30 June 2015

(Collecting? Buying? Acquiring?) Art

“A subject matter that I am contemplating nowadays and that I am personally concerned with is the nature of a collection and the status of a collector. When talking about collections, we have to distinguish the differences between building a collection and owning a collection. While when we talk about collectors, we have to distinguish being a collector and becoming a collector. So, here we have four keywords: to build, to own, to be and to become. In the case of collectors, of which I am not one (and it annoys me all the time), we have: to build and to be. Someone who is a collector and wants to build a collection has an idea from the very beginning. Once he sets off his adventure, he has no other ambition than to make the collection as complete, complex and exemplary as possible. Is this a vice or a virtue? I don’t know.”
- Brussels collector Herman Daled, interview with Selina Ting, InitiArt Magazine, Paris, 6 October 2011

Hamidi Hadi - Embryo (2005)

Why does one collect art? Is it to make a profit? Is it for home decoration? Is it for fun, i.e. an enjoyable addiction? Is it to achieve social distinction/prestige? Is it to support a moral/political cause? Is it as payment to artists for personal enrichment? Is it to recover lost memories? Is it to (re-)construct history? Collecting artefacts has historically been a demonstration of power, and as one that occasionally buys art, I struggle mightily to continue procuring art in a meaningful manner. The idea of accumulating man-made objects run afoul of my personal beliefs – that the less objects one has, the less attachments one will have – and subscribes to a capitalist way of life that I wish to withdraw from, as hypocritically futile that ideal is. Having a focus is the buzzword in art collecting, the phrase sounding more like consultant speak to fast-track prestige via manufactured novelty.

Kim Ng - Untitled (89) (2014)

Anyone who has researched the opaque art market knows that investing in it is foolish, notwithstanding its damaging impact to 99% of the artists not in the blue chip category. Why spend thousands on a single piece of art, when there are many beautiful products and objects available to decorate one’s place? Display and maintenance of artworks are well-known issues. Should paintings and drawings be hung salon-style? Where to keep installations and sculptures that do not match the colour scheme of a corner space? If art is an enjoyable pursuit, and one paid monies to take ownership of an object, why bother about its preservation? Time and place naturally react with artworks, but am I doing artists a disservice by hanging paintings without frames, or storing photographs without wrapping it in acid-free paper?

Linda Chin - Rubber Rubber #8 (2013)

A useful trope for introspection is to translate ‘collect’ into one’s mother tongue – 收集 (gather/harvest), 珍藏 (hoard valuables) in Mandarin; Kumpul (gather/assemble), kutip (pick/extract) in Bahasa Melayu. Assembling disparate objects into a single place becomes a physical manifestation of one’s values – or is it? How does appreciation of an artwork, transcend individual taste and personal aesthetic upon its purchase? Does re-looking an acquisition generate new insight into one’s self? Turning motivations inside out, is building a collection just a show of power to create history? Collectors utilise their holdings to re-interpret legacies by opening private museums and publishing thick catalogues, such self-aggrandising gestures dwelling upon obsolete notions of connoisseurship.

Lim Keh Soon - Dilarang Merokok (2013)

“…public institutions must form the public memory as their core “, says Swiss diplomat Uli Sigg. I agree with this statement, yet the role of custodian is too noble to bear. Since the National Visual Arts Development Board was established, it is unclear if trustees still play a role in donations or acquisitions, notwithstanding the lack of publicised precedents about publicly donated artworks into the national collection. Patronage is my objective in buying local art, yet how does one buy art without forcing a capitalist exchange, which may manifest an implicit power play? Do collectors ask for an artist’s permission to display an acquisition outside his/her home, considering that the artist may not agree with the motive/intent of the exhibition? If art ownership is not an agreeable form of patronage, is critical praise sufficient to boost the confidence of budding artists?

Video of Okui Lala - 十年树木,百年树人 (translated as "It takes a decade to grow a tree, a century to shape mankind") (2015)

Miami collectors Donald and Mera Rubell are known to support artists by providing regular stipends, but which local artist would accept monthly allowances without feeling patronised? Crowdfunding websites for creative making like Patreon is not useful, for one who prefers to experience art real-life and real-time. Should monies be instead channelled to encourage continuous development of an art community? But if good artworks are being made and sold to fund social initiatives, what is wrong with a material transaction? Hamburg collector Harald Falckenberg remarks, “I give myself over to art. It gives me the ability to live in a parallel world (…) art is a means with which I can compensate for my complexes.” Selfish propositions underlie my purchases – a realisation difficult to acknowledge – as I look out for alternative approaches to support Malaysian visual art.

