23 June 2017

Bumi Larangan: Zulkifli Dahlan @ National Art Gallery

Studying one artist’s progression based on works held by the family ~40 years after his death, is a messy effort. Curator Nur Hanim Khairuddin describes in her catalogue essay ‘Yang Aneh, Nakal dan Trajis: Kehidupan dan Kesenian Zulkifli Mohd. Dahlan’ – “(n)early all of the works in the collection are not dated (…) it is hard for us to determine precisely the different phases of the development of his imagery, for instance, the shift from partly dressed to totally naked figures, or from realist figures to hairy monsters to distorted forms to amoeba-like zoomorphic and biomorphic shapes; and the transition of the various configurations of his mutant hybrids: plant-animal, plant-object, animal-object, human-plant, human-animal, human-object, and so on and so forth.”

Untitled (c. 1970s)

“Apa yang dia lukis, bonjol-bonjol di dalam lukisan itu?”, asks Siti Zainon Ismail. Looking at the ink drawings on display at Galeri 2B, it is astounding how well these figurative characters effectively represent this world. Humans & machines are fused together as one. Sprouting is a natural function. Windows frame an alternate reality. A television is just another window. Sitting is a contemplative/ dreamy action. A landscape (preferably one with a horizon) is required to ruminate. When pop-eyed individuals look at each other, engagement & narrative occurs. Collectives thread the same line. Or multiple selves spawn from one’s sense faculties. Humans harbour inner beasts. Perspective is personal, not visual. Durians are awesome. The interior and exterior are two sides of the same line. What is nakedness, when everyone is unclothed?

Detail snapshot of the centre panel of Realiti Berasingan: Satu Hari di Bumi Larangan (1975), painted on a board advertising the boxing match between Muhammad Ali and Joe Bugner at Stadium Merdeka. The red letterings MUHAMMAD are now showing through the drawing. [Anecdote from Zanita Anuar's essay Satu Hari di Bumi Larangan published in Tanpa Tajuk (No. 1), 2000]

As rightfully pointed out by Tan Zi Hao, “Zulkifli’s meandering lines, as a formalist feature of his aesthetics, receive scant attention.” His “resolute outlines” possess a “semangat”, but is unfortunately canonized in Malaysian art history as cartoonish, naïve, or lucah.  Zi Hao’s penetrating write-up also detects the “sense of fascination predicated upon his exceptionalism” that “contributed to the fossilization of Zulkifli’s works.” A rarity in local art exhibitions, this wonderful show is accompanied by an exceptional catalogue, that I purchased online. A biographical write-up, reminiscing interviews, tributes from friends & family, an effusive reflection that compares ‘Kedai-Kedai’ to Mondrian’s ‘Broadway Boogie Woogie’, poems, re-published exhibition essays and newspaper clippings, and colour plates for all exhibited artworks. Gem of a catalogue for only RM 100.

Installation snapshot of [clockwise from left] a sketch book; photograph of Zulkifli Dahlan and Latiff Mohidin at Studio Dapur (1972); image used for the front cover of the "Pameran Kenangan Allahyarham Zulkifli Mohd. Dahlan" exhibition catalogue (1978)

Another fantastic essay is contributed by Niranjan Rajah. ‘Revisiting the Art of Zulkifli Dahlan: A Post-traditional Reading’ argues that the artist “…has left us a body of work that exemplifies an indigenous humanism that sits comfortably within a theocentric view.” Niranjan elaborates, “(f)rom an Islamic point of view, Zulkifli’s work never presents sufficient illusory space, sculptural dimensionality, dramatic action or definitive personality, to constitute a focus that would amount to or facilitate idolatry.” These essays debunk decades-old interpretations of Zulkifli’s works, and present updated perspectives that are relevant now. For example, there were repeated mentions of Zulkifli growing up in suburban Petaling Jaya, and is the son of a ustaz. Or how the May 1969 riots may have influenced the young artist’s outlook in life.

