28 January 2015

Beauties @ National Portrait Gallery

“…perfection emanates beyond the physical form and resonates strength in character”, reads the wall text for “Beauties”. Featuring the celebrated Hoessein Enas and fellow members of Angkatan Pelukis SeMalaysia, works from the national collection are exhibited alongside his “Malaysians” series of portraits commissioned by Shell Malaysia. These historical pictures depict a time when schoolchildren wore skirts above their knees, and carried rattan-weave baskets, Singaporean women donned red headdresses, and full-bodied Malay stewardesses accompanied Caucasian pilots up in the air.

Hoessein Enas - Timah (1962)

Like ‘Memetik Daun Tembakau di Kelantan’, Hoessein’s oil paintings project an uncertain and sometimes crude technique, especially when juxtaposed with the smoothly-applied colours seen in the works of protégé Mazeli Mat Som. Hoessein’s mastery in pastel, however, is undisputed in one gorgeous side portrait ‘Timah’, or in ‘Mandi Safar’ with its confident strokes. The underrated Hamidah Suhaimi presents the best works within this cosy exhibition space, where her illustrations bestow an irresistible elegance to its subjects. Two women in traditional dress come to life with the depiction of realistic flesh tones, yet it is their beautiful eyes that denote a strong character, which elevate drawn figures into physical beauties.

Hamidah Suhaimi - Kebaya (1970)

23 January 2015

Ombak @ Sasana Kijang + Shared Passion @ The Edge Galerie

Collectors and artist collaborate to exhibit paintings across two galleries, as maintaining one’s market value is an apparent concern given the poor quality of Yusof Ghani’s new works. The “Ombak” series is a swirling mess, its expressive brushstrokes mistaken for an absent angst, as imagined emotions take the form of primary colour blends. White waves in a couple of “Batu Karang” pictures refer to the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, but fresh ideas for expressionist painting are otherwise swept away, in favour of decorating large interiors with visual drama. Ironically, one of the best work shown in Sasana Kijang, is nestled right outside the “Ombak” exhibition space. ‘Hiba 2’ touches a nerve with its cubist approach, its curved lines drawing a contained action that illustrates motion better than most of his later paintings.

Siri Tari - Hiba 2 (1984)

Although many local artists are labelled as Abstract Expressionist, not many imitate the movement’s forms like Yusof does, a characteristic attributed to the artist’s American training. The history of modern expressionism is traced in the harmonious colours of ‘Tari III’ (Kandinsky), “Topeng” which recalls Picasso’s Spanish bulls, and to the mystical scene in ‘Simpurai Muntigerai’ reminiscent of an early Pollock. Seemingly inspired by trips to Sarawak, references to Dayak mythologies are regrettably masked within the artist’s formal approach towards abstract painting. Like Latiff Mohidin and many others, commercial success led to the production of large works, where gestural brush strokes replace line and composition as the simplified expression of motion. It is easy to discern but hard to argue, the differences between Latiff’s “Rimba” and “Gelombang”, with Yusof’s “Hijau” and “Ombak” series.

Siri Wayang - Simpurai Muntigerai (1997)

“What is the origin of the face?” is an interesting question to ponder while looking at inscrutable countenances in the “Wajah” series. Powerful and visually striking pictures, such as the blinded giant in ‘Messenger’ and the protruding heads in “Agony of Acheh”, strike one as original expressions of despair, although the sculpted masks are no different than those done by Putu Sutawijaya. Pieces on sale at The Edge Galerie from the same series are potent, denoting Yusof’s mastery of white. With its focus on retinal pleasure, this exhibition is refreshing for its self-confessed non-connoisseurship. Most works contributed by the corporate figure have clear representational outlines, implying that abstraction remains unfavourable to the collector, notwithstanding the artist’s recognised style. Despite assertions of market value by the gallerist, buying what one likes, is the right policy for any responsible art collector.

Siri Wajah - Agony of Acheh III (2008)

18 January 2015

Snippets: Gillman Barracks, Dec 2014

With most exhibition spaces in Gillman Barracks closed during year-end, Singaporean galleries Fost and Yeo Workshop extend a neighbour’s welcome by staying open. A new visitor’s disappointment is soothed, when viewing the astonishing works of Amsterdam-based Xue Mu at the latter. Thin black cloth with moon images are suspended from the ceiling, its folding screens-like arrangement actually referencing the Monoceros constellation. The surprise continues when observing its wall prints, as the mysterious lunar forms are revealed to be microscopic snapshots of bath foam in a black tub. As Jesse van Winden’s catalogue essay states, “(t)hey are reconstructed constellations of another order, of the personal subconscious and the collective conscious, like meta-Rorschach imagery in the white cubes of contemporary art.“

Installation snapshot at Xue Mu - A Childish Nothingness [picture from Yeo Workshop event webpage]

