31 May 2015

Melukis Puisi: Sebuah Pencitraan Puisi-Puisi Pyanhabib @ White Box

In this tribute show to local poet Pyanhabib Rahman, artists are invited to test their “…capability in reading literary texts and transforming them into visual images”, and the results reveal a certain aesthetic symptomatic of the current state in Malaysian visual art. Counting the many animal and coffee pictures, figurative representations make up the majority of exhibits. Even non-painting works depict literal translations, such as Fadhli Ariffin’s vicious video of the artist as a chained dog, and Jamil Zakaria’s tongue-wagging chicken wire sculpture. Among earthy colours and cluttered compositions, Syahbandi Samat’s fine ballpoint drawing stands out with its clarity, ‘Hidup’ a beguiling scene that describes beautifully the verses of its accompanying poem ‘Semadi ii’.

Syahbandi Samat - Hidup (2015)

“aku imbang diri / atas rentang tali / direntang tanah datar / kemilau mata pisau / menyentak duri mawar” – Semadi ii (24 September 1983, Anak Alam), Pyanhabib
When mimicry is not the approach, however, a lacking execution in artworks fail to sustain the viewer’s gaze. The emptied-out guitar by Azam Aris, a superimposed projection by Kamal Sabran, and Poodien’s mirrored words, display clever intent but present an unattractive aesthetic. Rocks as transcript appear in a few works, as Faizal Suhif’s monoprint outdoes his mentor Jalaini Abu Hassan in creating an absorbing picture. Anne Samat’s black net background diminishes the effect of her crafty creations, while I wish a clean surface was used instead of a corroded one in Saharuddin Supar’s incisively cut steel.

Saharuddin Supar - Luka-Luka Menyembuh (2015)

“seperti siput   mengembara; ketika air sedang surut
aku mengembara   begitu siput; dengan mulut
penuh lumpur   terkapar; begitu aku jadi nanar
dengan mulut terbuka   menghulur; lidah terbakar”
Luka (21 March 1977, Kota Bharu), Pyanhabib, Balada Pyanhabib, pg. 9 

Adeputra Masri - Kenyang (2015)

Adeputra Masri’s ‘Kenyang’ riffs on information overload caused by media technology, its grotesque mythical birds and chess pieces the perfect foil to the desperate poem ‘Lapar’. Moving on to another physiological need, carnal desire is depicted as a temptation in Latif Maulan’s private dance, and as a habitual preoccupation under the sheets by Mohd Akhir Ahmad. Sabihis Md Pandi’s wonderful ‘Taman’ presents this topic best with its garden of desire, as I did not find sex explicitly mentioned in Pyanhabib’s writings on display. In its efforts to fit many white walls, customary large format works fail to visually project poetry and its nuances. Forceful association of one poem per hanging impedes appreciation for both art forms, which reflects also the lack of care by presenters of Malaysian visual art. Indeed, 
“maaf / kalau aku tersentuh / susumu yang penuh” – Taman (3 October 1980), Balada Pyanhabib, pg. 35

Sabihis Md Pandi - Taman (2015)

24 May 2015

Peasants and Proletariats @ Xin Art Space

Tracing its respective histories, framed paintings aggrandize the powerful and evoke reverence, while prints on paper record images that are circulated for a wider audience. This analogy likewise describes the social strata of art patrons, who traditionally regard prints as a lower class in the hierarchy of art mediums. Going strong after hosting artworks by national laureate Pak Samad and the KL Life Drawing Community, new gallery Xin Art Space puts together a cross-generation exhibition in conjunction with the 44th year since Malaysia begin celebrating Labour Day. The published catalogue includes Long Thien Shih’s 1993 essay about the development of printmaking in Malaysia, along with a useful glossary of printmaking terms and international definitions of an original print

Shieko Reto - Sex Workers Series III (2015)

Going along with history which presumes art printmaking originated from China, small woodcut prints by Chuah Thean Teng attract immediate attention with its organically-framed scenes and dense fine lines. Done in the late 1930s with his Romanised name inscribed in signature, Teng’s works already display great compositions, exemplified by the slanted angles in ‘Working’. Hung next to it are striking pictures of workers like ‘Key Maker’ and ‘Durian Seller’, Lai Loong Sung’s scraggly figures adhering to a dramatic but overbearing aesthetic that recall Egon Schiele. More contemporary are city scenes by Adeputra Masri, whose crowded cartoons draw busy diners seated in front of heritage buildings, with the Petronas Twin Towers visible in the background. 

