29 November 2015

Picturing the Nation @ ILHAM

“By comparing APS (Angkatan Pelukis Semenanjung) to PPMM (Persatuan Pelukis Melayu Malaya), I suggest that Hoessein Enas and APS’s ascendency marked a second moment in the development of modern art discourses in the Malay language during 1950’s Malaya. It also reflected a shift from a period that focused on aesthetic experimentation in search for an ‘art for society’. This can be seen in the post-war proliferation of published Malay art writings in Singapore, towards a new collective aspiration in Kuala Lumpur. This aspiration desired to affirm the political legitimacy of the Malay elite class and its position as leaders of the new Malayan and later Malaysian nation-state.”
- Moving Suara for Sovereignty: Reading the shifts in 1950’s Modern Art Discourses in Malay through Kamus Politik, Simon Soon, catalogue essay in Dato’ Hoessein Enas: From His Personal Collection, 2015

Hoessein Enas - Study Sketch: Datuk Patinggi dan Datin (1988)

It takes a different type of corporate tycoon – the former long-time UMNO treasurer, no less – to demonstrate a different level of art philanthropy in Malaysia. Built on prime land, two floors within the Foster + Partners-designed IB tower are converted into gallery spaces, and sculptures by Ai Weiwei and Pinaree Sanpitak decorate its outdoor compound. The inaugural exhibition showcases artworks and paraphernalia from Hoessein Enas’ estate, acquired by the landlord three years ago, along with a mixed collection of contemporary art. Hoessein is well known for his depictions of Malayan & Bornean people for the 1962 Shell commission – a selection of which is now on display at the National Portrait Gallery – that cemented his reputation and career as a figurative painter.

Hoessein Enas - Untitled 1973 work with pastel on velvet paper

Early paintings and incomplete sketches are framed and exhibited according to loose themes, informing about one traditional-minded artist whose academic style found favour with a number of dignitaries. Business cards featuring the artist's initials-as-emblem is displayed within a hanging box. Preparatory drawings document his formal approach, while generic portraits and waterfall nudes infer a genuine passion for depicting the figure. Works on velvet paper attract via its shimmery qualities, and offer a different take on velvet paintings typically associated with American kitsch. Family and self-portraits are the only completed paintings, useful for visitors not familiar with Hoessein's output. Re-enacted at one end of the gallery is the deceased artist’s studio, where music from his record collection plays in the background.

Snapshot of Hoessein Enas' studio re-enacted in ILHAM's 5th floor gallery

The more interesting works on display, are located near this section. ‘”WAHYU” Pertama’ overlays calligraphic text for dramatic effect, a rare departure in style. ‘Project for MINDEF’ presents an action-packed gun battle between an armoured ship, against armed men crouching on a speedboat. One charming 1970s Kuala Lumpur street scene is depicted in pencil and marker pens. ‘The Vanishing “Kolek Lichung”’ isolates a fisherman’s boat parked onshore, employing a nostalgic perspective that hints at the artist’s cosmopolitan outlook. Storyboard-like drawings of construction scenes inside power stations, better illustrate the exhibition theme as markers of one developing nation. Photographs inform the artist's approach to realism. The pastoral appears to be a guilty pleasure, and not an idyllic pursuit.

[clockwise from top left] Hoessein Enas - Untitled; The Vanishing "Kolek Lichung" (1973); Tapak tempat Pengawas untuk Mesin No. 4 (1972); Project for MINDEF (1982)

Highlighting people diversity within our national borders is a main thrust in Tourism Malaysia’s infamous commercials, and the exhibition downstairs plays to the same theme. Greeting the visitor is a running LED display of words being shot down à la Space Invaders, ‘Kebebasan Asasi/ Fundamental Liberties’ by Yee I-Lann turning a classic game into a semantic metaphor. Natural rights is an alien notion to the majority of Malaysian nationals, especially for communities who speak the languages flashing by on the artist’s electronic board. This belief in a unified social contract is dispersed within the found photographs displayed behind the wall, where documented snapshots of life events on a staged background, project a contemporary longing via nostalgic forms.

