27 September 2015

Totem @ Alliance Française de Kuala Lumpur

“Clothing, in (Gaëtan Gatian de) Clérambault’s world, is considered a costume in the sense of a disguise, much in the same way as in folk traditions. (Diana Lui) transcends that exotic aspect staged by Clérambault. She spins around the codes and archetypes traditionally associated with such clothing by enhancing their symbolic value in a very lucid manner. This time, the photographer’s models, far from being instrumentalised, are given the full liberty to express their own story and their own interpretation of history in evolution through the traditional clothing they choose to wear.”
- Anne Biroleau-Lemagny, Curator in Photography Department at Bibliothèque Nationale de France

Totem #10 (2015)

Strolling around a spacious bungalow, one is drawn deeply to the exacting details in photographic portraits of women donned in ritual costume. In her insightful essay, Laura Fan describes the exhibited captures perfectly, “Diana Lui’s photographs of each subject strike an unusual balance between outward cultural affiliations displayed through their choice of ritual dress and deliberate signs of individuality. Signifiers such as tattoos or ancestral ritual jewellery reveal the elements of choice in the cultural affiliation of each person, and their right to represent themselves as they wish.” The majority of represented women have successful careers in artistic endeavours, and tend to come from families with mixed-ethnic ancestry.

Totem #12 (2015)

The exotic and the familiar repeatedly breaks and coalesces in the displayed images. Celebratory attires worn range from the elaborate to the elegant, from the monotonous to the colourful, from large ornaments to beaded patterns, from body-hugging curves to straight lines, from the pleated to the wrap-around. Each stately pose is accentuated by a backdrop of the model’s choice – house interiors, dirty walls, shaded outdoors – and the natural light that comes with these locations illuminate a subtle facet of each woman’s personality. Staring at them, it is a revelation to find out that these pictures were taken with a decades-old camera obscura, a romantic but effective metaphor for the act of gazing.

Installation snapshot of (2015)  [l] Totem #8,  and [r] Totem #9

Diana makes it clear that she is investigating her “…own identity as well as other women’s…”, by placing herself in between the wooden box and expressionist paintings, her hand seen holding a trigger connected to the camera’s shutter. The artist’s image undergoes the same deliberate and thorough visual scrutiny as the other portraits, although the black cloth she wears denotes an identity void within Malaysian cultural references. Traditional dress is recognised as inherited culture and occasional splendour, where the contemporary individual can appreciate its elegance to go with one’s hair colour or body tattoo. 

Totem #13 (2015)

The most striking picture is of one Sabahan bead artist standing within Kota Kinabalu’s infamous graffiti building, her natural poise not giving away any information as stated in the wall notes, which describes the model as a recent Muslim convert who found beads in Mecca that were similar to her grandmother’s heirloom beads. Such supplementary explanations of personal stories, ethnic origins, and clothing histories, allow casual visitors to clarify assumptions and perceptions. ‘Nationality: Malaysian…’ are the first words printed on each label, this fact rendered redundant with the diverse figures on show. In a society that emphasises one’s nationality as a sign of belonging, these confident women in their humble abodes, become assuring icons of individual agency.

Totem #6 (2015)

Hung in the same venue are photographs from “The Essential Veil” (soon showing at Wei-Ling Gallery), Diana’s previous series that employs the same conceptual starting point as “Totem”. Local context marks the Malaysian series as more captivating, where a stunning pair of coupled portraits feature one Odissi dancer, and one Mah Meri weaver. Pictures of the latter woman present the model in her bark fabric wedding dress, the frontal capture in colour. Her back is shot in black & white, the image easily mistaken for a snapshot of indigenous people found in history books. Looking back at our roots, do I see the collective persona, or the individual personality? What contemporary view colours my vision? How many self-portraits do I need to take, before making my own? 

