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A fantastical deconstruction of the boat by Isaac Chong Wai

An exhibition by the Berlin and Hong Kong-based artist eschews the notions of fixed reality to unveil its fragility.

by Dilpreet Bhullar Nov 22, 2019

If art institutes initiate documenting an object of migration as an exercise in archival history, a series of boats categorised according to size, shape and material, would occupy a major chunk of this listing. Realising its inevitability, a few of institutes in Europe have already begun with the task of building a repository of found objects for posterity. Given the high scale of human migration in the last few years, the metaphors around boats have, knowingly or unknowingly, pre-occupied the creative minds of artists across the globe.

As you enter the Zilberman Gallery in Istanbul to watch the immersive exhibition entitled I Made a Boat in Prison – A Journey to the Shore by Berlin and Hong Kong-based artist Isaac Chong Wai, a boat is hanging from the channel at the centre of a partially lit hall. Made out of iron fences, at a first glance the installation is bound to raise curiosity. The porous fences of Chong's boat stand against the firm material of a conventional boat - instrumental for buoyancy. Accompanied by the video that shows Chong carrying the boat through the streets of Weimar to the prison, the installation plays on the notions of accepted reality and cajoles the viewers to put on their wings of imagination.

I Made a Boat in Prison – A Journey to the Shore | Fantastical Deconstruction of the Boat by Isaac Chong Wai | STIRworld
I Made a Boat in Prison – A Journey to the Shore Image Credit: Courtesy of Kayhan Kaygusuz

For Chong, immersiveness has a lot to deal with personalisation, “For I Made a Boat in Prison, I transformed my personal experience working in a garden of a former prison in Weimar, Germany, to a boat: a sign of floating, a tool of mobility, and a will to go against the confinement. In the beginning, I only wanted to build a boat made of the material of the prison fence, which is normally used to confine people. The fencing imprisons people while letting them see through it. Behind the fence, there is a watchtower or a high wall that guards the movement near the fences,” he says.

I Made a Boat in Prison – A Journey to the Shore | Fantastical Deconstruction of the Boat by Isaac Chong Wai | STIRworld
I Made a Boat in Prison – A Journey to the Shore Image Credit: Courtesy of Kayhan Kaygusuz

Lending a fantastical representation to the idea of how to escape the panoptic surveillance, Chong adds, “A boat could take me away. In the end, I cut out the fence from the garden and built a boat. Since the boat could not fly by itself, I decided to put the boat at the chapel situated at the top of the prison. Some of the viewers said that the boat made of prison fence remind them of an ark, maybe a sign of salvation, which is weak yet firm. I am always very impressed by all these imaginations that the audience shares with me; they create the imaginary space, which is beyond the axis of time and space, and how the work is interpreted in a geopolitical discourse or simply as a personal experience in a specific time and location. The boat is traveling; it has been traveling within Germany, and it has landed in Istanbul. It is a personal boat.”

Isaac Chong Wai, 672 lines in silver, 2019, Acrylic on canvas, silver, 200 x 150 x 3 cm | Fantastical Deconstruction of the Boat by Isaac Chong Wai | STIRworld
Isaac Chong Wai, 672 lines in silver, 2019, Acrylic on canvas, silver, 200 x 150 x 3 cm Image Credit: Courtesy of Zilberman Gallery

To further unfold the layers of protection and safety from the iron fences, paintings with their sky-blue backgrounds 672 lines in silver, and 279 lines in blue, give an illusion of the thick lines that are in close contact with each other. On a closer look they are barely intact, thus unmaking the concept of bordering fences that are impermeable and forceful. “I find the journey of conceptualisation and execution of the work immersive; it is about how I want a fence to look like, maybe at least in the form of its representation in the painting. The colour blue, for me, depicts distance, a far off-land. The stillness and the floating of the fences echo the project I Made a Boat in Prison; it may look like a wave. When it does not move, it looks like a boat, and the colour blue seems to be concealing a part of it”, says Chong.

Isaac Chong Wai, 279 lines in blue, 2019, Acrylic on canvas, 80 x 120 cm | Fantastical Deconstruction of the Boat by Isaac Chong Wai | STIRworld
Isaac Chong Wai, 279 lines in blue, 2019, Acrylic on canvas, 80 x 120 cm Image Credit: Courtesy of Zilberman Gallery

Removing the labels of the congruency and stability from the normalcy of a boat, the artist catapults the viewer from a passive recipient of accepted realities to the dynamic world of questioning the assumptions.

Isaac Chong Wai, I Made a Boat in Prison–A Walk in Weimar, 2015, Single-channel video, Tek kanallı video, 8'06'', Edisyon : Ed. 5 + 2 A.P | Fantastical Deconstruction of the Boat by Isaac Chong Wai | STIRworld
Isaac Chong Wai, I Made a Boat in Prison–A Walk in Weimar, 2015, Single-channel video, Tek kanallı video, 8'06'', Edisyon : Ed. 5 + 2 A.P Image Credit: Courtesy of Zilberman Gallery

The exhibition continues at Zilberman Gallery, Istanbul, till December 8, 2019. 

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About Author

Dilpreet Bhullar

Dilpreet Bhullar

Dilpreet Bhullar is a writer-researcher based in New Delhi. She has been co-editor of the books Third Eye: Photography and Ways of Seeing (Speaking Tiger) and Voices and Images (Penguin Random House). Her essays on visual sociology and identity politics are frequently published in leading books, journals and magazines. She is associate editor of a theme-based journal dedicated to visual arts, published by India Habitat Centre.

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