31 January 2014

Food Art, Fun Art, Is Red Art?

Dwelling between festive seasons, the image of recyclable plastic swaying in the wind spring to mind, an affecting scene from Urbanscapes 2013. Hong Yi's 'Empty Plates Pavilion' will not look out of place if it was exhibited at the Singapore Biennale, 5500 white plates forming the background of many an Instagram snapshot. This architecture graduate from Kota Kinabalu first gained attention with her playful rendition of a basketball player, which led to numerous commercial commissions; In the process garnering a worldwide social media following that a Malaysian visual artist can only dream of. Advocating art that is fun via the use of everyday materials, Hong Yi skips over the haughty fine art notion of the found object. Instantly recognizable portraits and forms are created with matter ranging from coffee to socks to food, which the artist is most famous for.

Hong Yi standing in front of her creation 'Empty Plates Pavillion'

Cooking has always been an artistic act, where each production is never the same each time. Chefs justify their Michelin stars by expending effort to increase the aesthetic value of food, just like mothers encouraging children to eat their vegetables with colourful arrangements on a plate. What is wrong with beautiful presentation if it enhances one's culinary experience? Being served a latte with a frothy heart renders overly roasted coffee tolerable. On the other hand, using a cucumber to create a pastoral scene, negates the act of food preparation itself. Hong Yi's ephemeral works are captured in well-lit photographs, where the snapshot is the art, not the food. Human beings have regressed in perception, who now are more accustomed to two-dimensional visual stimulation. The magical confluence of social media and pretty pictures help make such food art popular. I would like to see one in real life - but is food art, art?

31 Days of Food Creativity Series: Day 11

Hong Yi's penchant for utilising non-art mediums to fabricate representations, reinforces her brand of "not painting with a paintbrush". Look beyond the gimmicky medium is the subject, and one finds a number of works which can pass off as fine art, had the artist's statement been written for a gallery exhibition. Dyed carnations for an Aung San Suu Kyi portrait ["This calculated effort echos the Burmese leader's many years behind bars..."] Goldfishes drawn with mascara ["Representing objects of beauty in Chinese society, the goldfish and the female..."] A can of Campbell's soup ["Warhol"] Why does the visual arts scene not recognise Hong Yi as a fellow peer? Is it jealousy? Artists have traditionally been commissioned to produce beautiful things - or are we now stuck in an age where art must have meaning, or circumvent historical precepts about art?

Aung San Suu Kyi made of 2000 dyed carnations

Can art be fun? Arranging one's nasi lemak to depict the Kuala Lumpur skyline is ingenious. The effort requires logical faculties to identify shapes and colours, and creativity to subvert learned identities of objects. Working with constraints is the practical aspect of producing art, and Hong Yi seems to excel given such situations. Her works inspire others and make art more accessible to the public, yet fine artists hide in their hypocritical studios and renounce such works as art, whilst whining about an ignorant public. Why feign ignorance? Is it because the artefact is short-lived, hence no resale value? Are these works too pretty for contemporary art? Is it because she did not graduate from art school? Is it because the statements do not include art speak mumbo jumbo? In this age where unfinished plates of food pass off as art, I much prefer looking at flower petals arrangements that represent birds, by a well-travelled Malaysian.

31 Days of Food Creativity Series: Day 27

28 January 2014

Locals Emerging Tomorrow, Open 2014

The local visual arts scene kicks off 2014 with a slew of exhibitions featuring young artists, starting with the Malaysia Emerging Artist Award (MEAA), where 41 finalists get to add credentials to their respective CVs. Some names repeat from the 2011 list, such as Cheong Tuck Wai and Yeoh Choo Kuan, whose crafting of oil paints project similar intent and tiresome to view. Themes popular locally are regurgitated, implying rigid academic instruction. The result is terrible art with hollow expressions - endangered animals, scrappy constructs, bitumen erosion, comic characters, splattered decay - amount to a collective yawn. References to international art leave one bemused. Andrew Chew's abstracts are Gerhard Richter decoys, and Firdaus Ismail's take on Francis Bacon's expensive triptych is plain sloppy.

