Growing up as a child, it wasn’t standard practice to gift flowers.
It was as though my mum’s natural instinct was to shun flowers as they were mostly considered an act of extravagance and indulgence.
On the off chance that she would quietly accept it without fuss, would be flowers either made from craft class or
the ones given out as wedding favours from Malay weddings1.
As I mature, any interaction that I’ve had with flowers would remind me of the relationship I had with my tiger mom, one who is indoctrinated to place practicality over the little luxuries that she had so denied herself. As such, my childhood relationship with flowers were mostly synonymous with occasions like funerals, weddings, or child birth. Events signifying life-altering moments that could be quantified with a simple mathematical formula, during which an addition or subtraction of a family member occurs. Naturally, I tend to consider flowers not only as a gesture of sincerity from the giver, but to a certain degree, they come along with a comforting or celebratory presence, as a person would carry.
Viewing these images on screen for the first time, I was strongly reminded of the final work published in his artist book, Institutionalised Care2. Eiffel had managed to capture these flowers of a vibrant red in full bloom on proud display tinted with a sense of abandonment and loss. Speaking to the artist, you’d realize that the reality couldn’t be further off, that the bouquet of celebration was to usher in a new born and belonged to a ward too full with flowers that it had to be placed outside of the entrance. Perhaps, then, the sense of abandonment came from the flowers, having been separated from the others, caught up in its abandonment, mourning for not having lived to its full potential?
It is qualities like this that resonate through Eiffel’s works. The artist’s curiosity compels him to explore the unknown, as he did with abandoned spaces in Royal Malaysia Police Series3 and This Used to Be My Playground. Like a detective piecing together traces of life and found clues, he restores these findings and abandoned spaces to their former glory through the figment of his imagination. The artist’s intervention successfully taps into a collective well of memories, calling upon sentiments like nostalgia, fear, and solitude. His neatly framed works are rich with human sentiments yet devoid of the human presence, just as we are aware of the role of the puppet master orchestrating behind the scenes.
It is evident that Eiffel is a patient observer, using his sensitivities towards form, structure and colors as his primary guide to execute and plan his compositions. Upon receiving an invite to teach in Chiang Mai University, Thailand in 2017, Eiffel found time to visit Bangkok, only to discover the city he had remembered fondly did not weather the test of time. His return to the city met with a huge gap in the impression to when he had first encountered her in 2015. Making frequent trips to Bangkok from Chiang Mai where he was based, Eiffel’s suspicions were made evident as he observed the contrast in both cities, the city of smiles he had once known as a tourist seemed to be fading. He began seeking out a language to express this ambivalence and found himself gravitating to the famous flower markets in each city.
It is hardly surprising that Eiffel had resorted to flowers, it is evidently impossible to spend time in Thailand without noticing the overarching importance of spirituality in the culture that is marked by the presence of flowers. Flower garlands and paper flowers4 are a common encounter throughout one’s journey in Thailand. The roots deeply embedded in their daily lives, are purchased and used to deliver well wishes and prayers for protection, good luck and fortune5. Eiffel’s floral arrangements respond to an ephemeral part of this ritual, as a keepsake to take home and how cultural traditions might be sustained despite displacement and urbanization.
Eiffel’s dispassionate and systematic cataloging allowed me to look beyond the symbol of femininity to recognize them for their quality and form as I considered the scale, size and display formats employed by the artist, which fell in line with the continued to play with the concept of life and death through the metaphor of flowers adopted throughout history. Be it handmade or freshly plucked, each of flower posses their own intrinsic personalities – especially evident in Years of Mourning, with the little deformities that Eiffel had carefully selected from multiple visits to flower markets across Thailand.
Eiffel chose to record his subjects as they were. Loose leaves and petals sitting in their original packing from the flower market correspond with the idea of an embalming ritual, fresh blooms enclosed in foam nettings, just as a new born is swaddled in fresh towels. The presentation format of these multi-paneled pieces seem to have taken a page off the year book. As with the meticulously constructed assembly, as seen in Sense of Falseness, reminiscent of a military like drill or a fragment in a time one embraces conformity. Putting forward a sense of tribe as one had in seeking association in the years when coming of age, it is a composition that requires a kind of obsession with form and precision. The subjects are now being rid of individuality and viewed as a collective, standing proud erect and tall, suggesting an audience placed on high alert, perhaps ready to deliver a chorus or put in line as a parade of distinction.
