'The creative process and challenge, for me, is separate from the commercial. I let the gallery handle the commercial details. I just want to keep learning, challenging, and creating strong work that provokes response, and makes a permanent and positive imprint.' –Yeoh Kean Thai
The past few years have been very good for 44-year-old Malaysian artist Yeoh Kean Thai—at least in terms of his artwork making it into high-profile events around the world. Thai’s art, which includes metal sculptures, canvas and larger public art installations, was featured during New York's Asian Art week in 2008, (making him the first artist from Malaysia to have a presence at the event). Perhaps more notably, his work was also exhibited back at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
What’s particularly interesting about the artist (beyond the favourite subject matter of his canvas works—which is metal) is both how his life story is intertwined in a very clear way with his artistic expression, and also his devotion to larger social issues, such as the environment, which he isn’t afraid to show through his artwork.
For instance, an object that’s incorporated frequently into his earlier works, coal iron, has to do with Thai’s own story of inheritance. The antique coal iron from his real life was something owned by his grandfather, eventually passed down to his own father, who then gave it to a young Thai as a gift.
As for the presence of metal in so many of his current paintings, Thai told the Asian Art Newspaper in an interview this year how this also reflects a fascinating and life-altering personal experience from his younger days:
‘In my neighbourhood in Kuala Lumpur, in the 1990s, there was a scrap yard with a mountain of discarded metals which had such a magnetic draw for me…One day, I was caught in a rain shower there—this junk yard, which was really my open studio. After the rain stopped, the sun immediately appeared. With that sudden weather change, the discarded rusty metals emitted a foul smell that sickened me for a few days. This event revealed so much about what was lost and what impact these abandoned items could have—both on the person and environment, and in particular, a person with no voice. The ideas were overflowing. It was then a matter of selecting which of the stories I wanted to tell first.’
Thai has also cited his youth ‘as part of a Chinese Diaspora in a small town’ as well as being a professional later in his adulthood in an urban centre as two things he has incorporated into his art over the years.
Rust has also become a more frequent theme in Thai’s recent work. It turns out that for him, the rust is very symbolic because of its worldwide call for attention to environmental problems: ‘Since rust can be seen as nature’s response to mankind’s habit and culture, it is a global phenomenon,’ according to Thai, whose interest in environmental issues was sparked in 1992, with the coverage of the Kyoto Summit. The rust allows him to ‘present an unpleasant topic and generally unattractive aesthetic in a way that would attract attention—to communicate messages, environmental and cultural.’
Thai’s works are currently being represented by Shalini Ganendra Fine Art in Malaysia, which will be moving to a new location in the New Year. Also, to start off 2011, Thai and Shalini Ganendra Fine Art will unveil his long-awaited solo show, called CODE RED—Action to Neutralise.
This exhibition will focus on the environment, with works including illustrations, words, installation (and even superheroes) which show environmental threats to the world today. The works and concept reflect Thai’s versatility with techniques and thought, bringing fresh perspectives to an already established theme.
More information on Yeoh Kean Thai and his upcoming show, which runs from January 19 to March 30 , 2011 at Shalini Ganendra Fine Art gallery can be found at this website: www.shaliniganendra.com