26 October 2014

Art in the Park 2014 @ Perdana Botanical Gardens

While still tackling issues like flash floods and homeless persons, the Kuala Lumpur City Hall demonstrates a recent progressive streak having initiated car-free Sunday mornings and supported the development of a KL bicycle map, then now endorsing a public art event at the former Taman Tasik Perdana. The inaugural Art in the Park festival’s detached objectives include “…to create a new cultural experience (…) and highlight Kuala Lumpur as Asia’s green capital and creative city”. Driving past the ASEAN Sculpture Garden amidst heavy traffic, and braving the drizzle after a hazy afternoon, the serene lake and its surrounding greenery prove immensely refreshing upon my visit. Approaching the park’s beautiful new canopy, aesthetic calm is interrupted by one 25-foot tall tower, and crushed tin cans littered on the grass beside it.

Installation view of Tey Beng Tze (FINDARS) - Rat in the Park (2014)

The former structure by Multhalib Musa stands as a symbol of solidarity with Palestinians, its rusted yet precisely-cut steel a powerful visual marker representing the Israeli West Bank separation wall. Equally critical but more site-specific is Tey Beng Tze’s art/rat wordplay, the latter arrangement a reference to the city’s mining past, its flat presentation also a prompt to its dwellers about how inconspicuous trash is. These two works are rare examples of public art as critical interventions, and a delightful discovery among other displays – “…a scrap metal robot, a giant scarecrow, a bamboo house, an LED cloud and many other curiosities.” This event description in a newspaper write-up makes clear the level of art awareness among Malaysians, since enlarged plants at roundabouts are the benchmark for existing public art.

Installation view of Multhalib Musa - The Cornerstone of Peacelessness (2014) [picture from Kumpulan kejuruteraan kimpalan keluli karat kontemporari kuang Facebook page]

“Found in KL” is a fitting theme, but upcycled constructs pair poorly with the historically aristocratic environment. Sabri Idrus’ windmill-doors are salvaged from Brickfields, and is a rotating device that belongs in Brickfields. Multhalib’s ‘Two Sides Two’ looks insignificant when displayed on open grass. Umibaizurah Mahir’s ceramic birds are perched too high to view underneath glaring daylight. 'Landed Nimbus' by Sharmiza Abu Hassan is reminiscent of the fairy lights along roads leading out of KL, its clever design easily missed when situated on higher ground. Foreign contributions fare no better – Marie Hugo’s ‘Pantun Forest’ is housed in too small a space for quiet appreciation; Handiwirman Saputra’s columns are not familiar shapes, resulting in one presentation missing a locally-relevant visual cue despite the thoughtful built-up.

Yeoh Lian Heng and Tsuji Lam (Lost Generation Space) - Gerai Gerak Seni (2014) [more pictures from Yeoh Lian Heng's Facebook page]

Interacting with the public is Lisa Foo’s giant scarecrow “made from leaves, twigs and branches collected at Lake Garden itself”, a wonderful attraction that hopefully stays in place beyond the festival end date. Yeoh Lian Heng and Tsuji Lam’s ‘Gerai Gerak Seni’ also draws the crowd with pastel coloured carts, its exhibition of old photographs, printed vignettes, and art catalogues, effectively engaging the audience. Tyre swings and makeshift pondoks left over from a children’s workshop resemble one natural playground, which contrasts sharply with the bright plastic slides nearby. Beside that workspace are badminton racquets and pink shuttlecocks on a tree trunk, made by two young artists. ‘Sarang’ shows how public art is best embedded into its surroundings, especially when the beauty of a vast natural landscape, easily subdues man-made creations within a city park.

Installation view of Lisa Foo - Walk in the Park (2014)

As the counterpoint to private art, the term public art is grossly misleading, considering that religious sculptures and political murals form the history of public art. These tokens of power require patronage, evident from the list of corporate sponsors for this event, as installation and maintenance budgets have to be factored into such commissions. The festival director quotes Hong Kong and Singapore as having more mature contemporary art scenes and public sculptures, unsurprising given that these two islands boast high income inequality. In a city where its denizens understand public spaces as air-conditioned malls owned by local tycoons, art in the park remains a far-reaching concept for many. Public art that encourage audience participation or photo ops are useful to increase art awareness, but its status as a technocratic tool cannot be dispelled.

Art in the park?

