29 April 2015

Exiled to Nowhere: Burma’s Rohingya @ Prototype Gallery L4

In the famous old building beside Petronas Twin Towers, a square recess in the floor is stuck with quotes, one which states, “God created many species and every species has a place to live. Ants and snakes have a hole. Fish have water. Tigers and bears have bushes. But Rohingya don’t have any place to live. We want to ask the world, where is our place?”. Surrounding pin boards feature black & white captures taken from 2006 to 2014 which document the plight of the Rohingya, a Muslim minority group persecuted in Myanmar and internationally recognised as de jure stateless, i.e. one without citizenship of any nation state.

Rakhine Buddhist Monks shout anti-Rohingya and anti-UN chants as they protest through the streets of Sittwe

In an interview with BFM, photographer Greg Constantine says, "...statelessness touches on so many bigger themes, that are indicators of how we live life in 2015 (…) statelessness deals with the theme of identity, the power of the state, about people's access to human rights, inclusion, tolerance..." These themes are entirely familiar with the concerned Malaysian now, and drew my apathy/empathy/sympathy more strongly than what documentary photography usually does. As traffic clogs up around the exhibition venue to accommodate delegates of the 26th ASEAN summit, questions of our national identity, and our identity as nationals, become ever more pressing.


Captions: [top] Rohingya gather around a water pump in an IDP (internally displaced persons) camp outside of Sittwe. Though more facilities have been built throughout the camps, large numbers of Rohingya continue to suffer from waterborne issues.
[bottom] The Burmese authorities take photos of Rohingya families so they know exactly how many people live in each house, like this photograph.

24 April 2015

M13 @ Richard Koh Fine Art

Aged pillars made from plastic bowls and white frames fabricated with powder coated steel, greet the visitor into Haffendi Anuar’s imagined cityscape, where buildings are reduced into a cluster of attractive objects. Line and colour join into symmetrical shapes, as deliberate shadows and smooth gradients render optical illusion. The catalogue essay tells the tale of one Malaysian who spent significant time overseas, now back in Kuala Lumpur as a foreign observer of mundane things. Despite being different in form from his previous works, the layering, use of colour, and everyday objects as art-making material, remain consistent within Haffendi’s oeuvre. 

Installation view [picture taken from Richard Koh Fine Art's website]

“I like the genericness of our reality,” the artist states in a media interview. Perpetuating a standard approach and evading the Malaysian art context, are the unique propositions in this exhibition. Its title M13 refers to an apartment block number – but also points to the 13 Malaysian states, GE13, or even riots in 1969 – numbers and events that lie within the Malaysian subconscious. Like the Mega City in The Matrix, hyperreal depictions of a locale represent the contemporary tableau within a generic landscape. Haffendi’s window grills straddle abstract categories, its overall flatness a parody of Malaysian art in many ways. As architectural design à la Sabri Idrus, the lack of texture nullifies any crafted intent. 

Grill Work 7 (2015)

As abstraction, the geometric symmetry of industrial objects betray any links to Islamic art, or personal expression. Nostalgia is manufactured via a repetitive expediting process, instead of painting effects. Smooth fading hues denote relevance in a digital age, as our eyes become accustomed to flat surfaces. Surrounded by ostentatious colours and unbearably apolitical objects, I discover the invisible master stroke while descending the escalator. The enigma of Haffendi's neutral representations – an apparent departure from most Malaysian art – is debunked in one triumphant nihilistic gesture. This make-believe city is deconstructed into individual packages, each sold fragment signalling the fate of art, as it meets its capitalist end. 

Installation view [picture taken from Haffendi Anuar's website]

“The Matrix is a system, Neo. That system is our enemy. But when you're inside, you look around, what do you see? Businessmen, teachers, lawyers, carpenters. The very minds of the people we are trying to save. But until we do, these people are still a part of that system and that makes them our enemy. You have to understand, most of these people are not ready to be unplugged. And many of them are so inured, so hopelessly dependent on the system that they will fight to protect it.”
- Morpheus, The Matrix (1999)

Installation view - [from l to r] (2015) BLCK A3; BLCK A2; BLCK A6; BLCK A7

17 April 2015

Pulse: Q1 2015 Art Auctions

Residents flock supermarkets for sanitary pads and toilet rolls. Customs and police officers scurry about trying to follow orders. Book stores make last minute changes to their accounting software. Auction houses flood the secondary market with unknown artists and insignificant works. All part of the mad rush before the implementation of the Goods and Services Tax in Malaysia. Wants are mistaken for needs, or pathetically marketed as such, as auction houses collectively forget its roles as players in the luxury goods market. Four out of five auctions were held in Kuala Lumpur over a span of three weekends, where middling sales and a general down trend expose local auctions for what they are – an exercise in financial speculation.

