Interview: Malaysian artist Chok Yue Zan talks Lost Paradise and childhood memories

Malaysian artist Chok Yue Zan divulges the memories of his childhood, believing how the past can have a very tangible effect on the future.
Reading time 5 minutes

Tawau-born and KL-based Chok Yue Zan (@chokyuezan) is an emerging force in the contemporary art world. Zan grew up with his grandparents in a forested environment surrounded by lush greenery and breathtaking scenery. It was his sanctuary, a place he considers his “lost paradise”, which together with nostalgia and memories are recurrent themes that vividly colour his oeuvre.


Tell us more about this “lost paradise” in your art?

Sabah in Borneo is a beautiful place surrounded with lush forests and ocean. Unlike other kids, I was very lucky to grow up with my grandparents who were living in a beautiful paradise. It is all about my childhood happiness and joyful moments. I remember the first time I was here in Kuala Lumpur, where I easily got lost while in the big city but I never got lost in the paradise of my childhood. Trees and rivers always led me in the correct direction. The paradise is a space; at the same time, it is a guardian. Following the passing of my grandparents in 2006, the paradise that I hold dear to my heart started to disappear.


How does “memory” influence your vision of the future?

Memory is always central to my art. It’s all about original stories happening in our journey. I believe everyone has a unique memory in his or her heart. My last solo exhibition Retrospect of Paradiso in 2018 at Art Porters Gallery is a recollection of my childhood memories where I pay homage to my family ties and the environment I lived in. Recently I’ve been working on a new series called De Upside Down, which contemplates the imbalanced world and personal memories. The world we live in is transient. Nothing is permanent. With this series, I want to emphasise the connection between memories and unfamiliarity, using natural landscapes as an analogy. These works are based on my personal memories and experience growing up in Sabah. Simultaneously, I have planned another series or a project focused on how technology today affects our life and memory. This is an interactive work with people who are using the smartphone. Smartphones have become such an important necessity in our daily lives. A big issue to tackle today is how information is recorded with smartphone photography.


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What are some of the techniques you have used in your work?

I am always interested to explore different mediums and materials that I can apply on the canvas. In early 2017 when I was a tutor and studio technician of printmaking and sculpture at Dasein Academy of Art, Kuala Lumpur, I discovered this technique, inspired by woodcut print of carving into layered canvases to bring out the colours which have been mixed with gesso beneath to create a solid surface that the woodcutting knife can etch into. I am also interested in creating texture on canvas. The tactile quality of an object’s surface appeals to our sense of touch which can evoke feelings of pleasure, discomfort or familiarity. Texture is something that I can play with through the manipulation of medium and technique to narrate my emotions.


How important is the recognition of your talent in 2017 when you won the UOB Painting of the Year Award (Malaysia)?

First of all, I would like to thank UOB (United Overseas Bank) for this programme to support talented artists every year. This has created a big change in my life. I didn’t have high expectations when submitting my very first painting of the Tough Like Stones, I Thought series to them. I just wanted more exposure for my new series and it was an opportunity at that time. To my surprise, I won Painting of the Year (Malaysia) in 2017, and also a one-month residency in Fukuoka Asian Art Museum. This award gave me huge confidence in my field. Also, a big nudge for the next stage of my journey. Thankfully at the same time, I joined Art Porters Gallery as one of their artists. It was a new start and a new challenge in my art journey.


Being a nature lover, what have been your thoughts on Covid-19 in Malaysia and around the world?

As we know Covid-19 has seriously affected the global economy and our daily lives. Simultaneously, some countries faced political and government issues in this time, including Malaysia. From another angle, it is a good time for healing our Mother Earth. For me, I could take some time to think about environmental issues, read some books and do more research on my next project.


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If you were to name a mentor or a hero figure who has greatly influenced your art and vision of the world, who would that be?

In my early career, I did a lot of research on Anselm Kiefer. I really like his work. I study how he thinks and the materials he used on the canvas—materials have their own significance and techniques as well. From there, I always think about the medium I choose and what I want to narrate through my concept. Like charcoal and the carving technique in my paintings.


What are some of your hopes and desires for your work and also for the future?

I hope to have the opportunity to stage an exhibition in any city around the world. I believe different places come with their own audience and art lovers who will be able to enjoy my work in diverse ways. At the same time, it will be wonderful to hear from them about what they feel when exposed to my art. Additionally, I would like to participate in more international artist residency programmes to expand and learn in my journey as an artist, and also to be inspired by different environments and people.


Find out more about Chok Yue Zan om



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