“Public art is not a substitute for urban renewal or social work, although projects may address or include such functions. Public art ideally creates better places and provides enjoyment, insight, and maybe even hope to its participants, viewers, and users. But it cannot correct deeper problems stemming from widespread unemployment and poverty, the neglect of public education and healthcare, and all the other social ills so glaringly ignored at the moment. Yet these unreasonable expectations are often implicit or imbedded in the commissioning of public art.”
- Public art and urban regeneration: advocacy, claims and critical debates; Hall, T. and Robertson, I. (2001); Landscape Research, Vol. 26, No. 1: 5 - 26

Huda Nejim Al-Asedi and Kay Lee (with guidance from Noor Mahnun Mohamed) - Sarang (2014)

21 October 2014

12 Years of Visual Disobedience @ Five Arts Centre

Entering the space, an OBEY Giant morphed into the prime minister’s likeness is glanced out of the corner of one’s eyes, outlining Fahmi Reza’s approach and a great teaser to this survey of political posters. Fahmi’s “learn-it-yourself” attitude is detailed in conversation excerpts documented by Mark Teh, where remarks such as “(a) lot of the time I spend on the work is actually research”, and “…my inspiration comes from punk music – recorded in one take”, provide insight into his ways of working. The lack of preparatory sketches is also influenced by the powerful aesthetic, of prints produced by the Atelier Populaire during the 1968 student protests in Paris. Shown under the “Early Experiments” banner is a tutup mulut poster that draws from these references. Black & white illustrations compiled into booklets prove to be great reads, where incisive messages are presented in its most direct form.

Snapshots of posters in booklets from "Early Experiments" section

Other exhibited topics “Student Power” (typographic play on flower power), “Solidarity” (poster compositions like Nike advertisements), and “Occupy Dataran” (reference to images from other Occupy movements, and some wonderful rainbow-coloured arrows), spell out the general themes Fahmi represents as an activist, among more sinister inequalities such as police brutality and unjust laws. Visual familiarity is an important part of designing posters, and this aspect affirms how political posters are the same as propaganda materials, its difference dependent on the level of pronounced disinformation. Stereotypes are propagated for mass consumption – policemen have square faces and maids wear ponytails, as stencilled characters and handwritten words depict an informal, anti-establishment viewpoint. 

Installation view of "Occupy Dataran" section

The clenched/raised fist is an international symbol for protest, its manifestation in Fahmi’s posters more powerful in the local context, considering that the authorities tried to ban this motif from a political party flag five years ago. Effective subversions include the distortion of recognised logos and established symbols, such as the blindfolded royal portrait from a banknote, a giant Syabas water tap, and a hilarious Jata Negara cartoon. An understated design proves to be the main criteria for personal favourites – the Malaysian flag’s yellow star melts in ’50 tahun ISA’, a black background emphasises the multi-layered veil masking the stark message ‘Gadis bertudung juga jadi mangsa rogol’, masking tape used as words in a #peoplepower graphic, and the muted yellow drawing for a ‘Foreign domestic worker campaign toolkit’ poster.

Installation view

With the advent of social media as an effective platform for activism, Fahmi’s newer creations are Facebook-friendly and feature more photographs, but lack the unembellished quality of a hand-drawn picture. The use of advertisement typefaces grab viewers’ attentions and helps raise awareness about current issues to a screen-scrolling obsessed public. Evident from the ongoing construction of the Warisan Merdeka Tower, drawing posters does not stop injustice, although looking at mushrooms does remind one of the Hong Kong protests. As Fahmi quotes in another interview, “I think it’s important for designers to ask what their role is to the public… To use the visual skills we have for social good, to support different causes. “ Raising public awareness is an undervalued act that is necessary towards the erosion of power, and this exhibition does a fantastic job at that.

Installation view of "Reclaim Merdeka Park" section

"Poster-poster yang aku lukis ini mungkin tak jadikan aku kaya dan tak berupaya mengubah negara, tapi kalau poster-poster aku ni boleh mengubah persepsi kau terhadap sesuatu isu, boleh mengubah cara kau melihat penguasa dan sistem penindasan yang berkuatkuasa, boleh mengubah perasaan empati kau terhadap mangsa ketidakadilan, boleh mengubah sikap kau dari tak peduli kepada turut sama bersolidariti dan ikut serta turun aksi, boleh mengubah hati dan semangat kau untuk merindukan kebebasan dan turut sama berjuang untuk perubahan, maka kerja aku selama 12 tahun bikin poster-poster ini sudah cukup bererti dan tidaklah sia-sia."
- Facebook post by Fahmi Reza on 14 October, 08:15 [quoted from Fahmi Reza's Facebook page] -

Installation view

16 October 2014

Dulu Kini @ Curate

Henry Butcher moves quickly to secure itself as the pioneer in Malaysian art auctioneering – establishing its own gallery space, championing collecting, and coordinating private sales. Introducing new desirables is imperative in the small local market, which the auction house has done recently by promoting contemporary Malaysian art, well-kept Chinese porcelain and Malay weapons, and now Indonesian art. Exhibited here are pastoral scenes from the modern era – Sudjono Abdullah’s red leaves and Koempoel Sujatno’s busy waterways are easily recognizable, while Balinese landscapes draw a yawn. Two works by Lucien Frits Ohl present skilful painting from a European tradition; Sudjana Kerton’s ‘Fish and Cat’ denotes its influence towards Indonesian artists.