Installation snapshots of Yee I-Lann (2015) - [top] Kebebasan Asasi/ Fundamental Liberties; [bottom] Through Rose-Coloured Glasses

Suitably onerous in describing the slippery notion of nationhood, looking at ‘Through Rose-Coloured Glasses’ is akin to reading personal histories written by someone else, where underlying desires are obscured in favour of an aggregated consensus. Utilising a monochromatic approach instead is Ahmad Zakii Anwar, whose walkway of ten charcoal drawings, depict Malaysian women in all its life-likeness. Despite the wall statement’s claims, there is no subversion of stereotypes, their looming presence only serving to highlight the renowned artist’s technical skills. In the multimedia room, I stand captivated by the three-channel projection featuring the three brothers from Bunohan. Director Dain Iskandar Said’s panoramas and close-up focus, render philosophical profiles through action and inaction, leading the universal viewer to empathise with a specific cultural psyche.

[from l to r] Ahmad Zakii Anwar (2015) - Perempuan Cina; Budak Perempuan Melayu; Installation snapshot of "Orang Perempuan"

Seen as a whole, the exhibition succeeds as a statement of power in representation. Hossein’s practice depended on official patronage, and the contemporary works dwell upon Malaysian identity as a surface construct, regardless of artists’ intentions. The gallery has also prepared learning guides, and started a regular cultural programming. Moving forward, how sustainable are these efforts? Why call this a public gallery when the space and commissioned works are owned by an  individual? Will creative director Valentine Willie’s role be like Hilla Rebay's to Solomon Guggenheim, who promoted the avant-garde and unfashionable art? How will local contemporary art develop if only artists associated to the former gallerist are featured? Questions of cultural capital and art philanthropy remain unanswered, as I stare at Ilham digging deeper, into the sands of Bunohan.

Installation view and video snapshots of Dain Iskandar Said - Bunohan: Tanah Air (2015)

26 November 2015

TransActions in the Field: Archive Exhibition @ Lostgens’

Transaction is a poor substitute word for exchange, given its materialistic insinuations. Yet material documentation remains the primary source and evidence, that activities were done, knowledge was exchanged, and experiences lived. 25 artists, activists, and community workers, gather at Jalan Petaling and Kampung Banda Dalam, to participate in a 12-day program to explore ideas and discourses around social interventions and participatory public art. As a non-participant, my only option to get involved is to look through a static exhibition of historical things. Maps, brochures, photographs, recycled objects, booklets, prints… Time to re-read and reflect again on Jay Koh’s Art-Led Participative Processes.

Installation view

22 November 2015

Circle Jerks @ Minut Init Art Social

skrej51: hi a/s/l?
elcric02: tbh idk   jk
skrej51: wtf yolo lmao  ur ig potd is da best  2moro yumcha?
elcric02: gtg my bff wants 2 go uptown 4 some art exh lols
skrej51: haha bojio  art ftw  (l)mirl? I stay near uptown can cu soon 2 have banana shake lol
elcric02: nvm its ok :p  share a link wit u haha   post-inter.net  kthxbai
skrej51:  kk will check dat out   143 ig  plz cont posting chio pix  ttyl

Snapshot from exhibition opening, featuring untitled performance by Sudarshan and Fairuz Sulaiman [picture from Minut Init's Facebook album]

Walking into the third floor shoplot space, the visitor is greeted with projector screens, a stack of papers on a pedestal, one turntable on the floor, and a couple mobile printers. Is this a post-internet art exhibition? Where are the digital renderings, the memes, or the video mash-ups? Does circle jerks refer to masturbating men? The curatorial statement clarifies, “…in employing this relational strategy was to open up themes via the performative dimension of messaging, rather than negotiate them as a central agency in full command of one’s own language, ‘gestalting’ a curator as an empty space between conditions that inform his identification with a consumer of information.”

Video snapshots of Michelle Proksell and Wang Rou - Confessional Chat Booth

As a confessional booth in the form of a YouTube playlist infers, this exhibition is put together from online chats, about the constraints of virtual interactions. Technology connects people from around the globe, but the chatroom is an enclosed area for recorded conversations, effectively trespassing physical personal space in its real-world manifestation. Nebulosus Severine’s ‘Too Many Flowers’ sets the scene via a burning Second Life room, with floating quotes that state gendered imbalances. ‘The Olo Method’ sees Katy Roseland copy-pasting chat messages between WeChat users without saying anything herself, thereby recording social inhibitions which are expressed in a coded and abbreviated language.

