13 July 2018

Google Street View @ Galeri Titikmerah

At Publika's Art Row, the papu x titikmerah pop-up store provides a lengthy distraction, as its wonderful wall of prints and swag merchandise offer much to see. Mei Kei Ho's sterile take of "Pendidikan Malaysia" is exhibited steps away at Galeri Titikmerah, along with small paintings by Lina Tan taken from "Google Street View". Lina's re-creations of dated images seen on a screen, composed from moving images taken from a car, present a multilayered reality that informs our daily digital experience. Its bright colors and overlapping brushstrokes draw my visual attention, while the pictures itself invoke a long reflection about the ontology of a Google Street View image. A real place is memorialized and validated, by a tech behemoth executing a mapping exercise. This mechanical act is potentially unethical, yet do I second-guess when I type-search a location that I have been to before?

Installation Snapshot

The artist's selected locations are seemingly random, although the paintings can be loosely grouped into three. The first group features buildings in downtown Kuala Lumpur, where architecture take precedence over people and transportation, that occupy the source images. Relatively close takes of buildings - Istana Budaya, The Exchange 106 under construction, a corner-lot warehouse in SS4 - form a second group. A third collection of paintings depicting highways, or buildings seen from elevated roads, are my favorites. Being a regular driver and Google Maps user, it is the long roads where one takes a breather from paying attention to the phone's navigation voice-over. These are the times where the scenery outside is a bit clearer, even if there's not much to see. Google provided this opportunity for me to look, and it is only logical, that I resonate with Google's image of that journey.

Installation Snapshot

27 June 2018

Light & Space 得意忘形 @ OUR ArtProjects

A century ago, Piet Mondrian wrote in his essay Natural Reality and Abstract Reality, that “(t)he new plastic idea cannot, therefore, take the form of a natural or concrete representation, although the latter does always indicate the universal to a degree, or at least conceals it within. This new plastic idea will ignore the particulars of appearance, that is to say, natural form and colour. On the contrary, it should find its expression in the abstraction of form and colour…” This abstract sensibility is now deeply ingrained in the typical consumer, who chooses a paint that “reflects up to twice as much light, makes the room brighter & more spacious”, to cover one’s interior walls. The English half of Liew Kwai Fei’s solo exhibition title refers to a product line of emulsion paints that boasts the aforementioned product feature; 得意忘形 describes the satisfied customer, but am I hear to buy house paint or look at paintings?

Installation snapshots of L&S-C3 (2017-18)

In a brightly lit gallery space with mosaic floor tiles, painted geometrical canvases are propped up and hung low along the white walls. The canvases are rectangular, triangular, square, L-shaped, trapezoidal, and a tiny pyramid included for good measure. C-clamps and F-clamps hold together wooden stretchers, upon which linen canvases are mounted. Each canvas is painted with multiple coats of a single colour, the emulsion paints utilized having product names such as Romance, Red Orange, Frosted Dawn, and Daring Blue. These manufactured emotional reactions do not surface, while one looks at the artist’s arranged objects, simply titled “L&S” after the exhibition title. Are these enlarged colour swatches in a pop-up showroom (highlighting samples)? Or are these pop-out showpieces in an imagined neutral space (sampling highlights)? Is the emphasis on modularity, or uniqueness? 

Installation snapshots of L&S-C9 (2017-18)

Such contradictions, and perceptive flip-flops, are amplified when one treats these displays as art. Kwai Fei’s works that I last saw at the same gallery space, were medium-sized acrylic paintings. Here, the painting is not flat, the sculpture is not free-standing. What artistic tradition is he working from – minimalism or conceptualism? Is artistic validation drawn from Redza Piyadasa’s painting-sculpture output of the 1970s? Not forgetting too the artist’s creations within his oeuvre, which include many geometric paintings in flexible configurations. In comparison with the latter, these exhibits feature clamps that are hidden only if one stands directly in front of the arranged painted canvases. Looking from another standing position, and its protruding pieces will compel the viewer to move instinctively, or even urge those with a re-tooling habit to reach for the clamps itself. 

