30 July 2014

UNPACK-REPACK @ The Whiteaways Arcade, Penang (II – Still Unpacking)

...This in-between room exposes the visitor to the artist’s method, and is the first of two significant spaces that bookend the main exhibits. Practical questions arise – for non-photographers, is this paraphernalia more interesting than the wonderful ‘beer bottles and bananas gateway’ hanging nearby? Is this room just a typical how-stuff-works section within a tourist destination? No, this heuristic set up allows the invested visitor a break – the Japanese kire – and a place to catch one’s breath after seeing a collection of great art. Inspecting film negatives with a magnifying glass hints at what comes next, where one is treated to untitled photograph prints laid across slanted tables. The exhibition space Going Bananas, and its presented contents, pivot the show’s excellent layout and its archival contents. Like the row of broken plastic chairs seen here, a simple yet visually attractive configuration, leads one to uncover the gold behind it.

’Ke pesta’ or 3 arrows (1987)

Six general categories are laid out “in this corridor-like space” themed Looking Out, which makes reference to Ismail Hashim’s favourite poem Ulysses by Alfred Tennyson. From the straight roads and pathways in Journey, to the roadside captures in Streets, the photography artist is always cognizant of the space surrounding his subjects. Horizon points tend to be high, reflecting light onto a man washing his motorbike, or onto dilapidated houses overshadowed by apartments. Context stimulates the imagination to create stories, its linear narrative built from intersecting subjects and matters via manufactured chance. Ismail’s works are usually commended for invoking a “collective memory”, but photographs of makeshift shacks and an abandoned barber chair, denote one who readily acknowledges modernisation in the urban environment. For those who have visited Daiso shops in huge malls, a ten-cent mini market is only nostalgic now.

Snapshot of desk prints in Looking Out: Streets

‘’Ke pesta’ or 3 arrows’ reminds one that Ismail was a former lecturer in graphic design. White-fill rigid shapes outline an imagined poster, each marker pointing its audience to their own destination. The largest arrow is for the public, the medium-sized arrow is for a section of the public, and the small arrow is for the private. This humorous picture is hung opposite a junction within the venue, the opening Looking In to more personal subjects, yet to continue on the same “trajectory” is no less intimate. Photographs of Ka’u posing with a Javanese cigarette are displayed alongside funny-man Dolah and schoolchildren in People. The care that went into hand-tinting ‘My students like a big family’, indicates “the artist’s faith in human relationships”, and showcases an aspect of his work not commonly discussed. Limiting his palette to the contrasting impossible colours – red, green, blue, yellow – are Ismail’s choices a visual, natural, or practical one?

My students like a big family

Snapshots of kopitiam chatter and resting blue-collar workers lead on nicely to the next section, Work. ‘Berdiri Atas Kaki Sendiri Atas Dua Roda’ celebrates industry by isolating the two-fold laborious acts of cycling and hauling oversized baggage. In this astonishing early work, Ismail demonstrates empowerment via arresting images. Hoping to voyeur into the artist’s mind, I enter Looking In and flip through newspaper clippings and a retrospective catalogue, sitting on a sofa from Ismail’s home. This second break allows for reflection, as the sub-themes here echo – and narrow down to the personal – of those found in the corridor outside. Each Journey begins from and ends at Home, the People there are Family & Friends, and observing happenings Around Home is the same with observing the Environment. ‘Show time crow time’ first shows a usual backyard scene, to be subsequently disrupted by one attention-seeking cockerel.