Lai Loong Sung - The Drunkards (1976)

Bitumen marks create a dusty effect in Kim Ng’s “Street Walker” series, his desolate portrayals of foreign workers projecting an uneasy class consciousness when exhibited collectively, perhaps indicative of the reason it is less popular with collectors. Also testing the tolerance of fine art collectors are stencilled works by Rat Heist and Shieko Reto; Bright graphics by the former look better on a wall than on paper, while the latter’s depiction of transgender sex workers is restrained behind colourful design, as I repress the urge to spray paint stencilled telephone numbers over these works. Shaifuddin Mamat’s clever silkscreen ‘Pemisahan telah lengkap’ admits failure in empathising with the construction worker, his incomplete picture representing a mindful and social detachment from oft-ignored nation builders

Shaifuddin Mamat @ Poodien - Pemisahan telah lengkap (2015)

Samsudin Wahab returns to printmaking since joining a fellowship, here presenting a monstrous figure that resembles Davy Jones from Pirates in the Caribbean. Metaphorical creatures are popular subject matter in local art, but few can be regarded as masterpieces, until one sees the bees and ticks of Abdul Mansoor Ibrahim. Sinuous lines and organic shapes transform insects into stunning images, his monochromatic prints demanding the viewer to go closer and inspect its exacting details. Less attention grabbing but equally powerful are works by Mansoor’s mentee Fuad Pathil, the former firefighter paying tribute to the profession via heroic scenes. Awkward composition and amateurish scale in the older ‘Rescuer’, has since matured into the panoramic ‘Fire Fighter’, which line-up of firefighters makes for a beautiful film still. 

Abdul Mansoor Ibrahim - Pollen Bath and Nectar Collection (2015)

Outline is visibly absent from Madzi’s figures, the artist relying on the contrast between printed areas to illustrate forms. Fire and smoke is inscribed brilliantly in ‘On Duty’, its foreground figures and background action capturing drama in a manner that recalls French Romanticism. Exhibiting twelve works and nearly selling out on opening day, Pangrok Sulap’s prints combine poster design with social activism, and serve as the exclamation mark in this remarkable group show. Although some works feature a raw aesthetic, the RM 150 price tag is an irresistible offer for an original print, especially when collectively made works carry slogans like ‘Capitalism Kills My Nostalgia’, ‘Jangan Beli Bikin Sendiri’, and ‘Di Belakang Saya Ada Orang Kampung; Di Belakang Orang Kampung Ada Saya’.

Fuad Pathil @ Madzi - On Duty (2015)

Also interesting is to appreciate the individual style of the collectives’ members – Jerome Manjat’s formal compositions, Rizo Leong’s attractive perspectives, and personal favourite Mohammad Bam’s incisive two-dimensional caricatures. This exhibition triumphs with its focused subject matter and its humbling yet inclusive presentation, and it is a bonus to find out that GST is not charged for its sale of artworks. As another May Day rally passes by, curator Tan Sei Hon writes in his typically offbeat manner, “(b)y celebrating them [workers], we also celebrate our own humanity which we sometimes forget exists under the weight of various job titles, positions and authority which we hold now but becomes meaningless once we are no longer ‘working’.” 

Mohammad Bam (Pangrok Sulap) - Labour of Love (2015)

“The government, the workers, the employers work constructively together on growing and upgrading our economy. We may not agree all of the time but there’s give and take because we trust one another and we can rely on one another to take a longer term view of our enlightened collective interests. This is a system which has delivered results, not just over one or two terms of government but for 50 years, half a century. Our unions are equal partners with employers and with the government.”
- Lee Hsien Loong's May Day Rally speech, 1st May 2015, The Star Performing Arts Centre

Kim Ng - Street Walker XI (Going Home) (2008)

19 May 2015

Hulutopia @ White Box

“There is no wonder of discovery. At most, the paintings are restatements of the plain and mundane. Nothing hides the bleakness throughout, as if the point is for us to be distressed by these depictions of ourselves as failures despite our constant attempts at transcending our limitations, endeavours that only confirm our fatuous existence at the end of the day. Is HULUTOPIA then simply catharsis, an indulgence of a bleak picture of humankind? Is it negativity refined into ‘paintings’, a mere projection of the world falling apart, on canvas? This would be a tempting conclusion.”
Lessons for Seeing Ourselves, Ahmad Fuad Rahmat, 2015, exhibition catalogue for Hulutopia: Through the Looking Glass Into Promised Lands

The Elephant (2014)

Masses of nude faceless figures cower or scurry within dreary landscapes, these depictions of humiliating postures alluding to a sense of shame, if one agrees with Ahmad Fuad Rahmat’s surface reading. Kamal Mustafa’s second solo exhibition is more explicit in his social commentary but less dynamic visually, as marketing messages stopped harping upon unique art-making methods. Withdrawing from the clockwork existence projected in ‘Obscura’, I recognise a familiar motif in the other hybrid work ‘The Black Question‘, then proceed to be distracted by images of wartime destruction and a rotating wayang puppet. The ear remains a potent symbol, especially when paired with the question mark; the appendage is utilised also to maximum effect in the wonderful ‘Green Promised Land’.

