30 August 2016

August, or Month of the Hungry Ghost (of Painting)

After the customary festive lull, a profusion of art exhibitions are staged in Klang Valley within the month. The first show I saw was deserted on opening night. Beautiful watercolours by a Shanghai artist, including a superb rendition of a red flower which, looked more like a bombing run photographed from an overhead drone. Painting is supposedly the dominant mode in Malaysian visual art, yet there are none who paint like this. Am I overestimating Malaysian painters? Perhaps, as I glance through upcoming listings. There are fewer painters exhibiting than previously assumed. Gallery chatter include the diminishing sales to local collectors this year, unethical practices of gallerists and curators, and the curious endeavor of selling artworks to fund for a specific cause. I return a few weeks later to watch video documentation of migrant labourers wielding bicycle wheels dipped in paint. The many wheels moving onscreen remain a mesmerising visual…

Hings Lim – Pusat Bandar Utara Selayang, 160612 (14 Painters : 3 Wheels) (2016)

…Is organising practical workshops a better way to raise funds (for an arts festival)? Perhaps, as I drop bank notes into the donation box. Then again, this workshop space was covered in paintings for sale a couple weeks later, to support the ambitions of one arts manager. In the mall upstairs, galleries show local prints, Japanese photographs, and young artists’ take on optical art and conceptual art. Few kilometres away, at an impressive collection of sculpture installations by one notable ceramic artist, sales were reportedly underwhelming. One of the artist’s older work is displayed in the city centre; Along with another group show in a nearby tower, both galleries are guilty for trivialising its subject matter into one-dimensional icons. Back at Dutamas, in front of large paintings by modern Malaysian artists, art enthusiasts gather to enjoy a poem recital; a few days later, they are back discussing a memorandum related to the careless treatment of public art…

Kamal Sazali - Pedas-pedas Bunga (2016)

…I glance out the window, as my ride-share driver zooms past a sculpture of oversized hibiscus plants, then drops me off at the headquarters of a banking institution. After enduring the inter-floor travels to complete a transaction, I step into an old gallery space covered in rice husks. A musty yet fragrant smell hangs in the air. Despite the pleasant sensory experience, this follow-on exhibition from one gathering of Southeast Asian artists was a disappointment. Quotes, sketches, and contact prints, emphasize the agency of the artist and the curator, but lack the shared tensions shared during last year’s conversations. I was expecting full-length video playbacks of these sessions, but only a video montage was exhibited. At another institution, one gets to enjoy artworks from the bank’s collection in a serene environment. The Merdeka theme is irrelevant, more so during a time when a new “bumiputera”-based political party is formed. I take notice of the more sinister-looking works, among many paintings…

Fung Yow Chork – Kong Siew Temple, KL (1981)

…Notwithstanding the demolishment of an unsightly and abandoned sculpture, Kuala Lumpur residents still got to participate in two arts festival in the same weekend. Which one is public, and which one is private? Braving the haze to attend a talk about alternative art spaces, I was rewarded with a wonderful display of art objects on sale at affordable prices. Not to mention the handmade linocut prints that got hand-delivered to myself a few days prior. Less affordable are chipped plaster sculptures and coarse wooden furniture exhibited in a Petaling Jaya bungalow, which gallerist is consulting another city-wide arts festival taking place in September, Warhol prints included. Is the perceived lack of diversity in Malaysian art a false statement? Am I being haunted by the ghost (of painting)? Are we better off selling those publicly-funded Monet paintings, instead of bringing it back? What if DBKL grew and maintained trees, instead of chopping them down? 

Sharon Chin – Monument Termite (2016) [from “Local Fauna (In Progress!)”]

23 August 2016

Pixel GIFs by Shika Corona/ Shieko Reto

“I've been inspired by pixel art and 80s B-grade sci-fi movies during the 80s and during college times in the 80s, playing my housemates computer games like the Lucas Art's 'Full Throttle', 'Day of Tentacle', 'Sam&Max hit the road', 'Street Fighter2', 'Raiden', '1942', 'Prince of Persia' etc, etc, and some other classics pixel games totally inspired me further”, remarks Shika Corona/ Shieko Reto in a blog posting one month ago. The artist has since gone on a roll to post her pixel GIF creations, starting with signature motifs such as the unicorn and the polar bear, to film noir scenes, to superb “DUSH!” and “TEBABO!” animated sequences.


