug shots resisted degradation better to exhibit a greater clarity than those pictures of policemen, hinting towards the many grey areas of social deviance and justice that the institution of law will never be able to fully resolve.
With the precision of a surgeon, Chong dissects the mundane body of society, probing deftly at the innocuous wounds and maladies that plague our consciousness. “In the way he carefully chooses, analyses and ‘frames’ his topics, he somehow gets the upper hand over these authorities than control our thoughts and actions in everyday life,” says curator Patricia Levasseur de la Motte.