Installation snapshot of (2015)  [l] Totem #5,  and [r] Totem #5a

23 September 2015

Haremeyn @ NVAG

What makes a holy site, holy? Looking at digital prints of 130-years old photographs taken at Makka al-Mukarrama and al-Madina al-Munawwara, it is difficult to reach a visual conclusion. As described in the catalogue preface, these two locations “…are specifically safeguarded by the Islamic jurisprudence and considered to be “harem” and are called “Haramayn” or “haremân” meaning two sacred territories.” Curiously exhibited at the National Visual Arts Gallery and not at the more prestigious Islamic Arts Museum, these historical captures are taken from the collection of Ömer Fahrettin Türkkan, an Ottoman commander and former governor of Madina. Astonishingly modern and beautifully shot, curator Mohamad Majidi Amir rightfully states, that “…a range of photographic techniques were seemingly used in an effective and scrupulous manner.”

Plan of Masjid Quba

An incredible panorama of Makka greets the visitor, where a mountainous terrain surrounds a city with a grand square, the majestic Ajyad Fortress still standing as the watchtower. Photographs of al-Ḥarām al-Sharif display a good variety – the square is filled with a faithful congregation during prayers, empty when renovation works are carried out, and there is even one snapshot of the Ka’aba immersed in water during a 1910 flood. In contrast, pictures of Madina denote a more fortified and spread out area. Memorable architectural features include gleaming domes at Baqi’ cemetery, and the beautiful cloister of al-Masjid an-Nabawi. Exhibited also are hand-drawn building plans that often display a practical sensibility, where the oft-centre palm tree or minaret helps to dispel the oversimplified notion of beauty and symmetry in Islamic art.

Makka al-Mukarrama and al-Masjid al- Ḥarām (1879-1880)

Many onion-shaped domes populate these pictures, and wall notes consistently remind of structures now demolished in the name of development. The laying of train tracks and road expansion works are shown, where dynamite smoke in one photograph triggers an uncomfortable association with a re(li)gion still embroiled in armed conflict. Saudi Arabia, the nation where these two sacred territories are located, also has one of the world's highest military expenditures. Its influence as the number one oil-producing country is unparalleled, evidenced from the timid international response to the recent crane collapse disaster at the Masjid al-Ḥarām, which claimed too Malaysian lives. These selection of Haremeyn photographs contributed by an Istanbul-based cultural institute, then become a useful counterpoint, at visualising holy sites during a pre-Saudi era. Was it holier then?

Masjid Quba Road (1916-1918)

“Thus have We made of you an Ummah justly balanced that ye might be witnesses over the nations and the Apostle a witness over yourselves; and We appointed the Qiblah to which thou wast used only to test those who followed the Apostle from those who would turn on their heels (from the faith). Indeed it was (a change) momentous except to those guided by Allah. And never would Allah make your faith of no effect. For Allah is to all people most surely full of kindness Most Merciful. We see the turning of thy face (for guidance) to the heavens; now shall We turn thee to a Qiblah that shall please thee. Turn then thy face in the direction of the Sacred Mosque; wherever ye are turn your faces in that direction. The people of the book know well that that is the truth from their Lord nor is Allah unmindful of what they do.”
- The Qur'an 2:144–145 (trans. Yusuf Ali)

Prayer at al- Ḥarām al-Sharif

19 September 2015

馳續徑行 Madline 2.0 @ Lostgens'

The journey continues for Eddie Choo Wen Yi, now studying at Taipei National University of the Arts, as she records the island round trip 环岛 utilising her “Madline” apparatus on a motorcycle. Long haul rides result in oval-shaped doodles, while coloured inks mark in-town travel. Looking at the wall tracing of Formosa island and round shapes in the exhibited works, circular references denote a starting point that ends at the same spot. A trolley with the artist’s apparatus allows visitors to make their own mad lines on postcards, an enjoyable activity for one unable to draw a straight line. This contrivance is like an art-making pedometer, and exposes the banal nature of gestural expressionism, a popular mode in Malaysian paintings. 