Shika’s use of pixel GIFs is a wonderful extension to her art repertoire, which complements a vivid and incisive style; it is also an especially relevant medium to comment on current issues. A religious officer bursts into a transgender beauty pageant, only to be awarded ‘best dressed’. An iconic image of the Merdeka declaration, sees tears streaming down one Prime Minister’s face. Light reflects off the ‘Puncak Purnama’ sculptures, to give a federal minister an eyesore. Pokemon Go is hilariously translated into Malay, with a poke at religious authorities to boot. Irreverent colloquialisms like the Malaysian favourite 'otw' (on the way) also get an animated update, the medium particularly great for representing speed.


Scenes with rainfall are particularly poignant, be it to illustrate a calm lookout point, or a dark stormy night. Personal favourites so far are those with a futuristic and/ or surreal perspective, such as the Kuala Lumpur towers submerged in a desert (‘arabisasi…’), and ‘Post-apoKLip-Jaya 2’. The latter features a popular clown face, one silhouette of a building used for political conventions, exploding zombie heads, flashing lightning overhead, the eye of Sauron, culminating with a homage to cult classic Escape from L.A. All in seven seconds. Shieko’s pixel GIFs are nostalgic and recalls a time when personal computer games garnered mainstream appeal with urban kids. The aesthetic may be innocent, but her topics are always relevant. TEBABO!

Post-apoKLip-Jaya 2

16 August 2016

Convergence of Souls @ Black Box

With ongoing shows of modern/ postmodern Malaysian art presented in other parts of town, Fergana Art’s annual showcase is an impressive collection of works from generations past, also serving as a private sales exhibition targeted at institutions. Syed Ahmad Jamal rightfully headlines this collection – Puncak Purnama controversy or not – with the magnificent painting ‘Sidang Roh’. A dark purple background swirls and envelops the artist’s characteristic twin peaks, where a stream of arching white light touches one green pyramid. Overlapping paint layers represent metaphysical planes, and evokes a spiritual realisation. Interpreted together with Kassim Ahmad’s stirring poem, the painting offers a contained reaction to the brash prose.

Syed Ahmad Jamal – Sidang Roh (1970)

“…kalau kau percaya kepada manusia sejahtera
jangan kau bergembira mengikut hidup/ (karena kemenangan)
kalau kau percaya kepada manusia bebas
jangan kau berkata mengikut hukum/ (kerena taatsetia)
karena tidak ada hukum yang akan berlaku/ (namun digubal dalam pi bi bi)
yang tidak berpelembagaan di hati.”
- verses from the first part of Sidang Ruh by Kassim Ahmad, Petaling Jaya, 1960 [poem in full at demokorup.blogspot.com]

Joseph Tan – Graffiti Series (1969)

‘Sidang Roh’ presents a mature development in Syed Ahmad’s abstract style, which overshadows the earlier and more immediate ‘Chairil Anwar’, the latter work created a decade prior. An early painting and sketches done for his ‘Perhubungan’ sculpture are also on show, which allows visitors to appreciate the growth in one artist’s oeuvre. Such observations are the strength in this exhibition of many well-known artists. Looking at beautiful colour washes in an unfinished Tambun landscape by Joseph Tan, it is jarring to see the underlying angst in his “Graffiti series” hung nearby. ‘Dead’, a charcoal drawing covered with broken Perspex screen by Bayu Utomo Radjikin, presents a shocking portrait. Within a few years, however, the artist moved away from direct social commentary into abstract expressionism, which are frankly inferior when displayed beside old Yusof Ghani works.

Bayu Utomo Radjikin – Dead: Nik Nurul Suhada when she was fighting for her life at the Terengganu Hospital (1993)

Etchings dated between 1978 to 1980 by Abdul Mansoor Ibrahim are visually stunning, where works such as ‘3 Sequences’ and ‘Trace of Memories’, draw surreal pictures of an imaginary landscape (and would look great if converted into CGI). The “Serangga” series made three decades later retains his technical brilliance, but utilises a more recognizable subject matter. Other interesting prints include a clever layout of four Ismail Hashim photographs featuring chairs, each developed at a different time, yet clearly projecting his uncanny ability to highlight time passing. Two erotic silkscreens by Long Thien Shih (one so vulgar that viewing it requires a private appointment) are crowd pleasers, along with a number of works from Ismail Zain’s landmark “Digital Collage” series.