Untitled (c. 1970s)

Moving away from ink drawings – once described by Ismail Abdullah as ‘permulaan yang berkesempurnaan’ – Zulkifli’s paintings require a different mode of interpretation. The utilized canvas is relatively large, juxtaposed blocks of colour create luminous contrasts, and its composition typically emphasizes the painting’s flatness. Showcased here are four of the five paintings that nabbed Zulkifli the major award, at the inaugural Young Contemporaries competition organized by the National Art Gallery. The styles displayed are rather incoherent, for example, if one compares ‘Penjual Kueh’ to ‘Halaman Rumah Kami’. Geometric shapes define objects in the former, and follows an unconventional but definite horizontal perspective. In the latter, colours fill entire outlined forms, although one cannot ignore the dated and spotty condition of this 43-years old work.

Halaman Rumah Kami (1974)

Intentional spots cover densely the diptych ‘Dari Dalam Sa-Buah Rumah’ and ‘Ruang Tengah Sa-Buah Rumah’. Instead of Pollock, I presume that such expressionist gestures are influenced by Latiff Mohidin, whom Zulkifli shared a studio with in 1972. Latiff was then working on his “Mindscape” series, which arched portals probably reinforced Zulkifli’s philosophical beliefs in the depiction of windows (or was it Zulkifli that inspired Latiff?) Another interesting anecdote is that Zulkifli was the resident artist at Angkatan Pelukis SeMalaysia (APS) in 1973/74 – what did other APS members think of his surreal creations? I think Zulkifli depicted a universal truth, however ideal that ambition was. The meandering lines manifest a knowledge that what is prohibited on earth, stems from a hierarchical seeing and evaluating. When that imbalance is flattened, like in his drawings, reality is unveiled.

Untitled (c. 1970s)

“Subjek utamanya memang saya ingat. Insan yang bermata agak belolok, ‘insan getah’ nama saya untuk dia. Insan tidak berskeleton. Kalau ditiup angin, ia bergoyang. Barangkali itu pernyataan Zulkifli untuk mengatakan bahawasanya kita ini hanya kulit sahaja. Kita tidak bertulang. Ertinya kehidupan insan yang dilihatnya dirumuskannya begitu. Kita ini hanya kulit sahaja, kita tidak ada batin. Mungkin itu yang dilihat sebab kita boleh ambil kira latarnya sebagai anak kepada seorang agamawan. Jadi, tentu soal dunia akhirat mesti ada dalam diri dia dan dia melihat hidup di dunia itu sebagai bayangan kepada masa akan datang. Di akhirat, sebagai misalan. Jadi, dosa dan paha diterjemahkan ke situ.”
- Excerpt of interview with A. Samad Said, 25 February 2016, Balai Seni Negara

Untitled (c. 1970s)

18 June 2017

June 2017: The Month to Visit Balai Seni Negara

With six exhibitions running concurrently in the National Art Gallery, one suspects that concentrating so much glorious art into one building, is either one fortuitous coincidence, bad planning, or a trial run before the KL Biennale opens in November. While its galleries are relatively quiet most of the time, the Balai seems even more still in the month of Ramadan. Perhaps the gallery guards have been removed? Barring minor renovation work, school children, or the customary hustle bustle before a minister’s visit, the spacious environs typically offer interested persons a pleasant gallery viewing experience.

A Aishah Abdul Latif – Pemandangan (1979)

Very large wall hangings greet visitors into the Balai’s new-look lobby, the displayed works being part of “Negaraku”, a collection of art from the national collection and a few private collectors. In contrast with the chronological survey “Mapping” staged last year (will there be a permanent hang?), “Negaraku” includes more works from the 1980s onwards. The lack of exacting curatorship is excused, assuming the show is likely staged to propagate a patriotic agenda. Nonetheless, the wide variety of mediums, themes, and approaches, provide a great display of Malaysian art. As one who is somewhat familiar with the oeuvre of presented artists, I take more notice about the arrangement of artworks, but there is no doubt the gallery is filled with many visually captivating artworks.