Djoko Pekik - Buruh (1998)

Basoeki Abdullah’s ‘Gadis’ proves his unparalleled mastery at portraiture, while Djoko Pekik marks a turning point with the socially-conscientious ‘Buruh’, three distorted miners occupying a background reminiscent of Eugène Delacroix’s lesser-known landscapes. A curious observation is the clearly drawn outlines obvious in the newer works on show, from Arifien Neif’s naïve bedroom scene to the curled up figures of Putu Sutawijaya. Sourced from Indonesian collectors and auctions, the selling exhibition covers a wide range of artists whose works regularly trade in the secondary market, including previously bought in pieces at Sotheby’s and Christie’s. Like FX Harsono’s triptych print ‘Welcome Drink’, any social commentary the artist wishes to express is drowned by the contemporary art market, as auctioneers continue to embrace new collectors and speculators alike.

FX Harsono - Welcome Drink (2008)

11 October 2014

Balam @ Wei-Ling Contemporary

Hamidi Hadi’s previous solo exhibition ignited my interest in the Malaysian visual arts, and each of his subsequent shows figure to be points for self-reflection. The magnificent ‘Garden of Eden’ draws the visitor into a visual feast, although some refined works on display fall into the decorative art category. The sublime is an essential objective in Hamidi’s works, which he achieves via an active process of experimentation and evaluation. If “Alun” was about depicting nature, and “Antara” illustrated relative space, “Balam” records the act of observation from a detached lens. Two ‘Monolog’ pieces feature plain backgrounds with a geometric pattern, covered in coloured droplets and resin. These minimalist works disengage lively emotions, as if one staring at a floor of white tiles, which differ from the equally plain but politically-charged ‘Renungan I’.

Garden of Eden (2014)

Disencumbering himself from the paintbrush, Hamidi  physically manipulates industrial paints to create opaque voids, vivid colours, and organic forms. Pouring paint and tilting canvases are measured interventions, taking into account the viscosity, hardness, and drying times of his materials. Directing how a line is formed is a critical process step, since the objective of drawing is not figurative representation but an intentional act of causation. Palpable flows and transparent layers crystallise time and space on a flat surface – when paints coalesce into wonderful oscillating patterns, the enthralling output is indeed a perfect moment. Like the enlarged photographic prints utilised previously, square grids draw a formal layout and magnify the picture plane. The grid also augments the 171 centimetres squared canvas, which seem to be the optimum size for creating visual impact. 

Perfect Moment 2 (2014)

Visual effects culminate in ‘Garden of Eden’, which fantastic scenery and vivid colours resemble a computer-generated opening sequence for an animated movie. Artwork titles refer to local observations of nature and the seasons – emerging plants in ‘Musim Ranum’, foggy pohon beringin in ‘Dalam Kabus’, and a swirling mass in the Ivan Lam-like diptych ‘Antara 2 Musim’. Black marks are prominent in this series, along with resin bubbles and square grids, are new deconstruction methods in Hamidi’s explication of painting. ‘The Wanderer and A Day After the Monsoon Rain 1’ shows an expected extension from the previous series, but watery washes in ‘Pengembara di Monson Tenggara’ dilutes the numinous qualities manifest in most of his works. Favourite developments include the flecks of hard paint in ‘Tumbuh’, and the mesmerising brilliance of ‘Angin Tenggara’. 

Tumbuh (2014)

Thirty three months after “Antara”, Malaysian visual art continues to be an unceasing passion. The synthesis of local relevance, cultural exposure, boutique business, social politics, and systemic pressures, describe a small industry still developing from a post-colonial mindset, reflecting also the state of the nation. Now I am less bowled over by Hamidi’s abstract works, not because it is less marvellous, just more aware of the different types of art that engages the soul beyond sheer beauty. Composing thoughts about art have improved my ability to write in a concise manner. Visits to art spaces are still daunting, though the fear of speaking to artists has reduced somewhat. As Wei-Ling Contemporary moves to a less public location upstairs, one hopes the gallery will eschew the international contemporary style of bigger & brighter, and retains its unique aesthetic proposition.