“A Childish Nothingness 2014” series of photographs mesmerise with juxtaposition of objects on a tactile background. Use of an advertising-grade technical camera render captivating captures of toys, shoes, and bananas on marble tiles. One greyscale ‘Moon Map’ acts as the literal vanishing point and background for dead stuff and a crumpled roll of white ribbon, the meta-composition translating scrap into pictorial markers in a stunning image. Onto a different critique, the red and blue golf ball in ‘Ball Etc’ isolates one’s perception of colour, and negates consideration of its form altogether. Shadows emphasise its materiality as seen from above; but the artist displays too these seemingly incompatible objects within Perspex boxes set upon plinths. Pacing between wall print and physical artefact, perspective breaks down and the essence of things are all that remain.

Xue Mu - A Childish Nothingness / Moon Map (2014)

Deconstructing the medium of film is Yang Fudong's preoccupation, whose video installations are exhibited at the NTU Centre for Contemporary Art. Visitors enter a vacuous room decorated in dark flowery wallpaper, where a variety of screens and photographs present the same actress in action. Multiple projections of “About the Unknown Girl – Ma Sise” explore the notion of posing for the camera, but its large-scale documentation feels more like peeking into the concealed archives of an obsessive stalker. More straightforward is ‘On the Double Dragon Hills’, a fascinating black & white sequence made from the footage of ‘Blue Kylin’. Human industry and mechanical power depict the laborious process at a stone quarry, as strategic edits ensure visual continuity, the repetitive movements of its subjects emitting a drone despite the silent projection.

Video captures of Yang Fudong - On the Double Dragon Hills 二龙山上 (2014)

Undeniably the exhibition highlight, ‘The Fifth Night (II) Rehearsal’ shows the output of seven monitors connected to seven cameras shooting seven different scenes simultaneously. Muted characters pace about a movie set while backgrounds overlap, as the occasional dramatic event punctuates the midnight silence. The obvious viewfinder and grainy images (a monitor eventually fails) emphasise the “preview film” and the aphorism “真假流露”, two concepts mentioned by the artist in an insightful 2012 interview. Fudong’s deep knowledge of film-making, presents itself via the experimentation of technical aspects like lenses, angles, and tracking speed, as narrative becomes the reason, and not the basis, to advance camera motion. “What is reality?” In this case, a Malaysian art enthusiast sitting in a Singaporean gallery space watching Chinese produced art.

Video installation snapshots of Yang Fudong - The Fifth Night (II) Rehearsal 第五夜(第二版)巡回排演 (2010)

“…working on this new photo series, I was very aware of this language of aesthetics (…) the details in the photos are highly emphasized via sophisticated manipulation, but in the meanwhile, the objects themselves are very innocent. I am aware of the seduction of this language but I don’t think it’s a matter of seduction only, especially in today’s society where we are meant to be seduced every day at all times for the sake of economic growth. Consumption is based on desire and seduction creates it. But if we try to understand seduction as a general notion: it is something that relates to our survival instinct, it is a condition that is beyond judgement or integrity, it is natural thing to be seduced…”
– Xue Mu, excerpt of interview with Kris Dittel, “Instead of Going Against… Going Within”, 2014

Xue Mu - A Childish Nothingness / Marble Horses (2014)

13 January 2015

Snippets: Singapore Art Museum, Dec 2014

Heman Chong’s wall texts at the reception area of the Singapore Art Museum ends with “(s)ome of your aspirations tend to be rather unrealistic.” This clever statement forecasts the unrealised expectations of viewing “Medium at Large”, an exhibition that aims to challenge traditional art categories, which works are arranged loosely by the medium it subverts. Also showing at the main building are works by finalists of the Signature Art Prize 2014, a lucrative award accorded to regional artists, which submissions are nominated and judged by art professionals. Seen together in one visit, “(t)here’s a wonderful sense of flow as you move (from) one artwork to another and forms overlap…” (Mayo Martin). Labels provide contexts for a collection of great individual art, as the hit-or-miss curatorial layout and competition judging issues recede to the background.

Early 'right-hand side' version of Lisa Reihana - in Pursuit of Venus (2012) [from in Pursuit of Venus website]

On the first floor, a 21-metre lenticular print of a street in Lahore impresses with its visual trickery, while Nguyen Trinh Thi’s projection of artists eating – last seen at the Singapore Biennale – remains compelling with its message of solidarity. Glittering portraits of Filipino leaders drawn with live bullets, and a jogger’s statue constructed from pink foam and bodily close-ups, show captivating approaches towards the act of seeing/making. Chen Sai Hua Kuan’s imaginative and potent take on the line in ‘Space Drawing 5’, illustrates a dynamic process that complements the technical mastery of Ian Woo and Nadiah Bamadhaj exhibited in the adjacent room. Photographic and video documentation of derelict buildings in Taiwan by the Lost Society Document, present an astonishing project where activism led to a governmental response.