Installation video of Ikan Bilis - LOLog [video from Keep It Up YouTube channel]

Another one of Katy’s project and Gabriele de Seta’s “Radio 朋友圈” confine media sharing within a private circle. This cacophony of recorded sounds and phone camera pictures are meaningless by itself, but within the context of this exhibition, supplement nuanced forms of personal performance that stem from an innate need to express. Facebook news feeds from two opposing politicians are printed on purchase receipts, the amusing installation by Ikan Bilis questioning too the value of such rhetorical transactions. Social media perpetuates its own ethics – where clicks and scrolls become moral decisions – as I browse an Instagram account featuring sexual harassment messages. Who’s jerking around now? Lol

Video snapshots of Katy Roseland - The Olo Method

idk like risk ~~~~ pain ~~~~ behaviours
go hard on urself
push thru
painseeking contemporary culture pain discurse pain politics
666 \m/
high girls sleep outside
I think that’s from a poem by cristine brache but im not sure
- Excerpt from bbbRANKEVILVIOLENTPOLITICSDISCURSE, an email exchange between Aurelia Guo and Hela Trol Pis, exhibited at “Circle Jerks”

Video snapshot of Nebulosus Severine - Too Many Flowers

18 November 2015

The Enduring Heart in Nanyang Ink Painting @ NVAG

Ooi Kok Chuen once described Sylvia Lee Goh’s paintings as “…a world unto its own; a snug, safe space filled with fond memories and her favourite things;” At this retrospective, her works emit a luminous, dreamlike quality that frighten more often than delight. Loneliness characterise pictures painted with staged ornamental details, often showing the cheongsam-wearing artist surrounded by well-tended flora, and/or resplendent Nyonya ceramic ware, and/or sumptuous Nyonya kueh. Adding onto the disarrayed perspective illustrated, the paintings' backgrounds are always dark, where objects are lit in the artist’s mind. As the artist tirelessly elaborates upon her eccentric worldview, I realise that self-indulgent paintings used to intrigue myself, but not anymore.

Sylvia Lee Goh - After A Thousand Years (1987)

Upstairs, ink paintings by Cheah Thien Soong also touch a cynical nerve with this visitor, as I ponder upon a general disinterest in Chinese paintings. The Nanyang style, as described in the local canon, depicts local landscapes with painting approaches derived from Chinese and European traditions. A NAFA graduate, Thien Soong paints bamboo, birds, lotuses, and trees, the resulting output supposedly invoking Buddhist mantras and philosophical idioms. Dense and tiny calligraphy populate most works, where natural scenes present a serene fantasy that function as empty symbols in this empirical world. Having visited many Chinese museums, ink paintings have never grabbed my attention, despite the attraction of other more crafty artifacts. This absolute lack of appreciation deserves a deeper self-interrogation, blank spaces and all.

Cheah Thien Soong - Borderless 无限 (2002)

14 November 2015

KataKatha Session with Artists @ KuAsh Theatre

One audience member – likely an international school student – asked (paraphrased by this author), “if visual art is used to communicate something that one finds difficult to express in words, how do you feel when you now have to describe the completed artwork in words?” The question was directed at Agnes Arellano, Nadiah Bamadhaj, and Geraldine Kang, three artists invited to speak about their creations at “KataKatha Session with Artists”. KataKatha is a new cultural initiative sponsored by a regional bank, and run by Pusaka, whose director Eddin Khoo describes it as “…a gathering of minds and creative people, to explore the creative process, and to look at the aspects of creative life in Southeast Asia.” Its four-day program includes closed door exchanges and public sharing sessions, which documentation will be developed post-event for future exhibitions. 

Nadiah Bamadhaj - Cina Wurung, Londa Durung, Jawa Tanggung (No longer Chinese, not yet a Dutchman, a half-baked Javanese) (2014)

Nadiah opened proceedings with a wonderful recital of words, which accompanies a captivating slide show of her drawings done in the past 16 years. The 17-minutes-long presentation narrated life events that shaped subject matter choices; one notices the jagged torn-paper lines prevalent in her works (even in the older ones), as a fitting form in illustrating social imbalances. Next, Geraldine browsed through her website and casually narrated concepts behind her photographs. The first two series featuring family members shown are intensely private and intimate, which contrasts with the daring implicit in more recent public space interventions. Audacious in disposition, Geraldine’s works project an urgency to confront, a characteristic perhaps attributed to her relatively young age, or having grown up in a “cluttered” urban city-state, or both.

