Change begins with small acts. The title of my blog is taken from Paul Gilroy's powerful slim volume packing a resounding counter-cultural critical punch.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Wong Hoy Cheong : Bound for Glory

For those of you interested in visual art, particularly photography, film noir aesthetics, digital video and charcoal drawings, please do pay a visit to my pal, Wong Hoy Cheong's (HC) latest art show, on exhibit at Valentine Willie Fine Art Gallery along Jalan Telawi, Bangsar. It's FREE!

I've known HC since 1990 or so and this is his darkest work to date. But it is also a real experience--if you have never seen an entire gallery painted black, to make you feel disoriented and creeped out, then this is the show to visit! It's like haunted house but better because the pics all reference REAL people... legendary Malaysian criminals!

You can check out directions and viewing times for Valentine Willie at

Wong Hoy Cheong's Latest Exhibition

by Carmen Nge

Murder. Armed robbery. Rape. Abduction. Snatch theft. We see it in the papers and hear about it in the news. We take extra security measures and circulate emailed safety tips to our friends. We live in gated communities and lock ourselves in. We fear.

Crime. It’s taking over the urban sprawl, ricocheting out of control. CCTVs. Vigilantism. Rakan Cop. Political machinations designed to calm us down.

We live in a world sustained by contradictions. We are aghast at the spiraling crime rate yet we continue to consume virtual crime in huge doses—in movies, video games, media. CSI. 999. Se7en. PS2 and X-box interactive crime simulations. Crime novels.

We fetishize criminals as much as we vilify them. In the West, Jack the Ripper and Charles Manson are celebrated figures, propelled to cult status. In our own backyard, we have Mona Fandey and Botak Chin—icons in the popular imagination, fodder for kedai mamak-talk, and the stuff of myth and legend.

Bound for Glory, Wong Hoy Cheong’s solo exhibition, is an exploration of crime, heroes and cityscapes, using a combination of video, black and white photography, painting, drawings and installation. This exhibition is only a slight shift away from Hoy Cheong’s usual interrogation of Malaysian socio-political history, which he still mines with a sardonic whimsy. Although comprising a few sets of different artworks, Bound for Glory is anchored by two: Chronicles of Crime, comprising a series of 10 black & white digital photographs, and Bukit Beruntung, Subang Jaya, a two-channel video projection.


Film noir, in its height in the 1940s, emerged out of a post-war American context marked by urbanization, women’s entry into the workplace in increasingly large numbers, and a paranoia about crime due to changing racial demographics in the cities. With severe censorship restrictions at the time, filmmakers devised an ingenious strategy: create and embellish a universe filled with sex, greed and intrigue but contain these controversial elements at film’s end through death or nihilism. Censors were satisfied that the moral universe remained intact while audiences savoured every pleasurable second of the unfolding of a seedy, corrupt world with shady, hard-boiled characters.

Contemporary Malaysia is marked by a similar tension: we want to prevent crime but we are suckers for titillating crime scenes and climactic showdowns. Just like in the movies.

Chronicles of Crime exploits our fascination and obsession with homegrown serial killers and sexy victims, but without judgment. Just as there can be no light without darkness—complementary opposites that reinforce each other’s limits and boundaries—there are no clear-cut good or bad guys. The series of 10 enlarged digital photographs is a play off this visual schematic, appropriating the conventions of two genres that derive their structure and essence from the meticulous manipulation of light: film noir, and black and white photography.

Chronicles of Crime is loosely based on oral history and archival research of legendary Malaysian criminals Botak Chin, a local Robin Hood; Mona Fandey, a bomoh and murderer; Kalimutu, a trigger-happy folk hero; and beautiful, young victims of crime, Canny Ong and Noritta Samsuddin—women with hidden secrets. The photographs re-enact archetypal scenes of crime; some visual details are derived from news reports but more than a few reference famous classical works of Renaissance art.

Whether painstakingly inking intricate pseudo-real maps of an imagined hybrid colonial space (Map of Buckingham Street and its Vicinity, 2002) or carefully constructing human heads out of dried skins of fruits and vegetables (Indigenous and Non-Indigenous Skins, 1998-2000), the oeuvre of Wong Hoy Cheong has always been synonymous with a persistent, meticulous attention to detail. Chronicles of Crime is no different.

Hoy Cheong spent weeks and months preparing for his photo shoots, which were completed in a matter of days. He began with research and reading—signature Hoy Cheong—then constructed maquettes to help him figure out the best positions for light sources, cameras and shadows. With erratic monsoon weather, a limited budget and a large team of models, actors and crew, he could not afford reshoots. Like Hitchcock, he had to be precise.

Such clinical precision is undoubtedly manifest in the mise en scene of each photograph. Adopting the perspectival depth of Leonardo da Vinci but without the 12 disciples, Hoy Cheong recreates The Last Supper from behind bars. A remorseful Botak Chin doppelganger, seated at a glowing table, is about to tuck in to his final meal of KFC, his right hand upturned—a subtle nod to Christ’s stigmata. In Asphyxiation, a Noritta Samsudin lookalike is given an updated crucifixion, sans the blood. Bound and tethered to the bedpost with wires and cables, her body becomes the site of the interplay between religious symbolism and sado-masochism—apt bedfellows indeed. Michelangelo’s Pietà is similarly transposed onto Piss Off, an assiduously composed shot that contemporizes the iconic image of Jesus in his mother’s arms. Here we see a man kneelingt next to the bloody body of his dead brother. His gaze is transfixed, his expression unfathomable. To his left is the disproportionately smaller figure of the assassin, seemingly pointing his weapon elsewhere.