Installation views of Yao Jui-Chung + Lost Society Document (LSD) - Mirage – Disused Public Property in Taiwan (2010–2014)

In contrast to the social implications implied by captures of mosquito halls 蚊子館, some exhibited works display an overbearing self-indulgence, especially the space and time wasting video installations by Ho Tzu Nyen. Humour is a more effective strategy for artful performances, evident from the wicked pleasure of seeing Melati Suryodarmo fall over slabs of butter, rather than watching the tedious charcoal-smashing by the same artist upstairs. Burnt furniture and blank tomes strike a sombre mood in Titarubi’s ‘Shadow of Surrender’, the pervasive use of wood alluding to a forgotten natural wisdom. Truncated drawings of forests lead on nicely to Natee Utarit’s classical and enormous painting, whose use of allegory is simplistic when compared to the mind-bending re-staging employed by Wong Hoy Cheong and Annie Cabigting in works hung opposite.

Snapshots from Melati Suryodarmo - Exergie – Butter Dance (Sao Paolo)

Distorted paintings and crafted artefacts make up the disappointingly few items on show from Alan Oei’s remarkable body of work “The End of History”. Projecting an individual’s story in a more dynamic approach is Ranbir Kaleka’s ‘He Was A Good Man’, the painting/video distinctly different from the habitat loss alluded to in ‘House of Opaque Water’. Indicative of how far behind award-winning Malaysian artists are, no shortlisted entries for the Signature Art Prize employ painting as its medium. Installed along the staircase wall, Liu Jianhua’s magnified ink traces ape the Chinese painting tradition with clever references to the 屋漏痕 calligraphic aesthetic. Being hypnotised by the smooth movements of Choe U-Ram’s mythical seal in a dark room, is also a far cry from watching mechanical birds flap its clunky wings closer to home.

Video stills from Chen Sai Hua Kuan - Space Drawing 5 (2009)

Two works that trigger one’s historical imagination leave the deepest impressions – Lisa Reihana’s scrolling panorama which animates a neoclassical French wallpaper, and Naeem Mohaiemen’s drawn-over photographs and grey sandstone moulds that reminisces upon Dhaka sixty years ago. Sitting on a Victorian sofa and watching images of the New World in the former, serene botanical landscapes are interrupted by colonial violence at unexpected junctures. One reviewer calls the latter’s small models “anthills, the steps of an agora, and a forest’s edge…”, these beautifully-carved objects drawing one’s attention to the personal story, behind photographs of cats taken by the artist’s father. Such captivating examples of how art leads to narratives beyond its medium’s confines, further demonstrates how mastery of a medium is an afterthought in contemporary art.

Promotional video for Naeem Mohaiemen - Rankin Street, 1953 (2013)

08 January 2015

Art KL-itique 2014 Look Back

Following in the tradition of my favourite non-authoritative end of year awards, the 2014 visual art events in Kuala Lumpur that tickled my fancy are…

Favourite programming: Goethe Institut’s visual arts events; Furniture and photography exhibitions at Galeri Petronas, and the wonderful drawings at Galeri Serdang, prove refreshing with its creative interpretations of common mediums. Walking in the surroundings of Petaling Street at daybreak with Susanne Bosch remains a vivid memory, and so are the performances and newspaper cut-outs exhibited towards the end of the German artist’s residency at Lostgens'.

Favourite solo (new) exhibition: The Pleasures of Odds and Ends; Gan Siong King's show of paintings triggered a ridiculous amount of thoughts about images, and will be remembered as good art despite a negative assessment. Azliza Ayob’s surreal collages were decorative, fun, and showed significant artistic growth for one committed artist.

Phuan Thai Meng - Game (study) (2003) [picture taken from TM's Painting Lab web log]

Favourite solo (not-so-new) exhibition: 12 Years of Visual Disobedience; Political posters by Fahmi Redza show how graphic design can be an effective tool for social activism. Outside of KL, one Ismail Hashim survey revealed the strong hand and masterful presentation of its curator. Its producer Fergana Art figures to be a upcoming disruptive force in the local visual arts scene.

Favourite group (new) exhibition: A tie between The Good Malaysian Woman and 刻舟求剑 - Pulau Melayu - Lost and Found. The former displayed superb artworks that covered many mediums, and coincided with a significant life milestone. Vivid images of a giant paper boat rotting on the rooftop, tarpaulins layered with paints, and colourful nonsensical characters, mark the latter as a successful outing for a self-organised artists' exhibition. Minstrel Kuik’s sublime photographs and her impeccable use of space in both exhibitions, strike one as the most memorable art seen this year.

