31 January 2016

After-image: Living with the Ghosts in my House @ Wei-Ling Gallery

Pushing open the gallery door, one is greeted by a toy panda souvenir encased in a suspended acrylic cube. It hangs in the balance, affixed to one bottle of 1Malaysia mineral water placed on the floor, an accident waiting to happen. Flanking the visitor, blue light illuminates a blurred image of one voter’s cross and the ideogram 票 (vote/ ticket), creating a spooky suspicion that Malaysian political symbols have taken on a life of its own, then occupied this Brickfields shop lot. Sidestepping divider screens made from a single black & white photograph composing many sheets, I see limp plastic car banners rolled up in one corner, before getting overwhelmed by a line of lovely pillow covers hanging overhead like flags. 

Installation snapshot of entrance into After Image: Living with the Ghosts in my House at Wei-Ling Gallery: [foreground] A Chinese Vote (2015); [right] Vote and Vow (2015)

Utilising campaign paraphernalia collected from the last General Elections, Minstrel Kuik “…experimented with the idea of domestication – to feminise, to soften the once exuberant, masculine and heroic object. Flags were kept immobile by being folded and sewn, whereas the political iconography of the object is muted by the abstraction of form.” Appreciating the pleats in ‘Flirting with the Moon’, and the folded & puffy flags of ‘A Lonely Star’ (formerly ‘A Thorny Sky’), one can neither discount nor dismiss the original materials despite its alteration. The artist transforms 2-dimensional signs into 3-dimensional symbols, effectively reconciling political symbolism with her contemporary beliefs. Time dilutes the image, but we are reminded not to forget.

A Break 1 (2015)

Such apparitions manifest in an 11-metre long braid made from blue flags with plastic clappers fixed to its ends. Suspended in a manner that outlines the roof of an altar, ‘Ghost in the House’ functions as a barricade to hopeful memories, as it employs a motif – the braid – that Minstrel used in previous works as a symbol of the past. Tiny circular photographs show yellow-clad protestors and ‘A Worm Turns’, like peep holes in a derelict mansion. Lying behind another divider screen are folded-in flags placed on a built-in shelf. Fluorescent lights emit a seedy glow, as political allegiances and tinted biases are transmogrified into morally dubious physical states. The haunted feeling is further exacerbated, as a light box shows one motorcycle rider appearing twice in the same snapshot.

Installation snapshot of Ghost in the House (2016)

As if setting up for an exorcism rite, two pedestals are erected with folded clothes and a bucket of propaganda materials placed upon it. Captures of the artist making the exhibited works, are printed on one side of ‘Domesticated Politics’ hanging overhead, the banners acting as oversized talismans. Upstairs, ‘A Wreath for the Ghosted’ is put together from crushed paraphernalia, while two images of one girl sways in the air. Titled “Jangan Tipu”, charcoal drawings present photographic negatives of women staring out at the viewer with white hollowed eyes. Rotating stand fans and creaking floor boards contribute to one’s heightened awareness, which Minstrel again demonstrates her uncanny ability in utilising exhibition spaces. What is there to be afraid of?

Installation snapshots of Domesticated Politics (2016)

Having seen a number of the exhibits online (from the artist’s last solo exhibition at Run Amok Gallery), after-image offers a two-fold reflection. Here, things are seen in a different light, literally. Playing upon the mental associations of colour and form in our collective psyche, one’s current perspective towards local politics is interrogated. Recognising is mistaken for seeing. While abstraction is a visual strategy to invoke unconscious sentiment, re-presenting an existing photograph evokes a time-conscious and more difficult reaction. Personal experience informs and distorts its interpretation, and Minstrel’s grids that back these re-presented images forcefully states the illusion. Has the hope present at the last Bersih gathering dissipate?

Jangan Tipu 1 (2015)

The grid is a material background for “The Gridded Ghosts”, a row of ten photographs that capture cut-out collages on a paper mat. Propaganda is streamlined into templates, politicians are reduced to faceless bodies and gesturing motions, and stationary becomes part of the composed forms. These delightful images invoke direct responses – Who is this? What does the newspaper headline say? Which party? It is farcical to ponder such questions, yet Minstrel’s compositions are always attractive enough to warrant more than a glance. Looking at the green monotone in ‘Papa’, or the colourful pleated fans in ‘Mother’, it becomes evident that such visual cues are embedded into the Malaysian collective psyche. How do we progress, if political presentations cannot?