Sabihis - Awang Hitam (2013)

Potential is detected amidst amateurish execution by Low Kar Lai and Hafiz Razak, the former blending Chinese-Taoist artefacts into nostalgic pictures, while the latter should seek inspiration from David Hockney to expand his simple compositions. Sci-fi landscapes by Raja Azeem Idzham are visually attractive, but easily dismissed in fine art criterion. Technique, composition, and narrative are quoted as the MEAA judging categories by a panel of 14. This fact is bizarre in that fat cat paintings and unsightly toy aeroplanes number among the five eventual winners. Also problematic are the uneven prices, where unknown works are two times more expensive than pieces by well-exhibited artists, indicating an ill-advised flexibility accorded to participating finalists.

Shafiq Nordin - Sweet Promises (2014)

However, two artists from the 5 winners have displayed improvements over the past year. Sabihis Pandi juxtaposes woodblock and woodcut prints side-by-side to project duality, a more efficient approach as compared to presenting two separate works. Shafiq Nordin paints terrifying animals stripped off its skin, the naked horror complementing linocut prints of Hirst skulls in the background. For the same price but a better representation, Shafiq's 'Sweet Promises' include Duchamp's urinal and Basquiat's crown, the red and green palette posing a more potent comment on the state of contemporary art. Exhibited at Taksu Gallery, "LOCALS ONLY!" shows familiar styles from the usual suspects. While the featured majority are painters, the visitor is greeted by a ceramic cheetah skeleton from Al-Khuzairie Ali, a former MEAA winner.

Umibaizurah Mahir - Fertility (2014)

Repeated cracked lines damper Al-Khuzairie's creations, whose other works from the same series are featured in "Tomorrow's Land", a group exhibition at Pace Gallery alongside his mentors from Patisatu studio. Walking past Ahmad Shukri's lazy pastiches, Umibaizurah Mahir enchants with works that supposedly celebrate flora & fauna, although the open-ended titles allow discrete interpretations. Surreal and defaced, painted heads are accompanied by porcelain sculptures of a child and house, presenting a lovely interrogation of self and place. Another delightful sculpture is spotted at Segaris, Hanif Khairi utilising circular strips of wood to make whimsical constructs. Minimal lines of colour add visual interest to one of his wooden towers, the UiTM lecturer's works displaying a touch of sophistication beyond complex craft.

Hanif Khairi - Bunga Telur

24 January 2014

Snippets: Singapore, Jan 2014

Visiting its National Museum as part of the Singapore Biennale circuit, "A Changed World: Singapore Art 1950s-1970" presents significant works that attempt to narrate the island state's national history and modernisation efforts. Western-trained Nanyang artists are well-represented, but what took my breathe away were the early woodblock prints by Lim Yew Kuan and Tan Tee Chie. 'After the Fire' by the former projects an apocalyptic scene of a burnt neighbourhood, while the latter's 'Yellow Danger' is daring and potent in its political message. Patriotic fervour describes Chua Mia Tee's realistic oil paintings, equally apparent in pictures of poem recitals or factory workers. Depictions of a developing nation and its populace, are exhibited alongside many river/boat scenes, one particularly attractive example being a deftly executed Chinese ink and watercolour by Chen Wen Hsi.

Tan Tee Chie - Yellow Danger (1954)

Wen Hsi's 'Abstract Cranes' reveals a keen understanding of Western abstraction, a trait also detected in Cheong Soo Pieng, whose metal 'Construction' is drastically different from the landscapes done in other painterly mediums. Wrapping up the show is Eng Tow's wooden press and imprint, its simple geometric pattern also visually engaging at first sight. Superb works by Malaysian artists Latiff Mohidin, Chia Yu Chian, and Khoo Sui Hoe, are also featured, basking in a well-lit environment that immediately puts our National Visual Arts Gallery to shame. It is unclear how these works fit into the exhibition context, but one observation is clear - the most out of place piece is also the most original artwork on display. Chuah Thean Teng's well-preserved 'Malay Women Grating Coconut' stuns the viewer with a primitive yet refined aesthetic, executed with traditional Malay craft in beautiful colours.

