30 April 2016

Pulse: January – April 2016 Art Auctions

~74% of 630+ artworks were hammered down in five auctions across four months in hotel ballrooms, as the majority of artists’ prices decrease slightly this season. Auction houses vary their selling strategies, which include a lowered buyer’s premium, and absorbing GST. The Edge Auction and Henry Butcher do well to introduce more artists into the secondary market, as compared to the other two auctioneers who focus on peddling selected artists only. 'Subdued Auction Sales' reads the hilariously-naïve title of The Edge’s event summary, although that can even be an over-statement for its 45% sales rate, and non-sale of its high-priced holdings. Its erratic estimates likely contribute to the dismal performance. 

Chuah Thean Teng - Mother and Child

For example, Chang Fee Ming’s ‘Rumah Kuning, Pulau Duyong’ appeared on the market in 2012 and 2014, yet its estimate is now 100% higher; inflated estimates apply too for works by Fauzul Yusri and Syed Thajudeen which last sold in 2012. Solo retrospectives and landmark exhibitions have a lagging effect, as compared to more developed markets. Batik works generate little enthusiasm, despite an ongoing art-historical show about batik painting. However, works by Choong Kam Kow are finally being snapped up, and a tiny Ismail Hashim photograph sold for five figures. At Henry Butcher’s, a Lee Cheng Yong that sold for RM 10,080 was last offered in 2014 with an estimates of RM 12 – 16,000, while a Kow Leong Kiang that last sold in 2010 for RM 7,500 went to a successful bidder at RM 14,560.

Choong Kam Kow - Rockscape VIII (1987)

KL Lifestyle Art Space makes headlines via proclamations that its Latiff Mohidin will be the first Malaysian artwork to fetch RM 1 million at auction. The large painting was hammered down at RM 780,000 (before buyer’s premium & tax), which fits the norm when comparing historical prices for smaller pieces from the “Rimba” series. Another striking work by Latiff commanded more than half a million ringgit, a convenient sale that pre-cursors the upcoming “Pago-Pago” exhibition at the auctioneer’s gallery. This self-perpetuating strategy cannot be accused as ineffective, since all nine Khalil Ibrahim lots on offer sold for high prices. Rolling my eyes at a RM 30k Lye Yau Fatt and a RM 350k Awang Damit Ahmad, the organiser seems intent to make a statement (and hopeful windfall) with this one particular auction, as it continues to pitch art as investment

Latiff Mohidin - Debris (1968)

A Jolly Koh painting from Syed Ahmad Jamal’s collection barely sold over its low estimates, while the provenance of a dubious-looking Chen Wen Hsi ‘Abstract’ is laughably reinforced via stating the previous works offered by the same consignor. Apart from art speculators and auction houses, art buyers should wise up and reject this circulation of works by in-vogue blue chip artists (Awang Damit, Khalil, Yusof Ghani, Tajuddin Ismail, and now Rafiee Ghani). With supply exceeding demand, the secondary art market needs to stay healthy via support for other artists (i.e. the majority). If the market gets its way, Malaysian art will be defined only as a bunch of abstract forms and expressionist brush strokes. Which describes well the psyche of Malaysians in powerful positions today – a spectacular display of pure rhetoric.

Syed Ahmad Jamal - Seated Figures in A Room (1955)

23 April 2016

Introjection @ Lorong Kekabu

Five photography-based installations make up “Introjection”, a show that “…harus dilihat sebagai suatu eksplorasi seni visual dan juga sebuah corak ekspresi dalaman yang disalurkan ke dalam bentuk fizikal.” (excerpt from catalogue essay) The psychoanalytical term referenced in this exhibition’s title, confuses one in thinking that exhibited artworks indulge in the typical act of mimicry, when its presentation is more akin to narcissistic adoptions of one selves’ ideas. ‘Syok Sendiri’ by Afiq Faris is a brilliant introductory piece, where tailored images of used tissue fragments, allude to a sublime ecstasy normally attributed to beautiful art-making. A pair of rocking chairs belonging to Nia Khalisa’s grandparents is placed facing louvered windows, which visitors are welcome to sit in and squint upon tiny pictures placed in front of it, meditating upon the question, “huh?”

Installation snapshot of Afiq Faris - Syok Sendiri: 38 Images of Work (2016)

Captures of eye pairs looking straight at the camera, are exhibited beside a wooden drawer covered with soil and folded old photographs, the latter installation referring to a constructed memorial for one's deceased father. Peeping into a small hole in the adjacent enclosed space, the visitor is able to see their own back, via an arrangement of slanted mirrors. Emir Nazren’s set up physically transposes the self-image, and plays upon the classical approach of depicting a self-portrait. While its visual impact is only mildly interesting, these exhibits collectively project a yearning for the audience to perceive through the artists’ lens. Social acceptance of one’s individuality is a notable pursuit when one is young, and every art engagement here is transcribed as a Like.

