Interview: Liyen Chong

The Asia New Zealand Foundation are soon to open applications for their 2018 residency programme, in light of this we have spoken with some of the past recipients, to hear about their experiences on the programme. This week we spoke to Liyen Chong about her residency in Indonesia.

What drew you to applying for the Indonesian residency at Cemeti ArtHouse in Yogyakarta with the Asia New Zealand Foundation?

I had a longstanding interest in contemporary art in Asia dating back to 1998, and the announcement of this residency was an exciting chance to observe one of the most vibrant and exciting art scenes in Southeast Asia first-hand. The announcement also happened to coincide with an emerging interest in how Eastern forms of meditation might be relevant to contemporary art, and my art practice in particular. I was distantly aware of some of the meditative practices in Indonesia, and thought that Yogyakarta would be a great base from which to explore these practices further. Together with my personal interest in the region (having been born and raised in Malaysia), I was immediately drawn to the residency.

Did you have a solid plan in place for your practice on the residency before you embarked on the trip or was it determined once you arrived?

There was an explicit requirement to exhibit my work at the end of the residency, and given the fact that the residency was only three months long, I knew I had to arrive with a plan. However, I was also in a stage in my work where I felt that immersing myself in research and exploring new practices was more important than any specific outcome, so things did not really go to plan! The project I initially chose to work on turned out to be more complex than I anticipated, and the logistical challenges associated with being in a new environment with different cultural expectations made it difficult to pull things off. Another challenge with working in a different cultural context had to do with the content of the work and my interests in traditional spirituality. Given my position as an outsider, I was wary of flattening highly complex cultural situations to caricatures and clichés. Overcoming these obstacles and pulling the show together at the last minute was a little stressful, but with lots of positive support from the residency host and the support staff at Cemeti Art House, I managed to create something that I would have been happy to show anywhere.

Was there a supportive community around you as the resident artist? And were there artists from other parts of the world on the residency at the same time?

There were two other artists on the residency, one from Indonesia, the other from the Netherlands. After living in close proximity for three months in an unfamiliar environment, we all got to know each other very well and became good friends. In the case of Cemeti Art House, in addition to great administrative support, they supplied two assistants to help us navigate the city and communicate with the locals, which was crucial for my project in particular.  I think this residency was very well set up in that sense.

In any cultural exchange there are always difficulties in translation, from simple language barriers to being able to recontextualize your work effectively, and it was really valuable to have other residency mates going through similar issues of adjustment.

Now that you have been back for some time, when you look at the work you made on the residency and since, what was the most significant impact on your practice?

While this residency was an intense period of time, I definitely feel that it was an extremely beneficial experience for the reflections I’ve had on my art practice since completing the residency.

I mentioned earlier that some of my motivations for entering the residency had to do with my own personal interest in the South East Asian region, and that I was at a stage in my work where I wanted to explore new ideas and practices. Looking back, these factors very likely complicated my art making process, for example, making me wrestle with issues of cultural appropriation, my role in it and how to make artworks on the topic I had chosen that would not just gloss over these questions.

What would your advice be to artists considering applying for a residency?

Try your best to talk to people who have been on the same or similar residency. Often this is the best preparation you can give yourself, even prior to the application process. Find out if the way the residency is set up will suit your practice, whether the local conditions are something you can handle, and how the residency hosts would be able to support you.

With residencies in vastly different cultural contexts, be flexible and prepared to deal with how differently things can be run. It goes without saying that you should have some plans in place, but remember it’s also an exercise where you will have to adapt to the cultural context, make do with the tools at hand and sometimes, take it easy on yourself.

Liyen Chong is a New Zealand artist currently based in Houston, Texas and is working on a suite of paintings to be exhibited locally in the near future. She is represented by Melanie Roger Gallery in Auckland

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Contractors installing Chong’s artwork at Cemeti Art House.


Chong’s work installed in Makan Angin #3, Cemeti Art House


Audience on the opening night of Makan Angin #3


Artist’s discussion for Makan Angin #3 with fellow residency mates

VIDEO The Strangeness of Words

The Strangeness of Words (video still) 2015

Rainbow Red 11Oct2015 (1)

Rainbow Red
Marbled pigment on paper, 375 x 525 mm

Mt Merapi, an active volcano visible in the distance from Chong's living quarters at Cemeti Art House.

Mt Merapi, an active volcano visible in the distance from Chong’s living quarters at Cemeti Art House