Snapshot from Minstrel Kuik - Song to Durga - Volume 2 (2014)

“For me, purchasing works of art provides the possibility to live with them, to contemplate them whenever I wish, to enjoy their intellectual and emotional challenge in direct contact (…) For the private collector, close to the pulse of creative production, it is most exciting to fall in love, to decide on his or her own, to spend his or her own money on something just discovered.”
- Berlin fashion designer Erika Hoffmann-Koenige, interview with Selina Ting, InitiArt Magazine

“While it is being constituted, it is better for a collection to remain discreet, even hidden. The attention mustn’t be distracted by the social aspect. The collector risks, unintentionally and even against his or her own convictions, being drawn into an ill-suited, false social role.”
- Ghent collector Anton Herbert, quoted in a 1999 interview with Jan Debbaut, Subjectivity, Partiality, Independence, Quality, Flexibility, 2000

Close-up snapshot of Tiong Chai Heing - The Nightmare of Materialism (2014)

P.S.  Artworks pictured in this blog post do not represent those purchased by the author.

23 June 2015

Textile Tales of Pua Kumbu @ Universiti Malaya Art Gallery

Browsing through six partitioned sections, the organisers successfully create a modern museum-style exhibition, complete with technology-aided displays that include the use of an augmented reality mobile app, video projections, and recreated environs with sound boxes. A university research and collaboration project that focuses on one longhouse community, the content is light and understandably so, as most people from Peninsular Malaysia (myself included) have little knowledge about aborigine cultures that share the same nationality. Documentary loops about Iban women and the weaving of Pua threads are well-narrated – albeit with a foreign accent – and sufficiently draw attention without over-emphasis on the exotic.

Weaving Pua Kumbu - Iban ceremonial textile [from The Star Online YouTube channel]

The wonderful “Pua Slider” utilises mobile tablets to associate visual motifs on a stretched piece of fabric, while QR codes which generate maker and title information offer gimmicky technological innovation. Animated mythologies of the hero-god Keling and his wife Kumang are told by master weaver Bangie anak Embol, the most memorable story being ‘Tangga Beji’ which recounts one’s failed attempt at ascending to heaven, a familiar tale across many cultures. Craft skill and tedious effort manifest within woven fabric, old designs still resonating with a contemporary aesthetic via repetitive shapes and simple contrasts. Appreciating beautiful textiles hung from the ceiling, one wonders about the preservation of things, and how often its original meaning and utility must be stripped away in order to be preserved.

Installation view of the “Pua Slider”

“…Beji was a mythical hero / warrior from the Kapuas region in Borneo. His greatest ambition was to reach Petara, the supreme spirit, by touching heaven. So he and his followers searched for the tallest trees in the forest to make a ladder to climb up to heaven. Unfortunately, no matter how hard he tried, he failed every single time, and when he fell, the ladder that he had built was scattered throughout the land, and pieces of it turned to rock. These rocks, known as Tangga Beji, can still be found along rivers today.”
- Tangga Beji, paraphrased from Jabu, E. (1991). Pua Kumbu – The Pride of the Iban Cultural Heritage, referenced from Low, A. (2008). Social Fabric: Circulating Pua Kumbu Textiles of the Indigenous Dayak Iban People in Sarawak, Malaysia [Academia.edu link]

Title: Baya Nanka Nanga Mandai
Maker: Baru anak Langi

18 June 2015

Winter Garden: The Exploration Of Micropop Imagination In Contemporary Japanese Art @ University Malaya Art Gallery

Japan. Micropop. Winter. Such obscure and faraway notions come together in an art exhibition at one quiet university gallery. Cute cats, rebellious acts, and manga characters, display a collective reaction to local norms, and does little to increase one’s appreciation of Japanese culture beyond existing perceptions. Paintings by Makiko Kudo and Masaya Chiba display a strong sense of melancholia, especially in the wooden rod jutting out from the latter’s ‘story of famous tree #6’. Most works, however, “…often seems idiotically primitive in technique and absurdly obvious in concept” (David Balzer). A certain dullness covers most paintings, unsurprising given the transportation mileage these works have accumulated (the exhibition has travelled for seven years to at least 18 countries, and just showed at Universiti Sains Malaysia, Penang).

Video snapshots of Taro Izumi – White Bear (2009)

Like the crazy game shows on Japanese television, works that project weird hilarity are the most affecting. Taro Izumi presents the folly of representation in a manner similar to rotating flashcards at a child. Fleeting pictures are diluted in water or slid away in a linear fashion, symptomatic of how we absorb visuals in the current age. Lyota Yagi’s vinyl made from ice amalgamates natural and synthetic mediums into one entertaining set, its video’s wistful projection most waggish as the artist departs in a car while the record is still playing. As I leave, a chance observation sees Tam Ochiai’s illustrations reflected onto Ibrahim Hussein’s absorbing work via the gallery’s glass enclosure. Universal dichotomies of hot/cold, implicit/explicit, and macro/micro pop into my mind, as I return home to look at pictures of ukiyo-e prints.