Berdiri Atas Kaki Sendiri Atas Dua Roda (1977)

Test prints of smiling kids and sleeping cats, imply an inhibition towards imposing grand themes onto domestic happenings. One exception is ‘I Can Sleep Through Even If The Bomb Explodes’, the monochrome version shown failing to ignite visual interest. Photographs devoid of human presence, however, enchants with its sense of intermediate space. “These poignant scenes are imbued with a sense of light and time of day (…) a strong human presence permeates through these silent spaces – it is in this absence that memory and longing are brought forth, and the desire for home in the past and present is imagined.” In ‘Belum serlah macam otak baru bangun tidur / Like a mind just awakened not so bright’, two interior scenes are distinguished only by a small time difference. Waking up at daybreak, plodding from bedroom to living room, family still sleeping – this pensive mood is encapsulated perfectly in this enthralling work...

Belum serlah macam otak baru bangun tidur / Like a mind just awakened not so bright (2010 / 2011)

28 July 2014

UNPACK-REPACK @ The Whiteaways Arcade, Penang (I – Unpacking)

Ismail Hashim once stated, “when we take pictures of the sunrise or the turbulent sea, for example, are we aware of the other occurrences between the sunrise and the sunset? Things will naturally occur.” After his untimely demise having fell off a motorbike one year ago, the photography artist is given a posthumous tribute in the form of a “hybrid exhibition”, curated by Wong Hoy Cheong. Granted permission by Ismail’s estate to unpack and examine in-progress works and left-behind items, Hoy Cheong‘s repackaged presentation is nothing short of excellent, given the practical constraints of a short time frame. The enclosed space is reconfigured into five rooms that start with a mini-retrospective of wall hangings, then a categorised collection of desk prints, before ending with a wistful tribute. In between are two sections of exhibits which reveal the strong hand of its prominent curator, whose astute set up goes a long way to highlight Ismail’s own genius.

Old Chairs – still serving (2002)

Supplementary notes and poetic quotes affirm the overarching humanist characteristics apparent in Ismail’s works. In the first room Tributes, the uninitiated is treated to a selection of the crème de la crème in Ismail’s oeuvre. “Every picture has a story”, but in Ismail’s case, the story does not just come from its picture, but also from its title. ‘We shall overcome’ snaps one schoolchild running in the rain, its title inducing the viewer into an uplifting mood. Puns and its hilarious potential occupies Ismail’s mind, evident in the absurd juxtaposition in ‘Lesen lembu (Cow or L-license)’. Semantic arrangements imbue deeper meanings into the sublime diptych ‘Bahagian Dapur: Siang Malam, Luar Dalam’. Two self-contained pictures depict both sides of a window and simply-arranged kitchen stuff, its perfect compositions secondary to the projection of binary opposites – light/dark, in/out, from/to – which underscores the cracks between our sense perception.

Bahagian Dapur: Siang Malam, Luar Dalam (1992)

Green tints appear also in ‘Kedai Gunting’, its swivelling Koken barber chair and strong contrasts capturing the viewer’s immediate attention. Less vivid and more compelling is ‘hand-crafted bed, rosary, heart-shaped stool, ashes from mosquito coils, plastic flowers…’ Its description recreates the author’s on-site fascination when photographing this scene within a government quarters, and restates the human involvement in the displayed objects, where beliefs and time’s passing manifest in rosary beads and burnt ashes. The peeling wall is a recurring subject matter – seen in the series “A Thing of Beauty” – where such imperfections form an essential component in Ismail’s pursuit of romantic idealism. By highlighting the mundane, he depicts the dynamic nature of life and empowers reality, as people with high self-awareness do.

hand-crafted bed, rosary, heart-shaped stool, ashes from mosquito coils, plastic flowers… (1987)

Self-aware folks also tend to siok sendiri, seen in the many snapshots of a friend’s animated facial expressions, arranged in a grid. Intentional or not, this arrangement eventually became “an anti-hierarchical form that flattens time and de-narrativises images”, contrary to what another describes as “a means of storytelling”. Looking at the collection of post boxes and bicycle seats, many which are beautifully tinted, a previous thought still rings true – “Ismail Hashim's assemblage depicts the essence of life – man-made objects utilised for man's livelihood, tempered by time (erosion of material) and fate (dents and ruptures). Innovation is utilitarian, nature is oppressive (…) repudiates existential exposition in favour of invigorating the human condition.” An insightful distraction in this room are the essays written by friends and family, which recollections remember the man as a committed artist.

