DEAD OR ALIVE
Muhammad Akmal b. Azmi
In her debut solo exhibition, Cheng Yen Pheng paints skulls and skeletons. As a symbol of power as it is the most important part of the human skeletal structure, the skull reigns and recurs as the central theme and seen as an object of beauty. Inspired by Tibetan art and Chinese ornaments, the skull which usually symbolises death and evil, is perceived from a different angle.
Influenced by Thangka* art, a depiction of a Buddha’s head and a skull takes on a less macabre meaning and can be associated towards life and enlightenment, of divinity and wisdom, when placed side by side. The skull and the head are perhaps two different things but as any head contain a skull, and a skull belongs to the head, both is the same.
A head-turner of a painting is the one depicting Ming Fei in the guise of Marylin Monroe. The original image of the deity holds a knife, as a symbol of knowledge, and a pot of rice representing love and care. Yen Pheng’s goddess of love and knowledge is seated contortedly and unabashedly holding a banana in one hand and a gun in the other. The iconic diva is surrounded by skulls, all swimming sperm-like and gravitating towards her in the centre. At first sight, a tongue-in-cheek portrayal of beauty and sex perhaps but on a deeper introspection by referencing Andy Warhol’s pop-art, this modern take on femininity is refreshingly bold and brave.
Yen Pheng paints in oil and acrylic meticulously. She started by first sketching down the ideas and its variations of possibilities, playing with circular shapes as it symbolises continuity. A circle or a skull is about life and death seen as an endless cycle. The final idea is drawn on a tracing paper which would then be projected onto the canvas. As the painting progresses, she keeps adding new elements “…that comes to my mind randomly that I find interesting. I feel those changes will give more value and meaning to my works, thus, making it more exciting.”
In the history of art, a skull is a recognised iconography of death or reminder of our mortality. Since medieval times to now, the symbol of the deceased is a memento mori (Lat. “remember you must die”). Damien Hirst’s famously expensive ‘For the Love of God’ diamond-studded skull attests to the enduring fascination and popularity of the object in contemporary art. So ironically the skull is having a comeback and is very much alive in the current visual art-making.
Quoting Charles Darwin “Man is but a worm”, Yen Pheng feels that the skull is a vital part of a human to live just as how important worms are at ploughing and fertilising the land. Duelling skulls with worm like bodies, skulls preserved in test-tube shaped glass containers and a punctured skull with a melting heart are some of the images used to address her different takes of the cranium. As a gift, fossils or time capsules, Yen Pheng translation of the skull into a symbol of a continuing life is an attempt to look at things differently, positively and signalling that Life doesn’t end with Death but is an endless cycle of hope and new beginnings. The skull is dead. Long live the skull.
*Thangka is a Nepalese art form imported to Tibet that has the images of deities used as teaching tools when depicting the life of Buddha and often used as mediums through which one can offer prayers or requests. Above all, it is used as religious art as part of a meditation tool to help bring one towards enlightenment.
Cheng Yeng Pheng (b. 1982, Penang) completed her Diploma in Fine Art at the Dasein Academy of Arts (2004). She participated in the ‘Open Show’, National Art Gallery, Malaysia and the ‘Seoul International Art Festival’, Seoul City Art Centre, South Korea (2005). She was one of the 30 finalists of ‘Pact Max Malaysian Art Awards’, Foodloft Art Gallery, Penang and ‘Floral Kaleidoscope’, Isetan, Lot 10 (2007). She also took part in ‘No Big Size’, Findars Space, Kuala Lumpur (2008) and ‘Hanoi Welcome’, Vietnam Fine Arts Museum, Vietnam (2009).