John Lee Joo For - Untitled (1966)

Paintings by Tajuddin Ismail, Awang Damit, and Yusof Ghani, continue to trade favourably, while works by everyone else hardly generate interest. Masterpiece Malaysia sells three pieces by Tay Mo Leong, last transacted in its 2013 edition for higher prices. A suspicious new Zulkifli Yusoff was hammered down, for three times its high estimates at the KL Lifestyle Art Space (March) edition. Henry Butcher offers a lesser collection of goods, perhaps a consequence of being associated with an art theft report last year. The prevailing bearish sentiment sets the scene for collectors to grab works for prices below market value, including for top-tier names like Latiff Mohidin, Chang Fee Ming, and Ahmad Zakii Anwar. However, those not yet at the top fare less well, as great introspective works by Chong Siew Ying and Kok Yew Puah were bought in.  

Chong Siew Ying - Untitled (2001)

Despite presenting the best holdings among auction houses, and only charging a 10% buyer’s premium, The Edge Auction unperformed again with a 57% sales ratio. A sign that its transactions are probably the most transparent, its straightforward line up also deserves applaud for not attempting to bamboozle. Artists surveyed at the National Visual Arts Gallery in recent times saw mixed success, as large works by Ali Mabuha and Sharifah Fatimah Syed Zubir were bought in, while its support of Ken Yang backfired when no works by the Paris-based painter sold. 'Four Women on the Beach' went for more than twice its highest estimate, the Cubist-like work by Lee Cheng Yong highlighting this ridiculous season which sees his auction star rise significantly. One wonders - how will GST impact art auction prices indeed?

Zulkifli Yusoff - Ku Pinang Puteri Gunung Ledang (1994)

An Art Economy Conference was held also at Kuala Lumpur in March, its keynote speaker relating state revenue generated by art, to the number of tourists (i.e. museum visitors). This ridiculous notion is supported by our Deputy Prime Minister, who claimed that RM 33 billion of Malaysia's GDP was contributed by the "creative industry", mentioning too that the government granted RM 17 million (a fraction of what Jho Low paid for a Jean-Michel Basquiat at Christie's) over the pass three years to arts-related programs. Who in the visual arts received a portion of this grant? Why did a local gallerist organise this conference? How ethical are consultants that advise private collectors to "buy what they like", while helping governments quantify the Return of Investment for the arts? Can imprudent bureaucrats stop associating art with profit? Or tourism, for that matter?

Kok Yew Puah - Temple Figures (1997)

10 April 2015

HOW TO live your life according to someone else @ Kedai

Curator Izat Arif stages another astoundingly coherent show, where the exhibition theme is bespoke in the works of three artists, and extends to the storefront / window display approach. Greeting the visitor at the left is a long neck pot on a pedestal, and at right, a table with four human legs and one brain-y teapot. Lily Osman’s confectionary creation is literally gut-wrenching, yet delightfully absurd. One can imagine the hilarity, when ants swarm and devour the few pieces of chopped liver served on its tiered cake stand. Viscera is neutralised via the surrounding white sculptures of Naz Imagine, its seductive lines taking after slacking postures.

Lily Osman - The Red Dinner (2015)

Assuming the role of artefact, pottery is paired up and propped against these constructs, to juxtapose traditional and modern notions of beauty in sculpture. An obsession with art manifests in the presented poses and its titles, evident in the kneeling reverence towards ‘What would I do without you (7525624’s)’, and the frustrated slouch in ‘I give up’. ‘The Radical’ apes the position of sitting on a toilet bowl, its centre stripped bare to expose the underlying wooden frame. Metaphorical interpretations vary widely from farcical contemplation, to sculpture’s progression from form to process and back. It is perhaps also a reverential ode to Marcel Duchamp, someone the artist referenced for his final year project. 

Installation snapshots of Naz Imagine (2015) [from l to r]: I give up; What would I do without you (7525624’s); The Radical  

Izat’s cheeky catalogue essay Leave a comment aptly describes the banal and garish works by Leo Ari, whose restyled YouTube playlist is projected onto a couple of mannequins. Celebrating the banal and grotesque nature of streaming online content, Leo’s choice of videos is unbalanced in its deference to shock value, and ultimately no different from his sources. In responding to the explicit theme, artists demonstrate their sensitive approaches towards individual environments and patriarchal hierarchies. Identity issues dissolve into personal preoccupations and virtual independence, as individuality becomes the only strategy, for living in this capitalist world.  

Installation snapshots of Leo Ari - Daud dan Zuhrah #tilljannah (2015)

07 April 2015

Picturing Change @ White Box

Despite good intentions to educate the public about visual culture, a dearth of visually attractive exhibits render this show a wordy affair, notwithstanding its concise wall notes. The wide time gap between seven posters from the National Archives, to Liew Kung Yu's majestic 2009 artwork, contribute to a lacklustre presentation. Sourcing difficulties aside, this incoherence can be attributed to the wide range of mediums on show, and its "one exhibit per medium" approach. Artful interventions include one clay tapir and a Photoshop-ed lightbox, while social awareness campaigns take the form of overhead photographs, typographic posters, and protest banners.