Chuah Thean Teng - Malay Women Grating Coconut

Before visiting Art Stage Singapore, a stopover at Artspace @ Helutrans warehouse is required to appreciate Nadiah Bamadhaj's "Poised for Degradation", a series of eight works done in her inimitable style of charcoal on paper collage. The sheer size of these exhibits command instant attention, especially the tall 'Gerobak Agung' and grotesque 'Tumbal'. Before reading the artist statement, one immediately discerns the layered projections of a personal subject, architectural forms, Javanese mythology, and social concerns. Amalgamation of functional structures with noble embellishments display a stunning juxtaposition, an artistic expression of the "spatial particularities" in the artist's adopted homeland. As Nadiah observes, "The relations of power between the Kraton [Yogyakarta's center] and its surrounding inhabitants are reciprocal. The proximity of regal poise to a degree of visible infrastructural and financial degradation is inevitable."

Nadiah Bamadhaj - Kandang Ningrat (2013)

Monumentality dampens the impact of these sensitive works, where Nadiah's fine technique occasionally gets lost in the big picture(s). Among the four portraits, 'Null and Void' stand out for its poignant rendering of two old women, their dull expressions magnified in monochromatic hues. Across at Galerie Steph, size also diminishes the aesthetic value of charcoal drawings by Zhang Chun Hong 张春红. 'Fall' draws the viewer in with a luscious depiction of flowing hair, the paper scroll unravelling onto the floor to form the base of a waterfall. More attractive are the smaller works of ink and watercolour on rice paper, the "Water" series illustrating ocean waves of different magnitudes. Unbroken sinuous lines create a perfection leading to serenity, its subtle gradation of colours uplifting a sophisticated drawing to a mesmerising engagement. These two outstanding exhibitions, more than made up for the long taxi wait.

Zhang Chun Hong - Water #2 (2012)

20 January 2014

Snippets: Singapore Biennale 2013

Sidestepping the debate about curatorial strategy to acknowledge the melting pot Southeast Asia is, the Singapore Biennale 2013 presents "art works tended towards narrative and socio-political bases." (Iona Whitaker, randian) An overload of information are found in education kits at the event website, providing context to the many region-specific works on display. Visiting three museums holding the majority of exhibits, two art collectives recently active on the Biennale circuit set a high bar for others to follow. Moon Kyungwon and Jeon Joonho's dual-screened 'El fin del mundo', absorbs with its meditative inference about the human pursuit for aesthetic value; The room installation by teamLab mesmerises, where "...past and present collide, and the moving figures, the layering of sound and light, and the use of mirrors create a sense of spatial instability, of being transported into the ancient world that this work evokes." (Rahel Joseph, Article)

teamLab - Peace Can Be Realised Even Without Order (2012)

"Works that explore the quotidian social injustice that millions in the region suffer are plentiful and cast a harsh light on the costs we bear as humanity slowly destroys itself." (Marilyn Goh, DailyServing) Artists whom constructed entire environs succeed in this exploration - Kiri Dalena's curled-up figures, Nge Lay's village classroom, and Oscar Villamiel's doll heads, immerse the audience in uncomfortable surroundings and lend temporal empathy. Constructs such as Tran Tuan's 'Forefinger' and Svay Sareth's 'Toy (Churning of the Sea of Milk)' convey condensed meanings, also apparent in the cut-out projections by Nguyen Trinh Thi. The two aforementioned works reference bas-reliefs at Angkor Wat, and 'Andy Warhol Eats A Hamburger' respectively, subverting familiar imagery with political content. Less potent is Khvay Samnang pouring sand over his head, whose self-indulgent performance dilutes the critical message.