Such awkward, spatially skewed compositions that mislead using ridiculous proportions (Mandi Bunga), impossible scenarios (Carpark) and historical anachronisms (Magnificent), only serve to emphasize the mythic quality of both crimes and criminals. In his artist’s statement, Hoy Cheong calls his photographs tableaux vivants; they are recreations of visual artifacts appropriated from the media and aestheticized. By so doing, the artist introduces distance in the relationship between media-hyped events and those who consume their sensationalism. We become less enamoured with historical accuracy and the facts of each crime. Instead, we become complicit in a process of glorification and mythification—whether through Bollywood glam (Rooftop), Hong Kong glitz (Sawmill) or Hollywood gore (Burial). Not forgetting film noir homage, of course: Swimming Pool is an elegant rip-off from the opening scene of Sunset Boulevard.

It is impossible to disengage the term “glory” from its religious associations. Webster’s definition adds a layer of aesthetic sheen; glory also means “dazzling illumination” and “great beauty and splendour”. The word conjures up images of halos and “rings of light”—iconic emblems of the divine. But just as Jesus’ crucifixion was a prolepsis to his symbolic glory, it also bound him to a chain of events he did not wish upon himself. (Matthew 26:39). The word “bound” in the exhibition’s title references this double entendre—on the one hand, a criminal’s actions underscores the inevitability of his/her infamy and on the other, such actions constrict his/her ability to travel a different path to salvation.


Where there is crime, there are victims. Bound for Glory positions the middle class duo of Noritta and Canny as foils to the working class tripartite of Mona Fandey, Botak Chin and Kalimutu. The 2 groups never meet but their visual interrelation in the exhibition is not co-incidental. Crime is given media attention only when it infiltrates the idyll of suburbia: Bangsar and Sri Hartamas, where Canny and Noritta were killed. Yet, are the spaces inhabited by criminals and victims so different?

In 16th and 17th century London, suburbia was space appropriated by the bourgeoisie for their own capitalist consumption. Formerly the enclave of the working class masses during the industrial revolution, suburbia was stripped of its image as a place of sin, crime and debauchery, and subsequently gentrified. Desiring proximity to the economic vibrancy of the city without abandoning the stately wealth of their country homes, the bourgeoisie re-envisioned the suburbia of the working class as a utopia of their own.

In his video work, Bukit Beruntung, Subang Jaya, Hoy Cheong excavates twin conceptions of suburbia: one successful (Subang Jaya) and the other, a failure (Bukit Beruntung). The hill of profits, as is the latter’s name, nary lives up to expectations. A sprawling ghost town of derelict shop lots, vacant houses and desolate factory shells, Bukit Beruntung is a space of unrealized ambition—utopia overrun with lalang and left to rot. The wail of Woody Guthrie’s harmonica and the folksy-Western rhythms of Railroad Blues is an ambient track that is curiously upbeat and energetic—a jarring juxtaposition to the landscape of premature urban decay. (In an unexpected serendipitous twist, Woody Guthrie is also the subject of a 1976 film biopic entitled, Bound for Glory.)

Contrast this location with the bustling suburbia of Subang Jaya, where a never-ending parade of lights illuminate the corridors of consumption. Like diamonds in the sky, these lights are emblems of hallowed success. But the red carpet also ushers us into a location cut up and demarcated by highways and flyovers, where living and shopping occur in isolated spaces. The idyll of suburbia is the success of alienation—a city built for profit, not for people. Bert Kaempfert’s chirpy tune, Swinging Safari, is ubiquitous muzak befitting shopping malls and suburban sprawls.

Filmed from the vantage point of a wheelchair and a remote control toy car, Hoy Cheong’s 2-channel video flirts with the speed of mobility and its anti-thesis, the deprivation of unrestricted movement. Yet, the stereotypically sluggish wheelchair zips along in the right frame, navigating and maneuvering with fluid ease. The two slipper-encased feet focus our eyes to a mobile median whereas the camera atop the toy car captures a wider array of images that unfold less rapidly along a low horizon line. We are invited to see suburbia with fresh eyes, unencumbered by the usual urban accoutrements.

Wither crime in this cushy landscape of middle class security? Is it hidden or repressed? Lurking in parking lots and along quiet residential sidewalks? Is the illusion of safety intact, bolstered by politically-motivated assurances of frequent police patrols and newly acquired CCTVs? After all, it is easy to believe that the criminal element resides in the peripheries of success, voyeurs of a lifestyle they are unable to enjoy.


In the 1960s, during the heyday of pop art, Andy Warhol predicted that everyone will have their 15 minutes of fame. In our media-saturated age of reality TV and sensationalism, individual glory is finally conceivable. Ordinary Malaysians vie to be idols and icons of a new generation; this is popular patriotism at its finest.

As visitors to Wong Hoy Cheong’s exhibition enter into Bound for Glory, they will feel this palpable sense of being connected to something radiant and dazzling. They will understand what it means to experience glory, to be king and queen for a day. Whether via criminal pathways or political byways, aesthetic ruptures or media fissures, all Malaysians have an entry point to celebrity.


This essay was first published in the catalogue for Wong Hoy Cheong's exhibition, Sept 2006