From "The Gridded Ghosts" (2016) - [l] Mother; [r] Papa

We cannot, because the ghost is still in the house. ‘Old Wave’, a large print of cockle shells laid over pictures of delegates’ gathering from a single-race political party, is lit red and hangs menacingly in one corner on the ground floor. Ultimately, our political situation is not an experiment about optical illusion… Loaded metaphors and compositional skill can easily be read into Minstrel’s creations, but it is the play on identity politics and time that define this exhibition. Found objects and a home setting clearly manifest in her works, the artist thereby relating herself as a common citizen, protesting against a hopeless situation the only way she can. I high-five one plastic hand before leaving the gallery, as the after-images of this exhibition begin swimming in my mind.

Old Wave (2015)

27 January 2016

Snippets: Art Stage Singapore, Jan 2016

Half an hour in, and having browsed through a quarter of gallery booths, I was already visually tired. Regardless, galleries that presented a single artist offered more visual reward. My favourite art from last year is seen at Taipei’s Chini Gallery, while Made Wiguna Valasara’s stuffed canvas creations left a strong impression at Equator Art Projects’. Cairo’s Gallery Ward presented fascinating photographs, including digital snapshots of devotees stuck in a trance while performing the zikr, a Sufi dance. Santi Wangchuan’s majestic works at Yeo Workshop were a definite highlight – his collage of thread, rope, fishing equipment, and antique tools, weaving a unique aesthetic which aptly describes the artist’s personal background.

Santi Wangchuan - The Gift From My Grandmother No.3 (2011)

Malaysian galleries typically feature a mixed hang, with Liew Kwai Fei’s composition on Richard Koh’s large wall being particularly memorable. Coded as naiveté in contemporary art terms, this painting approach is well suited to describe the undesirable consequences of living in a politically corrupt environment. Chong Kim Chiew’s head-scratching ‘Badminton Court’ was part of the Southeast Asian Forum, which exhibits chiefly constitute visual collages from the developing world, or are interventionist in approach. These seemingly preferred modes by established Southeast Asian artists, speak volumes about our collective concerns. We are not Asia, we are at SEA. Onto the National Gallery then…

Installation snapshot of Liew Kwai Fei's presentation at Richard Koh Fine Art

20 January 2016

Travelling Into Imaginaria: A Visual Poetry @ Segaris AC

The exhibition catalogue informs that Shahrul Hisham Ahmad Tarmizi commutes regularly between Shah Alam and Machang, where he teaches. A lifestyle of frequent travelling has potentially affect his works, as the current solo show displays a remarkably positive trajectory, when compared to the artist’s previous output. Moving objects to the foreground, to establish visual entry points. Moving from aspirational storytelling to illustrating contemporary observations. Moving from slanted perspectives to a horizontal and straightforward picture plane. Moving gestural metaphors to object-based associations. Moving beyond canvas to draw on fabricated plates. Even moving from a large size to a more intimate scale! 

One Thing After Another (2015)

Objects as metaphors are popular catch-all devices utilised in contemporary painting, especially in Southeast Asia where surrealism and pop are commonly referenced to the point of being cliché. Combine that with a poor sense of scale, and many pictures fail in its meaning-making allusions. Shahrul Hisham does well in presenting objects with the optimal scale and configuration. A whole chicken is left out in the hot sun, a broken egg beside it. (‘Ordinary Day’) A toy tractor approaches a water container leaking from holes shot into it. (‘For Sale’) Even in the busy picture ‘Family Matters’, a frog and a horse appear to be symbolic references to personal acquaintances, which one can excuse its forceful inclusion into the picture. 

The Family Gathering (2015)

Three distinct mediums are featured in this wonderfully coherent solo exhibition. Oil and watercolour paintings present individual metaphors, which freehand illustration qualities and melancholic washes, present itself as preparatory drawings as compared to the larger ball pen on canvas works. Bocor is a main theme, where leakages flow from hydrants and water containers, to fire extinguishers and sinking ships. Lightning bolts, broken furniture, and headless arrows feature in a number of canvases. We are all at sea; it is amazing how some objects can encapsulate Malaysian concerns from past years – a financial scandal and a leadership void, aviation crashes and flood disasters, TPPA and COP21 commitments, sale of power assets and water shortages… 

Hydration Re-act-ion (2015)

Shahrul Hisham’s skill in cross-hatching contributes significantly to the attractiveness in this series of line drawings. A cat’s soft fur in ‘Storm of Heroes’ and an eagle’s feathers in ‘The Great Landing’ are beautifully drawn, while rushing waters in the latter pair well with an abstracted and simplistic rendition of mountains and clouds. A white parasol occupies and anchors ‘Masked Matter’, where the variety of objects and terrain surfaces are clearly discernible. When combining pen with charcoal, the results are less appealing. The embedded figure and coiling snake in ‘Unravel’ are tiresome tropes; however, the singular vase perched upon a stool with a slipper lobster in ‘Monumental’, resembles a playful jibe at the style popularised by Ahmad Zakii Anwar.