Installation view of Nguyen Trinh Thi - Unsubtitled (2010)

'Longing' by Chi Too displays a similar but more refined presentation, questioning one's place in a public sphere. Other introspective works that look to exorcise personal demons are Le Brothers' back-and-forth struggle on a boat, and Sean Lee's photographs of his parents' bodies that resemble colourless landscapes. Teenage girls in Sookoon Ang's 'Exorcise Me' exude sensuality despite looking bored, "this piece captures that state of adolescent ennui familiar to every society." (John McDonald, Sydney Morning Herald) Nipan Oranniwesna demands the visitor to get down on all fours with a magnifying glass, this cheeky installation compelling one's search for lost and constructed memories. Audience participation is also necessary to experience Angie Seah's rostrum with pre-recorded Singaporean soundscapes, and Ahmad Abu Bakar's kolek Melaka filled with aspirations written by male prison inmates.

Ahmad Abu Bakar - Telok Blangah (2013)

Adeline Chia from Blouin Artinfo reports, "(a)nother common theme that comes across is the exploration of indigenous or tribal cultures in the region, which... feel very “Singapore World Expo,” i.e., bluntly educational introductions to certain places and cultures." Unfortunately most works by Malaysia artists fall into this category, notably the ones from Sabah and Sarawak. Shieko Reto's room of graffiti illustrations is hardly memorable, while Sharon Chin will be remembered for the bright yellow spectacle she orchestrated over the Biennale opening weekend. Zulkifli Yusoff recalls painted flowers from his older works, to complement the signature layered grids and screen-printed patterns in 'Rukunegara 1: Belief in God'. The monochromatic and organic forms are more likely to confound the common visitor, who has to navigate within these hanging objects, in a narrow and relatively dim space.

Installation view of Zulkifli Yusoff - Rukunegara 1: Belief in God (2013)

The created fantasy of a Singapore being part of Malaysia thoroughly delights in its irony, which Boo Junfeng augments with imagined logos of previous merger celebrations. Providing a respite from non-traditional media are the luscious and beautiful paintings by Marisa Darasavath, whose working women are depicted in vibrant swirls of colour. One of the Biennale's best work, Leslie de Chavez's monumental 'Detritus' portrays a destitute population with wonderfully surreal images - plywood figures in Maoist getup, a bishop in a crash helmet, small shopping bags placed into larger bags, a cross made out of nails, a limp loudspeaker proclaiming the death of -isms, etc. Diverse and rewarding to the invested visitor, the Singapore Biennale triumphs in its earnest ambition to differentiate itself and be relevant to/for its neighbours. If the world changed, the Kuala Lumpur Biennale will have a more focused theme. But the world has not.

Leslie de Chavez - Detritus (2013)

17 January 2014

Snippets: Art Stage Singapore 2014

Regional collectors make their presence felt in Singapore, the island state and this art fair jointly promoting themselves as Asia's art capital. Its well-publicised "focus on Southeast Asian [SEA] art scenes" mocks the uninitiated, as the SEA exhibition space is relegated to the periphery, its participating galleries not even included in the floor plan displayed. An exception is selected Singaporean galleries who share the same row with major players like White Cube, where the heralded melted cheese-like paintings of Jane Lee hang opposite. Platforms are a gimmick to inject academic credentials to exhibited works, which regional curators are commissioned to develop market reports and conduct tours (no one appeared in my pre-arranged tour appointment). Art fatigue quickly sets in, as visits to the snazzy lounge provide temporary relief in the form of Papa Palheta coffee. 

Yayoi Kusama - Repetitive Vision (1996)

Walking past a dog humping R2-D2 and holographic cards attached to metronomes, it is difficult to spot good art among the crowd, especially with the smell of stinky tofu drifting in the air. teamLab greets visitors in mesmerising fashion with ultra high definition digital projections, while the static but equally engaging photographs by Sebastião Salgado also capture nature and its vitality. Bemusement ensues in Yves Hayat's 'Les Icones Sont Fatigues' at Mark Hachem Gallery. Celebrity heads with closed eyes seemingly meditate on their own demise, a stark juxtaposition presented alongside Lalla Essaydi's powerful portrayals of Islamic women. Iranian Gohar Dashti injects love and tenderness into conflict zones, humanising such situations with touching staged images in the series, "Today's Life And War". Made popular by the internet, Liu Bolin's assimilation of his painted self into the picture background, also proved to be interesting.

