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Sea of Stories

Posted by on Friday, 18 March, 2011 at 11:00 AM. Filed under: Reviews

For six days and six nights the winds blew, torrent and tempest and flood overwhelmed the world, tempest and flood raged together like warring hosts. When the seventh day dawned the storm from the south subsided, the sea grew calm, the, flood was stilled; I looked at the face of the world and there was silence, all mankind was turned to clay. The surface of the sea stretched as flat as a roof-top; I opened a hatch and the light fell on my face. Then I bowed low, I sat down and I wept, the tears streamed down my face, for on every side was the waste of water. – The Epic of Gilamesh

I was about to partake in a quite meagre lunch when I noticed a yellow package which had been slipped between the bars of my rustic garden gate.  Concerned that the package may be snatched by a passing jentayu, or munched by a myopic water buffalo I made my way to the waiting gate.

A rectangular book some 29.5cm long, 22.5cm wide and approximately 2cm in depth smiled back at me as it slid from what remained of its packaging. Instantly I recognized the cover image as being that of Yee I-Lann’s Sulu Stories: Barangay (2005).  It dawned on me: I held in my hands a copy of Yee I-Lann’s long awaited book, Fluid World.

Front Cover

Fluid World is an edition of essays and images which was originally intended to surface at the Bogeyman exhibition (2010), but was delayed.  The essays included in the volume are offered from Dr Isobel Crombie and Dave Lumenta, along with an interview of Yee I-Lann by Huzir Sulaman, a conversation between Yee I-Lann and Professor Anthony Milner and an introduction by Beverly Yong. In between are introductions to the artist’s work.

The well-designed book forms a textual and visual overview of Yee I-Lann’s  work from ‘snapshot’ (1993) through to ‘Boogeyman’ (2010).  I say ‘overview’, as it has been impressed upon me that the book is emphatically not a ‘retrospective’.

The book, not being a retrospective, is a teaser.  It allows access to some of Yee I-Lann’s artistic back catalogue.  It is emphatically not that retrospective mentioned earlier, for, as pointed out to me by the artist – a retrospective would cover the artist’s entire oeuvre and this book does not do that.  Besides, the artist has miles and years to go before thoughts of retrospectives permeate into her consciousness. Therefore Fluid World is not a retrospective but, instead, a nicely framed window through which we may access some of the signs, symbols and metaphors painstakingly embedded within the artist’s carefully crafted work. Perhaps it is a Johari window, revealing some to the world, while keeping other things only to herself.

To springboard from the title – Yee I-Lann’s landscape of imagery is indeed a fluid world.  It is a multi-layered, multi-textural, malleable, plastic world containing multiple narratives, back stories and a tender weaving of digital and photographic manipulation to enhance already existing narratives, or to bring forth narratives anew.

To do this, i.e. to arrive at a presentable narrative, the artist must first select, isolate, capture, shed layers and then combine disparate imagery to form a meaningful whole. Yee I-Lann tends to work with high definition photographic imagery, captured by her image intensive Mamiya camera, scanned and transformed through her skill (with the digital process) and printed on high quality photographic paper to present new ‘truths’ in art.

Salvadore Dali

Yee I-Lann’s intriguing creations are, essentially, stratified juxtapositions, digital collages, Derridian deconstructions and reconstructions revealing both illusions of truth and truth through illusion.  There would be a temptation here to recall Max Ernst’s montages, Dali’s surreal juxtapositions – specifically burning giraffes (L’Age d’Or – 1930; The Invention of Monsters – 1937; Burning Giraffe – 1937), and the slick rendering of CGI (Computer Generated Imagery) – but I shall resist it as Fluid World is about so much more than iMac enhanced process and Freudian psychoanalysis.

Detail of The Ch’i-lin of Calauit

Yee I-Lann forms her own visual language, ocular sentences and paragraphs, chapters which generate fresh narratives – such as those found amidst the wavy waters of the Sulu Sea – where pale sand islands give shelter to storied giraffes, sexualised palm fronds and past Philippine dictators (The Ch’i of Calacuit from Sulu Stories).

A rousing account of migration in the language of the sea

In the watery wetness of I-Lann’s milieu, amidst other waves, in other seascapes, water buffalo churn waters (A rousing account of migration in the language of the sea, from The Orang Besar series, 2010) surrounded by plastic shopping bags bearing a resemblance to the colonial British ‘Union Jack’.The water buffalo churned waters are turbulent, the sky stormy, there is fright and concern on the faces of the buffalo as they search for direction and eventually head off, on-mass, into the depths of the waters.