Penunggu-Penunggu Surat Sepanjang Jalan Bagan Serai (Post Boxes Along Bagan Serai) – Taiping Road (1993)

‘Old Chairs – still serving’ moves away from the archival grid, to an assemblage of pictures with different sizes. This allows for imagined narratives beyond the source materials discerned, as one sees a chair placed in a room corner, or notices a rooster lingering behind a formica seat. While static degraded objects represent the consequence of human intervention, Ismail’s assemblages with lively subjects capture the immediate moments of human reaction. ‘Sayangkan Anak (Loving One’s Children)’ shows pictures taken at the 1998 Merdeka parade in Kuala Lumpur. “It’s a celebratory piece, one that embraces the joy and protective nature of parenthood (…) Parental love is a given. You love them from young, and guide them through this beautiful chaos we call life”, recounts the artist’s daughter Wanis Suwini. Its title also references the anak bangsa present at the event, which happened three weeks before Anwar Ibrahim’s arrest.

Sayangkan Anak (Loving One’s Children) (1998)

Other masterpieces by Ismail such as kopitiam scenes are absent from Tributes, but this mini-retrospective is still a highly satisfying walk-through. Many of these works are well-known to the Malaysian art enthusiast, and one can only imagine the euphoria the curatorial team felt when given access to the late artist’s studio. They went bananas. Equipment and materials utilised by Ismail are exhibited in the next room, along with a reconstructed workplace, which was arranged “…exactly the way he had left them before he died”. Going Bananas displays photographs of bananas, the colloquialism a metaphor of Ismail’s passion for art, also describing the enthusiasm felt within one’s curatorial research journey. The exhibition notes imply that the banana is a symbol (à la Jalaini Abu Hassan), an unlikely suggestion since trigger-happy photographers have an affinity with what is visually interesting. The artist probably just liked bananas...

beer bottles and bananas gateway (2005)

18 July 2014

Pulse: May / June 2014 Art Auctions

The new player continues to struggle as The Edge Auction 2014 sold 51.8% of its 83 lots on offer, despite focusing its pitch on the wider region of Southeast Asia. Weeks of publicity cannot conceal its middling quality on display – even the Malaysian lots only registered a 58.3% sales rate, bought-in pieces including works by Ahmad Zakii and Sharifah Fatimah. It also has to suffer the embarrassment of withdrawing works that featured in the business digest’s own article about dubious art. 4 out of 13 Indonesian lots sold, including one Yusuf Hasim with a low estimate of RM 10.5k but sold for RM 2.5k; Two Singaporean works also went for bargain-basement prices. Paintings by Thai artists captivate, but more popular were the six Filipino works, which include one beautiful vista by Ernest Concepcion. Other smart-value acquisitions went to those with bigger wallets – a breezy Yusof Ghani, a well-preserved Chuah Thean Teng, and a powerful new “Seascape” by Latiff Mohidin, round up proceedings in a subdued affair.

Zulkifli Yusoff - Tiada Lagi Kopi Untuk Tuan II (2009)

KL Lifestyle Art Space rebounded from its poor April showing with 94% of 77 lots sold, made up of mostly abstract paintings, and modern masters whose market value continue to appreciate, i.e. Khoo Sui Hoe and Khalil Ibrahim. Notable movements include the first Hamidi Hadi to appear on the secondary market, and a Latiff Mohidin which last sold a year ago at a 40% mark-up. Two dubious paintings by Yong Mun Sen are seen at Masterpiece, whose July offerings include 20 lots that have multiple artworks bundled in a single lot. Nonsensical combinations like one seaside scenery and one bird portrait are packaged together, while viewers cringe at the horrendous Klimt copy by a Penang collector. Curious statistics include one unsold Jalaini Abu Hassan, and the low-margin flipping of recent works by Bayu Utomo Radjikin and Mat Ali Mat Som. Great quality lots by Zulkifli Yusoff enlighten the marketplace in these two months, amidst the ridiculous scenes of traders clamouring over Awang Damit Ahmad.