Installation snapshots of L&S-C8 (2017-18)

Like the casual game Tetris, these modular exhibits engender a desire to create structure or fill gaps, which in turn prompts the viewer to recognize familiar forms from the displayed configurations. A sailor standing on the bow, waving nautical flags. A Milo packet drink, with its short straw protruding slightly. A folded rectangular table placed on its side, with an open leg just waiting to be kicked in. Irritated by these imagined forms, I withhold my thoughts and note the painted surfaces, and its soft muted colours instead. In spite of the gallery's white walls, these colours fade into the background in photographs, an especially undesirable trait for people used to treating art objects as Instagram subjects. It is instructive then, to refer to the folded exhibition pamphlet – which includes droll poetic dedications based on the product names of utilized house paints – and consider a photograph within.

Image of the artist assembling a set of modular paintings, from the exhibition pamphlet of Light & Space 得意忘形

The photograph shows the artist hunched over, his face looking downwards while joining a long piece, to the outside of a larger rectangular piece set on the floor. The artist uses his right leg to support the larger piece, while the white wall and square tiles suggest a living room space. Arranging these paintings requires substantial bodily effort, and each form is joint together tenuously. Its concept can only be executed to a point where practical improvisation is required, hence the usage of clamps. When encountered in person, the work is remarkably solid, despite its two triangular shapes balancing atop one big rectangle. Its inherent sculptural qualities point to the objecthood of painting – as wall hanging, as paint on canvas in frame; Yet typical painting qualities such as composition of forms are emphasized as sculptural 3-dimension constructs.

Installation snapshots of L&S-C11 (2017-18)

This wavering sense between the familiar and the unfamiliar, is crucial in appreciating Kwai Fei’s works. Viewers should restrain any thoughts, that these compositions resemble something, and dwell on the exhibits as art objects. Art history and the ontology of art, are useful starting points to ponder upon, but not necessary. Resisting the notion of art as collectible object, the artist appears determined to make audiences reflect about art itself. Teetering at the intersections of minimalism and conceptualism, this body of work’s greatest strength is also its greatest weakness. An infinite loop of irony may present the ultimate artwork (that resists a single interpretation in any time and space), yet its continuous self-negation as an art object also makes it impossible to comprehend. In the age of digital binaries, this artistic approach feels like a lost cause, albeit an avant-garde victory.

Installation snapshots of L&S-C5 (2017-18)

“The point is that modernism is always on the lookout for the moment, or practice, to which both descriptions apply. Positive and negative, fullness and emptiness, totalization and fragmentation, sophistication and infantilism, euphoria and desperation, an assertion of infinite power and possibility or a mimicry of deep aimlessness and loss of bearings. For this, I think, is modernism’s root proposal about its world: that the experience of modernity is precisely the experience of the two states, the two tonalities, at the same time. Modernism is that art which continually discovers coherence and intensity in tentativeness and schematism, or blankness lurking on the other side of sensuousness. And not on the other side, really – blankness as the form that sensuousness and controlled vivacity now actually take on.”
– T.J. Clark, The Painting of Postmodern Life?, Lecture delivered at Museu d'Art Contemporani de Barcelona in 2000

Installation snapshots of L&S-C13 (2017-18)

16 June 2018

Forgotten Beauty @ Richard Koh Fine Art

“When I went to tribal villages in the interior long ago, everyone was so warm. They invited me to their homes even though they did not know me. They cooked for me. These are the old folks I want to paint. Their beauty is something I want the whole world to see. I feel sad that this beauty is slowly vanishing. Ancient practices in tribal adornment are only seen among tribal men and women whose faces are etched with time: tattoos, extended ear lobes, hair styles, accessories, head gear and elaborately decorated outfits. I hope my canvas can capture all this beauty before they fade away. The new generation has changed. City folk. No longer practicing the ways of the old. The treasure I present to you are moments when I was touched by the natural beauty of elderly folk from tribes in Sarawak.”
- Artist statement for “Forgotten Beauty”

