From the moment of birth our lives are solicitously managed, and the institutions that delineate this process are of out own making, apparently for our own good. In the show “Under Control,” held at Singapore’s 2902 Gallery, Malaysian photographer Eiffel Chong exhibited four series of works that dispassionately document these self-imposed frameworks of control, and raise uneasy questions about our own acquiescence within them.
The exhibition – Chong’s first solo show in Singapore – included photographs taken in the last dozen years. His portrayals of ostensibly benign settings are devoid of living beings – yet these “empty” images evoke signs of life in their own way. The seven color prints from the series “Institutionalised Care” (2005 – 07), for example, apparently derived from an outdated hospital brochure, embody the life cycle: an infant’s cot; an ultrasound console; a bed cloaked in pale blurs of curtain. The hospital’s fluorescent lighting softens edges and dilutes colors. These faded, inanimate tableaux lack only the players, whose presence would introduce implications of illness – or death, as slyly insinuated by one photograph of a bright bouquet of discarded, slightly stunned looking flowers.
In “Haunted School” (2001 – 02), 12 black-and-white photographs depict an imposing, old brick schoolhouse at night. Chong’s long exposures of empty classrooms and corridors capture ominous shadows and lustrous reflections on wood and glass. Stray light casts chairs and desks into looming silhouettes and illuminates the staring eyes of student-drawn portraits pasted on the walls. These images are tinged with menace even as they are a record of “education” and the validation of skill. In the same vein as the hospital flowers in “Institutionalised Care,” one surreal photo of a half-sculpted clay head implies an unforeseen interruption in the assimilative process.
Another compelling image in “Haunted School” shows a darkened office behind a barred door, a shot that segues neatly into the sensibility of Chong’s “Theatre of Cruelty” (2008 – ). Three large-scale works from this latter series were on view at the exhibition, introducing us to empty, dilapidated zoo habitats. Each habitat image is titled with the scientific name of its occupant – but with no animals in sight, one can only infer their actual existence. Behind a macaque’s wire cage in Macaca Radiata (2011), a cracked tire hangs expectantly by a chain; the cement boughs of a “tree” in Helarctos Malayanus (2011) seemingly demand that a sun bear relearn what is “real.” The photos are rendered in a reduced color palette than ensures the scant genuine foliage blends with the drab, concrete zoo walls. The intended irony here may be obvious, but Chong’s conceptual imagery linking the ritualized trappings of social institutions (such as hospitals and schools) to the inhumanity of ersatz greenery, painted jungle murals and cramped wire enclosures is shrewd and finely drawn.
By now we are familiar with Chong’s allusions, but he pulls us up short with some dozen mug shots and police photo IDs that are in interesting states of decomposition. These ambiguous fragments of identity comprise the series “Royal Malaysia Police” (2012), which hints that the veneer of control is as transient as its creators. The series began when Chong discovered, inside an abandoned Malaysian police station, water-damaged photographs than he alludes to as “Dorian Gray portraits” – a wry reference to Oscar Wilde’s debauched protagonist, who, like this notoriously corrupt police organization, seems to thrive on moral decay. The artist reshot these unrestored color photographs complete with their golden bubbles of dissolved emulsion and the occasional insect corpse. Facial features are obscured, and uniform and prison numbers are extinguished: nothing remains of the bureaucratic façade but spectral, mildew-dappled abstractions.
In “Under Control,” Eiffel Chong reminds us that meaning does not inhere solely in the overt content of an image. What the artist does not picture in his photographs, what he implies through absence, are lucid chronicles that consider how we both enshrine and subjugate beings through the mechanisms of control – whether they be a CT scanner, a school desk of a simple cage.