The Robot thinks, therefore he is ?

by Susie Wong

Chng Nai Wee is a doctor by profession. His practice has inadvertently provided the materials that he uses in his assemblage works of art: surgical instruments, bottles of coloured antiseptic fluids, phials, empty injection tubes.

His practice has also been the springboard for his interest in medical science, science fiction and their theories on biotechnology. In his art, this is seen in his fascination with the analogy between inanimate technological 'life forms' and human life.

The analogy is obvious: computer technology, biotechnology and human life all have parallel systems that support life. That they might be fused together is a possibility of the future, as popular films Terminator, Bladerunner, and Robocop have shown.

He takes this line of thought further in this show, his third solo exhibition.

Since his last show in 1994, he has also made references in his work to the human biological system and compared it to the computer board. As in the last show, the current exhibits comprise junked, scavenged computer bits.

One sees in Biotechnics, trails of wires running from one part of the surface to another, leading to or emanating from a mannequin. These are interrupted by parts of metallic panels, barely visible pages of anatomical diagrams and various unidentifiable bits.

This is his parallel to the human system. With the use of drugs (life-enhancements) to evoke or emulate human feelings and life, he asks why robots/androids/cyborgs should not be thought as life forms equivalent to human life.

Life, in his definition, 'happens as long as it can generate itself in any way, or when it can elevate itself'. This idea is encapsulated in a coined phrase that appears among the exhibits as text: 'The robot thinks, therefore he is.'

In Motherboard, the tiny fetus is a reference to human life. Surrounding and cossetting it are conduits of wiring, computer parts and bits. The message in this work is summed up by the phrase 'watch your baby grow in an artificial womb'.

Far from moralising, Chng does not decry man-made lifeforms. His works are attempts to infuse a kind of humanity into technology.

He does not wish to enhance human life technologically, but wishes instead to humanise technological 'life'. In other words, he wants to 'breathe life' into the robot.

This is expressed in the meshing of wires and metals that appear as organic growths, much in the same way that human life generates. His panels are chaotic and filled with movement, pattern and texture.

The link between matter and organic life goes back a long way to the protoplasm and the cellular biological physiognomy of human being, microcosms of life.

These he refers to in some of the works on display. There are blown-up images of scanned brains and human heads titled 'Sprits', and X-rays put together under the title 'God Created'.

The hidden irony, contrary to the optimism expressed by the artist, is that his art may evoke feelings of dread, just as easily as triumph. The inanimate appears omnipresent amidst the chaos in his works: death lies in the expressionless, eyeless figures, the cold metal, the tangle of wires and mangled corpses of what used to be objects in the assemblage works.

This ambivalence, however, gives the works a quality of intrigue, and does not detract from the theme. Added to this, the works show a high level of intensity and an adeptness in picture-making that make the show an enjoyable one.