Playing Tricks: Interview with artist David Chan

By Zaki JufriEvents - 02 May 2013 5:36 PM | Updated 06 May 2013

Playing Tricks: Interview with artist David Chan

In H.G. Wells’ haunting novel, ‘The Island of Doctor Moreau’, a shipwrecked Englishman finds himself on an island inhabited by bestial beings — human-like animal creatures created by vivisection by one Dr Moreau.

Stepping into a David Chan gallery show is like being transported into Dr. Moreau’s island where vividly coloured Beast Folk run amok on canvas and in sculpture. The one main difference between Chan and Dr. Moreau is that instead of using the scalpel, Chan’s tools of the trade are the brush and palette knife. While the crazed doctor’s motivation was scientific curiosity, the artist’s purpose is to understand human nature and behaviour.

Chan’s upcoming solo show, ‘Every Trick Needs Only One Truth’, is no different, and he explores the nature of human perception and how we decide what’s true or not, albeit subtly this time round. The exhibition is the fifth solo show for Chan, who has also got awards under his belt, including 2004’s UOB Painting of the Year.

Foreplay Perhaps
'Foreplay Perhaps' - Oil on linen

Unlike his previous shows like ‘Hybrid Society — Schizophrenia’ and ‘Genetic Wonderland’ where the messaging of his work was quite apparent, this show lowers the veil, piles on the layers and adds depth to draw you in. The result is an assemblage of intriguing works that relies on artistic subterfuge or what Chan calls “sneaky sleight of hand” — paintings which allude to the Trojan Horse, massive cast iron geometric forms with secrets within as well as other surprises.

I sat down with the artist to learn more about his new show.

Hi David; I last interviewed you for 'Hybrid Society Schizophrenia' back in 2009. Artistically, what has transpired since then?

After that solo exhibition, I continued to exhibit at a few smaller shows; however I was already keen to explore a new topic. The problem was to identify a clear subject matter and a new way of representation that was refreshing and yet related to my artistic style. I believe the current series managed to bridge that requirement.

What’s taken you so long to put together another exhibition?

To make a long story short, I was simply not ready. In the last three years or so I would get excited over a topic but lose interest in it after a few months. Alternatively I would be tempted to make a drastic artistic change only to find that it didn't fit the direction I was heading in. Moreover, I became a father in 2011; I was definitely deliriously ‘distracted’ for a good long while.   

What’s the motivation behind this show? I see that your brand of black humour is still there.

The show is really an amalgamation of many disparate ideas. Nonetheless, at its core, it’s inspired by contemporary life and our propensity to believe arbitrary truths.

Over the last few years, it has become apparent that the likes of reality TV, social media and smart devices have altered our lives dramatically. With such an onslaught of distractions, fringe industries have sprung up to mess it up even further. While many lament this predicament, others are happily enjoying this ‘false’ lifestyle.

In effect, contemporary life is about delivering the ‘tricks’ and deciphering the ‘truths’, many a times this line is blurred. Amidst this balance of self-preservation and sneaky sleight of hand, I attempt to play the trickster, in the hopes of stirring up curiosity and self-reflection through my artworks.

Still using animals I see …

It was the result of elimination. During my hiatus, I was tempted to move away from animal representation, however after much research, there wasn't any other subject that excited me. Moreover, I don’t like to follow trendy imageries, and was mindful not to get too attracted by what other artists were painting. Hence, I ended up playing in my own sandbox again; the only difference is I dug deeper this time.       

'Misdirection' - Oil on linen

Can you explain ‘Misdirection’? It reminds me of Cousin It from ‘Addams Family’!

I can totally relate to what you mean. Cousin It is long-haired and featureless, and wears a bowler hat and sunglasses. Similarly, the faces in the diptych ‘Misdirection’ are also featureless, obstructed by huge rosettes. This is meant to question our obsession with beauty and fads that come and go. Like many ‘talent hunt’ TV programmes, the arbitrator of taste is often validated by a questionable few. In the end, the winner is not the benchmark, but the prizes that are associated with it. Therefore in the diptych one of the winners is a girl and the other a cocker spaniel.  

'Molly' - Fiber glass, assorted rubber animals, powder coated cast iron

‘Molly’ also looks like an interesting piece. I see that you’re using some form of exoskeleton here and in some of your other new works. Can you elaborate?

‘Molly’ is part of a series of sculptures collectively titled, ‘Anamorphosis’. The idea began as a thought experiment. I was trying to appeal to the curious nature of viewers and people in general. I wondered if placing a slick geometric exterior against a complex composite internally would induce viewers to investigate the relationship between the two forms. To make sense of the composite creature inside the casing, one has to investigate the ‘truth’ by peeping through various openings of the box. By giving in to this act of looking, viewers fall into the ‘trick’ of the artwork.

How do you think your art has progressed since ‘Genetic Wonderland’?

To answer this question sufficiently, I may have to write a thesis on this subject (laughs).

In a nutshell, I guess my artistic skills and exploration of respective topics have matured over the years. While the animal theme remains prevalent, I enjoy the challenge of reinventing new ways of viewing the artworks.   

In our last interview, you mentioned that the elephant best represents Singaporeans. Are you still sticking with that?

Let’s just say, the elephant has become an even more obnoxious. 

There might be some truth in that! So what’s the truth about David Chan?

The truth about David Chan is — he is really a simple guy, grateful to have a family that supports what he does, and really happy to have the privilege to continue to do art. He treasures privacy and is not exactly happy with social media. Likes naps and a regular cocktail now and then. Finds a lot of things in life nonsensical, hence gets inspiration to make them into artworks.    

And what’s the ‘trick’ then?

The trick is he is only honest about his ‘truths’ half the time.

Every Trick Needs Only One Truth by David Chan | 16 May-15 June | Art Seasons | Address: #02-21/24 PoMo, 1 Selegie Rd. | Tel: 67416366 | Open Mon-Sat 11am-7pm