“It’s a Male Nude Show” Installation
Photo courtesy of Richard Koh Fine Art & the artists ©2020
If sexuality used to be considered the culmination of exposure and revelation, now the photographer Eiffel Chong and the ceramist-sculptor James Seet engage themselves in a two-man show to go further under a man’s skin and in his mind and heart and uncover the vulnerability underneath masculinity.
On a scenic and meditative display, projections of male vulnerability are called to the celebration of life: blushing nakedness, youth body suppleness, elevated thoughts on Buddha-like innocent faces, shy uncomfortable virility.
This time it is vulnerability that lays open the way to a man’s immortality, in a gesture of release of the Western patriarchy’s conventional male-centric ways of viewing the nude, the fashion brand’s supermodel posture and the forever living main actor.
Roxana Florina Popa: Looking at your photography, I imaginarily cut the photos in two.
This way, I got the impression that the upper part of the photo catches a rather meditative praying character with closed eyes, almost like a Buddha.
The lower part of the photo shows a sitting character with vital life force who sometimes might want to leave his chair and bring his legs into action.
Who is this character and whom does he represent?
How would you describe him at best?
What is his attitude towards life?
Eiffel Chong: It’s never my intention to create works that have sexual implications.
The idea of this series started with the visit to a Buddhist Wat in Chiang Mai 3 years ago. In the wat, mummified monks were displayed and they were in the meditative pose. I find them fascinating and slightly grossed out.
I like the idea of immortality and enlightenment in Buddhism where an individual achieves enlightenment or Nirvana and they will no longer be reborn.
It is a normal perception that death only happens to the older people and it will never happen to the younger people because, again, it is “normal” for old people to die. Therefore, I wanted to create this series where I am using the younger people and have them posed in a meditative pose like the mummified monk.
What happens if it is the younger people who achieve immortality?
In a way, I guess it is happening where youth is being worshiped.
Everyone wants to remain young. Everyone wants to have the supple skin and beautiful body that they have and do not want to grow old.
The series is always meant to be calm, contemplating, meditating, achieving immortality and though these models are naked, there is nothing sexual about them.
Buddhist meditative pose was developed into another enlightenment figure pose.
I started doing research on the Taoist and Confucianism deities meditative and sleeping pose. I also started to do research on the classical European sculpture pose (There is a young David in my series).
However, there are also implications that some of the models have a semi erection – pardon my language – in the work. I can assure you that they do not have anything happening in their groin when the works were created. That was how theirs looked. Perhaps they were shy, blushed for being so exposed and that caused the faster heart beat, faster blood flowing and yeah, you know what I mean. To be honest, I don’t remember noticing the changes of size and shape throughout the photo shoot and that is why I think that’s just how their sizes are.
I have also photographed models where theirs are not as endowed as these models whom we are seeing here and
I guess at the end of the day, I want to showcase works where the human form is more balanced and proportioned visually.
There are discussions about Michaelangelo’s David‘s size. His size looked small on his well endowed body and there were questions being asked as in why was David’s size so small. Perhaps, it was a normal size or because of his muscular body, it does indeed looked small.
I guess these models feel comfortable with their bodies and also they trust me in taking their photographs.
Photo courtesy of Richard Koh Fine Art & the artists
James Seet Conversation No.3, 5, 11 & No.13 ©2021
Roxana Florina Popa: Your statuettes show intensely reflective characters who are in search of an answer and on the point of standing in action.
The chain of poses is ended by a character who seems to have calmed his quest and sat down because it has understood something. In the beginning, the characters sit on a 3-time higher pedestal, but in the end, they arrive from this high pedestal to a flat one, after they even tried to juggle 2 pedestals.
What is the message of this sequence of postures?
What is the wisdom that the last character arrived to?
James Seet: It is interesting as you saw it that way. They appear to be reflective because there are emotions and psyche involved while creating them. It is simply a reflection of my mood and feeling in those moments. However, there isn’t any particular sequencing of postures.
The 3 pedestals is to give an elevation of the happy mood the character is in, and the one without the pedestal is the feeling of a little anxiety and thus lowered to the ground.
The pedestals are mere props to support the postures and mannerism.
