image by J of an altar of sorts for Ma J at Pa J's house
I've never been particularly drawn to Chua Ek Kay's paintings, but today I found myself compelled to pay my respects to the Singapore artist who died last Friday.
Mr Chua was only 61 when he died and according to some, at a point of his career where he was set to make new breakthroughs.
I find that remarkable. A couple of months ago, J was at the Singapore Tyler Print Institute where he saw some new works by Mr Chua. Mr Chua had started out working with Chinese ink, but in the later part of his career, moved on to work in oils and some 2 years ago, the print medium. What J saw were not only new print works, but paper-collage prints. What does it take for an artist in Singapore to have an artistic career, and more importantly, to develop artistically and remain open to new ideas, new techniques? How many of our artists today will, say 30 years later in their 60s, be able to boast of a similar career?
At the wake, one of Mr Chua's relatives spoke precisely of his open-ness to criticism and how, not too long ago, he was speaking to his family of some new ideas he was about to explore. Some months ago, I would have accounted for such "creative longevity" as commitment and dedication. Now, I would add to that, artistic humility.
Last night, J and I watched Edward Yang's Yi Yi (aka A One and a Two) again. The taiwanese filmmaker died mid 2007 at the age of 59.
In a way, death pervades the 2000 film Yi Yi. Death - and some sort of the filmmaker's manifesto.
Yang has always been telling stories of Taipei urbanites and their contradictory, random, cruel, pathetic, loving, exploitative and entirely human relationships in a society that is both cutthroat-materialistic yet strangely idealistic. His previous film Terrorizers, Confucian Confusion, Mahjong (A Brighter Summer Day set in 50s Taiwan sets the stage for contemporary Taipei), through different lenses, tell of this. Yi Yi, with the somewhat dreamy Jian family pit against these harsher realities, almost sums up these relationships and situations in earlier films.
The only person spared such grief is Grandma Jian who at the start of the film suffers a fall/stroke and throughout the film, remains in a coma at the Jian apartment.
Death - or at least the living death of a coma - demands that each Jian family member should try to share their day's experiences out loud with Grandma Jian. Their brief monologues or their inability to speak manifest the characters' own inner struggles. 8 year old grandson Yang Yang (perhaps Edward Yang's alter-ego) refuses to speak. His reason being that there is nothing that Grandma Jian, having lived the longest, would not know. And since she knew everything, it was pointless for him to share his day's experiences.
The idea of life as a journey about coming to some knowledge - about oneself, others, the past - is nothing new. In Yi Yi, this single idea provides for satire, comedy, tragedy and the film's elegiac tone. The knowledge itself is not necessarily redemptive, nor is it necessarily complete, but it is nonetheless important for the living to continue living. At the end of the film, at Grandma Jian's funeral, Yang Yang finally speaks to her. He reads an apology, then declares that he wants to be able to show others what they cannot see and do not know. This follows from a scene where Mr Jian discovers that his son has been taking photographs of the back of people's heads with the camera he gave Yang Yang. The reason for photographing the back of people's heads - to show them what they cannot themselves see.
There is no arrogance in such a declaration. By giving these words to a child, Edward Yang positions the filmmaker as someone who tries to show us what we cannot otherwise see - but not because of any superior vantage point, just a different vantage point - sometimes with the child's open-ness, the grandma's patience, the daughter's kindness, the mother's introspection, the father's honesty or the artist's craft.
[images above from the film are from framing device.org]