Video preview for The Black Question (2014)

Hung next to the exhibition title work and equally green, isolated huts nestled in thick swirls of vegetation, paint an agrarian utopia as imagined by the Khmer Rouge. Portents of a social engineering disaster take the form of ghoulish faces emerging from the canvas, as one begins to ponder about the purpose of re-presenting historical events from lands afar. Blended vivid colours and snakes & ladders draw my gaze momentarily back to ‘Hulutopia’, a metaphorical paradise that becomes the beacon of hope within Kamal’s dog-eat-dog territories. ‘Abdi-cation’ and ‘Almost There’ make straightforward statements, which describe a world where development becomes increasingly disjointed and subjective.

Green Promised Land (2012 – 2014)

These contradictions are elucidated best in the “Museum” series, tailored captures juxtaposing artefacts with people whose dress reflects the wearer’s religion, based on popular assumptions. The entry point to understand fleshy Greco-Roman sculptures or the skeleton of an extinct creature, is via the self-proclaimed authority – the museum, the historian, the curator. Appreciation of a displaced foreign object piques curiosity, and develops a veil of enigma in the eye of the beholder. In these four pictures, Kamal holds the media responsible for conjuring prejudices, and for turning humans into curious objects. Is the museum a neutral ground, and should we trust its narratives? Likewise, should we even bother about media stories from unfamiliar places?

Museum 2 (2014)

Hassan Abdul Muthalib writes, “(w)hat runs obliquely throughout Kamal’s works is the theme of religion and the media.” Looking at the gorges in ‘Blue Promised Land’, one wonders, why do many Malaysians empathise with Palestinians in its conflict with the Israelis? Is it to express solidarity with other Muslims? With the Vatican’s latest pronouncement on global matters, should Catholics think of Jerusalem as belonging more to the Palestinians? How many Malaysians have been to that part of the world? Are we going to see stranded ships in Kamal’s new works? Bleak pictures project the artist’s moral stand, yet the detached lens in Kamal’s compositions denotes a reservation for other worldviews. As ‘The Elephant’ hung near the gallery’s entrance/exit reminds us of John Godfrey Saxe’ s poem – “Though each were partly in the right, And all were in the wrong!”

Delousing Room B (2015)

14 May 2015

The Space Between @ Wei-Ling Contemporary

Exhibiting two works each by eighteen notable mid-career artists, the space between pairs of old and new art, reveal little about curatorial strategy or artistic growth. Liew Kung Yu’s large creations dominate the place via its strong aura – the spectacle of three-dimensional columns overshadow nearby paintings, while bling from a jewellery booth nullifies romantic snapshots hung opposite. In the latter, pinheads dot the back of lighted billboards projecting fatalistic statements, effectively parodying the irresistible allure of shiny objects. The installation is fortunately located some steps away from Ivan Lam’s glossy paintings, but renders the wooden constructs of Noor Azizan Rahman Paiman next to it, even more obscure than it already is.

Installation snapshots of Liew Kung Yu - STONED (2013 - 2015)

‘Bandar Sri Tiang Kolam’ serves up snapshots of Corinthian pillars embedded in Malaysian buildings, Kung Yu’s layered collage failing to suggest a local alternative to Greco-Roman notions of beauty. Umibaizurah Mahir’s beautifully patterned pedestals provide a quirky alternative, although the voyeur may catch a glimpse of flesh if looking in from the shop window. ‘Bukan Tetek’ is as raunchy as its title denies, Chan Kok Hooi’s painting adhering to his signature surreal trompe-l'œil style, where another delightful example starring the MSN Messenger icon hangs opposite. Banners parroting international news magazines and photographs celebrating ethnic Malay writers, flank this corner of the gallery, as scale emerges as the key ingredient in capturing one’s attention.

Chan Kok Hooi - Love Chat with the Mirror (2007)

A large circle and three small spirals by Vincent Leong, brings the viewer round to the conclusion that clever art-making can be unnecessarily tiresome. Exhibited away from a dining room, printed plates by Yee I-Lann loses its context, which images of the proletariat also fail to displace aristocratic notions about elegant tableware. Ahmad Shukri’s superb pair of exhibits show him at his best when amalgamating straightforward iconography – an older assemblage of ethnic motifs held within a square wooden frame, or a newer chalkboard layered with black alphabets describing repeated precepts. More obvious politics manifests in ‘Raging Bull’ by Jalaini Abu Hassan, where a proud bull-headed Malay and an intrusive flying pig, front a lazy background with crooked shadows.