These are the sweet, sour, bitter and spicy moments that every person goes though in life and
I hope they in turn will have silent dialogues with the viewers.
Roxana Florina Popa: What is the message of the male’s vulnerability for our societies?
What would be a few antonyms for “vulnerability” in the context of this exhibition?
Eiffel Chong: It is about how everyone has a perception that guys have to look muscular or have a perfect body and anything else but that is considered as not acceptable.
I have models who were reluctant to be photographed because they do not have the perfect body. Some tell me they look thin. Most of them tell me they do not have 6 pack abs.
I didn’t choose to use a professional male model.
The models in the photos are all my friends and some might not have a “good” body shape. Nevertheless, I wanted to make these models look good even though they do not look like a supermodel in a Gucci advertisement.
Everyone has their best look. It is just a matter of self-confidence and the right pose with the right lighting in the studio.
Another reason for not using a professional male model is that I wanted to show the imperfection and the vulnerability in these models. Most of them were shy, feeling awkward exposing everything in front of someone with a camera. I photographed most of them a couple of times. I think this is important because I wanted them to feel comfortable with me and the surrounding and the idea of being naked.
It actually reminds me of the Fight Club movie scene where the character played by Edward Norton was looking at a muscular perfect body of a man in a Gucci advertisement and he asked Tyler Durden played by Brad Pitt:
“Is that what a man looks like?“
It’s amazing because after 20+ years of male fashion (Fight Club was released in 1999), we are still objectifying the muscular male body.
I thought things have changed with the recent Korean Pop Culture where the male pop stars look a lot more feminine with smooth fair skin.
Photo courtesy of Richard Koh Fine Art & the artists
Naked we came into the world and naked we shall go out of it.
But, what goes on in between the stages of life are the priceless value of confidence, character, virtue and self-worth that are learned and built through experiences and time.
Photo courtesy of Richard Koh Fine Art & the artists
James Seet: I don’t see nakedness as vulnerability, I see it as a strength.
The male figure in any society does clothe himself with strength, power, stature and competitiveness to portray the masculinity in the “maleness” expected of him. What’s covered and underneath are his emotions, affections and with him opening up and sharing them is a display of strength and courage.
These values, therefore, define the man beyond materialism and make him unique and real.
This exhibition for me is about being comfortable in one’s own skin metaphorically and striking a balance to be himself, a true portrayal of one’s physical and emotional state strip down to basics and being honest and true to himself as part of being human in celebration of life.
Roxana Florina Popa: What is the Malaysian and South-East Asia view on the “burden of mortality”?
Eiffel Chong: I guess the modern society in Malaysia and South-East Asia have a very different concept of “Burden of Mortality” compared to the older generation. The younger people now truly think that they will live forever and this can be seen in the rise cases of the current pandemic. Their attitude towards the pandemic shows that they believe that they will not be infected by this virus solely because they believe that this virus is affecting the older people. I guess it does not only happen during this pandemic, but with other diseases, as well, where younger people are a lot more careless and couldn’t be bothered about hygiene and prevention of diseases (HIV infection is on the rise etc). Compared to the older generation where religion is one of the main ways of life and death is something that is perhaps constantly on their mind.
I think pop culture plays a very big role in modern society:
We are constantly exposed to death in movies and it always happens to the insignificant characters or to the bad guys that we are immune to the concept of death. And death will never happen to the main actor.
This causes us to have a concept where we will never die because we are always the main actor, the star of our own movie and we believe that as the main actor, we won’t die.
Roxana Florina Popa: Your body of works in this exhibition represents your conversation with the French sculptor, Rodin, and an attempt to form a temporal connection with this master.
Could you share with us a few insights that you received while accessing Rodin’s creative vision?
James Seet: Rodin was the founder of modern sculpture. He departed from the traditional themes of mythology and allegory and instead celebrated the everyday person and chose to focus on the beauty of the human body to bring out individual character and physicality.
In 1877, he created The Age of Bronze, the first of the many examples of his work shaped in this manner. Rodin was very down to earth and his perspectives and concepts in sculptures are relevant even in today’s context. He preferred “natural” action taken from real life and would often depict the naturalistic rather than forced contorted postures.
