YEE I-LANN, Tabled, 2013, ceramic-rimmed flat plates with digital decal prints and back stamp, set of 50, diameter: 28 cm each. Courtesy the artist and Silverlens, Manila/Singapore. 

Yee I-Lann


Malaysia Singapore
Also available in:  Chinese  Arabic

As our historical memory falters, over and over again, we skew both present and past into convenient, stylish fictions. Yet, without a grasp of historical authenticity, how do we come to terms with a past that has failed us in some way? In her solo exhibition “Tabled” at Silverlens Galleries in Singapore, Malaysian artist Yee I-Lann lamented the indelible traces left by European colonialism in Southeast Asia. The artist’s process of revisualizing memory is potent and lyrical, enlivened by her concurrent work in film and production design.

Yee’s series “Picturing Power” (2013), comprising eight variously sized photo collages of archival images, depicts colonialism in all its topee-ed hauteur, complete with “artless,” diligent natives. Yee compiles arch clichés into a fluent historical subtext. Her sequential imagery has a jaunty filmic spirit, further enlivened by droll titles that pass judgment on all involved: Wherein one surreptitiously performs reconnaissance to collect views and freeze points of view to be reflective of one’s own kind (showing images of draped photographers and European-style tables carried on natives’ shoulders) eventually segues to Wherein one hands over the ways of seeing loot, land and labour and thereby builds complicity in the exculpation; you are now partners in crime (featuring an image of a local peering tentatively through a theodolite). The series concludes with Wherein one’s legacy comes full circle and posits that you too can exploit and subjugate and fluff yourself up in a splendid game of your own jolly adventure, comprising an office chair, a potted tropical plant and a naked native outside a window. Each surreal image is scrupulous in its symbolism, the most potent of which, for Yee, is the table—presented as the banal weapon of colonial administration. 

Stagnant vestiges of Dutch-British bureaucratic legacy still undermine Malaysia today. Yee’s “Orang Besar Series: ‘YB’” (2010) lampoons government officials (addressed as “YB,” a local honorific) who “fluff themselves up.” In a phenomenon that reflects the country’s racialized political landscape, these men engage in sartorial jousting, where styles and textiles are charged with sociopolitical and ethnic meanings. Yee concocts painterly still lifes of these orang besar (literally “big men”) in varied attire, focusing on their slightly rancid corsages. Ten color photographs are arranged in a proud row of mismatched, gilt frames and hung at an awkward height that forces viewers to crane upward. With a sardonic and luminous flourish, Yee renders this transient self-aggrandizement in the style of 17th-century Dutch painting. 

Study of Lamprey’s Malayan Male I & II (2009) is a diptych derived from a 19th-century photo by JH Lamprey, a British anthropometric photographer who devised a body measurement system to distinguish racial differences. On one panel is Lamprey’s archival image: a stripped male poses uneasily, eyes seeking reassurance off-camera as he holds the requisite “savage’s spear.” It is juxtaposed with another image, in which Yee digitally re-documents history by granting the “specimen” a more confident stance, removing his spear and bestowing him with a clenched fist and steady gaze. For the second panel, in a scornful swipe at the audacity of “indexing identities,” Yee excises the “Malayan male” from the photograph, creating an empty silhouette. The artist herself is seen considering this silhouette, hands on hips, in a partial self-portrait. Conversely, the installation Tabled (2013) serves up notions of 21st-century postcolonial identity: 50 ceramic plates feature decal prints in varying shades of Delft-inspired blue that depict contemporary street shots taken by the artist in Malaysia and Indonesia. The people in these scenes are the presumptive heirs to the realm of “Picturing Power”: disengaged and deeply preoccupied, these chiefly male figures (“zombies of circumstance,” Yee calls them) make no eye contact. The few women include an elderly lady and a ragged child. Following Lamprey’s lead, in a conceptual ethnographic study of sorts, Yee has captured modern man in his Southeast-Asian urban habitat. 

Yee makes demands of the past. She scours a landscape where shards of control and exploitation still glitter and gathers the pieces into cogent vignettes. In visual terms, “Tabled” was a lamentation of a present marred by past harms; more literally, Yee’s title implied that the likelihood of transcending that past has been deferred—perhaps indefinitely.