In 2013 in Malaysia, the booming business from the industrialization of Edible Bird's Nests (EBN) carried an estimated trade value in excess of US$200 million. Yet Malaysia owns only an approximate 6% of its market share with Indonesia leading at 70% followed by Thailand at 20%. Stirred by the trade and manner by which the business is constructed, artist Chris Chong Chan Fui began work on a new body of work now entitled Devices.
Feeding its voracious and predominantly Chinese consumer market, edible bird's nests, when consumed as a soup is believed by some to rejuvenate one's skin and complexion, clear digestive tracts and even cure diseases such as lung cancer. Meanwhile, the mechanized and systematic production of EBN provides an example of how man readily dislocate natural environments and construct, repurpose and industrialise existing urban structures in order to reap the benefits of a phenomenon that is otherwise naturally occurring and evolving, the primary interest of the artist. Interfering with such natural cycles, in this case, primarily for the benefit of a niche market is often nonchalantly passed as being harmless. With top quality edible nests selling at about SG$3000 per kilo, such undertakings are often defended with an allusion to domestic farming and the creation of new economies and employment opportunities. Despite ongoing research from various sectors, the science, environmental and social impacts of the industry have yet to be fully understood.
As part of the exhibition, Devices includes a sculptural replica of predator snakes often trapped with fishing lines and hooks. This is the typical outcome when intruding snakes fall for baits of boiled chicken eggs set within specially designed 'bungalows' constructed to attract swiflets looking to build nests. Other traps used to snare owls and other pests have been reinterpreted as sculptures in almost human-sized proportions and aesthetical treatments. The shoebox, a regular item for packaging that are sometimes improvised as devices to shelter small, rescued animals such as kittens and injured birds are now interpreted as bronze cast sculptures. To expand and layer this dialogue, the artist also present a piece of video noir, based on night-vision recordings made in the wild to capture and identify otherwise obscure animal species.
Devices connect the dots to construct and define an aspect of Chris Chong's artistic practice. Consistently echoing artificial mimicries and calculated capital gains achieved through exploitative harnessing of ecological and human assets, the artist contemplates how this mechanization of nature reflects squarely on our integrity. As an example, in Botanic (2013), the artist deconstructed the sculptural structure of various species of decorative, plastic, flowering plants popular with Malaysian households with the help of professional botanical draughtsman. With Endemic (2015), the artist recreated robotic versions of extinct Bornean mountain flowers based on references of colonial era illustrations and field research photographs. Devices sees the artist dive deeper to unearth the systematic human management and motivation in the effective regulation and doctoring of the natural.
To distill and hasten a natural process with an objective to maximise output and profit, such processes takes place in our everyday. Every one of us might unconsciously and involuntarily be a player within them. These processes could also be seen as models, ways or devices towards efficiency and productivity and are accepted by living communities everywhere, as devices in keeping with our participation in the cycles of demands and supplies alive.
Where we identify device in its use to mostly describe gadgets or utilitarian contraptions, we could also look at as the adjective when used in insinuating crafty maneuvers. After all, device as a word is believed to have originated from the old French 'devis' which primarily refers to division, separation and desire.
Sabah born Malaysian Chris Chong Chan Fui's dynamic artistic practice cuts across various platforms, from moving image, painting, photography and installations. Through his works, Chris queries society's uncanny yet seemingly normalised relationships between natural and man-made constructs of and in the everyday. They often suggest man's deep-seated appetite for control, inevitably determining what survives 'human preference' above 'natural selection'.