Hamidi Hadi - Invisible-Cage-Grid (2000)

11 July 2014

Hidup Terlampau Selesa @ Kedai

Alternative art space Kedai presents two young artists who draw fully from their demographic background – the urban Malay – to “…reflect(s) the deliberateness in their practice of addressing sensitive topics – an explicit strategy used to question the everyday in Malaysia.” Greeting the visitor is a sofa inscribed with Hidup Terlampau Selesa, the furniture itself an art piece that cheekily depicts the comfortable effects of social engineering. Stacked tin cans in two supermarket trolleys are wrapped with drawings of ejaculations in a bathroom, its labels hinting at the portliness of the male subject. Akmal Borhan's illustrations are droll and sometimes salacious, especially the series of under-armpit pictures exhibited in a covered box. This peephole installation invites an unsuspecting audience to a voyeuristic view, of one lewd personal fetish.

Installation view of Akmal Borhan - Bilik 5 (2014) [picture from Kedai's Facebook page]

The overbearing smuttiness is present also in the "Bilik" series, which illustrates different situations related to a spoken expression. Uncomfortable scenes in 'Sakit Tak' and 'Jangan Takut' depict trepidation well, but Akmal's output is too cartoonish to invoke serious reflections. Wordplay drawings such as 'Janda Baik' and 'Kuih Lapis' by Engku Iman, denotes one who keenly records her observations with a strong sense of irony. The self-taught artist is assured in her cultural commentaries, from marriage ('Makan Free') to religion ('Dipaksa Sembahyang'), not sparing even the goreng pisang makcik munching on a pack of Doritos ('Mewah'). The Malaysian experience cannot be complete without a reference to juvenile times, as awkward wax-cast hands bring a smile, and an immediate urge to replicate the hand positions shown.

Installation view of Engku Iman - Anak Celaka (2012) [picture from Kedai's Facebook page]

Her installations are stronger projections of the same themes – 'Pertandingan Lilit Tudung' mocks conformists, while 'Duduk Sama Rendah, Berdiri Sama Tinggi' depicts the insecurity of pursuing one's dreams. From her blog, Engku displays a keen knowledge of art history and occasionally appropriates familiar images with great effect. While Tracey Emin's 'My Bed' gets auctioned off for ~RM13.9 million, a messy bed with a mannequin still lying in it, is clearly visible from Kedai's storefront. A cursing mother drawn onto the wall, and an XPDC poster flank the mattress, 'Anak Celaka' capturing a clever and acute memory of young Malays across Malaysian suburbia. Kudos to Kedai's administrators for allowing young artists a space to express such daring works, appropriate or not.

Installation view of Hidup Terlampau Selesa exhibition [picture from Kedai's Facebook page]

06 July 2014

Knot @ Feeka

Krystie Ng's catalogue essay begins with: "They called it the quarter-life crisis; it is in which a person begins to feel doubtful about their own lives, brought on by the stress of becoming an adult, having to face the reality after graduating from schools." This uncertainty manifests in the exhibits at "Knot" organised by Ongoing Projects, a collective of five Dasein graduates. Krystie's' summer photographs of Europe blanks out a former lover, where the act of editing out a physical presence from a vacation, only serves to prolong a niggling pain. More transient are Kang Mei Yi's snapshots of time spent with friends, the pictures too blurry to effectively portray wasted youth. Abortive also are Lee Sin Yee's rotating white boxes, its ambient noise hardly registering a notice from the conditioned urban visitor.