Abdul Mansoor Ibrahim – Trace of Memories (1979)

Unfortunately, small monochrome artworks fail to hold this visitor’s gaze in the presence of large colourful paintings. One example of the latter is Ismail Mustam’s ‘Three Horizons’, an astonishing triptych completed by the artist when he was 21 years old. Ismail’s smaller untitled figurative works are equally accomplished, where bodies in dramatic poses signify a youthful bravado. Done around the same time is the “Pago-Pago” series by Latiff Mohidin, which two landscape format paintings are displayed here. Reputedly gifts to artist peers, it is interesting to see the muted palette and close-up perspective utilised, as compared to the more popular Pago-Pago image of conflated tower(s) in primary colours.

Latiff Mohidin – Pago Pago (1967)

Walking past an oversized charcoal drawing of one migrant worker by Wong Hoy Cheong, and a delightful literal depiction of kepala batu by Fauzi Tahir, I stand before a stainless steel wall sculpture by Mad Anuar Ismail. Resembling a pendulum clock from a dystopic future, ‘Belangkas’ projects a powerful counterweight to the lofty ‘Sidang Roh’ hung across the gallery. Luminous painted stripes cover this representation of a living fossil, its metaphorical reference to a long-life deadweight perhaps describing the Malaysian Official 1… As a platform for encouraging institutions to collect, it is notable that the majority of exhibits are classified as modern Malaysian art, and all represented artists are male. A convergence of middle-aged men, biasalah.

Mad Anuar Ismail – Belangkas (2016)

09 August 2016

Bukan Objek Seni @ Galeri Chandan

‘Apa Yang Kamu Lihat Semasa Ke Pameran?’ ‘Sold Out!!!’ ‘Merakyatkan Seni Dengan Membawa Seni Ke Masyarakat’. ‘Tajuk apa ya nak tulis? UNTITLED aje laaaaa…’ ‘I Create Retinal Art’. ‘Seniman Adalah Seorang Pemikir Bukan Sekadar Tukang Buat Lukisan Cantik…’ These statements are among many printed on title cards, and displayed in a cluster (shape of an Arabic alphabet?), by Amir Amin. Complete with medium description and price tag, the artist points out the significance of a title card, in-forming an artwork’s (and its creator’s) identity. One’s imagination easily runs wild, when informed that a work titled ‘MALAYSIA OH MALAYSIAKU’ is made from “fibre glass, epoxy resin, fabrics & oil paint on MDF board”. Many other titles simply refer to questions about conceptual art. 

Installation and detail snapshots of Amir Amin – I Thought the Definition if a Good Artist Is... (2016)

Multiple mentions of a “J.A.W.I.” series make reference to the expected mode of being a Malay artist, i.e. produce aesthetically pleasing paintings in series, in order to make a living. Poignant too because the gallery’s previous exhibition featured paintings of figurative poses in mosques, the wall titles re-enact certain challenging truths of being an artist in Malaysia. Amir is part of Bukan Seni-man collective, whose six other members occupy this small gallery space with found objects. Walking past cotton wool stuck on a wall, and chewing gum stuck on a stool, not all exhibits are effective. Although climbing up the gallery’s ladder to look at Nazrul Hamzah’s horizontally-mounted canvas, is highly recommended for all visitors.

Installation snapshots of [foreground] Khairani Ahmad Zakuan – Hyoscine Butylbromide (2016); Nazrul Hamzah – Top Secret (2016)

Khairani Ahmad Zakuan’s empty silhouettes invoke loud laughter; more absurd and clever is “Pecahkan Karya Ini (…)” by Kamal Sazali. A hammer is encased within a glass box and presented as an art object, its title prodding the audience to destroy the artwork, with an object already declared as art. Khairani’s statement in Malay adds another dimension; Art and objecthood may be tired tropes in Western art history, but artworks in Malaysia are still overwhelmingly perceived as useless objects, and found objects as a medium is often utilised for metaphorical purpose only, without concern for its materiality. Bukan Seni-man’s KL debut show is brave and defies expectations. Coming back to Amir’s wall titles, the most expensive artwork asks (titled), ‘Mana Mungkin Objek Tidak Hidup Berbicara dan Mempertahankan Dirinya Sendiri?’ 

