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

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