The photographer Eiffel Chong (b. 1977) has a problem of a personal nature: in his house in Kuala Lumpur which he shares with his mother, the subject of books has become a prickly issue. Mum thinks he has too many of them, and so does he; but much like all bibliophiles, he can’t help but continue to acquire more.
“I am thinking of buying a Kindle,” he says, twiddling his thumbs, “but I am still in the habit of buying books when I see a cover that piques my curiosity, and wouldn’t that be a waste of money if I buy a Kindle while continuing to buy books?”
I concur as I jot down more notes for this interview, as he continues, explaining that he reads a lot of fiction, enjoying the genre far more than some texts which appear to be denser and more profound.
“I just get into the book and disappear into an alternate reality—just the way I enjoy photography,” he explains.
“For that one hour, everything is off. I am just behind my cameras looking at my flowers, at my subjects, and nothing else exists.”
This pre-occupation with storytelling appears to be one inspiration for Chong’s latest solo exhibition I Dim The Sun So That Dusk Arrives Earlier, which recently opened at Richard Koh Fine Arts at Gillman Barracks in Singapore.
The exhibition title originates from what Chong terms as a tendency for him to “look at words, titles and writings,” and to have certain pieces of writing be so “striking,” that he would continuously write them down and jumble them up.
This latest show is a continuation of Chong’s 2018 solo exhibition Mud And Mashed Hydrangea Leaves And Salad Of Dandelion Greens, and three works (Acebutolol, Captopril and Benazepril) from this show appear again in Richard Koh’s presentation. Each of these artworks depicts a still life of wilting flowers, shot in near-darkness, such that the plants barely register as quiet silhouettes or after-images. I Dim The Sun features twelve piezographic works that revolve around a similar aesthetic, only this time, the works are no longer named after hypertension medications, but rather, after anti-depressants: Amitriptyline (Elavil), Desipramine (Norpramin, Pertofrane) and Desvenlafaxine (Pristiq & Khedezla) are some examples.
With a tendency to ruminate on ideas of mortality and transience, Chong admits that “all (of his) works are in some ways autobiographical,” but that he is only acknowledging now, how the traces of his own stories have been interwoven with the pictures he shoots.
The direct impetus for I Dim The Sun can itself be traced to a text message Chong received from a close friend while teaching photography in Chiang Mai, all the way back in 2017, informing him of a mutual friend’s cancer diagnosis—one symptom of which manifested as lumps on the neck. It acted as a startling reminder of Chong’s own age and the fragility of life, and of how suddenly bad news can strike
“When you are young, you think of death as something that only happens to other, older people,” Chong ventures, “but now that I am (in my forties), and I have crossed that half-way point, I realise that I am the older person now.”
This revelation had the effect of prompting a reconsideration of Chong’s position in life, as well as a deeper awareness and conscientiousness in the telling of his own stories through his artworks.
Standing next to Chong’s prints, it is easy to get sucked into the sombre grace of his wilted tentacle-like flowers, images which remain resolutely beautiful even as the plants curve back into the ground in death. A phrase comes to mind as my gaze flits between the works, starkly monochromatic against the brutal white walls: Memento mori or, remember that you will die.
The solemn asceticism of how the flowers are shown—without any discernible patterns, planted in plain pots and photographed against plain backgrounds—brings into sharp focus both Chong’s compositional clarity as well as the soft, subtle movements of the drooping flora.
In I Dim The Sun, the flowers have a multitude of meanings: they could be funeral flowers, a display of grief and devotion to the dearly departed, or they could be still life objects, left behind by a forgetful higher power and doomed to slow decay and death by neglect. They could even be poignant metaphors for people in the grips of depressive disorders, spiralling into self-destruction while still being held together by narcotics and just a little bit of hope.
Whatever your poison, Chong’s arresting and elegant works manage to strike a chord in their understated simplicity.
I Dim The Sun So That Dusk Arrives Earlier runs till 27 April at Richard Koh Fine Art, Gillman Barracks.