Gohar Dashti - Today's Life and War #2 (2008)

Stepping back from the contemporary, superb works by Joan Miró and Zao Wou-Ki are found; Dotted pumpkin lovers should seek out the wonderful 'Repetitive Vision' by Yayoi Kusama. Marefumi Komura's expressionist paintings intrigue, as do the tiny etchings by Etsuko Fukaya, and the intricate line drawing of Waqaz Khan. A number of high quality works by Indian artists are on display - Sakshi Gupta's cement sculptures, and gouache drawings by J Sultan Ali and MF Husain, among others. Gallery Hyundai leads the Korean contingent, featuring kinetic light sculptures by Choe U-Ram, contextualised landscapes by Lee Jinju, and contemporary oil paintings by Lee Jeongwoong. Other attractive Korean works include deceptively flat sculptures (Yi Hwan-Kwon), polystyrene wall hangings (Yun Yong Wook), monochromatic flowers (Kim Eunju), and photo collage with unique perspectives (Lee Jiyen). 

[Movement captured from top left (clockwise)] Choe U-Ram - Gold Chakra Lamp (2013) 

On the Southeast Asian front, Indonesian artists Entang Wiharso and Eko Nugroho exhibit great works, but none better than FX Harsono's 'The Raining Bed', an outstanding manifestation of political and self critique. Showing a flair for installations are Thais Kamin Lertchaiprasert and Uttaporn Nimmalaikaew, whose giant golden skull and shadowy father image respectively, evoke introspective sentiments. Malaysia is well-represented with Anurendra Jegadeva's painted wedding dais and neon bright kolam, whose mature presentation and technical skill provide a stronger narrative, compared to the younger Haslin Ismail and Justin Lim. Haslin's strength in crafting details into his eye-catching installation may be lost towards the casual observer, while Justin's visceral simplicity also inhibits one from detecting the intended nostalgia. Most Singaporean works tout the contemporary flag, devoid of aesthetic value in its documented concepts.

FX Harsono - The Raining Bed (2013)

Art fairs are business - participating galleries bear substantial costs, where art installation at individual booths utilise single-source contractors. Media agencies and websites like Artsy survive by supporting art fairs, which in this case, is subsidized by a government engrossed in purchasing culture. Schoolchildren trot around with sketch pads and iPhones, as market players socialise/fraternise among themselves. Galleries that participate regularly in art fairs treat it as a dumping ground, where attention-grabbing works fill the supply pipeline for the nouveau riche. Institutional buying happens rarely at art fairs, so why do artists feel they need to be represented at such events? Leaving Art Stage, I feel a sense of pride that the Malaysian representatives have presented good art to an international audience, but do dread the day a gallery exhibits some dated Hirst dots and Emin lights, then call that art.

Anurendra Jegadeva - Migrant Altar (2012)

12 January 2014

The Art of Sparkle @ Shalini Ganendra Fine Art

The tagline Jewellery as a fine art leads to unmet expectations at this SGFA Vision Culture Lecture, where Robert Baines describes his art practice through four series of metallurgical works. Expounding effervescently the story behind "Bracelet 'Java-la-Grande'", the artist attempts to convince listeners that the Portuguese were the first European settlers in Australia. The scholar proceeds to present "Frisches Fleisch: Fresh Meat", a tribute to forgers who kept the craft alive, via the curious symbols of an endangered giraffe. By the last act when he traces the history of compact discs to Etruscan goldsmiths, Robert's cheeky re-imaginings of jewellery history include a definitive element of performance. Association and relocation of concepts and visuals capture one's imagination, although superimposing his jewellery onto museum catalogues are intentionally kitsch.

Redder than Green

Robert combines a love for history and craft in his creations, where contemporaneity is applied via painted colour onto metal, and the make-believe stories that come with it. Such first-world approach to contemporary art proves tiresome, evident in the unimpressive selection of works on display/sale upstairs. The most attractive piece is a brooch in plain gold, its geometrical repetition a testament of skill, harking back to the virtuoso shaping of natural elements by Egyptian goldsmiths (whom Robert clearly adores). As more art objects get made to sustain the world's bulging (middle class) population, the trend to appreciate jewellery as art becomes increasingly popular, with major museums and the market getting into it. Despite the artist's assertions, jewellery will always be utilitarian craft. The lecture's tagline reveals many questions regarding the artefact, questions I will have to keep for another time. 