Installation snapshot

Furthering the Automatism concept is a cardboard box affixed with the recording compass, which Eddie handheld from Taoyuan airport, back to her home in Puchong. Accompanying this box is a stop motion video which documents this voyage, a period of physical displacement forgotten by the traveller, who typically only has recollections of one’s destination point. The artist herself edited out an airport stopover in her video, which goes to show that every journey has lost memories, as we go through the grand tour of life. In Chen Huai-En’s wonderful round trip movie Island Etude 練習曲, the teacher asks, “(H)ow is it travelling by yourself? Is it fun?” The protagonist answers with a laugh, “OK loh…” 

The author's mad lines created with the artist's trolley with recording apparatus on exhibition postcard

15 September 2015

The Flower @ Wei-Ling Gallery

What perhaps started out as a casual experiment, has evolved into something thoroughly engrossing. The fisheye lens effect is an obvious characteristic in Chin Kong Yee’s paintings, and its curvilinear lines inform human experience beyond the typical panorama. To the modern eye more accustomed at interpreting two-dimensional pictures than a real-time urban environment, a standard wide-angled capture is visually pleasing only because the horizontal plane is flat. Resigning ourselves to the static nature of a camera snapshot, the panoramic view captures more data but also less information. Changes in light and movement are typical painterly issues with depicting live sceneries, and the artist has settled into his solution by utilising the fisheye lens perspective.

Duomo Florence (2012)

Modern life demands a focus on foreground objects over background subjects, thus the vanishing point in Kong Yee’s paintings can be disconcerting initially, where the eye is drawn to the furthest thing in a scene. Such phenomena is straightforward in vertical diptychs like ‘Duomo Florence’ and ‘Dresden at Night’, where the tip of a building tower acts as an anchor, and paths leading from it   fold upwards towards it in a rectangular picture. The horizon line is not lost but appears even more impressive in “Dresden in Blue’. A focus on Brühl's Terrace creates visual depth, and stretches the distance between the setting sun and its beautiful light reflected upon the Sächsisches Ständehaus. Graffiti scrawled on the stone steps enlivens this rendition of an old town square, where imperfections make up real memories.

Dresden in Blue (2013)

Inverting the bottom-up approach with a top-down view, a pair of “Flower” paintings transform European domes into tetramerous flowers, its base section effectively turning into the plant-form centre. These works on paper are less rich in colour but equally vivid, as Kong Yee’s visual effects are relatively more obvious, well suited to render a boy cycling by on an autumn day (in Amsterdam?). Also displayed in the exhibition are paintings done in Chinese inks, its watery effects less effective with the exception of the stream depicted in ‘Forest’. The fisheye lens appears to be more than a visual gimmick – if one stands still and observe the world around, its perspective is more real than a camera snapshot. As the saying goes, what’s the hurry, take your time, and smell the flowers. The vanishing point tends to be deeper than one’s initial impression.

The Flower - Orange Flower (2015)

08 September 2015

Logging In 記錄·登入 @ Nando’s LOT 123

Eight young artists register semantic interpretations of the domain, where visitors are guided upstairs a fast food restaurant via stickers, into a gallery space with three metal constructs. De Ming Wei’s enlarged ideograms probably looked better on a computer screen, as other less successful visual expressions include documentations of people traversing within Singapore MRT stations, and a bizarre container of test tubes with a dangling 10 ringgit note inside. Strong emotional attachments either make or break an artwork, Krystie Ng’s hand-sewn “Love and Hurt” series having displayed both sides of the spectrum, albeit the exhibited ones here are less alluring. 

Installation view of “Logging In”

Yau Sir Meng continues to take apart her favourite topic – the Malaysian education system – as an endurance performance, the repetitive write-and-erase actions turning personal reflections into a nihilistic act. An opposing approach is Chua Hui Ming’s ‘Fun’, two tables with iron powder and varying sizes of magnets, that encourage the audience to move their hands and create abstract expressionist pictures of their own, not unlike in a science museum. Energy levels are polarised when squatting down to watch Lam Shun Hui’s ‘丫’, a remarkably subtle and enchanting video. Nondescript street scenes are juxtaposed with tree branches, the panorama revealing visual symmetries that hint at subconscious notions about natural beauty. 

