Joy Chan: "Art offers perspectives to observe our own existence, to point out and clarify the neglected and the unnoticed"

Joy Chan is a Malaysian visual artist working among documentary, video art and installation. Drawing from her background of studying anthropology, she dives into sociological observation and participatory events to reflects on the contested past, the turbulent present, and the unpredictable future within different society. Her works have shown at international festivals and galleries including LA Indie Short Fest, MOMA Beijing, Guangzhou International Documentary Film Festival, and more. 

Her upcoming show, ‘The Outfall: A Wasteland of Mud', will run from 7th to 24th January 2022 at Zontiga. Comprised of 35 hand-processed images, landscape images stained by impurities found in river water, Chan pushes viewers to think about resources, infrastructure, social processes and the failing system; raising awareness on the structural corruption and the environmental pollution that is happening around us.

Zontiga: Share with us a little more about yourself. What got you into journalism, and then film and video?

Joy Chan: It all began with a birthday present - a Canon DSLR. Who knows what journalism is at 18? At that time, taking photos was my only hobby and journalism sounded like something related to photography.

Throughout the years of studying journalism and making documentary, the hobby has evolved itself into a way of seeing, a medium of creativity and self expression. Turning to moving images is my pursuit of the art of time. I enjoy seeing the living world through a viewfinder and telling the stories of it. For me, it’s the way to capture life and time, and time is what makes images powerful.

Recently I got into the field of video installation to create an environment for images to live in, to build spaces for viewing experience, and to make statements.

Most of your work revolves around human societies and the environment. What draws you to use these as your subject?

Back then, I spent time talking to and being with different people, observing communities and cultures. Perhaps I’m curious and that's my attempt to make sense of why we live the way we live, why the world is the way it is.

Drawing from the background of journalism with approaches such as anthropology and observational documentary, looking into human societies and environment is actually my approach to comprehend the world.

It is also what I care about most and in my opinion what art offers — perspectives to observe our own existence, to point out and clarify the neglected and unnoticed in life.

You travelled around Kuala Lumpur, going to several rivers and collecting river water for this project. What was that like?

2021 is the year I draw away from humans and fall into the natural world. It was an experience of getting lost and embracing the sense of lost between civilization and nature.

It all started with a question: Where are the rivers?


At first, I couldn’t recall seeing any rivers in the city except for the Klang river next to my high school, which 
was notorious for its smell. Thinking of that river triggers the smell memory and brings me back to that time. Then, there was a water disruption incident in Selangor, pointing to the pollution of Kerayong river. I started scouting on Google Maps, that's when I know where to go. Watch and listen, the city is built upon rivers.

I hiked for hours to the middle of nowhere and found a forgotten basin, to forests away from the city yet found the intrusion of construction, traveled to kampungs where villagers live with running streams, to crowded pasar pagi where rivers are quietly flowing by. I followed the stream and found graffiti with statements underneath bridges, where cars passed by above me without hesitation. The journey showed me the varying relationships and interactions between people and the water in different locations around the city. Some are utilized while some are forgotten. Some are built to be attractions, while some are used as landfill, although ironically they are of the same stream.

Have you ever spent minutes of silence looking at a river? It is a uniquely peaceful experience I have to say. Find ways to get by the river, take photos, collect and carry samples back home with plastic bottles, then bury films into the mix — The process itself was my refuge during the pandemic. Something stood out in between: the changing perception between finding water and moving away from water. The sounds of drips and flows that enhance when getting closer to water —like an extraction of time, a tunnel with a narrow entrance and a wide exit to a broader world — and the other way around when stepping away from water.


It seems that ‘The outfall’ is due to run in perfect timing, in light of the recent flood situation in Selangor. Can you share with us your thoughts/sentiments on this?

I grew up listening to adults saying Malaysia is geographically free from severe natural disasters; but at the same time, I witnessed the 2005 Malaysian Haze and the flood that killed many.

In truth, infrastructure is the physical manifestation of both political power and social values. The design, location, scale, and scope of what governments build reflects on the social, economical, and political power in society. Where is our outfall? How is it functioning now?

It is upsetting to even think about infrastructure constructions that never seem to be finished and the skyscrapers that were built up in a blink of an eye scrambling on the same land. Something is rotting here in the city, in Malaysia. That is the issue I wanted to shed light on with this work — those peeled off film emulsions, scratches and dust on film, are the rot of the country that can never be purged.

I want to point out what I wrote in the artist statement: “Kuala Lumpur was nothing but a muddy confluence before it turned into a capital city where we called home.” I’m not against development or social progression, it’s just that we’ve seen how the power of man can transform nature and the benefits taken. What if some of the care can be given to the people? What if any of it can be given to nature? I blame those in power, the failing system, the arrogance and ignorance.

Kuala Lumpur was always a muddy swamp and will always be a muddy swamp. The city is sinking, and now is when we see the corpses of inequality, neglected collective rights and climate injustice begin to surface.

What’s your next step? Any future plans that you can share with us?

It’s heart-breaking to see the country moving backwards. I’m planning to dive deeper into the subject of infrastructure politics in Malaysia by looking into the AH150, the first highway that crosses borders and connects Sabah and Sarawak that has been built for half a century. It will be a short film of the journey along the constructing highway, a story about fleeing and fleeing as a refuge.

Sometimes I do doubt the capability of art in raising public awareness on social issues, especially in this country, however it’s the only medium I’m familiar with. Using creativity as the vehicle, I hope my work can be more visible and accessible to the communities I care for as well as a larger audience.

Be sure to check out Joy Chan's exhibition 'The Outfall: A Wasteland of Mud' which runs from 7th to 24th January 2022 at Zontiga. To see more from Joy Chan, follow her on Instagram.

In this exhibition, Zontiga collaborated with Joy to release limited sets of postcards. The profits will be donated in support of rehabilitating and conserving the environment with the community.
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