Ahmad Shukri Mohamed - Malaysia Great Wall (2015) [detail snapshot at bottom]

Surprisingly holding its own to nearby art which invoke questions of identity, Sean Lean’s juxtaposition of Chinese things and comic superheroes are attractive and even meaningful, in contemporary representations of altar worship and protective charms. Showing off a new style is Yau Bee Ling, whose graphite hand signals can perhaps be mistaken for the output of HH Lim, whose contributions here are merely filler material. Choy Chun Wei’s gothic “Construction” series is always a joy to appreciate, but in an exhibition filled with figurative representations, abstraction (especially Kim Ng's) become nondescript. There is nothing to be found in between these spaces, but the plurality and quality of Malaysian art on show, still makes this trip to the sixth floor a worthwhile one.

Yau Bee Ling - Hands On (2015)

07 May 2015

UNPACK-REPACK: Archiving & Staging Ismail Hashim (1940 – 2013) @ NVAG

Adding on to the complications of showcasing an artist’s estate, Wong Hoy Cheong now has to deal with a larger space and public works, in this collaboration between private gallery and national institute. Transplanting the tribute show from The Whiteaways Arcade to Galeri 3A, the curator aims to “…locate Ismail spatially in an environment and his community.” Chances of seeing degraded bicycle seats are less likely on Jalan Tun Razak as compared to Beach Street, and the sense of displacement immediately leads one to ponder upon the purpose of archiving and staging. Visitors are greeted into a passage of test prints from Looking Out, followed by Looking In to an odd corner of homely captures. The previously delightful room Going Bananas is now rendered irreverent, nestled deep within the gallery space in an exhibition that often takes itself too seriously.

Snapshot of print at Looking Out – ‘Streets’

Three cheeky arrows and a video of Ismail playing the saxophone bookend the walkthrough, but few other exhibits spell fun. A plywood wall of photographs in yang ‘tu yang ‘ni breaks the monotone, and marks the only obvious reference to an artist whose characteristic wit should be celebrated more. Inducing laughter are snapshots of furniture shops with arty signboards, bananas juxtaposed with a Marlboro advertisement, and a curious string of hilarious captions. Clever bilingual wordplay describe accumulated garbage at a lift lobby (‘Sambil tunggu, sambal sumbat! (Waiting is full-filling!)’), and a pigeon dipping its beak into a can of Coke (‘Macam mana gamaknya rasa The Real Thing? (Hey, I could do with some of The Real Thing!)’). Inspiring awe are pictures of potted plants hung on a dilapidated wall, romantically referred to as “A Thing of Beauty…”

Installation snapshots of prints at yang ‘tu yang ‘ni – ‘Humour

Stuck on the flip side are photographs rearranged from the framed work ‘Ants can, Malaysians sure boleh!’ Such tinkering raises questions around the management of a deceased artist’s belongings. Is it acceptable to show unfinished works? Or in this case, to alter and create a new composition? How ethical is it for Fergana Art (which represents the artist's estate) to show and sell test prints, or print editions from film negatives? Ansel Adams once said, “(y)ou can liken the negative to the score and the print to the performance.” Unlike the catalogue raisonné – a relatively simple listing of traditional artworks – managing a photographic archive is trickier. Presenting one’s worldview without his consent risks “…second-guessing the artist”, like how one author describes the posthumous exhibition of Garry Winogrand, which images were printed from undeveloped rolls of film.

At the Sink (1987)

2,000+ of the 14,000 items documented thus far are made accessible to the public (every Tuesday & Saturday) at Living Archives. In an effort to pique the viewer’s curiosity, personal belongings (a birth certificate, among others) are exhibited in the area before this last section. Why does stuff – potentially of no value to the artist when he was alive – matter in appreciating one’s artworks? Does analysing an artist so thoroughly beyond his art, an act of adoration or hero-worship? With so many groupings suggested in staging this archive, is the curator conforming to ‘bahasa museum’, or is he demonstrating the futility of categories? Browsing spreadsheets on a laptop, it is telling that the archive records are different from the exhibited categories. Objective qualitative measures like form and medium are included, although one odd field called ‘Value Level’ suggests a subjective measure.