Rodin‘s quotes that inspired the artist James Seet:
“Man’s naked form belongs to no particular moment in history; it is eternal, and can be looked upon with joy by the people of all ages.”
“The human body is first and foremost a mirror to the soul and its greatest beauty comes from that.”
“In front of the model I work with the same will to reproduce truth as if I were making a portrait. I do not correct nature, I incorporate myself into it; it directs me. I can only work with a model. The sight of human forms nourishes and comforts me.”
“The nude alone is well dressed”.
It’s like having conversations from heart to heart about life and it transcends time and space. Having these conversations, it sets the frame of mind and allows me to connect with my inner feelings to bring out the emotions with the everyday poses, either being relaxed, contemplative, confident, happy or even anxious and disappointment.
These conversations also allow me to see what’s natural now and bring out the realness that applies to my perspective. These days, as you scroll through Instagram, you’ll see endless sculpted male bodies. Some of them become my muse and models as I would ask permission to sculpt them, while some are just images plucked from the world wide web.
The journey with Rodin isn’t about reproducing what the Master had done, but to apply the outcome and essence of the dialogue in a voice that is unique to me.
My exploration with every stroke on the clay and every indent and impression on the form creates spontaneity. This creates interesting texture on the surface. It is like “Brush Strokes” to a sculpture, giving it a personal touch and allowing me to inject my artistic aesthetics rather than making it too realistic. It brings out character and individualises further the personality in the sculpture portrayed.
It’s about the realism of capturing the moment.
Special Thanks go to the artists Eiffel Chong and James Seet, to the Richard Koh Fine Art Gallery in Singapore
and to Nor Harith, gallery assistant
ABOUT THE ARTIST EIFFEL CHONG
Eiffel Chong (b.1977) graduated with an MA in International Contemporary Art and Design Practice from the University of East London and a BA (Hons) in Photography from London College of Printing. He was an award-winning photographer and has been featured in many exhibitions in Malaysia and around the world.
AugustMan Magazine in Malaysia awarded him The Man Of The Year 2016, Art Category and he had also won the 2nd Prize in Category D for the Nikon Photo Contest 2014-2015, Japan. He was also one of the finalists for the Asia- Pacific Photobook Award 2015, Australia and Sovereign Asian Art Prize 2014, Hong Kong.
The exhibitions that he was involved are After Image: Contemporary Photography From Southeast Asia, Singapore Art Museum, Singapore; Others & Me: Contemporary Photography Exhibition, Sharjah Art Museum, Sharjah, UAE; and Malaysian Eye, Whitebox Gallery, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Besides his production of photographic work, Chong was highly engaged with the Malaysian photographic community; taking on the role of mentor for the Nikon Shooting Stars programme and Exposure+Workshop.
ABOUT THE ARTIST JAMES SEET
James Seet (b. 1970, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia) is a pioneer in the advertising field in Malaysia with over two decades of experience. In this time, he had carved himself a niche as an advertising creative with insight for creating art within the realm of advertising design. He particularly excelled at conceptualizing 2D imaginations into 3D presentations. This served as an entry point for him into ceramics.
His earliest education in ceramics came from an experienced local potter, Yeow Seng Cheah and international potter, Margaret Fenn. He also travelled to Fitzroy Falls, Australia to pot with Neil Boughton, who specializes in lustrewares.
Seet has represented Malaysia in various ceramic festivals, international conferences & exhibitions including the 2nd South East Asia Ceramic Conference, in FLICAM, Fuping, China in 2021. His works are collected by several international collections including the ceramic museums in A’lcora, Spain and Shaw International Centre for Contemporary Ceramics, Canada.
About Richard Koh Gallery
Founded in 2005, with spaces in Kuala Lumpur, Bangkok and Singapore, Richard Koh Fine Art is committed to the promotion of Southeast Asian contemporary art on regional and international platforms. Centred around a core belief in developing an artist’s career, the gallery looks to identify understated, albeit promising practices, and providing it opportunities to flourish. Through its regular exhibition cycles, print & digital publications and cross-border gallery collaborations, Richard Koh Fine Art engages the art community with the aim of developing regional and intercultural dialogue.