Geraldine Kang - picture from "This city by any other name (Would smell just as white)" series (2012 - In progress)

Terming her sculpture installations as “inscapes”, Agnes walked the audience into her 1983 work ‘Temple to the Moon Goddess’, with random musical notes ringing in the background. Body parts are a favourite motif, and an imagined recreation of her embracing parents who died in a fire, is hauntingly beautiful. Political expressions – of social community norms, in an urban Chinese family, under one religious authority – bind these artists together, and it is precisely these concerns that resonate with us that reside in Southeast Asia. Sustainable corporate sponsorship is a tricky business, and one cannot help wonder about the neighbouring country’s not-so-secret agenda to consolidate regional art forms and procure culture for its island state. Regardless, I am optimistic, as Nadiah’s succinct response to the above question reminds, that one “…creates your own language in art.” 

Installation snapshot from Agnes Arellano - Temple to the Moon Goddess (1983)

09 November 2015

person(a) @ Black Box

"The persona is a complicated system of relations between individual consciousness and society, fittingly enough a kind of mask, designed on the one hand to make a definite impression upon others, and, on the other, to conceal the true nature of the individual."
- Carl Jung, The Relations between the Ego and the Unconscious (1928), CW7: Two Essays on Analytical Psychology, p.305
"Whoever looks into the mirror of the water will see first of all his own face. Whoever goes to himself risks a confrontation with himself. The mirror does not flatter, it faithfully shows whatever looks into it; namely, the face we never show to the world because we cover it with the persona, the mask of the actor. But the mirror lies behind the mask and shows the true face."
- Carl Jung, Archetypes of the Collective Unconscious (1935), CW9 Pt. I: The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious, p.43

Chris Chong Chan Fui - Pekan Nabalu (2015)

The visitor sees oneself in four sequential frames while walking past mirrors into Black Box, which dispels the static characteristic of the selfie, a curatorial inspiration for this photography-based exhibition. Freeze frames as a narrative method are presented immediately in a hilarious series by Hoo Fan Chon, who documents his reaction after consuming alcohol, the body shots also a tender representation of cultural assimilation. Fellow Penang-based artist Okui Lala too focuses on outward appearances, capturing a cheerful visit to the hairdresser’s. Effectively light-hearted is the triptych ‘Pekan Nabalu’ by Chris Chong Chan Fui. Tourists taking photographs at a lookout point, either by hand or by tripod, describe lucidly what photographs mean to the majority of the populace – a documentary evidence of space and time. 

Installation snapshot of Pang Khee Teik - MyMyKad (2015)

Identity as a social construct provides an appealing interpretation of the persona theme, seen in Pang Khee Teik’s puckish MyKads and Liew Kwai Fei’s subversive photobook. Philosophy paperbacks and sex toys in the former’s drawers present moral contradictions manifest within the definition of a citizen; the latter’s blurred magnifications of former classmates remind about a problematic public education undergone by Gen-X nationals that informed current prejudices. Lim Paik Yin shows a few captivating photographs, but the overall installation is too sentimental towards her own lineage. Nearby, Minstrel Kuik reconstructs photographs overlayed with a heavily pixelated mask, leaving one more detached the harder one looks at it. Sharon Chin’s Bersih-related illustrations are lovely to look at, yet the journalistic method renders it out of place within this exhibition.

Installation and book contents of Liew Kwai Fei - Muka Surat (2015)

Threading between the real and the virtual, two works project the digital nature of contemporary photography in a cheeky manner. Vincent Leong’s found photographs online (including one photographer that bears the same name as the artist) is equal parts sardonic and nonsense, while a pastiche slide show by the mysterious Specimen X delights with its crude yet effective portrayal about the online persona. Does each ‘Like’ dilutes one’s virtual presence? How much do old pictures of persons online, affect contemporary appreciation of the same person? Among many unnecessary lightboxes and obvious digital manipulations, Anna Rina’s captures of herself standing barefooted on a paved road – with ‘The Cleaver’ – stand out for its simplicity, and compels one to read the wall statement about her parents. 

Slide show snapshots of Specimen X - Person A (2015)

Looking at Diana Lui’s shadow traces reflecting upon freeze frames by Sherman Ong, it is telling that the art practitioners (not photographers) do not project overt emotional content in their response to the curatorial theme. In an “Art + Photography” forum attended by people active in Malaysian visual art (myself included), the discussion around what is art and what is photography was inconclusive, unsurprising given the non-representation of a self-professed photographer (not artist) in the panel. Narrative was mentioned as a key criteria for successful art-making, an aspect lacking in this exhibition of mostly new works, where self-indulgence is mistaken for self-expression. High prices for some works exacerbate this siok sendiri observation, as I read in the news about another person who died while attempting a selfie.

Anna-Rina - The Cleaver (2015)