In contrast, one that is most telling of human qualities are The Colors of Wounds & Diseases #1 & #2 which seem to suggest a kind of weariness that is familiar to those who had weathered through trying times. The choir of Helichrysum (better known as Straw Flowers) once poised and neatly arranged, was a display left to nature’s devices. Discarding a picture perfect moment, Eiffel captured a gradual succumbing of his subjects, once poised an potentially carried resemblance to Van Gogh’s Sunflowers initially, are now shrivelled and bending away from light, reminding the viewer of shame, mortality, and the brevity of beauty. It also considers the role of gravity and shaky foundations of ethical quagmires as adults learn to navigate a trying world. No doubt, even in such conditions, the collective scent was beautiful to those who knew how to appreciate, delicate and sweet as proven by the caterpillar that had nestled itself amongst the waning bloom. An element of absurdity is highlighted, if not through the association of his titles, in the artist’s decision to embed these flowers in energy drink bottles, which are heavily consumed and littered across the streets in Thailand. It draws light on the rampant consumption of these artificial boosters, suggesting the frail and synthetic foundations of the social fabric that the fast growing city on steroids sits on.
As if to suggest an alternate reality, Eiffel employs the use of the well wishing forever blooms of Kathin flowers6 in a similar composition in An Antidote To Solitude & A Sort of Hallucination: BLOOD, SWEET & FRUIT. As if to please the Kuman Thong7 of life, he arranges rows of colored sugary drinks so often used as offering. The cheerful and fun color play draws inspiration form a child’s desire to ace their exams, as believed in Thailand to be an effective offering in passing state examinations with flying colors. This full use of artificial elements aligns with the quest for eternity in the heavy investment of scientific advancement and explorations that humanity has embraced. The flower in this scenario has fully evolved into a symbol where its defining quality – the ability for pollination and produce scent (a blessing reserved for the receiver) is no longer relevant. Interestingly, they highlight the discord that most Southeast Asian countries have been muddling through in contemporary today. For as long as offerings are continuously being offered in the form of Bahts clipped to a Kathin, the desire to believe in guardian spirits and powers beyond mankind still runs deep.
Flowers had provided an emotive inspiration to many greats throughout the course of art history, the language and iconographic trend had since evolved from markers to the change of season to capture a whole range of emotional expression. Such is the case when I consider the connection between Eiffel’s subject of flowers and the human psyche, capturing a frame in each timeline of events, further continuing his preoccupation and dialogue on mortality, individuality and collective identity.
Eiffel’s homage to Van Gogh is obvious. Perhaps engaged by the great artist’s dedication and tragic life, Eiffel challenges his viewers to step in closer to scrutinize the hints and shapes veiled behind a curtain of darkness with his 3 largest prints entitled Acebutolol, Benazepril and Captopril, that darkness is perhaps not as terrifying as it seems, that there is beauty to appreciate when it seems the most bleak. The closing note suggests the artist standing in solidarity with the growing need to bridge the growing gap in understanding suicidal depression. His exhibition title, inspired by the satirical Animal Farm by George Orwell, serves as a gentle reminder for those so caught up in the rapidity of post-modern life to, once in awhile, stop and smell the flowers.
1 mass produced and often made of plastic, heavily glittered and usually tied together with a hard-boiled egg.
2 Institutionalised Care by Eiffel Chong, published by Grenadier Press Pte. Ltd. (2013) ISBN: 978-976-12099-0-5
3 currently in the collection of Singapore Art Museum, Singapore
4 Phuang malai, a rich flower arranging tradition that holds an integral part in ceremonies across Thailand. It was first recorded during the reign of King Rama V (1868 – 1910) and had since developed and progressed so much more in practice, deeply rooted in Thai culture and their everyday, the presence of flowers within a Thai household are also very much closely linked to religion and good thoughts.
5 Spirit worship, or Animism, was practiced widely by the people of Southeast Asia. Many Thais believe in a spirit world. These spirits, or phi, must be respected and are capable of bringing blessings and good fortune to those who appease them.
6 Plastic flowers often made from discarded plastic bottles. Usually presented with money clipped to it as financial donations and offerings for the upkeep of the wat.
7 A household divinity believed to bring luck and fortune to the property owner if properly revered. Kuman means "Sanctified young boy"; thong means golden