Minstrel Kuik - The Prisoner's Landscape - after Pudu Jail (2014)

Favourite group (not-so-new) exhibition: The Fine Art of Fabrics; Beautiful printed works by Fatimah Chik and Sivam Selvaratnam were presented alongside Syed Ahmad Jamal, whose textiles are more impressive than his painting output. Among two Malaysian sculpture-collector exhibitions, Jumping Jack Flash left a better impression due to its less obvious intent to downplay the role of the public institution. These three shows were an invaluable resource in understanding Malaysian visual art beyond paintings.

Favourite use of exhibition space: 505·祭墨; Taoist charms hanging among antique furniture at Petaling Street Art House befitted the wishful content of its calligraphic verses. Crunching on Styrofoam boxes while ascending the steps of Chin Thye Hin was memorable, as young artists utilised the sun-drenched space for a pleasant viewing experience.

Hasnul J Saidon - Siri Hijab Nurbaya - Tanggung (2003)

Favourite Something New: Yau Sir Meng’s education-themed installations blew me away with the maturity in expression, while the subversive works of Engku Iman were thoroughly enjoyable.

Least favourite trend: Paintings that isolate figures on a nondescript or nostalgic background, subscribe to market forces that impede further local appreciation for more progressive art-making. Photography is a superior medium for such modes of portraiture, and artists need to expand their horizons beyond portraying simple dichotomies.

Favourite art writing: Ong Jo-Lene’s essay that accompanied Language of the Jungle was necessary to dispel my dismissal of exotic images painted by Tan Wei Kheng. The email exchange between Jun Kit and Tan Zi Hao for Gangguan provided a glimpse into the artists' minds, which proved useful in appreciating the exhibited artworks better.

Installation view of Yau Sir Meng - Melting (2013) [exhibited at Under Construction]

01 January 2015

From Bandung to Berlin

Having listened to the captivating interviews BFM conducted with historian Peter Carey, one’s historical imagination is ignited while browsing “From Bandung to Berlin”, an online project that creates fictional history in the “time between the first Asian-African conference in Bandung 1955 and the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.” The prologue describes the historical archive as “…a utopian – or dystopian – site of knowledge, an imagined junction where identities, memories, values and beliefs are contested. In most cases it is impossible to grasp truth as a whole, or to depict it with precision.” With its narratives categorised in past-present-future time frames, navigating the website is like visiting an art space with three sections.

Trailer for War is a Tender Thing [clips from this documentary by Adjani Arumpac appear in the 'Spectre of Alonto’ narrative, by Renan Laru-an]

"The New Past" covers stories from the three countries that make up the proposed confederation of Maphilindo. Tales about an inter-religious affair, presidential love letters, and a suicide note that started a rebellion, include strong elements of a collective colonial legacy. The last narrative is written by Tan Zi Hao, whose use of archival documents and Mao Zedong’s poems, projects a playful approach towards a serious subject matter. Tinkering with physical history gives ‘The Spectre of Qiu Nan’ a superior edge over the Filipino and Indonesian works, although the English-translated poems ultimately reveal the shackles of our colonial past. The freedom to view a fictionalised account at any time re-enacts the art gallery experience, in this case, multimedia representations of historical figures.

Screenshot from the 'Spectre of Soekarno' narrative, by Muhammad Al-Fayyadl

Zhou Enlai's cunning diplomacy during the Bandung conference is alluded to in "The Endless Present", whose "...move was not dealing with diversity, but deferring it in the name of common neutrality." Ding Ling's 'Scarlet Letter' about Women's Day remains progressive to this day, and this reference to the intellectual repression during the Maoist regime, coincides nicely with the recent award-winning Ann Hui film. After seeing metaphorical illustrations about the Hundred Flowers campaign, one can choose to apply for a “Spectral Citizenship”, and complete a survey which basic questions make one reflect on one's nationality. This digital gallery is highly enjoyable and leaves enough to one's imagination, and its sufficiently open-ended format serves as a great examples for how alternate histories are told.

MCP’s edition of Qiu Nan’s letter, reproduced with a new title "My Suicide" (我的自杀). [referred to in the 'Spectre of Qiu Nan’ narrative, by Tan Zi Hao]

鲲鹏展翅,九万里,翻动扶摇羊角。
背负青天朝下看,都是人间城郭。
炮火连天,弹痕遍地。 吓倒蓬间雀。
怎么得了,哎呀我要飞跃。
借问君去何方? 雀儿答道:有仙山琼阁。
不见前年秋月朗,订了三家条约。
还有吃的,土豆烧熟了,再加牛肉。
不须放屁,试看天地翻覆。
- 毛泽东, 《念奴娇•鸟儿问答》, 1965年秋

Drawings by Yuchen Chang [accompanied with poetry narrated in 'Let Hundred Flowers Bloom']