Installation view of Race Phua - [left] Property Phenomena (2014); [right] Bubbles (2014)

Illustrated vignettes from daily observations are hung haphazardly by Race Phua for 'Bubbles', but her more interesting installation is the overflowing pile of house-for-sale signboards, the artist condensing her experience as a property agent into an artful presentation. Burning paper creates an irresistible visual texture, which approach is utilised by Chong Yi Lin, her abstract forms captivating the viewer via contrasting colours. Shades of black and brown recall the earth, although the real void is present not in the solid shape, but in the white background. Life maybe knotty, but artists organising their own exhibitions are an assuring sight, as an increasing number of middlemen peddle art for the wrong reasons.

Chong Yi Lin - Void and Tranquil (2014)

03 July 2014

Snippets: Q2 2014

Specialising in Chinese ink painting upon graduation and a goldsmith by profession, Kenny Wong Kim Lee experiments with precious metals and stones to recreate imperial Chinese jewellery. Traditional motifs such as bats and snakes are no longer regarded auspicious, yet Kenny insists of etching such designs into his ruyi 如意 sceptres. This persistence to honour visual icons is evident in other amulets, but what catches the eye is a mobile phone cover made out of high standard silver. Questions about material and value arise while the contemporary object retains its function as a fashion accessory. Personal exploits sometimes unveil new knowledge, but it takes an astute curatorial decision to grant one such opportunities. For "Fulgent Reverie", the creative risk taken is a worthy gamble, amidst the art world's current fascination with jewellery.

Jewellery by Kenny Wong

Having made many visits to the top floor cinema in Mid Valley Megamall, especially during the movie-crazed college days, it was eye-opening to realise that banners with Henri Matisse's designs are hanging overhead. Recognisable motifs from 'The Thousand and One Nights' and 'Icarus (Jazz)', results in a strong yearning to visit "Matisse: The Cut-Outs", currently showing at Tate Modern.

Henri Matisse cut-outs banners hanging at the top floor of Mid Valley Megamall

Md Fadli Yusoff's solo exhibition "A Day in Kota Lama" is organised by one collector, following on a curious trend which sees art enthusiasts jump onto the event production bandwagon. Everyday scenes from the peninsula east coast is rendered realistically in acrylic, the painting compositions mostly based on photographs. These works are a touch inferior to Chang Fee Ming's rustic charm, yet rural nostalgia does have a market in the city, where works are priced RM 18,000 upwards. A weaving lady represents the culture of hardworking womenfolk well known in this state, one where its misogynistic culture represses and empowers females at the same time.

Md Fadli Yusoff - Kampung Penambang, 11:11 am (2014)

Representing the dysfunctional National Visual Arts Gallery at a tourism event in Marina Putrajaya, Azliza Ayob invites audience participation to create flowers from plastic bags. Democratic acts to raise public awareness are highly commendable, and I am constantly amazed at the level of dedication by Malaysian artists. Involving themselves in a wide range of roles such as curatorship, educator, activist, and critic, some local artists even traverse snobbish cliques to contribute their efforts, to help increase appreciation of a meaningful art practice beyond commercial success. Hats off to Azliza, and other such artists!

Azliza Ayob - Flowers of Peace (2014); [inset] Artist and the public

Haslin Ismail's recent output exhibits an exploration of mediums to effectively portray dystopian images, not unlike for a sci-fi animated movie. Apart from the pencil drawing 'Mindmix', also the exhibition title, a black background is utilised to create a strong contrast with the curious subjects. Human and cyborg body parts no longer excite, but its luminous painted effects and cut-pasted faces of statues intrigue, while ‘Crouching Down Inside A Deep Ravine’ recalls the more powerful works from Haslin’s past. "...(W)e can generally say that his art has profound relevance to the discourse on post humanism.", remarks Nur Hanim Khairuddin in a fustian catalogue essay, its overblown statements resulting in me re-watching clips of Metropolis

Haslin Ismail - The Divine Invasion (2014)