Un-monumental (2015)

Material culture and a directionless ship come to mind while looking at ‘Un-monumental’, where rapids gush forth from a supermarket trolley affixed with sails, the landscape implying strong winds. A duck whose head is trapped in a table clamp is featured in ‘Ugly Ducking Turntable’, which scene of a washed up shoreline (after the flood?) below it, lends the sardonic picture a wistful tone. Parallel lines illustrate both perspective and time in the landscape work ‘One Thing After Another’, while the lonely journey is made manifest via the duck strapped to a slipper at sea in ‘Voyager II’. Daily observations are injected with a comical twist to create lyrical metaphors, and the relative monotone offers an introspective experience when appreciating the artist’s works.

Voyager II (2015)

Curiously left out from the exhibition catalogue, the third set of works consists of heavily-rusted metallic plates engraved with objects such as sea creatures, a chair, and an erupting volcano. Made from a mixture of sulphur, bitumen, and charcoal, these textured creations look like aged graffiti. Straightforward depictions of objects are imbued with metaphorical associations by the viewer. In more inventive pieces like ‘The Family Gathering’, floor patterns invoke nostalgia, while the wooden construct in ‘Moon Transmitter’ describes a yearning to communicate with celestial bodies. Malaysian artists typically use symbols for finger-pointing or meaning-making, but in Shahrul Hisham’s works, the symbols become charming signposts for our contemporary livelihood. And that is refreshing.

Moon Transmitter (2015)

10 January 2016

Art of ASEAN: Our Exhibition @ Sasana Kijang

“…ASEAN’s fundamental and enduring purpose is to ensure a modicum of order and civility in a region where neither is to be taken for granted […] ASEAN works by consensus and can only work by consensus. This is because Southeast Asia is a very diverse region and ASEAN member states differ in levels of economic development; we differ in types of political systems; we differ in our core identities of race, language and religion; and hence we often differ in how each of us defines our national interests within the ASEAN framework even though we all have come to accept that framework as one of our most important shared interests.”
- Singapore diplomat Bilahari Kausikan, ‘A Cow is Not A Horse’, opening speech at the Youth Model ASEAN Conference, 5th Oct 2015

Sopheap Pich - Untitled (Red Square Wall Relief) (2015)

No cows or horses are referenced in the three sections of this group exhibition, titled “Bridging Past and Present”, “Between Us, Among Us”, and “Formation and Linkages” respectively. These ambiguous statements are synonymous and fitting descriptions, of the non-interference protocol observed by members in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. Collaboration, people, and community, are further touted as keywords. Displayed beside the ASEAN emblem is Multhalib Musa’s ‘Squeezing Tightly’, a wonderful bent sculpture that illustrates unity as recounted in Aesop’s Fable ‘The Bundle of Sticks’. Multhalib also collaborated with Hamir Soib for ‘Landlord vs Raja Tanah’, a giant depressed countenance constructed from jigsaw-shaped mild steel pieces. Why so serious?

[front] Hamir Soib (collaboration with Multhalib Musa) - Landlord vs Raja Tanah (2009); [back] Trinnapat Chaisittisak - Dynamic (2010)

A visual puzzle describes two works by Chang Yoong Chia – the first an oil painting featuring household objects embedded within its monochromatic landscape, the second an ambitious world map made from stamps recounting contemporary issues. Other works with literal statements are contributed by Indonesian artists – who are poorly represented here – which call into question how this exhibition is put together. Its acknowledgement list includes notable galleries and regional collectors, yet it is clear that the responsibility to gather artworks has been delegated to separate individuals. One can imagine such a conversation taking place – “…who’s got works by Filipino and Vietnamese artists? You do? Great! Whoever also can…”

Close-ups of works by Chang Yoong Chia - [top] Ten Things I Love About You (2009); [bottom] The World is Flat (2010)

