24 March 2016

Buang Bayi @ KerbauWorks

Shika/ Shieko Reto’s art output follows a simple approach. Draw the under-represented – a transwoman’s experience of living in Malaysia, in this case – to counter prejudice. In this cosy space, Shika’s output covers the walls from floor to ceiling, and various paraphernalia accumulated over the past years are put on sale. Her illustrations draw one into a world of constant anxiety, yet the motifs carry a positive, even joyful, connotation. There is the mak ‘yam feeding her anak ikan, pills & syringes, the stool, the police & the more sinister moral police, the backs of waiting prostitutes, flying objects such as jet packs & butterflies, the unicorn, the spliced open figures of a coming-out transgender person, and the ubiquitous (and personal favourite) ‘TEBABO!’

Installation snapshot

At a time when identity is a favourite subject matter among artists, Shieko’s works posit a fundamental challenge to a less common identity crisis – the one about gender. Age-old beliefs about the fe/male binary were documented and passed down as facts; this majority narrative has remain and been enforced ever since. Although the illustrations are straightforward, the charming stories in her zines are eye-opening to the commoner not familiar with the local transgender community. Looking at a mirror covered with the words ‘TAKE THIS SOCIETY’ in black duct tape, it is evident that this gesture cannot be an artist’s act of reclamation, because I already know who lost in this power struggle. The self-reflection engenders self-prejudice. TEBABO!

Installation snapshot

21 March 2016

Siapa dia Tong Sam Pah? 我的名字哈苏丹。 You Look F**king Funny-lah! @ Richard Koh Fine Art

Looking at the tri-lingual exhibition title stuck on the shop window, one cannot accuse Liew Kwai Fei as a contemporary Malaysian artist who fails to engage his audience. There is something for everyone – written word for those illiterate to visual art, grotesque body parts for those susceptible to beauty, socio-political commentary for Facebook activists, odd-shaped canvases and frames for the art traditionalist, Velcro-d flaps for those with itchy fingers, wonderful colour contrasts for painters, clever use of positive/ negative space for illustrators, oedipal references for those philosophically inclined, art world jibes for the local art enthusiast, and even a bouncing artwork to distract passer-bys! On a console table, children can entertain themselves with Lego blocks. 

Installation snapshot of Jangan Ketawa (2015)

On the surface of things, the artist provides many signs aiming to subvert. Two colourful paintings hanging outside are titled ‘Shopping Class’ and ‘Working Class’. Like a genie let out from its bottle, one snake emerges from a songkok in ‘Seni X Batang’. Opposite it, ‘amen’ and a toothy grin are inscribed onto a (upside down?) body, then affixed with a dog collar. The canine is drawn across two canvases that read ‘an jing ba bi’ from right to left, the wordplay appropriating a twofold Chinese interpretation. Another topic that went viral on social media is referenced in a painting nearby, which depicts a rainbow linking street cracks patched with duct tape. Even with trees present, there is no masking the obscured facts and absent silhouettes illustrated in ‘1Malasia’, and ‘Ruang Antara Langit dan Bumi’.

Installation snapshot of -ism (2015)

“Liew Kwai Fei’s merciless aesthetico-political project is an outright middle-finger to the political correctness of neoliberal multiculturalism in Malaysia. Implicit in the multiculturalist promotion of “tolerance” is a racist discourse of suppression. Often, the state assumes a moral high ground to delicately threaten the transgressive elements via a metanarrative of de-legitimation. One’s radical statement is rendered illegitimate not by its content but by its form. Political correctness is essentially the neoliberal form of the politics of fear, a fear mongering coated with a facile sense of civic tolerance.”
- The Imagination That Never Was, Tan Zi Hao, essay in exhibition catalogue for “Siapa dia Tong Sam Pah? 我的名字哈苏丹。 You Look F**king Funny-lah!”, 2016

Installation snapshot of A for... (2014) [picture from Chai Chang Hwang's Facebook page]

When the emotional reactions to contemporary events subside, more light-hearted aspects in the exhibition emerge. In ‘A for…”, a burning cookie-cutter gingerbread man runs towards a lake, filled with floating words that have abstract meanings and start with the letter ‘A’. White paint denoting the art gallery, is painted over a dirty tiled wall with the words ‘ART’ and ‘AIR’ sprayed upon it. ‘Golah!’ displays a similar aesthetic; Wordplay is further emphasised in works like ‘Very Good!’ and ‘Takkan Seni Halus Hilang di Dunia’. The latter dwells upon a generalisation that Chinese people cannot pronounce the letter ‘R’, and the underlying yellow base, painted-over blue words, gap in frame border, and additional canvas flaps, conform to a template utilised in other exhibits.