Din Omar – Antara Dua Hidangan (1991)

Crossing the hall to Reka Gallery, one finds respite in “As We See It: History Through Visual Design”, an exhibition of graphic design objects from colonial to post-war times. Organized by the Malaysia Design Archive, the demarcation of exhibition space into three compact rooms corresponds to three historical periods, present visitors an opportunity to imagine a bygone time through contemporary interpretations of preserved things. Nostalgia is invoked as visual cue, and not as lost memory. Before proceeding to the upper floors, I recommend stepping out to first visit the usually-forgotten National Portrait Gallery, which is now showing three series of artworks by former Anak Alam member Thangarajoo M.A. Kanniah. The artist’s spherical shapes and blooming patterns are mesmerizing, and each individual composition deserves a long look.

Thangarajoo – Anak-anak Alam I (1982)

Thangarajoo’s “Atomic Consciousness” functions as an opening act to “Bumi Larangan: Zulkifli Dahlan” in Galeri 2B, easily the star and best show at the Balai now. The short-lived and founding member of Anak Alam Zulkifli Dahlan, is canonized in Malaysian art history for his outlandish amalgamated characters. This presentation of sketches, together with well-known masterpieces, is a revelation, especially if one can also get hold of the comprehensive catalogue (unfortunately not on sale at Balai). Imagining a time when painting is fine art, when the 1969 riots are still fresh in the memories of Kuala Lumpur residents, when cross-continent travel is tedious – Zulkifli’s meandering lines manifest a rebellious yet wise-beyond-his-years record of modern living. Reflections about this exhibition deserves another blog post.

Zulkifli Dahlan – Akrobat II (1970s)

One will most likely be suffering from art fatigue at this point, so a café break may be in order. Otherwise, the sound of waves and the smell of earth in Galeri 2A, may be enough for visitors to recuperate and reenergize. “Barehands” presents a collection of artworks by Malaysian and international artists, whom collectively completed residencies in five local studios. A diffused presentation in “Barehands” betrays the well-executed artworks by committed mid-career artists, and familiar styles raise questions about the presence of a universal aesthetic.

Installation snapshot of Shin Asato – Under the Same Sun (2017)

Visitors with children should head straight to the third floor, where interactive exhibits await – control a large marionette hung from the ceiling, run through pop-up passages, or use a slingshot to propel chalk? “101: Di Mana (where are) Young?” displays works by 101 Malaysian women artists, including striking pieces by lesser-known artists collected by the National Gallery before 1980. The large number of exhibits can be overwhelming, even negating the significance of womanhood as a factor in art creation/ interpretation. Looking past categories, one may relate Tetriana Ahmed Fauzi’s anthropomorphic plants, with Zulkifli’s creations downstairs; Why is Khatijah Sanusi not part of the “Negaraku” exhibition, when a later work also utilizing textiles by spouse Sulaiman Esa is shown there?

Tetriana Ahmed Fauzi – [top] Tiga Rasa (2011); [left] Keepers (2012); [right] The Veil (2011)

Cross-exhibition looking is fun – one sees Thangarajoo’s lines as having traces of Zulkifli Dahlan and Latiff Mohidin, or when noticing the differences between a wooden tower and a bamboo wheel made twelve years apart by the same artist (Ramlan Abdullah). Multiple visits are required to fully appreciate each of the six exhibitions, and re-looking only magnifies learning and self-realisation opportunities. In the past five years of immersing myself into looking at Malaysian art, this is the first time I felt that the Balai is teeming with life, although actual visitors are still lacking. Free of charge and fully air-conditioned, June 2017 is suiting up to be a wonderful month to visit Balai Seni Negara, which recently reverted to its original name (from Balai Seni Visual Negara). Yayoi Kusama who? Singapore where?