Snapshot of print at As The World Turns

Gillian Pistell writes, “(a)n archive is neither a collection nor a library.” Preservation and determination of Ismail Hashim’s archive are the responsibilities of the team led by artist-cum-archivist Nur Hanim Khairuddin. Working with limited precedents from a regional and medium-specific standpoint, the ongoing Tate Access & Archives project serves as a reference for assessing the team’s efforts. Does cataloguing standards cater to multi-level hierarchies in order to define contexts? In digitising a photographic archive, are the metadata standards more inclined towards librarian or visual art archiving? What are the sustainable infrastructures required to maintain both physical and digital archives? Are these issues and learnings shared with the National Visual Arts Gallery, and what can this project learn from the national institute in this aspect?

Dapur minyak, dapur gas, jerang air, goring cucur (Kerosene stove, gas cooker, water boiling, fritters frying) (1990)

Scanning the contents of Living Archives, images of partially empty grids and quirky juxtapositions help increase my appreciation of Ismail’s works beyond contained spaces and coffee-related compositions. On a personal level, such observations fit into Hal Foster’s description of the archive “…as a place of creation, part of the embodiment of its utopian ambition – its desire to turn belatedness into becomingness (…) a move to turn ‘excavation sites’ into ‘construction sites’.” Artist-cum-curator Hoy Cheong’s reconstruction is an installation of others’ belongings, with the intent to highlight the difference between staging and archiving. For the casual visitor, however, appreciating hand-tinted photographs with witty titles is sufficient for an afternoon well spent. Like an Ismail quote on the wall states, “(t)he artwork is the most reliable source.”

Personal favourites from the ‘Commercial Prints’ folder at Living Archives

“Christian Boltanski has said of the problems posed by preserving items within a museum setting:
Preventing forgetfulness, stopping the disappearance of things and beings seemed to me a noble goal, but I quickly realised that this ambition was bound to fail, for as soon as we try to preserve something, we fix it. We can preserve things only by stopping life’s course. If I put my glasses in a vitrine, they will never break, but will they still be considered glasses? … Once glasses are part of a museum’s collection, they forget their function, they are then only an image of glasses. In a vitrine, my glasses will have lost their reason for being, but they will also have lost their identity. (The Museum as Muse: Artists Reflect, Kynaston McShine, 1999)”
- Perspectives: Negotiating the Archive, Sue Breakell, 1 April 2008 [Tate papers Issue 9]

Fun Fair #2, Sg. Ara Penang (1974/2001)

04 May 2015

Dear Dark Cloud @ Taksu

It is easy to dismiss Khairul Azmir Shoib’s works as mere illustrations, yet his fantastical characters have persisted in the local visual arts for the past 15+ years. The success of his mentee Haslin Ismail, whose mecha / book collage creations are even more irreverent, is perhaps indebted to Meme in setting precedence for the appreciation of such non-canonical art. Viewing these exhibits, one can find common elements with Malaysian contemporary art – skulls aplenty, found wood, and gaudy frames – apart from the badly-done drips evident in ‘Gothic Kebaya’. All portraits feature the protagonist, whose obvious features manifest in different guises – a giant head, large eyes, and a high forehead.

Nightwish (2015)

With a sidekick always in tow, Meme’s female lead is more hopeful heroine than psychological avatar, contrary to the isolation theme stated in the catalogue essay. Gina Fairley writes in a previous exhibition, “(w)hile we want to read Meme’s drawings and paintings within the realm of illustration, rather they are fragments of a fantasy that are extremely open ended to interpretation and, if anything, enter an isolationist position of alter-egos, psychosis, and introspective dreams – the space of non-narrative.” As compared to his solo exhibition “Let It All Rain Down from the Blood Stained Clouds” held two years ago, a black background now becomes a fairy tale landscape, none prettier than the bronze darkness in ‘Nightwish’ and ‘In the Shadow of the Horns’. 

Tulip - the Dog that Ate Nightmares #14 (2013)

The improved mastery in painting, is testament to the artist’s continuous growth and willing engagement with different mediums and styles. Such regular experimentation is rare among Malaysian artists, but Meme’s efforts are easily overlooked due to his signature fantasy themes, myself guilty in past assessments of his output. Cute characters in a surreal landscape are the stuff of inspirational folklore, and these pictures should not be dismissed just because it contains no overt references to Puteri Gunung Ledang. In the exhibition’s best work, ‘Sisters’ juxtapose a skinny mannequin with an elegant figure dressed in sumptuous blue, the applied chiaroscuro effectively portraying a silent drama. Give me beautifully drawn sombre melancholy, over vacant images of regurgitated politics, anytime, anywhere.

Sisters (2015)