Angin Tenggara (2014)

06 October 2014

The City. Becoming and Decaying @ Galeri Petronas

The Goethe-Institut Malaysia continues with its great 2014 program by exhibiting city-themed pictures taken by photographers from the German agency OSTKREUZ. In a time where more people live in cities than in the countryside, this topic is a very relevant one to explore, especially since a burgeoning population is the critical factor that drives human endeavours worldwide. Wall texts describe individual experiences, while faraway places project exotic scenes that immediately attract the public visitor. Despite the different approaches employed, each photographer manages to capture a certain characteristic of cities, which yields deep reflections when the entire exhibition is viewed as a whole. Shown in the gallery at the same time are overestimated artworks for a charity auction, the luxury products jarringly incongruous with these pictures of reality.

Jörg Brüggemann - [Mas Austral] Young couple on Calle San Martin, Ushuaia, Argentina (2009)

Isolated towers populate the skyline in extravagant Dubai, where blue-water marinas and palm-shaped landfills are made in the desert. Thomas Meyer observes that “…it always seemed as if all kinds of artificial reasons were created why people should settle there because there were no natural ones.” His crisp pictures portray a strong sense of scale, where the Burj Dubai in the background is often cut off, to capture the sandy ground of construction sites. Two other photographers take on a similar theme – Maurice Weiss’ uncertain portraits of the landscape in still-developing Ordos, contrast with the artificial façades in Las Vegas taken by Linn Schröder. From an isolated mansion to Italian verandas to the distant skyscraper, these constructs displace one from the immediate natural habitat, transforming an inhospitable terrain. The city is a product of human ambition.

Thomas Meyer - [The Resort] Marina, Dubai, United Arab Emirates (2009)

The life of a city is inextricably linked with the industries that power it, Dawin Meckel presenting an empty Detroit and its idle residents. Dawin’s photographs, including the interior shots, are taken in broad daylight; Natural luminescence is a privilege in Pripyat, site of the Chernobyl disaster, as Andrej Krementschouk ‘s pictures of banal objects in abandoned places, denote a ground that was not ideally habitable in the first place. Exhibited in an enclave are Heinrich Völkel’s photographs of Gaza, where homes, mosques, and jails, are equal targets to be levelled by the Israeli military. The presence of people at the foreground of rubble, projects a striking image of human perseverance, which Heinrich notes, “(w)hat makes a city a city has nothing to do with how many buildings are actually standing but with the vitality that of the society that keeps the urban structures alive.”

Heinrich Völkel - [Gaza-the destroyed city] Destroyed city prison on Main street of Gaza City, Palestinian territories (2009)

The inherent moral judgement in Espen Eichhöfer’s captures of Manila’s slums dampen its impact, while pictures of a utopian Auroville (Anne Schönharting) and youthful Ushuaia (Jörg Brüggemann), depict faraway lifestyles that are equal parts intriguing and alienating. These places are worthy case studies about the concept of cities, especially the failure in planning for the first example. Hope drives rural folk into the city, in which the phenomena known as a population explosion is beautifully captured by Julian Röder. Stating that “(c)haos is not evil; it is simply the way things are”, Julian’s photographs of overpopulated Lagos are typically monochromatic. His attractive compositions are marked by repeating objects of the same primary colour, signifying the application of a standard structure that binds the chaos. The city is a product of human ambition.

Julian Röder - [Lagos-Transformation] Generators on roofs of Oshodi market, Lagos, Nigeria (2009)

Inconsequential but artfully done, Ute & Werner Mahler’s “Monalisen der Vorstädte” project portrays women from five cities, its suburban background as ambiguous as the landscape in the Mona Lisa. Unintentionally vague also are Harald Hauswald’s snapshots of Shanghai, the black & white prints failing to describe the hustle & bustle in a progressive city. However, such situations are brilliantly captured by Frank Schinski, whose photographs in commuter hubs capture the time people inevitably spent waiting, in the mad rush towards a personal destination. His observations are insightful – “(w)ithout thinking about it, people integrate themselves into the architecture of railroad stations and airports (…) Life is a constant search for your role and place (…) You only move forward if you are willing to give in to the daily grind, the rhythm of the city.”