Preview video for Lyota Yagi – Vinyl (2005–2008)

13 June 2015

I Am Ten @ Richard Koh’s

After 3+ years of visiting Malaysian art galleries, art fatigue finally sets in. And it has to happen at my favourite neighbourhood gallery, whose international reach now warrants another house for showing art, sixth floor mall spaces be damned. Stuck in an anxious status is Gan Chin Lee, whose panoramic kopitiam scene recalls the vivid colours of Ivan Lam with a Phuan Thai Meng earmark, which sitters’ heads are blacked out as foreign entities. One distinguished figure sits within the darkness in Justin Lim’s ‘The Collector’, another black piece acting as a teaser for upcoming solo exhibitions. From an older series, Liew Kwai Fei’s flat colours in odd-shaped frames are presented in a beguilingly attractive manner, hugging the wall with negative space in between shapes providing a respite from the other abstract works on show.

Installation view of Liew Kwai Fei – Untitled (from Shape, Colour, Quantity, and Scale series) (2010)

‘Say Nothing, Do Nothing, Be Nothing’, commands the black brooding triptych that welcomes visitors (or stop them in their tracks) into the new gallery space. Five times smaller at the same price is another black work, this time by Yang Xun. Other large paintings occupy the walls – Natee Utarit’s classical skeletons, Zhu Xinyu’s ethereal forest, and Yang Jiechang’s ink layers. Group shows are inevitably devoid of context, so why am I expecting something more? Enveloped by large pictures with six figure price tags, I snap, as the meaning of luxury hit hard upon my poor soul. Beauty and value are subjective notions, and holding an art-critical lens suddenly become a strenuous affair; The painted ripped effects of Wong Perng Fey and Yeoh Choo Kuan, technically brilliant as they are, evolve into representations of zombie formalism that fulfils only the immediate visual sense. 

Yeoh Choo Kuan – Say Nothing, Do Nothing, Be Nothing (2015)

Even non-paintings dominate the walls, although Chang Yoong Chia’s magnified prints of his stamp collages, transform creative storytelling into a nihilistic reaction to the art market. Being familiar with famous paintings from the Western canon, impedes my appreciation of contemporary painting. Are the techniques too similar? Are the same themes regurgitated? If art is meant to represent, why use this synthetic material called paint, when other modes can infer as much if not more? What is the reward of self-expressive brush strokes? So that a collector can equally reward their own self-expression, by spending large sums of money? Ironically, the conundrum I experience is also represented in this exhibition. Samsudin Wahab’s ‘Jerangkap Samar’ is a painted-over painting trapped in a net, then encased in a frame within a frame. Stuck, just like I am. 

Samsudin Wahab – Jerangkap Samar (2015)

08 June 2015

Known x Unknown @ Aku Café & Gallery

Working without the explicit support of an art dealer and/or institutional support can be difficult, especially when artists want to be regarded as more than just a graphic designer or crafty artisan. Elevation to the fine art pantheon, requires the support and patronage from an elitist group of collector/curator/gallerist, especially prevalent in Malaysia’s small art scene. As art seeps into middle-class consciousness, this elite group is diluted, or the hope is that it will be. Contributing to this erosion of power is the sembilan art residency program, an initiative driven by enthusiasts to increase art awareness and ownership among the public. Inviting artists to stay at foreign locations with an objective to produce artworks is a forceful objective, but the program’s second iteration contains sufficient interesting pictures that refresh the tired eye. 

Installation view of ERYN (2015) - [top] Shell Bonsai; [bottom] Sleeping Bonsai [picture taken from juxtaART.the sequel web log]

Surreal juxtapositions describe the works of both resident artists – Winne Cheng @ ERYN, and Raja Azeem Idzham @ Ajim Juxta. Looking past circular canvases to the clear drawings framed behind glass, the former depicts bonsai trees and garden heads in a whimsical manner. Paintings with arches and boxes by the latter project great depth, and a fitting presentation by an artist whose prolific output is thematically stronger than Haslin Ismail (although Haslin’s book cut-outs are hard to beat). Ajim’s illustrations represent his visually absorbing style best – a couple of “Penghuni Distopia” works contain words describing Yusof Ghani’s series, and come across as unintentional yet incisive jabs at the abstract brush strokes prevalent in modern Malaysian art. Ombak sudah cemar, Gelombang sudah kulat, waves be gone!

