Yee I-Lann: Tabled

A catalog that accompanies of Malaysian artist Yee I-Lann’s solo exhibition at Silverlens Gallery in Gillman Barracks, Singapore in 2014, it features her work Tabled (2013), a set of ceramic plates inspired by traditional blue and white china but printed with images of ordinary people from Malaysia and Indonesia, as well as other photographic works. The catalog includes an essay by Tony Godfrey.

An excerpt from the essay:

Being English, I was brought up with willow pattern plates: a stylised Chinese pe all in blue. An exotic, pastoral world of lakes, pleasure houses, and happy, idle people. From the 18th century onwards, such fake Chinese idylls were stereotypical Dutch and English ceramics. But in Tabled, l-Lann shows us a very different unexotic, Asian world — one that is non-pastoral, urban, where men survey, work, or move about. These are ordinary people. For centuries invisible, in her plates they could be briefly seen in the Van Loon museum, these descendants of the natives who made the VOC so rich.

But this was no simplistic image of natives demeaned, patronised, and taken advantage of. She writes that a line from Frantz Fanon haunted her, one she used in her initial proposal to the Museum: “Zombies, believe me, are more terrifying than colonists.” These people are photographed on the streets of Kuala Lumpur and Jogja. I think of them as zombies of circumstance. In Museum Van Loon it was as if the ghosts of the house met the zombies of the now.

For me, Tabled keeps bringing one curious image to mind: Degas’s painting The Cotton Exchange, New Orleans of 1873. There are astonishingly few images of stock exchanges in art. Cotton and ledgers are piled on chairs, shelves, and, of course, on tables. The men move around them as if on remote control or like sleepwalkers. It is an image of power without leadership.

Furthermore, there is something oddly missing in these scenes of South-East Asian life: Where are the women? As in the batik works of the Orang Besar series, they are present only implicitly as makers of the home and the decorative objects that fill them and make them comfortable and delightful.

So as always, it is not just a raid on history to point at historic sins, but also an occasion to view today’s issues. I-Lann’s concern is ultimately always with our contemporary world,” and “No, la, I’m not interested in truth per se,” she protests to me, “no such thing, I make things up all the time, I’m an artist not a historian. I’m adding to the myths.” And this we must understand, we must consider moral issues, but also share with her the pleasure of story-telling and myth-making.”