[foreground] Installation snapshot of Ramlan Abdullah – The Raw Generation (2005); [background-l] Joseph Tan – The Formation Series (1990); [b-r] Sharifah Fatimah Syed Zubir – Sri Jingga Indera Kayangan (1998)

13 June 2017

Small Works @ Segaris

One admires the brutal honesty and self-awareness that Hamir Soib portrays. In a recent interview with a journalist, the artist remarked, “(a)fter my mother’s passing, I’m feeding off her energy and want to reflect that I’m not untouchable. I look at myself as a misfit among the elitists. That’s another reason why I’m starting from zero and putting large paintings aside. My parents always came to see all my shows and now there will be a big void.” “I’ve always been painting for others and that’s not fair to me. I’ve decided to liberate myself without needing to seek permission from others. This way I hope to gain more friends and new collectors. Now people cannot say my paintings are only for the elitists!”

Installation snapshot of Siri Lalat (2017)

It is perhaps fitting that “Siri Hospital” – paintings made when the artist was accompanying his late mother at hospital – stand out among this show of 100+ works. Relatively simple depictions of a doorknob, a blood bag, a cut pomegranate, etc. are small, yet powerful when hung on the wall in a single row. Leaving an equally strong impression is “Siri Lalat”, ten paintings of flies of different species, each with the jotting “The most influential figure in Malaysia art scene. When it (f)lies, people listen.” Loud collectors who buy art to show off are obviously in the artist’s crosshairs, as preparatory paintings for giant works that fetched six-figure prices, still sell for a few thousand Ringgit.

Study of ‘Hot Seat’ (2014)

One gallery wall features a painted collection of luxury handbags, some done by Hamir’s assistants as a commentary about authenticity, although the contrived presentation cannot stop visitors from relating Birkins to a politician's spouse. Objects are typically visualized from one side, the flat perspective rendering fishes, a truck, and a crab, as uncanny things that belong in this world yet in reality take an alternate form. This surreal quality in the artist’s works is exceptional, especially those pairing bitumen figures with a dark sky blue tone, e.g. the toll booth in ‘UNESCO Malaysia’s Heritage Building’, the dragon and sailboat in ‘Broken Rice Bowl’, the exposed brains in ‘Talk Cock’, the cloaked cat in ‘The Salary Man’, and the divine finger in ‘The Blame Game’.

The Blame Game (2014)

With its oily properties, bitumen is utilized to great effect for illustrating Hamir’s mythical and tongue-in-cheek creations ‘Toyol Kontemporari’ and ‘Si Penjual Telur’. Upon encountering the beautifully drawn ‘Study untuk ‘Torso’’, I noted that several outstanding displays are culled from private collections, hence implying the artist’s purposeful effort at staging this exhibition. While the intent and statement is clear – the visitor is welcomed into the gallery by the jarring self-portrait ‘Berapa Cukup Kah Cukup?’ and the wide Joker-lips of ‘Senyum Seorang Kolektor…’, – “Small Works” presents an anecdotal flair that is charming, and asserts the high-minded desire to achieve more parity between collector and artist. Big ideas, indeed.

Study untuk ‘Torso’ (2010)

08 June 2017

Good Earth @ Galeri PETRONAS

How bad can an exhibition featuring works by Raja Shahriman, Multhalib Musa, Bibi Chew, Sharmiza Abu Hassan, Eric Peris, and Soraya Yusof Talismail, (the list goes on) be? Galeri PETRONAS plumbs into new depths of irreverence, with an exhibition statement that propagates aesthetic perfection, and one curator who contradicts himself in a cringe-worthy radio interview. Even after feigning illiteracy, I squint at sculptural details and glaring reflections from photographic exhibits, as spotlights render outstanding individual artworks illegible. For an exhibition that “explores the indefinable energy of creativity”, the gallery should just arrange for a lighting makeover and install additional ambient lights. No need to reimagine energy, if one cannot see properly.

