2 Jan 2015 (I): Trans Book Sketches @ NVAG

Greeting the visitor are twenty rectangular frames, each with an object placed upon a dot matrix printout of Surah Al-'Alaq. Low-tech reproductions emphasise the Quranic verses’ inherent meaning instead of its form, the faint pages reminding of divine omnipresence when juxtaposed with disparate stuff like coins and cutlery. Nasir Baharuddin’s sublime work meditates upon the revelation of learned knowledge, and was hung up in early October 2014 for a “Book Art” exhibition. “Fotografi & Lakaran” occupy Galeri Reka, the output contributed by artists who joined field trips as part of the 1Malaysia Art Tourism campaign. Atmospheric captures of Gua Niah by Shahrizan Aziz and Nublee Bahar utilise creative shooting angles, while uninspiring panoramas of Labuan are further diminished by the gallery’s dim lighting. 

Installation snapshot and close-ups of Nasir Baharuddin - Baca dan Lihat (1995)

Upstairs, encased pamphlets by Tsai Horng Churng lead one into a narrow passage exhibiting other “Book Art”. Colourful sketches denote Khalil Ibrahim’s mastery in figure drawing, while Izan Tahir’s “London Walls” utilise a simple and effective aesthetic to present found words from the English capital. Termite-bitten pages from British schoolbooks project a rebellious gesture of erasing imperial power, Wong Hoy Cheong’s collage a mere stylistic statement if not for the accompanying guide describing the work’s context within the exhibition where it was first shown. Missed opportunities include objects with fascinating content displayed within Perspex boxes, including an undated Minangkabau manuscript, Nur Hanim Khairuddin’s talismanic “Grimoire” (unprotected from misspelled labels), and an attractive cut-out storybook by Chuah Shu Ruei. 

Nur Hanim Khairuddin (1997): Grimoire II [top]; Grimoire III [bottom]

Browsing 250 works spanning 50 years on the second floor, Choong Kam Kow’s prominent career in education has to be considered when viewing one-dimensional creations. Coloured walls present chronologically-arranged themes, a poor choice which accentuates few works at the expense of others. Beginning with Chinese ink tin mines and ending with decorative dragons and gongfu stances, Kam Kow’s oeuvre presents a non-intrusive archetype of the ideal Malaysian-Chinese, whose diplomatic approach appears outmoded among the political assertions typical in contemporary art. While his shaped canvases are a novelty and perhaps even introduced hard-edged abstraction into Malaysian art, the “SEA-Thru” constructs are terrible fixtures which Syed Ahmad Jamal is quoted as having described as “a slant on semantics”.

Installation snapshot of Choong Kam Kow's retrospective exhibition - The Shaped Canvas series

Contemporaries Chew Teng Beng and Joseph Tan come to mind when viewing the “Earthscape” and “Rockscape” series, Kam Kow’s aesthetically pleasing compositions less cerebral but equal in its meditation on natural beauty. The best works displayed were made before the art teacher’s return to Malaysia. Etchings and paintings from the “New York” series combine opaque shapes with abstract lines, its sand textures crafting a multi-layered take on ground. This showcase remains within the institute’s confines of modernism, yet “conceptual” self-expressions are making way for conceptual art-making exhibited in the floor below. With book-sized artworks slotted in between these spaces, hope is vested into the national gallery for the year ahead. The progressive aspiration comes crashing down, as another security guard scrutinise me, and my camera phone in hand. 

Choong Kam Kow - The Eroded Surface 12/12 (1967)