Takkan Seni Halus Hilang di Dunia (2015)

It is convenient to describe Kwai Fei’s painting style as naiveté based on these characteristics, but the deliberate flourishes cannot conceal the artist’s astounding sensitivity to colour and form. Positive and negative spaces are equally balanced, and when required, outlines are clearly drawn to delineate. Another reality opens up within the customised picture frames. Gestural brush strokes and meaning-loaded colours reveal Kwai Fei’s true disposition that culminates in his ‘Xiao-Portrait’. With its raw exposed physiognomy forced into a Chinese ideogram (that means laughter), and the similar-sounding English word ‘SALE’ attached at the bottom, the artist surrenders his autonomy to the art-buying public. Who will have the last laugh? Not the artist, surely.

Installation snapshot of Xiao-Portrait (2015)

One surprisingly satisfying revelation comes from multiple presentations of the phallus, which signifies the overwhelmingly male perspective present in Malaysian socio-political discourse. From the pink diagonal stretching across the abstract nightscape in ‘Hamsap Odessy’, to the heavy elephant trunk in the dryly hilarious ‘Jangan Ketawa’, the phallic form dominates and obscures in an unsightly manner. Emasculation takes place in the gory picture ‘Lady’s F’, although the ironic bendi substitute reminds of the fantastical legend where the Monkey God was imprisoned within the Buddha’s palm. More unapologetic are masturbating figures (doubling as the Twin Towers) in ‘-ism’, where race rhetoric and its backing political ideology are set upon flimsy pedestals. 

Lady's F (2015)

Kwai Fei asks in his exhibition statement, “(h)ave you noticed a shadow called ideology dragging the society…(?)” These exhibits can easily be perceived as racist, but look deeper and a follow-on question arises – what is the problem for one to draw Malay words or motifs, if one is a Malaysian? Such contradictions in personal identity manifests in the words ‘PURE RACE’, hidden behind grey spectacles in ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’. Its muted palette, along with the inherent dichotomy in his painting approach, reflect the artist’s tenacious pursuit to draw a non-existent balance for social equality in Malaysia. The vernacular is trivialised to the point of being farcical, yet the deliberateness on show is agonising to see. As neutral/ polarised as our Facebook news feed is.

Installation snapshots of Somewhere Over the Rainbow (2015) [picture from Yeo Kien Kiong's Facebook page]

09 March 2016

Mapping, Khabar dan Angin @ NVAG

Balai’s ground floor galleries get refreshed with two new exhibitions – a selection of its modern art collection hangs at Galeri 1A, while Projek Dialog presents a show subtitled Excurses on Faith in Kelantan at Galeri Reka. In the former space, “Mapping” aims “…to examine the development of Malaysian art…” and is split into two parts that will continue into 2017. Typical of Balai-organised shows, its curator/ial team is not stated anywhere, as questions about re-visiting the Malaysian art canon remain unresolved. Segregated by art groups (e.g. Penang Art Group, Nanyang artists, Equator Art Society, etc.) where two works by one artist represent each group, the chronological hang echoes the approach of National Gallery Singapore’s “Siapa Nama Kamu?”, albeit in a smaller scale. 

Khoo Sui Hoe – Mandi di Sungai (1965)

Such mnemonic triggers, however, immediately highlight the exhibition’s inadequacies. Although the gallery opened its doors in February, some exhibits will not be ready until April, including works representing the significant Wednesday Art Group and Angkatan Pelukis SeMalaysia. The lack of visitors also invoke a sense of melancholy, as I recall the enthusiastic crowds during my brief visit to NGS. Nevertheless, it remains a delight to appreciate works from Balai’s permanent collection, where early output by the likes of Lee Cheng Yong and Lee Joo For are displayed. Pastoral life is the overwhelming theme, which makes Georgette Chen’s exquisite still-lifes an astounding exception by comparison. Archival documents are laid out and provide interesting contexts, about how local art is written about decades ago.

Comic illustrations by Abdullah Ariff

At “Khabar dan Angin”, eight artists record their observations, after visiting religious sites and witnessing cultural performances in Kelantan. The artist’s approach and statement-making take precedence over its visual presentation in the majority of exhibited works, thus resulting in a vague depiction of the Northern state or its local peculiarities. After shining UV light onto the partitions of a dark room, then pressing one’s ears against the wall to hear background noise, even KG Krishnan’s straightforward photographs become illusory objects. A miniature re-construction of a construction site, and the accompanying comic by Alex Lee, draw one back to the people of this place. Sticking post-it notes on illustrations of the back of head portraits, Engku Iman too employs ironic humour in her casually incisive manner.

