Rainy Night, Lonely Night
Written by Zena Khan
Rainy Night, Lonely Night is a 2014 installation by Tan Chin Kuan. It forms part of his latest series, Rainy Day, which was unveiled at the GMCA 2013 with the self-titled painting Rainy Day. Measuring nine by five by fifteen feet, this mixed media work draws on Chin Kuan’s technical and conceptual abilities to create what he terms as “Shock Art” in order to stir powerful responses within his audience.
Chin Kuan is celebrated for his ability to combine aspiration, tone, form and concept to create strongly atmospheric visuals, which establish dialogue on serious issues pertaining to society. Although he works across all mediums, he is best known for his seminal paintings and installations which have earned him several awards such as the 1989 and 1990 Major Awards for Young Contemporaries at the National Art Gallery in Kuala Lumpur and the Minor Awards for painting and sculpture at the 1991 Salon Malaysia. Chin Kuan has shown internationally at the 1995 Kwang Ju Biennale, Osaka Triennale in 1993 and 2001 and has had a solo exhibition at the Fukuoka Art Museum, Japan. The Fukuoka Art Museum is not the only institution to collect Chin Kuan’s works; his works can also be found in the collections of the Osaka Prefectural Government, Osaka Foundation of Culture, Singapore Art Museum, the National Visual Arts Gallery of Malaysia and the Aliya & Farouk Khan Collection.
Integral to the transmission of Chin Kuan’s concept in Rainy Night, Lonely Night is the artist’s ability to set the mood of the work. This is achieved mainly via his heavily worked painted background of five canvases. The artist compares the canvases in Rainy Night, Lonely Night to a theatre backdrop, in that their function is to set a scene for the characters which appear at the front. Over the central canvas, Chin Kuan creates an optical illusion, casting a surreal tone all over Rainy Night, Lonely Night. Now the foreground of the canvas appears imaginary, with all clear definitions confined to the background. The perfect perspective of the architectural background adds to the contrast between dream-like and reality. The subtlety with which Chin Kuan creates tension through the visual tools of perspective, realism and abstraction speak about his ability to effortlessly harness his skills to efficiently transmit the socio-political messages he is famous for. Despite setting a calm tone on the surface in Rainy Night, Lonely Night, the mood Chin Kuan infuses into the installation is a strongly emotional one, arising from the impactful issues the artist chooses to discuss.
Chin Kuan’s main directive with Rainy Night, Lonely Night is a discussion of his views on contemporary Malaysian society. As the artist sees it, there are several issues besetting the country, from politics to inflation to social welfare. Pointing to the discord between inflation and stagnant salaries as an example, he comments on his position that the everyday man feels lonely and at a loss, unsure of where to turn for help. The everyday man is represented by the crowd of people gathered in the central canvas, all of whom wear masks, thus obscuring their identities. This element of facelessness corresponds to the artist’s observation that society today forces people to choose camps, politically and socially. There is no room for the individual anymore – those who refuse to join a group are ostracised. The three-dimensional foreground of the installation emphasises this with its clear distinction between left and right, resulting in two separate sections which act as visual metaphors for groups within society.
To the top right of the central canvas, viewers will spy the most important of symbols within Rainy Night, Lonely Night – a horse. Chin Kuan, who was born in the Chinese lunar year of the horse, is famous for cameos in his works in the guise of a horse, often using the animal to describe his feelings and reactions in relation to his environment. Here the horse is shown to be locked in what viewers can imagine is a tight room, with only a small window for the horse to peer out of at the people below. Left alone with no space to leave or ride freely, it allegorically represents Chin Kuan’s current vision of being confined within the precincts of society. He comments on the struggles of striving for artistic and personal breakthroughs within the enclosures of his environment.
Despite Chin Kuan’s sombre narrative, there is an element of hope radiating from the canvas, illustrated by the lights which illuminate the mass of people upon which the horse gazes. The first step towards making a breakthrough is the comprehension of one’s situation, which the artist wholly demonstrates through his vivid imagery of heavy rainfall and strong symbolism. His ability to arrest his audience’s attention through the strength of his perfectly executed atmospheric installation bears testament to the technical and conceptual skills which mark him out as an important socio-political commentator in the contemporary Malaysian art industry.
Title: Rainy Night, Lonely Night
Artist: Tan Chin Kuan
Size: 267 cm x 405 cm x 140 cm
Medium: Mixed Media