Ajim Juxta - Tari (2015)

05 June 2015

Snippets: Taiwan, Apr 2015

One pleasant Taichung memory is sitting on a mat surrounded by casually displayed art at 無為草堂, a rustic and serene tea house that befits the description of an oasis within the urban sprawl. The next day, I visited the astoundingly large National Taiwan Museum of Fine Art 國立台灣美術館, which had 5 shows ongoing on top of exhibiting pieces from its permanent collection indoors and outdoors. The main showcase is “TYPEMOTION”, “an international research, edition and exhibition project” sponsored by the Goethe-Institut, which aims to explore typography in moving images since the early 1900s. Browsing a multitude of looping videos within an intentionally dizzy layout, one forsakes deep appreciation of its compendious exhibits, to focus on twelve works by Taiwanese artists.

Tsai Charwei 蔡佳葳 - Incense Mantra 香咒 (2013)

Chinese ideograms make great figurative representations, and different approaches – from computer animations to a robot installation – are equally effective. Leaving wonderful impressions are Tsai Charwei’s (蔡佳葳) meditative video of burning incense, and Lin Shu-Min’s (林書民) remarkable interactive room, which translates chosen words into evocative three-dimensional landscapes. Walking past another three solo displays, the group exhibition “Finish and Unfinish 『不满』之见” intrigues with its curatorial premise. 30 artists present two works – one completed, one regarded as 70% finished – hung side by side, which prompts thinking about the aspiration for perfect form, a requirement stated in art competitions (popular in Taiwan) which obsolete notion harks back to salon paintings in 19th century Europe.

Installation preview video of Lin Shu-Min 林書民 - Literary Encounter 文字遇 (2015)

Unfinished forms describe Louis Kahn’s philosophy in architecture, whose drawings, ideas, aphorisms, and building mock-ups are presented in a thorough exhibition at Taipei Museum of Fine Art 臺北市立美術館. For one who said “a room is not a room without natural light”, this exhibition “…is in a room that is not a room, but a space whose bland, blind whiteness makes a mockery of the work of an architect obsessed with the quality of light.” (Edwin Heathcote, on the same show in London) Photographs of archaic structures are easier to stomach than “The Testimony of Food: Ideas and Food” upstairs, an incoherent exhibition that brings together art which refers to food. Chocolates in the shapes of war machines and a recreated poppy garden briefly piqued my curiosity, otherwise the walk through failed to whet my appetite.

Tai Ming-Te 戴明德 (2015) - [l] Androgynous - Girl with Flowers; [r] Androgynous - Girl with Scissors

Escaping from dreary self-realisation to Taipei Contemporary Art 台北當代藝術館, one is greeted by an organic 15-feet tall screen on the outside, then a 15 cubic metre cloud hanging on the inside. Yu Wen-Fu 游文富 utilises craft to shrink the space that one experiences, effectively enveloping and enthralling the visitor with thousands of bamboo sticks and feathers. Analogies matter little when the visual effect is so powerful, as one projection of a running man leads into an imaginary field of reeds, and a pair of legs emerging from one floating cloud of feathers inspire awe. The artist displays a strong grasp of volume and scale, especially in the mildly claustrophobic but always threatening ‘Wall of Thorns 朿刀辟土(刺壁)‘, and for the room filled to the brim with feathers, which demands the visitor to climb steps and ruminate upon a surreal scene.

Chou Ching-Hui 周慶輝 - Animal Farm 人的莊園 No. 02 (2014)

This sets the mood for more fantastical scenes upstairs, where Chou Ching-Hui 周慶輝 presents tailored photographs of people trapped in their surroundings. Photographed in zoo enclosures, modern life concerns are staged in captivating sets, each exploring themes like beauty, identity, isolation, and helplessness. Utilising a readymade background of real trees and forest murals, the artist injects formal compositions with a multitude of figurative and metaphorical layers. Objects used in the photographs like syringes and glass bottles, are displayed in between galleries together with ornamental wallpaper, as animal noises line the corridors to create an immersive experience. Easily the best piece of art seen this year, I exorcised my regret at missing Au Sow Yee’s exhibition at Guling Street 牯嶺街. This August at Lostgens' then!

Installation views of Yu Wen-Fu 游文富 - Build 竹工凡木 <築> (2015)

“Seeing something again is an important aspect of art. You don’t ever see all at one time. You could see it indefinitely, and there would always be something you haven’t seen, because art is a product of the intuitive—the most powerful instrument within us. The intuitive is the most accurate sense we have. Science can never reach it. Knowledge can never reach it. The beautiful thing that the intuitive gives is a sense of commonality, a sense of human agreement without example. Something can be produced for the first time, and somehow it has a quality of having always been there. That is the quality of human agreement.”
- Louis Kahn, in an imagined interview with Carlos Brillembourg, BOMB #40, Summer 1992

Chou Ching-Hui 周慶輝 - Animal Farm 人的莊園 No. 03 (2014)