Installation snapshot [picture taken from Galeri PETRONAS Instagram page]

01 June 2017

Boundaries of [dis] Beliefs @ White Box

"These are interesting times." Proclaims the wall statement, thus framing "Boundaries of [dis] Beliefs" as an exhibition of art that deal with contemporary concerns. It is unsurprising then, that the majority of displays project an unappealing aesthetic. A piece of meat, hanging over a weighing scale full of maggots. Stained coffee strainers and transparent national flags. Videos featuring grotesque 3-D characters, and the ghost of Malaysia's first Prime Minister. One painted portrait of a former deputy with his black eye. Photographs of PMs at recent political events offer a documentary perspective, yet leave a bitter taste. With its quirky DIY presentation, Alex Lee's installation 'Khabar Angin' stands out as a genuine oddity.

Masnoor Ramli Mahmud - Yelling Wall (2017)

A number of works employ the approach of distorting words figuratively. From the quote arranged in a pyramid by Zabas, to Liew Kwai Fei's unsuspecting puns of system-atic failures, to peeling alphabet of Article 10 in the Federal Constitution by Phuan Thai Meng, artists display a plucky streak in attempts to represent post-truth as a misnomer. Masnoor Ramli Mahmud creates a prison wall covered in social media posts, effectively depicting the echo chamber that is Facebook. Lee Cheah Ni's collection of planks with earnest messages, tell the common sentiment about heritage preservation in Penang. Even a diorama of paintings by famous Western artists, with its accompanying catalogue, cannot conceal the dirty money associated with this collection.

Video record of KSRR (Kamal Sabran + Rohas Remi) performing at "Boundaries of [dis] Beliefs" on 30th April 2017 [link from Kamal Sabran's YouTube channel]

With talks and performances scheduled during the exhibition run, these events continue the recent trend of turning a visual arts show into a multi-disciplinary arts festival. Such varied programming has drawn a larger audience to the visual arts, and is an opportunistic endeavour that deserves much applaud. On a side note, organizer Fergana Art is currently displaying works by Ismail Zain, from the late artist's estate. Despite its slightly dated appearance, "Digital Collage" remains an astounding body of work, and still complex to interpret. More visually straightforward are Ismail's later paintings, which rectangular partitions, brush-y horizons, slanted windows, and foregrounded plants, capture my undivided attention. There are certain truths in painting, and I may have found a sliver of it, here.

Ismail Zain - Untitled (1988)

28 May 2017

As We See It: History Through Visual Design @ National Art Gallery

After celebrating the opening of a physical space earlier this year, the enterprising Malaysia Design Archive stages an exhibition at Reka Gallery. Objects with distinct elements of graphic design are demarcated into three timeframes – colonial British Malaya, the Japanese Occupation, and from post-WWII to Malayan independence. Looking at product advertisements and public service announcements, I was struck by the vivid red and yellow hues that appear in many exhibits. Were these colours used for printing because it was cheap? Or has its enduring properties render these objects more attractive for exhibiting and preservation purposes? Are cinema billboard paintings – like Mr. Vampire – not peddled as nostalgic collectibles, because painted pigments fade faster than printed colours? 

Cinema billboard for Mr. Vampire 新僵尸先生 (1992)

24 May 2017

Collective: Individuals @ 2 Hang Kasturi

In the art canon, artist collectives are often mentioned in reverential tones, and remembered for providing the alternative to established art. This characteristic manifests in the underground location of “Collective: Individuals”, a group exhibition of works from artists belonging in seven collectives. The reasons individual artists gather together are varied – practical concerns of sharing a house, propagating an aesthetic ideal, co-producing a zine, or banding together to form a commercial gallery – but ultimately favourable in maintaining and promoting an artist’s individual agenda. Apart from the relatively formal statements of Make It Happen, the exhibiting collectives do not display overt desires to be similar, which result in a great collection of individual artworks.

Installation snapshot of Nadirah Zakariya - Hitam Manis

Walking through the exhibition – starting with The Sliz’ repurposed road signs, and ending with Orkibal’s pink chair and colourful painting – is a thorough visual delight. The attention-grabbing and vivid displays can be attributed to the show being part of Urbanscapes arts festival, which draws hip youngsters and curious tourists into its quirky space. Metal grills, concrete pillars, narrow walkways, and a vault (!), magnify the sense of discovery. Exhibited works complement the environment, as the miscellany of mediums, themes, and approaches utilized, offer a vibrant survey of artistic forms. Geometric/amorphous shapes, neon/earthy colours, realistic/abstract depictions, singular/modular objects, manipulated/Xeroxed photographs, and even participatory installations. That there are no large nostalgia-tinted paintings, already is refreshing as compared to recent art seen in Malaysian galleries.