Snapshot of "Introjection" catalogue with Emir Nazren's statement about Pandang Dari Belakang (2016)

In another room, I was fortunate to appreciate artworks exhibited in Lorong Kekabu’s previous showcase by Izat Arif. “Nine Questions” refer to a questionnaire received by the artist from a journalist, after his printed t-shirts were inexplicably removed from the Bakat Muda Sezaman 2013 competition-exhibition. The artist’s experience is captured in one scrapbook-catalogue, which serves as a clarifying document within our hearsay-heavy local art scene. These questions are stencilled upon a variety of plastic surfaces, including garment covers, acrylic sheet and a mirror, and a painted-over tablecloth. Two of three video works elicit loud laughter, one involving a former TV broadcaster, while the other shows a snippet of children learning the Arabic alphabet. *Insert hashtag*

Installation snapshots of Izat Arif (2016) [c/w from top-left] - Soalan No. 8; Soalan No. 2; Soalan No. 5; Soalan No.6; Soalan No. 4

03 April 2016

Love Me in My Batik @ ILHAM

Batik is a technique. European artists were inspired by batik from Dutch colonies. Entrepreneurial Chinese immigrant fails at manufacturing batik in Malaya, but invents batik painting. Librarian becomes influential patron. Batik painting is recognised as a fine art. Batik is proclaimed as cultural heritage, and becomes the national dress. Batik painting as art medium loses relevance. And so the story goes. Joseph Tan’s iconic work, the namesake of this exhibition, portrays a mannequin-like figure undressing herself from batik cloth. The brown body is exposed, along with her inner thigh in a lighter shade. She holds up a newspaper snippet which leads to the words ‘BAT IK’ painted into the top right corner, although her back is arched upwards in a forceful pose. I stand by and appreciate its flat colours.

Joseph Tan - Love Me in My Batik (1968)

The wicked irony in Joseph’s work is lost on the present-day viewer, although catalogue essays by Simon Soon and Farish Noor describe well the cultural patrimony, which besets batik’s status as a cultural product in this region. Historical commentaries detract from the main theme – batik painting – which pioneer Chuah Thean Teng and his heirs feature prominently in one end of the gallery. While loans from three public art institutions are a commendable practice, the quality on show is uneven, due to an inclusive intent to exhibit innovative techniques by other artists. Teng’s works hung here do not highlight his great composition skills; the crackling effect in batik paintings function only as aesthetic flourish, as I am constantly reminded of Redza Piyadasa’s comment that “(batik painting) follows the conventions of easel painting”.

1960s - 1980s batik blocks commemorating [clockwise from top left]: The Rubber Industry; The Moon Landing; Parliament House; Malaysian Airlines System; Thomas Cup

At the other end of the gallery, batik cop designs delight with its kitsch motifs which include the moon landing, a badminton competition, and the Malaysia Airlines logo. Abstracts by Khalil Ibrahim and Ismail Mustam display a conscious attempt at manipulating the medium’s characteristics – batik as worn fabric – although none can compare with the sensitivity projected in Patrick Ng Kah Onn’s three nude portraits. As Simon writes in the brilliant essay Fabric and the Fabrication of a Queer Narrative, “(h)ere the signifier of batik as cloth, as covering, is subverted by bringing the nude body and the batik cloth together, and in exposing the tension between the nude and the clothed, Patrick Ng had also collapsed these two registers of the body. Such a collapse suggests an expression of anxiety.”

Patrick Ng Kah Onn (1962) [from l to r]: Perpisahan (A Separation); Youth Embarbed; Pohon (A Tree)

Lee Kian Seng’s “Yin-Yang Series – Soul and Form” shows nude bodies and Japanese images, which coalesce into a wonderfully erotic series of four pictures. A different form of agitation manifests in three works from Yee I-Lann’s “Orang Besar” series, which print juxtapositions of plants with humans in absurd postures. One is tempted to try on these kain panjang and complete the subversive gesture, although probably an inappropriate attire for formal functions… Her waxed-off words cover a black cloth hanging downstairs, the brainstorm record fitting in among other creative approaches employed by Indonesian artists. Bambang ‘Toko’ Witjaksono exploits the flatness of batik painting to create a whimsical four-panel comic strip, while Eko Nugroho’s series of grotesque headwear depict Javanese politicians as an ugly lot.

Yee I-Lann - The Orang Besar Series - Kain Panjang with Parasitic Kepala (2010)

Looking at Fatimah Chik’s superb “Nusantara” batik cop creation, it appears that this exhibition has gotten lost within its own curatorial narratives. On one hand, its title – represented by Joseph Tan’s seminal work – refers to the cultural patrimony attached to batik cloth. On the other, it aims to trace the evolution of batik as a (once-popular) Malaysian fine art form, beginning with Teng’s batik paintings. A chronological progression ties these two disparate strands together, implying that batik works were popular for four decades because modern art collectors felt an affinity to batik as national dress, which seems implausible. The exhibition satisfies sufficiently as an educational walkthrough, although videos about the batik painting process are lacking. Leaving the show, I am further convinced why batik works seldom appeal to me...

Fatimah Chik - Rentak Nusantara (1981)

“Firstly, batik painting has been, right from the start, an artistic expression that tries to blend divergent aesthetic traditions and expressions. Cultural patrimony is an idea that is already foreign to the particular character of batik painting. Secondly, the first practitioner of batik painting is Chuah Thean Teng, an émigré Chinese artist. The medium of batik painting has never been able to claim it has origins with any particular culture or ethnicity. Thirdly, even if we were to assume for a moment that there are certain discernible cultural precedents to Malayan batik painting, i.e. batik, where would they lie? The roots of batik in Malaya have traditionally been traced to Kelantan and Terengganu, but batik was introduced to Malaya only as late as the 1920’s from Indonesia. Is Indonesia or Malaya to be considered the cultural birthplace of batik?”
- A Decade of Ascendency, Wang Zineng, exhibition catalogue for “Love Me in My Batik”, excerpt from the unpublished thesis ‘Knowledge, Patronage and Malayan Iconography: Three Aspects in the Emergence of Malayan Batik Painting’, 2007

Chuah Thean Teng - Perairan Pulau Pinang (1952)