Portrait of Iban Man (2016)

Tan Wei Kheng displays 17 painted portraits at a Bangsar house gallery, the elderly individuals depicted being from “indigenous Iban, Kenyah and Kelabit tribes, among others”. Each painting shows the chest upwards, some close-ups cropping off the top of one’s head, and a couple pictures featuring raised hands for visual impact. The artist’s signature photo-realist style is highlighted via his subject matter – physical textures like deep wrinkles, bright eyes, protruding bone structures, are further embellished by cultural markers such as elongated earlobes and shell-shaped ornaments, woven headgear, tattoos and necklaces. Mimicking a high-resolution photograph is an honorary gesture; The viewer must note the painterly subjectivities to appreciate these works beyond photo-realistic copies.

Portrait of Kelabit Lady (2016)

“Jungle Beauties” present black & white portraits of womenfolk, their clothing illustrated with broad brushstrokes and dripping paint, its stylistic difference from the realistic faces denoting a diminishing culture. Less literal and more effective are the full-coloured portraits with a plain single hue background. Static poses highlight one’s wizened countenance or intricate ornaments, while dynamic postures – a spear covering the left eye of ‘Bulo Engan’, and ‘Jawa Sega’ lighting a joint, in particular – convey an active mode that engages the viewer. These engaging compositions, however, resemble a crossover between fashion photography and National Geographic snapshots. The pictures are clearly attractive, but its visual appeal is drawn upon photographic conventions.

Portrait of Penan Man - Jawa Sega (2016)

As such, I gravitate more towards the portraits painted in profile. ‘Portrait of Iban Man’ and ‘Dotun Ngir (Penan Man)’ present prominent head features in a black setting. Most captivating is ‘Portrait of Saban Lady’, its soft brown background setting off the hardened skin and pursed lips of one relatively unassuming face. Her tight knit cap is carefully recreated, along with the shadow at the back of her head, that lends a noble air to the person illustrated, reminiscent of 16th century painted portraiture. That a realistic painting can confer significant dignity to an ordinary person, reflects upon Wei Kheng and his noble intentions to depict “their beauty”. In these quiet profiles, the beauty shines through sheer care in the act of painting, and it is truly mesmerizing to see. 

Portrait of Saban Lady (2016)

22 May 2018

Gallery Partnerships, and a Pago-Pago @ National Art Gallery

Upon conclusion of the inaugural KL Biennale, the National Art Gallery proceeds to hosts several exhibitions, that collaborates with commercial galleries. Happening at the same time, questions abound about the selection process. What was the criteria for galleries invited to participate? How are costs shared, in the staging of an exhibition? What did Balai get out of this endeavour, apart from delegating its exhibition schedule to private companies? As outmoded as the notion is, the museum as institutional recognition is still a notion, worth considering while viewing these shows. From tiny works by international artists, to selling and non-selling thematic showcases, to a memorial/ clearance of sorts, each display is distinctly different. The following jottings are about each presentation, including one opportunistic display by Balai itself…

Exhibition posters at the lobby of the National Art Gallery; Final opportunity to see 1Malaysia logos on art show posters?

“Kuala Lumpur International Miniprint Exhibition 2018” (Segaris Art Centre): A miniprint is defined as a work not larger than 20 x 20 cm, and executed via a conventional printmaking technique (relief, intaglio, planography, and/or serigraphy). This definition is provided by the organizers of the Jogja International Miniprint Biennale, who also played a part in staging this display of 200+ prints by 90 artists. For eyes accustomed to graphic design on monitor screens, the majority of exhibits fail to register a second look. Figurative depictions in series by Mansoor Ibrahim and Derek Michael Besant offer visual continuity, while dramatic pictures by Loo Foh Sang and Samsudin Wahab appear primed to complement imagined storybook narratives.