Installation snapshot of Khatijah Rahmat (2016) – Ingat-Ingat Lupa; Biar Mati Melayu

Khatijah Rahmat’s multi-layered paintings behind a black veil draw (up)on the traditional healing ritual of Main Puteri. Performative poses are covered with imagined gestures and thoughts, where self-assigned guilt (the original sin in monotheistic faiths) remains unresolved in the double act of being Malay and Muslim. Poodien’s installation recalls a similar theme, where landscape fades into nothingness and singular subjects of meditation. The artist’s mother rendered in monochrome looms large over this transition, which implies this fading out as an enlightened choice. In times when religious headwinds fog our understanding of cultural diversity, this exhibition pairs well with “Mapping” in the opposite gallery. Academic history is juxtaposed with contemporary interpretation, its collective breadth offering reflections, about art exhibiting approaches to the committed visitor.

Installation snapshot of Poodien – Dari Ketiadaan Sampai ke Sini (2016) [from l to r: Ada; Wan; Tiada]

04 March 2016

Young Malaysian Artists: New Object(ion) III @ Galeri Petronas

In this edition of Galeri Petronas’ bi-annual platform for emerging artists, the found object as art medium is associated with the experimental nature of youthful art-making, an unsophisticated assumption in this day and age. Featuring a line-up of local art school graduates, a number of exhibits fail to attract due to the individualised notions that artists assign to their medium. Meaning-making is sacrificed for immediate visual impact – one young lady is portrayed with thread and acrylic on a large canvas, a Malaysian map is constructed using sandalwood blocks, colourful cable ties make up a pair of large ears, black cloth is laid over a chair, presidents are depicted using corrugated cardboard or chicken wire, a reptilian form is arranged from parquet swatches…  

[foreground] Installation snapshot of Fatin Shamira Nor Azmi - Overreact (2015) 

More engaging are visual triggers that lead to current issues, such as Yau Sir Meng’s oft-exhibited education system commentary ‘Melting’, and mesh wire sculptures by Fatin Shamira Nor Azmi. The latter’s diaphanous creations evoke dreamy thoughts of food cravings, and via its title – ‘Overreact’ – remind of emotional dissatisfaction associated with impulse eating. Addiction manifests in a milder form in Huan Jia Jin’s ‘Really?’ that juxtaposes a performance of covering one’s mouth with stickers, with a video of the artist staring down at her smartphone. Illuminated screen flashes describe one’s deference to technology, although the red stickers hint at an artist’s concern, i.e. selling artwork.

Video snapshots of Tiffany Huan Jia Jin - Really? (2015)

Another one concerned with being an artist, Nazrul Hamzah empties his wallet then photographs its contents, the overall installation recalling Sulaiman Esa’s ‘Man and His World’ exhibited 44 years earlier. Equally self-indulgent is Khairul Ehsani Sapari’s desktop computer with post-it notes stating deadlines, the indifferent presentation guilty of falling into the “is this art?” category. Conversely, 3 clocks – two altered and one smashed – by Kamal Sazali hang nearby, which depict time and place in a wickedly absurd manner. Alicecia Tan’s gender-ambiguous portrait and Shahrul Jamili’s sejadah made from nails provoke with intention, and stand out as good examples of utilising an effective artful approach towards questioning indisputable truths.

Kamal Sazali - Dekat Tapi Jauh, Jauh Tapi Dekat (2016)

Two wooden constructs project contrasting ideas – Raymond Anak Utan’s long house on stilts refer to environmental sustainability concerns, while Anniketyni Madian large clear-cut logos are nihilistic in its use of a natural resource to comment upon capitalist consumption. Surprisingly, it is the simple and straightforward images that leave a lasting impression, such as Raja Mohamed Nizam’s watercolour line drawings and four paintings of slippers by Siti Noor Aishah Maulana. Harun Fadzilah Tajudin’s ‘Selamba’ captures a fascinating photograph of one man standing on the pavement outside Sungai Wang Plaza. A sewer cover on the bottom right anchors the picture, which perfectly describes many predicaments of urban living – peddling, stopping, thinking to go where next, etc.

Wooden sculptures by Anniketyni Madian (2016)

Outside, catalogues from past years are sold at a steep discount, indicating the financial struggle currently faced by its sponsoring entity. With nearby Ilham Gallery raising the bar for public programming, Galeri Petronas needs to rejuvenate its fading reputation among local art circles. Putting together a group exhibition for young artists, with vague entry criteria and no curatorial direction, is a cop-out (also, the police should vacate the gallery). Perhaps, mentors can be introduced for each YMA participant, or regular curatorial walk-through sessions be held. Its prime location attracts a public audience more than any gallery in Malaysia, and the institution needs to maximise this opportunity to keep itself relevant. Better late than never.

Harun Fadzilah Mohd Tajudin – Selamba (2016)