Installation snapshot of Kamal Sazali – Pecahkan Karya Ini, Jika Anda Tidak Sukakanya. Gunakan Tukul Tersebut. (2016)

02 August 2016

Fragile @ The Edge Galerie

During my visit, an elderly Caucasian couple strolls from one Umibaizurah Mahir artwork to another, admiring and discussing each piece with the gallery attendant. Ten roughly A3-sized black & white reproductions of classical European paintings, hang high on the rough brick wall, where one can barely see it under glaring spotlights. Another series of wall hangings project a collection of mini ceramic townhouses on oblong plates, recalling a stroll along the river of a Dutch countryside. Black crows that resemble the Eames House Bird perch upon larger sculptures, which are placed upon roman pedestals and dark-coloured plinths. Among the sculpted figures are a pair of sacrificial lambs, queen chess pieces, and a flying elephant. This is an art exhibition targeted at a European audience, or what its aesthetic values inform this visitor.

Installation snapshots of The Giver (2015–2016) [foreground]; 2 of 4 pieces for Share Location (2016) [background]

In a recent interview, Umibaizurah explains that “(h)er designs are derived from imagination and inspired by vintage toys found at European flea markets.” Plants and animals are utilised directly as abstruse signs, to represent topics such as the environment, or an assumed primal characteristic. In ‘The Orchard’, a toy giraffe sitting on a pile of bricks and vegetables, “is a depiction of willpower”. One Kewpie doll (of Japanese mayonnaise fame) stands atop a pyramidal stack of cylinders, ‘The Giver’ “…based on the idiom ‘charity begins at home’.” For ‘Yes, Sir!… On Duty’, a group of 32 toy soldiers encased in a large acrylic box, the artist says, “I am interested in the meaning of ‘enemy in the blanket’ besides exploring political affairs, leadership and loyalty”. 

Close-up view of Yes Sir!... On Duty (2015–2016)

“…amongst the stand outs include Yes Sir!... On Duty, a hierarchical array of tiny green soldiers poised in eternal salute, amassed on weighted dices painted with appealingly-feminine florae in blush. The contrast between machismo and almost effeteness is staggering; perhaps the artist’s conjectures on the world’s current state — in our zealousness for ‘power-covet’, we trample on and kill beauty. In retrospect, and perhaps relevant, my brother used to have hundreds of these microscopic plastic soldiers as a child, which he’d arrange to resemble a war zone, each side carefully divided by a sand dune. I recall asking him how he would be able to distinguish one over another as they all looked alike. The (then) 9-year-old solemnly replied, “Does it matter?.”"
- Keeper of Fragile Things, Sarah NH Vogeler, New Straits Times, 24 July 2016

Installation snapshot of The Lady “Smoky Haze” (2015–2016)

Tony Godfrey describes Umibaizurah’s works in the catalogue essay, as “potentially alien and strange”. “I am uncertain what they may mean. They are richer than decorative works but more difficult to grasp.” The observation about a “…toy that cannot be played with is odd”, is a potent one, thereby pigeonholing the ceramic creations into exhibition objects only. Play is most fun when the end goal is fuzzy; one imagines the artist in fervour to create, choosing shapes to mould and patterns to print as visual images spring to mind, the resulting end product informed by a streak of automatism. The focus on modularity – replication of basic shapes & figures – mimics Lego, alluding also to the toy manufacturer’s ability to produce en masse. Umi’s sculpture installations effectively present this capitalist ideal, where production is masked and selection drives its presented value. 

Installation snapshot of Love “Word of the Day” (2015–2016)

The “Unexpected Visitor” series best represents this approach, where various parts are tied down to a steel disc with metal strings. Zoomorphic characters sit precariously atop stacked I-beams like totem poles, projecting an ever-present risk of the sculpture breaking into pieces. With its beautiful motifs, handmade qualities, recognizable symbols, abstract meaning-making, and feigned Constructivism, the sculpture installations by Umibaizurah succeed as indisputable works of art. Arcane Surrealist images have historically found commercial success; one thinks of Dali and Koons, although Umi’s works do not rely on sensationalism, it is equally polished on the surface. If one is looking to buy art, this is it. Of course, overly-conservative Malaysian collectors are likely to still consider the wall hangings first. “Ceramic sculpture too fragile la”…

Installation snapshots of Unexpected Visitor (2016): [from l to r] #4; #6; #2