Jaguh/Pendatang (2014)

Highlighting an advertising agency's online video about racism, and its merchandise-based flood relief efforts, promotes the lofty notion about high-minded corporates. Old posters are interesting to the modern viewer for its message but not its style, while 1Malaysia products demonstrate the failure of traditional propaganda design in a contemporary social media landscape. Indicative of how power impedes creativity, unsanctioned graphic works project the strongest visual interest. Pangrok Sulap's grand green banner feature their own prints held up as demonstration placards, while depictions of Lee Chong Wei as hero/immigrant is provocative street art at its best.

[top] Liew Kung Yu - Pantai Gelora Cahaya (2009); [botom] 'Guide' to the artwork (picture from mapkl's Facebook page]

Mind-boggling at first sight, the five-panel 'Pantai Gelora Cahaya' by Kung Yu mesmerises upon reflection. With its visually arresting scale, multilayered cut-outs, and lowbrow sensibilities, photographs of kitschy constructs are put together and held up like a mirror to the astonished viewer. Are these real places? Would I not take a picture of it? What is wrong if such objects attract people to it? Why visit a place, any place? Is that Istana Budaya? An impossible number of perspectives from each individual photograph, are inserted into an inwardly slanting composition, its overall garishness accentuating the sense of make believe. Described as "...simultaneously glorify as they critique", the neutrality in Kung Yu's work, marks it as the odd one out in an exhibition about art & advocacy.

Pangrok Sulap - Selamatkan Hari Merdeka (2013)

04 April 2015

Ayat-ayat Semesta @ University of Malaya Art Gallery

Melukis itu Menulis - this wonderful maxim is a subject in one of Abdul Djalil Pirous's writings, and aptly describes the works displayed here. A doyen in the Bandung art scene, Pirous is also known as the pioneer in Southeast Asia who successfully melded Western abstract painting with Arabic calligraphy. Texts are moulded from marble paste and swathes of colours are accentuated with gold leaf, the combined presentation depicting Quranic verses as encased meditations mirroring inner reflections. Utilising strips of colour at its borders, two-dimensional compositions stretch beyond the canvas to encompass a wider universe, which Sulaiman Esa once described with reference to Islamic metaphysics as "...an open book, a panorama of signs (ayat) and symbols that man is constantly exhorted to study and contemplate so that he can gain the knowledge of higher Truth."

Kurnia-Nya yang Mana yang Masih Kau Dustakan? (1974)

The emotional qualities of colour field painting are more evident in exhibited works made in the 1970s to the 1990s, As one who does not read Arabic, I resort to engage with the shocking pink-purple in 'Kurnia-Nya yang Mana yang Masih Kau Dustakan?', the earthy browns, and the golden ruptures in 'Cucuku, Dia Lahir di Negeri Sakura'. Calligraphic writings are replaced with capitalised texts in works made in 2004 and later, this change of approach attributed by Kenneth George as a reaction by the artist to the Aceh tsunami, which struck Pirous' hometown and claimed the lives of many relatives. 'Apa Namamu?' and 'Mencari Air Suci I' are poignant examples of works produced during this time, where introspective statements are submerged at the lower-left corner of the painting, a gold strip separating it from a dark blue background.

Jangan Baurkan Kebenaran dengan Kebathilan! (2012)

Describing a painting that resembles a tombstone protruding from the clouds, curator Agung Hujatnikajennong states, "(m)eskipun tidak bermaksud merepresentasikan objek-objek arsitektural itu secara sangat spesifik, Pirous hendak menekankan kehadiran dimensi 'ruang' yang ilusif dan mistis, dan pada saat yang sama: absennya ruang-ruang spatial yang riil dan logis." The artist remarks in an interview, "(a)ntara aksara dan latar belakang lukisan menyatu." This conscious decision to make good art and not vacant proclamations, is a vital aspect in Pirous' works, and this survey leaves enough room to ponder whether such exhibits constitute Contemporary Islamic Art. Well lit with ample wall notes, and accompanied with a decent catalogue with three insightful essays, one eagerly waits for the next edition of the university gallery's "Asian Master Series".

Mencari Air Suci I (2005)

Tuhan, kita begitu dekat
Sebagai api dengan panas; Aku panas dalam api-Mu
Tuhan, kita begitu dekat
Seperti kain dengan kapas; Aku kapas dalam kain-Mu
Tuhan, kita begitu dekat
Seperti angin dan arahnya; Kita begitu dekat
Dalam gelap; Kini aku nyala; Dalam lampu padam-Mu
- Tuhan, Kita Begitu Dekat, Abdul Hadi WM, sajak accompanying artwork by A.D. Pirous of the same title

Tuhan, Kita Begitu Dekat (2002)