Video screenshot from Lam Shun Hui - 丫 (2015)

Digital icons are stuck below artwork labels and printed at the bottom of catalogue pages, these tiny interventions by Huan Jia Jin inciting one’s curiosity. The subtly imposing and even subversive intent to guide and encourage discourse, follows a similar set up of how social media platforms are advertised on websites. Presenting icons on a horizontal printed strip, however, prevents one from clicking to find out more, thus transforming the icon from an information link to an imagined statement. Going with the perception that contemporary art is always open to interpretation, the artist’s offer to trigger conversation is an irresistible one, although the walkie talkies on hand are unneeded contrivances. Time to log into Facebook for more information about the exhibition.

Label snapshots of Huan Jia Jin - ∞ (2015)

03 September 2015

Facets of Art Show Platforms

Gallery hopping in the Mont Kiara / Solaris area on a weekend afternoon, it is interesting to note the differing approaches of private galleries at this upmarket locale, in the absence of memorable art. Isolated destinations are the norm, and public walk-ins are rare. An exception is “Facets” showing works from an all-women collective at White Box. Lisa Foo’s leafy installations are typically great to interact with, but ill-suited in a white box environment, although ‘Grooving with the Wind’ is a charming welcome sight. Multi-media creations by Jasmine Kok feature sinuous lines and attractive colours, her best works being stone and ceramic sculptures that recall a primitive celebration of the female form. In a society eager to proclaim man as god, this contested shape is beautifully represented in the V-shaped “Sensuality Dress” series, and ‘A Cut’ cut from Ipoh marble.

Jasmine Kok - [l] A Cut (2009); [r] Sprout (2010)

In the exhibited paintings, nude figures dissolve into abstracted designs, and full-frontal faces depict a challenging individual stance. Gallerist Artemis Art does well to distract the audience and steer away from potential controversy, also successfully showing original works by dedicated emerging artists. The same cannot be said about “Platform II”, the group exhibition for young artists held at upstairs neighbour Galeri Chandan. The influence of Malaysian art teachers manifest in an obvious manner, from figurative paintings where scale is not a concern, to found object constructs that denote singular and uninspiring references. Two graduates curate this group exhibition, another sign of direction-less initiatives by galleries who, now think that having curators and printed catalogues are the way forward to establish professionalism. 

Yante Ismail - Desire (2015)

Perhaps the ambitious gallery is building a pipeline of future contributing resources, since it is also taking part in two art fairs overseas at the same time. More commendable is its last project “#Art4ManekUrai”, which utilised sales of artworks to fund house-building efforts for a flood-stricken family, even following up and reporting on its construction status. Held at Segaris Art Centre on the same floor, “ArtAid15” is another charity show, its static nature of contributing to a good cause synonymous with a gallery that peddles luxury collectibles to specific local audiences. Few kilometres away, The Edge Galerie adopts a similar business approach, via overt comparisons of established artists with investment-grade stocks. The artist is trumpeted as cultural icon, a tough proposition when looking at glittery but boring paintings by former Anak Alam member Ali Rahamad.

Noor Mahnun Mohamed - Spiral (2015)

When a scam of an auction is held downtown – where Giclée prints are priced at five figures – local art auction pioneer Henry Butcher collaborates with UOB to exhibit works by past winners of the bank’s annual art awards. Painting and its limitations are on full display, from watercolour depictions of jetties, to messy abstracts and realistic figures, to the intentional blanks on Ng Swee Keat and Tang Yeok Khang’s canvases. Interesting older works include surreal drawings by Shirley Wong, whose juxtapositions are thematically political yet fun to look at. Exhibited this year in Singapore, Minstrel Kuik’s charcoal illustrations project a personal empathy for female movie characters, the portraits effectively amalgamating facile fictional stereotypes with dramatic self-realisation. Gallery hopping in an affluent neighbourhood, I ask – what is corrupt, in art?

Wong Shirley - Portrait for Long Hair (2013)