Black paintings and a tall bicycle are contributed by Singaporean artists, a good indication of the type of art produced in the island state. Walking past and rolling my eyes at a royal quote, two Bruneian works surprise with its elegant forms. Zakaria Omar’s ‘Unbalances Series Tsunami’ paints a golden batik portrait on corrugated zinc, while the more senior Hj Mahaddi Hj Mat Zain utilises thick lines in a serene drawing about religious devotion. Cambodian Sopheap Pich presents a brownish-red grid made from natural materials, its raw texture sufficiently drawing one in to look closer. Commissioned for the Singapore Biennale 2013, Lao Marisa Darasavath’s large colourful painting loses potency in this gallery, where many depictions of toiling farmers have been exhibited.

Zakaria Omar - Unbalances Series Tsunami (2013)

It is telling that works by female artists are more visually captivating and nuanced in content, as compared to male peers. From Nadiah Bamadhaj’s striking paper creations, to the nostalgic photo-collages of Nge Lay, to a patterned wooden construct by Anniketyni Madian – personal intention and crafted output maintain a wonderful balance. Six photographs from Anida Yoeu Ali’s “The Buddhist Bug Project” are easily the highlight of this exhibition. Anida dons a saffron-coloured hijab with a long tail then interacts with people at public places. Wide-eyed onlookers are captured in outlandish pictures, yet the religious references remain potent especially in a classroom setting, or when the artist occupies one table at a university cafeteria by herself.

Anida Yoeu Ali - Campus Dining (2012)

In the gallery opposite, stunning line drawings by Thai artists Imhathai Suwatthanasilp and Jiratchaya Pripwai captivate endlessly, although I harboured hope to see the former’s renowned hair sculptures. Despite the wide diversity on show, minimal narratives are weaved, which aptly alludes to the large cultural and economic differences between ASEAN countries. As the exhibition introduction states, “(d)espite the physical proximity of these ASEAN countries, it is rare to find works from all 10 nations assembled in one place.” As such, Haslin Ismail’s painting of guts laid out on a large canvas proves to be the most subversive expression on display. We are polite to each other now, but in the past, we once battled each other to death.

Haslin Ismail - The Pattern of Chaos (2014)

“The influence and inspiration came after giving birth to my first child. We had this collapsible play tunnel that really intrigued me structurally. What it was able to do was expand into this tunnel in which my daughter could climb into and have loads of fun, and then it could easily collapse and be put away. That structure really appealed to me. As I looked at it for a long time, I started to sketch things in my notebook that ultimately became the Bug. That idea of creating a soft sculpture from an expansive fabric that could easily fold up and be carried on my back is a direct reference to the refugee experience and the fact that we left our countries and arrived at the camps with nothing but the clothes on our backs.”
- Anida Yoeu Ali, interview with Art Radar, published on 19th Mar 2013 [posted at artradarjournal.com]

Imhathai Suwatthanasilp - Leave Leaf No. 1 (2014); Reflected in the background is Hafiz Osman - The Penghulu (2015)

05 January 2016

Khayamiya: Khedival to Contemporary @ Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia

Described as “the Egyptian art of tent-making”, Khayamiya (خيّامية) were used as doorways, canopies, or decorative walls. These beautiful textiles with geometric Islamic designs were first documented in photographs during the Khedival period (1867 – 1914), when Egypt was a state within the Ottoman Empire. It is a dying tradition within Egypt, where pieces from the early 20th century are now preserved in collections found in “…farms in Alaska, country estates in the UK, and weddings in rural Australia”. Exhibited works include ‘The Thatcher Panel’ and ‘The Rhode Island Panel’, which large sizes indicate that it may have adorned ceilings. Contemporary creations are smaller and more obviously decorative, although the reason behind its popularity decline is not clear.

Installation view of the Ceremonial Tent (c. 1900–1910)

Islamic designs typically employ cubic perspectives, where geometric and natural patterns overlay each plane with no clear beginning and end. Repeated patterns on the ‘Ceremonial Tent’ make for a magnificent sight, although the museum’s decision to display the tent inside-out is questionably effective. The exhibition curator proposes that the paper cut-outs of Henri Matisse – being an avid collector of Islamic textiles – were influenced by the hand appliqué technique of khayamiya. Regardless, the older exhibits present wonderfully composed combinations of form and colour, and one can only imagine that Matisse’s impulse was to strip these forms of its hierarchy and make it dance.

An exhibit in “Khayamiya: Khedival to Contemporary”