Samsudin Wahab – Keramat (2018)

“Optimism is Ridiculous” (Richard Koh Fine Art): Natee Utarit writes in the exhibition statement, “(f)or me, Western-style art is (…) everything which exists in its Western contexts (…) My paintings are no different.” Therefore, looking at ;realistic paintings of animals, hung in a dark and air-conditioned museum gallery, appropriates a Western form of art appreciation. The subject matter is posed and creates a shallow perspective, its lush surfaces projecting a sheen on the flat canvas. Selected short phrases are etched upon thick custom-made dark grey frames, the solemn presentation heightening a sense of reverence, that was transmuted from the Western church to the Western museum. Its market value aside, Natee’s paintings portray art which is repressed, a muffling of self-expression tendencies in a self-proclaimed democratic world. Optimism, is indeed, ridiculous.

Natee Utarit – Innocence is Overrated (2012)

The Unconventional Sculptor: The Works of Vong Nyam Chee 1956 – 2017” (G13 Gallery): The gallery pays tribute to one recently-deceased self-taught artist, better known by the moniker Cheev. The artist constructs dancing figures by gluing wood fragments together, where such additive assembly approach appears amateurish and naïve, especially after one has seen sculptures from the National Collection in another gallery downstairs. More interesting are vitrines filled with hands and carved faces, that emphasize the craft behind the making. The lack of wall texts and round stickers (that indicates sales), offers a stark contrast in presenting art by a single artist, as compared to…

Installation snapshot at “The Unconventional Sculptor”

“Aku: Dalam Mencari Rukun…” (Core Design Gallery): Husin Hourmain creates large paintings that refer to religious commandments, whose previous solo exhibition in 2013 is “…acknowledged as a watershed moment in (…) the genre of contemporary Islamic calligraphy...” The unctuous wall statement continues to describe this body of work as a “philosophical series”, as sketchbooks, mason jars, and large preparatory paintings, contribute to the show’s maximising aesthetic. Isolating a geometric form – cubes, in this case – to express doctrinal reflections appear restrictive, while expressive brushstrokes tend to draw the looking eye, from its centre to the edges of the painted canvas. Which then directs attention to the many round stickers (that indicate reserved/sales), and the hilarious repeating typo ‘Modelling Pace’ in describing the works’ medium (instead of ‘paste’).

Installation snapshot at “Aku: Dalam Mencari Rukun…”

“Meraikan Pago-Pago”: Latiff Mohidin’s celebrated series is the subject of a current display at the Centre Pompidou, which exhibition was co-ordinated by National Gallery Singapore. Balai – who does not have the resources to execute a similar partnership – takes the opportunity then to exhibit its “Pago-Pago” holdings from the National Collection. The 3rd floor exhibition presents more newspaper snippets than actual work, and it is striking how consistent the language of art writing is and has been, across five decades. Chronological facts, artist soundbites, and/or personal adulation. Nabilah Said’s recent review of the Paris show offers more food for thought – “Latiff’s paintings may bear suggestions of totemic structures, but to insist on their primitiveness is to ignore the capacity of modern societies to build new forms of religion, and the dangers these can bring…”

Latiff Mohidin – Pago-Pago Bangkok

17 May 2018

A New Post-Election (Art) World

How much Malaysian art created up till 9th May 2018, will be put aside/thrashed/repurposed by artists? Should all commercial galleries stage a "pre-GE14" show, for displaying works created before 9th May 2018?
Where will the references to an oppressive regime stop, and to an uncertain future begin? 
How many Birkin and cunning animal images will be purged, and how many frogs and AirAsia planes will be depicted? Will political party flags be the new rage?
Who will self-censor, and who will censor? Will big noses and black eyes, replace clowns or a man of steal?
Can Balai finally have a decent website, and a transparent acquisitions committee? 
How many histories, can be re-written?