Gold brooch no 2

03 January 2014

Art KL-itique 2013 Look Back

Following in the tradition of my favourite non-authoritative end of year awards, the 2013 visual art events in Kuala Lumpur that tickled my fancy are…

Favourite solo exhibition: Infinite Canvas, Chin Kong Yee; An obsession to craft visual texture and socio-political narratives is evident in Fauzulyusri’s Coreng and Chang Yoong Chia’s Immortal Beloved, but Kong Yee’s realistic wrap-around vision of Petaling Street and its surrounds, resonated deeply with my growing nostalgia for those places.

Favourite group exhibition: Midterm @ Shalini Ganendra FA; Moving between artworks from 5 non-painter artists was refreshing, where walls hung with Eiffel Chong photographs,  Bibi Chew woodcuts, and A4-sized works on paper by Kim Ng, prove extremely captivating. Jostling for attention are Wei-Ling Contemporary’s narcissistic show and Galeri Chandan’s travelling exhibition, both which contain high quality works by established artists.

Favourite not-so-old exhibition: Tin Mine Landscapes, Eric Peris; The three Hamidi Hadis hung in September led to considerable amounts of reflection, but more significant was the digital reprint of an iconic series of photographic captures, presenting a vivid display where history and place combined into a successful aesthetic.

Wall of Kim Ng's works on paper at Midterm

Favourite its-quite-old exhibition: Favourites from the Zain Azahari Collection; Large wonderful works complemented with inspiring essays generated a load of hope and good will. Amidst poor curating efforts at NVAG, superb series of individual artworks by Latiff Mohidin and Huang Yao, effectively engaged the audience in their respective retrospectives.

Favourite auction preview: Henry Butcher's Malaysian & Southeast Asian Art (3 Nov 2013); Being partial to Hamir Soib’s ‘The Board Game’, this sale also featured Nadiah Bamadhaj, Ahmad Fuad Osman, and a stunning well-preserved piece of handmade paper by Chew Teng Beng.

Favourite use of exhibition space: Barricade @ White Box; Chong Kim Chiew’s papier-mâché wall dominates, while a round ping-pong table and a narrow alley of Yee I-Lann’s paper plates remain memorable. Neighbouring spaces Black Box and Art Row were put to good use by the organisers of Media/Art Kitchen, while special mention goes to The Other Malaysia exhibited across three Bangkung Row restaurants.

Snapshot at Barricade

Favourite Something New: Diary of Madline 驰线手记, Eddie Choo Wen Yi; A raw exhibition with surrealist thought as a starting point, captured the invisible influence of a mechanised modernity. Also enchanting were the expressionist drawings and ornate sculptures by illustrator Shahril Nizam, whose show was organised by former Valentine Willie FA managers whom figure to be a significant art player in coming years.

Biggest regret: 24 Oct 2013; Missed two shows close to each other which I could have attended in a single evening – Tan Chin Kuan's A Family of Artists and Moelyono’s Have a nice dream's Lok Ann 乐安,祝你有个美梦. Lack of publicity kept the former exhibition hidden from my events calendar; Ruing the missed latter opportunity, was the chance to view a live performance art event and perhaps meet Wong Hoy Cheong in person.

Favourite trend: Jalaini Abu Hassan’s use of patterned fabric in his evolving series of social realism paintings; Localised prints serve as a cultural anchor and counterpoint to Jai’s typically provocative portraits, where this approach is already being copied by UiTM students. Another welcome sight was the architectural drawings featured at Kedai Bikin, an unintentionally progressive attempt to exhibit one aesthetic type already popular at international art events.

Eddie Choo - 08072013 Monday Morning: Jalan Panggong - Home (One Way)
P/S: After work in mid night. Drive like zombie.
Traffic: Getting more cars in 7am at KL. Puchong traffic is smooth.
Speed: Slow in KL. Speeding once into Puchong.