Shadow Boxer

Zac Lee’s bOld Treatment of Malaysian emblems

No one handles Malaysian-themed symbolism quite like Zac Lee. Oil tigers spring up to grapple with each other, fighting fish wriggle mouth-to-mouth, and a rooster unleashes its spurs in fury while a tiger bides its time in the background. Those familiar with his previous work will recognise his characteristic translucent brushstrokes and striking visual references to Malaysiana, but the feature that ultimately defines those symbols is the hidden, hazily ambiguous backdrop that underscores each piece.

It is precisely this realm of shadows – or as Zac terms it, “shadow play” –that he has chosen to further explore in his newest series, Life of Pie; to instil new meaning into the darkness. “Shadow play literally involves throwing the shadow of a puppet against the light, with everything controlled by the puppeteer behind a thin white curtain: you will only see what they want you to see,” he explains. “I was searching for a ‘subject’ to express myself – my anger, disappointment and hopes – about my country’s political environment, about manipulation and self-interest, and that is how the ‘shadow play’ series began.”

The master of puppets, it would seem, does not shy away from playing games with his audience. Mirror images run riot through the exhibition, calling into question our own perceptions of each piece: are the warring animals in conflict with their true enemies or simply their own reflections? Such visual turbulence and the resultant frustration that accompanies it, according to Zac, are a reflection of his own artistic stance: “As an Asian artist, the process of perusing a space and the right to speech, while also holding onto traditional values, confuses me. That confusion and loss is mirrored in my work, calling upon the real and the reflected – what we see and what may be.”

Taiwanese-American director Ang Lee’s 2012 adaptation of Yann Martel’s much-feted novel, Life of Pi, serves as a clear anchor for Zac’s new paintings as well – not just for its symbolic use of the Bengal tiger, but also for the questions it stirs up surrounding God, the existence of the subconscious, and the necessity of a means for survival, prompting Zac to make the observation that “We always fight for a slice of the pie, but in the end, have to be alert to it being taken away.” In his eyes, survival is intertwined with “society’s compliance with the ‘rules of the game’ and the ‘law of jungle’. It is who we are – but what we do with that sense is what makes a difference.”

Once again, the ever-present suggestion is that the answers to those questions lie in faint outlines and silhouettes, although there is no guarantee that there is a correct answer at all – such is the artist’s fondness for leaving things as free and open-ended as possible. “Life of Pi’s ambiguous ending – like my work – is open to interpretation. The truth is what you, the viewer, choose and are willing to follow.” This is not a wordless darkness – there is much to be found in these shadows indeed.

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