Installation snapshot of Hasnul Jamal Saidon - Kdek! Kdek! Ong! (1996)

This momentous change in government, will shift one’s mindset from a reflex to oppose, to a moment’s pause, for one to assess and evaluate. This pause, short as it may be, will be the biggest change for Malaysians, before expressing oneself. This pause alone, I believe, will help Malaysian art evolve. I do not harbour any hope in politicians, but I do hope that a new post-election art world, will make one practice that bit more care, in addressing Malaysian art as we know it. 

Blog post title reference: BFM A Bit of Culture (12th May 2018 episode) “A New Post-Election World”

Nik Zainal Abidin Nik Salleh - Corak Bendera (1970)

26 April 2018

arkologi: gelap @ Artemis Art

“Ajim Juxta’s fourth solo exhibition arkologi: gelap, is an on-going and progressive questioning of the world we live in, and more importantly a reflection of an artist’s questioning of humanity and what it is that drives us. (…) His evolving narrative continues to warn us. With his 2014 Matikatak exhibition, he told us to listen to frogs, or rather reminded us that we have ceased to hear croaking frogs in our padangs, a sign that flora and fauna are rejecting our ways of building and living. Following, his 2016 Unknown Plus exhibition further drew out penghuni distopias, a mirror onto a future where we adopt and assimilate technology to achieve an optimum self.”
- Sharmin Parameswaran, catalogue essay for “arkologi: gelap”

Penghuni Distopia X (2018)

A reflective mood sets in, after reading the above paragraph. Not about dystopian living, but about one’s journey in art. Ajim Juxta is the first full-time artist I met in person, when I first stumbled upon Malaysian (contemporary) art. His illustrations still hang at Artisan Roast TTDI, where I first encountered both the artist and his works, six years ago. Ajim was a prominent regular at the café – which long black is still one of KL’s best – playing the ukulele while taking breaks from sketching. Once, I expressed interest in his work, and the artist gladly showed me a few architecture-influenced drawings, which fascinated me. I frequented the café a lot less, after moving away from TTDI the following year. Since then, my understanding of Malaysian art has deepened too.

Installation view of: [from l to r] (2018) tugu: sarang serabut; tugu: gerbang; tugu: selepas pertembungan

In a radio interview, curator Sharmin Parameswaran speaks about the time, she first met Ajim then invited him to show in a group exhibition, which incidentally was the artist’s first experience displaying his work at a White Box gallery. Over time, Ajim’s presence continues to be felt at the art mall Publika. Apart from participation at its weekend art markets, Ajim proceeded to set up Galeri Titikmerah along Art Row (with Adeputra Masri and Latif Maulan), and now works together with Artemis Art gallery, who carries his works to international art fairs. The artist’s involvement with the Sembilan Art Residency Program, active internet presence, and recent Khazanah-sponsored London residency, has progressively elevated his profile within Malaysian art circles.

tugu: gali (2018)

This exhibition features “Penghuni Distopia” illustrations, some presented at the previous solo; Ajim’s paintings attract me less than his drawings. ‘tugu: gali’ is a notable exception, its clear lines, washed-up colours, and scraped effect, contributing to a crumbling-but-not-collapsed aesthetic. Nonetheless, it is remarkable to observe the artist’s growth over the years. Never part of the establishment, Ajim’s DIY ethos and persistence has resulted in his work now being found on walls in cafés, homes, galleries, store rooms, museums, and fairs. In an egoistic manner, I identify my affinity with Ajim as rooted in our outsider status, where we may never breach the inner circles of Malaysian art. This journey thus far – learning about Malaysian art, for me – has been tremendously rewarding. What holds, in the following six years?