Installation snapshot of Tomi Heri – Bujang Senang (2017)

Personal politics and statement-making are still in vogue, however, and works that thread the line between obvious one-liner and obscure symbols, prove most enjoyable. Is Caryn Koh making a prank, an observation, or kooky souvenirs, with her painted eyes? Are the spots on Nadirah Zakariya’s screens and photos, also a heatmap for racist judgements during people interactions? Can Tomi Heri’s “Bujang Senang” signify carefreeness, when its compositions are made up of stencilled geometric patterns? With its marker pen lines on small-squared exercise book sheets, is Foong You Xiang practicing drawing, or doodling his future away? One extreme example of statement-making belongs to the engraved lines by Yew Jun Ken & WAISHUKUN. Does anything make sense, given that the series of artworks is titled “Untitled~Production of Brain Stew Percolator S4+9”?

[from l to r] Yew Jun Ken & WAISHUKUN – Untitled (36); (41); (53); (1-9)

Beyond Instagram-friendly displays, participatory art also takes the form of Blankmalaysia’s ‘Alter’ and Minstrel Kuik’s ‘Artist’s Block’. The latter is part of Run Amok’s installation within the vault, which emphasizes its status as a co-operative (“divide and rule/ Berkerjasama”), but offers too playful interpretations of professional traits expected in artists. Posters of past gallery exhibitions are displayed in one dimly lit room, with a centrepiece that pays tribute to its recently-deceased member Trevor Hampson. Minstrel’s anxiety-ridden declarations in ‘Personal Competencies’ are juxtaposed with Tetriana Ahmad Fauzi’s pictures of stationary fashioned from cucumbers, while metaphorical painting-sculptures by Liew Kwai Fei keep the artists’ rhetoric alive – ‘2B OR NOT 2B (THAT IS THE QUESTION)’ (as black & white jerseys fly away…)

Installation snapshot of gallery space allocated to Run Amok

A paper monument is erected in the middle of a room covered with printouts of Facebook posts about “the World’s tallest mural”, currently undertaken by the five artists who make up Rumah Studio. This projection – and the equally irreverent diorama next door by The Secret Hideout, whom some of  Rumah Studio's members are a part of – detracts from attractive individual works on show. Sattama creates charming diptychs pairing flat living room scenes with arcane signboards, its intoxicated figures seemingly enacting a meaningless midnight ritual. ‘Rumah Studio: Aftermath’ by Kangblabla stages a miniature comic version of one house interior (his own?), its varied wooden forms coming alive as a collective whole. At the basement entrance, metal signs by The Sliz recall the creative urgency of Rauschenberg (in a good way), with current messages emblazoned on via painted layers.

Sattama – Anta/Bahya – Empuk Malam (inside/outside – tender of the night) (2017)

It is telling that collaborative artworks are less attractive than individual productions. Studio Mekar founder Haris Rashid states, "...collectives must serve a purpose as a support group, a stepping stone. But ultimately, all artists are individuals." Looking at the steady stream of visitors, I wonder: what types of contemporary art do hipsters like? Walking past hanging pinafores and paintings commenting about hyper-connectivity, some exhibits come off as derivative and naïve. Nonetheless, in an art scene where some artists acquaint themselves more with collectors than with other artists, artists organizing themselves is a productive endeavor. Curator Sharmin Parameswaran speaks about recognizing this "DIY culture", a useful ethos in a country weighed down by patriarchal institutions. Perhaps this should be the reason we celebrate artist collectives, in this country.

Installation snapshots of Kangblabla – Rumah Studio: Aftermath (2017)