Yee I-Lann’s Fluid World is not Ukiyo-e, i.e. depictions of the lustful Floating World of Edo Japan. When we consider the notion of fluid world it does not necessarily conjure the pleasures of Yoshiwara, but instead provokes comparisons to the grand floods of antiquity, those of Mesopotamian Gilamesh, or the cleansing floods of Biblical Noah.  Aside from ancient deluges there are questing floods, diluvial peregrinations, Ballard’s fictional Drowned World, Kevin Costner’s filmic Water World, Whitman’s poetic seas of immortality – seas which separate, seas which bring together and looming horizons which stretch out both physically and metaphorically, inclusively and exclusively – giving their promises and dashing them in the offing or becalming them in the doldrums. And, in a way, this book – Fluid World is all of those, and none.

What the book – Fluid World does is chart the expansion of the artist’s ideas, concerns and notions of identity, image making and milieu. Through the design and intent of the book we observe these ideas of identity mature, flow, transform over 166 pages, informed by supportive text, glossary, and image details.

To begin at, almost, the beginning….

Snapshot I

Snapshot (1993, p18 Fluid World) presents us with almost nostalgic sepia tints of ‘ethnic’ children, questioning ‘photograph’ and ‘identity’. I say almost sepia tints because, as you may expect with Yee I-Lann, nothing is quite what it seems.  Within these images there are important issues revolving around Derrida’s questioning of the ‘frame’, whether it is ergon (interior to the work) hors d’oeuvre (exterior to the ‘canvas’), or indeed parergon (standing out from both the wall and the work). In Yee I-Lann’s case we observe the photo image and are asked to consider what the notion of framing does to meaning, significance etc.  Framed, unframed and masked images in ‘snapshot’ stand on the political and ethnographic borders of Malaya/Malaysia, revealing notions of personal and national identity. It all seems to begin, for Yee I-Lann, here in the framing and the un-framing, in the metaphorical reminiscence and re-looking at identity.

In slightly later sections of Fluid World (Buy in Yee I-Lann & labDNA – 2001, and Buy Me – 2002) the reader/viewer is introduced to the fragility of identity, how consumerist materialism wishes to impose upon identity, subsume it into itself, and make us all the same.  ‘Through Rose-Coloured Glasses’ (2002) shifts that emphasis slightly and, along with ‘Malaysiana’ (2002), throws up identity as question and provokes dialogue around previously imposed values of station/class. This is highlighted by the questioning of ‘studio’ photography – who has/had access to it and who could afford the luxury of photography.  This ‘highlighting’ also provokes another debate  revolving around ‘access’ to the work of art by the impoverished, and concepts of artistic elitism.


Horizon (2003, p 68 Fluid World) is a pivotal work. While not being physically at the centre of the book Fluid World, ‘Horizon’ is metaphorically or perhaps spiritually, at the epicentre of Yee I-Lann’s issues surrounding identity, belonging and distance.

Yee I-Lann has this to say about her concept of horizon, p69-Fluid World……‘So I took photographs of the horizon, of the unknown, to try to know it…..I would use photographs to surrender the horizon to the “hyper-real”; the image would become my accomplice.  I would put a horizon back into our landscape and see what it would tell us.’

And there the horizon would stay, informing those stormy black and white images in the ‘Horizon’ series (2003), through to the ‘Boogeyman’ (Bugis-man?) exhibition (2010) and highlighting the foreground images which remain all at sea – like the congkak (mancala) forever drifting like some metaphorical Kon-Tiki amidst those eternally fluid waters, under perennial stormy skies, delineating the aforementioned buffalo/new batik islands which simultaneously welcome and repel cultural migration.


From Horizon to Boogeyman that globally curved line of the horizon also seems to stand as a referential frame, re-framing distance, nearness, taking us back to ‘snapshots’ and those Derridian concepts of inclusion and exclusion, in-ness and out-ness, framed and the unframed, ergon, hors d’oeuvre or parergon.

But while we may want to express these notions, ultimately Yee I-Lann’s works, in all their provocation and ‘knowing’, are personal.  They are as personal, private and unknowable, in their own way, as the works of Hannah Hoch (1889-1978), Frida Kahlo (1907 – 1954) and Meret Oppenheim (1913 – 1985).

There is a sense of a full stop at the Boogeyman exhibition, it being the last series in the book.  In that section/exhibition those concerns brought to our attention in ‘snapshot’ seem to have reached fruition, blossomed, become solidified pictorially and in metaphor. It begs the question – what next?  For that we shall have to wait and see.


Yee I-Lann: Fluid World is a collaborative project by Valentine Willie Fine Art and RogueArt. It can be purchased at Valentine Willie Fine Art.

Yusuf Martin (b. London, 1951) is a writer, reviewer, digital artist, exhibition curator gaining his MA Art History & Theory and MA Gallery Studies at the University of Essex. He wrote for Off The Edge and numerous other magazines and newspapers, held exhibitions in opera houses and galleries, in England, as well as working with the National Art Library, Victoria & Albert Museum, London, on many projects. He also writes short stories for publication and was recently invited as guest writer to the Singapore literary festival – Lit Up. He blogs at http://correspondences-martin.blogspot.com/

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