[l to r] (2018) Penghuni ii; Penghuni i; Penghuni iii

22 April 2018

KL Biennale (IX): First, and Last, Impressions

I visited the National Art Gallery 3 times in 3 months, during the inaugural KL Biennale. Among offsite exhibition locations, I was at Piyadasa Gallery twice – once to visit Niranjan Rajah’s installation, and another time to attend the artist’s talk. I spent 30 minutes trying to locate Siti Zainon Ismail’s ‘Rumah Waris Uwan’ within Kampung Bandar Dalam. I did not find it, even after enquiring at multiple warungs along the way. At my first visit to Balai, one usher prompted me to register as a visitor by pen on paper, which I assume was the organizer’s method in tabulating the number of visitors, which target was announced as 250,000. I was not asked to register, in subsequent visits. In the first week of November, the elevators were undergoing refurbishment, two galleries were closed, and the open galleries had different exhibits than what I saw during my final visit in February.

[foreground] Bashir Makhoul – Shift (2017); [background] Syed Ahmad Jamal – Lencana Balai Seni Lukis Negara (1984)

In To Biennale or Not To Biennale, Sunitha Janamohanan writes about the “origins and rise of  biennales within the context of Malaysia’s aspirations for a world-class international visual art mega-exhibition.” Her two-part essay is concise, and poses the pertinent question, that “(t)o be engaged in a global conversation about contemporary art in Asia is not a metaphorical statement; why stage a biennial if not to participate, and, indeed, steer a conversation about art and art history, and about social issues of local and global relevance? For both arts community and audience, a biennial affords opportunities for intellectual reflection – it is an opportunity to gather not just artists, but leading curators, thinkers, academics and public intellectuals, to ruminate on pressing global issues. Will the Kuala Lumpur Biennale do this? Can it?” 

Bayu Utomo Radjikin – Mata Musafir Hati (2007)

As a member of the public, the opportunity “to gather…” and “a global conversation” seems absent here. In Biennials: Four Fundamentals, Many Variations, Terry Smith writes about the distinctive features of global biennales, which include “(b)iennials as infrastructure builders”, and “(b)eing events, rather than primarily an assembly of art objects on display, is what makes biennials contemporary.” Despite its long list of sponsors and partners, it appears that this event is under-budgeted. Program booklets were non-existent, relatively few auxiliary events were organized, and new commissions were minimal (a shocking revelation: a biennial is typically defined as a “mega-exhibition of contemporary art”). If refurbishing an old elevator shaft can only be done via holding a significant event (such as a biennial), that speaks volumes about the role of Malaysia’s art institution under this administration. 

Tengku Sabri Tengku Ibrahim – Banteng Paca Donata/ The Demi-Gods Blockade (2017)

KL Biennale’s chief curator is Zulkifli Yusoff, who is a well-respected and reputable artist, but does not possess significant curatorial experience. In television and radio interviews, members of the curatorial team speak about the six months, given to them for preparing the exhibitions. Assuming the biennial was first announced two years prior to the actual event, this preparation timeline is ridiculous. The resulting output was uneven, and it is difficult to single out any curator for praise or criticism, because it is not stated anywhere who curated what. The Belas/ Be Loved theme (and its five sub-themes) proved to be a difficult but decent choice, although the organizers did not get to justify the selected theme, since the biennale produced no curatorial writings. As for documentation, one relies on a lousy website and its outdated design, and generic social media postings. @klbananaleh!

Screenshot of KL Bananaleh? Instagram page 

The lack of published writings would have been my biggest bugbear about the inaugural KL Biennale, if not for the “elephant in the room”. Suzy Sulaiman’s account of Pusat Sekitar Seni’s “Under Construction” installation, and the (self-)censorship debacle arising from it, ends with a plea for “an empowered (art) ecosystem”. That turn of events deterred myself, from thinking and writing about the KL biennale, during its exhibition run. Displaying typos on artwork signages is one thing; Displaying no accountability for exhibits at one’s premises, is another. Although there are more visitors than usual in my trips to the National Art Gallery, any proclamations that this biennale is a success, will be seen as a bureaucratic and empty achievement. I am reluctant to see another KL Biennale take place, at least not until the organizers project gestures representing Belas. Start with an apology, perhaps.

Snapshot of Under Construction covered in black netting [photo credit: The Star/M. Azhar Arif, taken from star2.com]