Inhabiting a World Populated by Pieces of Art

By Kelvyn Yeang

December 2021 FEATURE
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GEORGE TOWN WAS a sensory feast for artist Ono Kang on his walks to school many years ago. He was especially charmed by the colourfully tiled five-foot ways, and drawn to peddlers who’d creak along thoroughfares and the kuih man whose cries would sporadically punctuate the air.

The scenes he took in gave Ono great comfort when schooling did not. Unbeknownst to him and his schoolteachers at the time, Ono was dyslexic and found it challenging to cope academically. He would remain undiagnosed until he was well into adulthood.

As soon as he was able to, Ono began to travel the world. “I cycled from Istanbul to France without ever really needing directions. If I got lost, I’d just ask around,” he laughs. Self-reliant, confident and now experienced, Ono is back in Penang. But much has changed in the 35 years he has been in and out of his home state. Ono dearly misses the time when there were more trees than development. “Common sights then are no longer common now.”

He was thus overcome with a fever to collect as much of old George Town as he could, from small items like clocks and the odd trinket, to giant mechanical gears and old industrial machinery; and to upcycle these into art and sculptural pieces. “This is the soul of George Town,” Ono proudly proclaims as he gives me a tour of his workspace and his ever-growing collection of everyday objects.

When inspiration strikes, Ono transforms musical instruments, clockwork mechanisms and vintage furniture into enormous complex gestalts that are interactive, and with moving parts; these require some form of participation from viewers for their full artistic appreciation. One of his works incorporates a ship’s steer cleverly engineered to turn a globe, while another spins to the tune of old vintage music, powered by an electric motor that animates a mind-boggling maze of gears and parts.

Ono's workshop on Lebuh Victoria.

One can only wonder at how these saw conception. “My experiences are fuel for my imagination and art. My work represents moments in my life, and the things I feel strongly for,” explains Ono, “Constant self-improvement is my life’s philosophy. I seek to improve myself daily, to not take things too seriously, or worry about things beyond my control. In a manner of speaking, I’m glad I can’t read. I’m not as easily influenced by what is circulating on social media. I prefer to instead base my life on what I’ve personally encountered.”

Take a Breath, Take a Break

In 2018, Ono summarised an entire chapter of his life experiences in the art exhibition “Chuan Khui”, which doubled as his debut in the local art community, at Hin Bus Depot (see Penang Monthly, July 2018). “Chuan Khui” in colloquial Hokkien means to breathe, but Ono says that its concept goes beyond the literal “breath”. “Many moments of realisation for me began with remembering to take a breath. I used to work at my passions without stopping to think. Being so absorbed with completing projects, I neglected my partner (who was eight months pregnant at the time). When I finally realised what was going on, I vowed never to do such a thing again.” All his pieces are avatars of noteworthy happenings in his life, and because they are so personal to him, Ono has never put for sale any one of them.

Before devoting himself to a higher artistic calling, Ono was a tattoo artist. “I spent 10 years developing my skill and was pretty successful with my tattooing. But after doing it for so long, I began questioning myself.” His self-doubt was not unfounded; art had always held a spiritual importance for Ono. “I know how personal tattoos are. I had a bad tattoo once, and I hated it. I didn’t want to be responsible for giving people tattoos they didn’t need. Most times, they don’t even know what they want tattooed. Clients would come into my shop, randomly choose a picture, then pay me to do it. In a matter of months, they’d return to have the tattoos altered into something else. It made me sad to think that the art meant nothing to them, when it meant a great deal to me.” He left tattooing behind after that.

The "tree" comes alive with creepers that will eventually overtake its very form.

After “Chuan Khui”, Ono embarked on another art project, this time inspired by his love for greenery and trees. “I love and appreciate trees. If you know how long it takes to grow a tree, you’d appreciate them more,” he says to me. Unlike his previous creations which are fabricated from everyday objects, his latest is a towering structure along Lorong Popus, that is connected to an actual building, with steel branches that are snaked with vines.

The desired effect is to have these vines colonise the structure to resemble a “living tree”. And like any “living tree”, this piece needs nurturing as it changes and grows in response to the elements. It sits comfortably in a little courtyard that Ono has transformed into a breath-taking secret garden. “I want to create a piece of art that is also a space,” he says, “for people to not only come to view it, but to also enjoy the environment in which it is in.”

There is a certain carefreeness about Ono that belies his unwavering beliefs. He embraces his flaws and through his art, celebrates life as he knows it to be. “Experience has taught me many important lessons; and one of them is to never rush the creative process.” To prove his point, Ono gestures to an incomplete marvel of his. “This has been sitting here for a long time! It’s just like song-writing,” he says to me, “You have to let it sit for a while, before coming back at it with tweaks and revisions, for it to begin to feel right.”

Kelvyn Yeang

Proficient in multiple creative disciplines, Kelvyn Yeang is a musician by night and media content creator by day. When he is not writing, designing, or creating, Kelvyn wanders the streets of George Town in search of a good story and a cup of coffee.