Frank Schinski - [Transit Stills] Bosporus ferry, Istanbul, Turkey (2009)

The best pictures in this superb exhibition frame the city in another dimension – human desire is a product of the city. Perverse behaviours are born out of cultured societies, as Pepa Hristova’s off-centred snapshots in Tokyo maid cafes demonstrate. Sibylle Bergemann’s dreamy pictures present a longing nostalgia after the Berlin Wall fell. Playing on the myth of the lost city, Annette Hauschild searches for less glamorous places named Atlantis. People lounge about in a New York gay bar, one man heaves a bag of sponges in an Ottenbach factory, a lady guest waits for her boiling water in a Krakow hostel. Annette’s thoughts about her series also sum up this exhibition – “(t)he overall picture they present is not one of an ideal city. Not a paradise, not a state of absolute bliss.” Cities and humans have become one, and the faster we accept that, the better chance we have to stop its decay.

Annette Hauschild - [Atlantis] Guest at the Atlantis Hostel, Krakow, Poland (2009)

“Yet the city has long been more than just a speck in the landscape. The future of the world lies in the city. It is where the fate of humanity will be decided. What happens to the city also happens to us. In the city people who could avoid each other in the country or never even meet confront one another. The city attracts a great concentration of poverty, while at the same time it is often the only way to escape impoverishment. The city shows the power of planning and also how planning can become utterly meaningless. It gives everyone the feeling that they belong to something, but then shows them that the parts have nothing to do with one another. It provides closeness and creates anonymity. The city is everything and its’ opposite, all at once, in the same place.”
– Wall texts for the exhibition "The City. Becoming and Decaying"

Dawin Meckel - [DownTown] Empty lots in the Centre of Detroit, USA (2009)

03 October 2014

Snippets: Q3 2014

As described in the exhibition catalogue, "Crying with Trees attempts to move beyond the confinement of introspection and examine external issues with sights way beyond the realm of human culture." Large landscape paintings make perfect wall hangings in big homes, as Chong Siew Ying's solo exhibition sold out by its opening, no doubt supported by a loyal friend/fan base. The story of one determined rural Hakka woman artist is oft-touted to capture the imagination of the privileged, sometimes masking her alluring use of acrylic emulsion to create a Chinese ink effect. Invoking nostalgia at its best, Siew Ying’s monochrome works unfortunately feel flat when exhibited on white walls with a reflective floor. One external issue the struggling gallery should consider examining, among others.

Chong Siew Ying - La Nostalgie (2013)

Curator-turned-artist Brian Robinson exhibits his printmaking output at Shalini Ganendra's, which sees stylised motifs derived from aboriginal art in the Torres Straits, north-west of Australia. Markedly different from the dots and country landscapes associated with mainland indigenous art, Brian fuses local myths and contemporary objects into beautiful and quirky images. Life in the Torres Straits was significantly altered after evangelists landed in 1871, which led to eventual prosperity but also the decline of cultural practices. In 'Sa mina las kaikai', which translates to 'The Last Supper' in broken English, the artist combines familiar iconography that celebrates an acceptance of heritage which co-exists with contemporary life.

Brian Robinson - Sa mina las kaikai (2011)

In a land devoid of four seasons, celebrating the Mid-Autumn festival中秋节 is a live example of migrated culture, ethical mooncake exchanges notwithstanding. Childhood memories of melting candles to create wax sculptures, and watching wind start a fire from a string of paper lanterns, are events no longer common in our urban playgrounds. Artificial truths replace traditional practice; fear overwhelms nature, just like battery-operated lanterns. At Aku Café & Gallery, beautiful animal silhouettes are projected between carved wooden windows hung on walls. Weariness must exist, time has past, if coloured shadows can generate nostalgia.

Khairudin Zainudin’s sketchy drawings sell well, and one hopes that his rising fame does not stunt the artistic growth of this young artist. Overlapping lines depicting human gestures are a visual gimmick; When paired against static objects like printed stickers on commuter trains, the end result is a more balanced composition. “Senyap Dalam Gege” captures moving images in populated urban places, but the briskly applied colours denote a failed experiment. His titles are direct yet occasionally evoke pensive sentiments, such as the pakcik sitting on train tracks in ‘Terima dengan Rela’, and the makcik operating a food stall in ‘Dalam Kelembutan Ada Kekuatan’.

Khairudin Zainudin - Dalam Kelembutan Ada Kekuatan (2014)

Google Street View finally makes its début in Peninsular Malaysia, as one engages in the inevitable act of virtual voyeurism. While we await local interpretations of Doug Rickard, it was interesting to capture a snapshot of Publika's Black Box gallery, which was hosting the Kuala Lumpur edition of "Media/Art Kitchen". Appropriate coincidence?

Google Street View capture of Jalan Dutamas 1 (Black Box @ Publika) [taken in Oct 2013]