24 November 2016

CROSSINGS: Pushing Boundaries @ Galeri Petronas

An exhibition about Malaysian artists who “work internationally” starts off on the wrong foot, by greeting each visitor with a world map overlaid with random historical events. This display, wall texts, and catalogue essay, are equally irrelevant, because the exhibition’s emphasis on pluralism in art practices, is an outmoded symptom of our contemporary situation. Granted, the corporate gallery has no new works from its collection to showcase, but it remains surprising how consistently incoherent are its curatorial efforts. So what if an artist has stayed overseas for a long duration – was it an extended travel time? Staying on for a residency? Migrated and changed nationalities? Where was the work itself produced? Does any of these matter?

Ali 'Mabuha' Rahamad - Madusa #2 (1986)

A number of artworks exhibit individual merits, but one is compelled to only talk about the 25 minutes spent watching Hayati Mokhtar’s and Dain Iskandar Said’s ‘Near Intervisible Lines’ (the panoramic video is 45 minutes long and shown here via four projectors). As interviewees talk about their experiences on the left-most screen, the vast beach and sky occupy the audience’s vision. The narratives lend a mythical air to the snail-paced projection, as winds of imagined change complement moving shadows. People go off-screen into purposeful punctures, while the horizon provides a false impression of stability. The assertiveness of nature and time’s passing, is mistaken for inhibited poetry. Where there are no boundaries, there is no safe crossing. So much can be said about art practices.

Installation snapshot of Hayati Mokhtar & Dain Iskandar Said - Near Intervisible Lines (2006)

17 November 2016

Dari Langit dan Bumi @ Wei-Ling Contemporary

Snapshot at "Dari Langit dan Bumi"

The impulse of creation
aligns not with the impulse of reception
The refuge of mother nature
Contradicts the human impulse to create
Line, colour, and texture   Come from nature
Yet, imbued with emotions   Come from experience
The horizon is mistaken for a simple divide
When the space between is a gulf
of unimaginable proportion
of unbounded memories, remembered or recalled
The Almighty is the Sublime   no matter how small
is a light particle that travels the Earth
From sky to ground, eye to non-sense
The presence  is an absence   in the abstract   of the moment

Hamidi Hadi - Fragile (2016)

07 November 2016

ARTAID 16 @ White Box

At a selling exhibition where proceeds are channelled to an aid organisation, this visitor cannot sidestep the cause which the charity represents. Subtitled ‘Love for Sale’, the event theme offers the interesting prospect for interpretations about social stigma and sexual attitudes, although that is admittedly too much to ask for in a group show. Artists’ neutral approach result in many exhibits with Love in its title, although only a few works can be forced-fit into the theme. Signature-style paintings by two established artists surprise with re-contextualized displays. Ahmad Zakii Anwar’s two-dimensional still-life of fruits and vegetables, suggest an irrepressible human desire; One hanging brassiere used by Chan Kok Hooi to mock a political party, now become a cynical commentary about sex for money, via ideograms painted over used denim.

Chan Kok Hooi – Love Me in My LV (2016)

Ambiguity is fine until the point it becomes obscure, e.g. Bibi Chew’s “Good Cells”. Animal as symbol is a popular approach too, evident from the peacocks depicted in creations by Alexandra Hon and Kim Ng. Less subtle is ‘The Secret World of Love’ by Hisyamuddin Abdullah, the picture featuring on its foreground a duck ferrying a raincoat-wearing figure, whose face is buried in his hands in shame. Walking past the rather inappropriate up close and personal capture of an artist couple, then a large painting of young ladies in black singlets embracing, Khairul Azmir Shoib’s work stands out with its bleak mood. Looking at an illustration of a topless lady in pantyhose (with legs wide open) is already a disturbing sight, the discomfort aggravated further by the artist’s cartoonish characterization. 

Haslin Ismail – A Little Box of Miracles in the Solar System (2016)

Haslin Ismail’s cut-outs arranged in containers are always interesting, of which four examples are exhibited here. ‘A Little Box of Miracles in the Solar System’ is an exceptional small work, where images of cosmological diagrams are crammed within a compartmentalized wooden box. Space as human curiosity – defined from ancient times to the medieval era – is transcribed here as a literal display of curios, complete with arcane signs and oval shapes that become markers for other spatial dimensions. Taking a different approach is Tetriana Ahmed Fauzi, whose photograph projects a colourful and alien-looking plant emerging within an open oven. It is a curious image of hope (or the end of it), where the extra-terrestrial grows out of an extreme environment made by man. 

Tetriana Ahmed Fauzi – Siti (2012)

Resisting the temptation to treat such group shows as a survey of Malaysian art (now), I end up dwelling upon visually-minimal works. Acrylic drawings of humans from the back, are justaposed with various re-scaled plants by Poodien, the picture invoking a poetic sense of disconnectedness. Azam Aris’ ‘Belajar Untuk Pergi’ utilizes gold thread to depict pairs of hands, seemingly reaching out for help from deep pools of water. The embroidered pillow is endowed with cultural connotations that cannot be ignored, and the image of open-palm hands raised overhead, is a powerful one. From aspirations of self-actualization, to dreams of breaking away from one’s identity, to social events like weddings and migrations, the emotional charges that propels one’s motivation is always wading in a deep puddle. Sleep on it, and time to go.

Azam Aris – Belajar Untuk Pergi (2016)

04 November 2016

Era Mahathir @ ILHAM

Is it coincidence that the years which a Malaysian prime minister was in power (1981 – 2003), can be transcribed into an art exhibition? No doubt it is convenient, as organisers like utilising a fixed duration to fix the scope of a gallery exhibition. Since the guy is still regularly in the news, the free publicity is an added bonus, right? On the fifth floor, the visitor is greeted by comic panels that were first published on newsprint in the early 1980s, and a History Channel documentary produced in 2009. On the third floor (the fourth floor boys are absent from this building?), newly commissioned works include coffee-stained photographic collages, and recorded interviews which exhibited form (as a three-channel video installation) undermines its candid content. Is this exhibition capturing a zeitgeist, a legacy, or neither?

Detail installation snapshots of Liew Kung Yu – Pasti Boleh (Sure Can One) (1997)

The incoherence extends to the exhibits’ nonsensical arrangement, where convenience and spectacle are deemed more critical factors over the artwork’s individual context. Liew Kung Yu’s larger-than-life collage-sculptures ‘Pasti Boleh (Sure Can One)’ occupy one end of the gallery, and feature interactive elements to entertain visitors. The artist’s disarming use of icons – from golf balls to classical motifs to DBKL tong sampahs – is delightful and ironic for the most part, but it is the repeating image of the Petronas Twin Towers which is problematic. Relegating Kuala Lumpur’s most famous building to an opportunistic phallic symbol is an effective artful approach, but falters here when the work is situated in another steel tower built by one associated with the same authoritarian regime, that made the Twin Towers a Malaysian reality.

Hamidah Abdul Rahman – Self-portrait (2000)

The exhibition space itself is a potent element which neutralises the majority of works, especially Chuah Chong Yong’s towering installation at the gallery’s other end. Metal sculptures by Multhalib Musa and Zulkifli Yusoff are placed side-by-side with Hamidah Abdul Rahman’s black-eyed ‘Self-portrait’, thereby pitting heroic gestures against a personal reaction, to events grounded in Malay feudalism. On the opposite wall, Azizan Paiman’s droll illustrations make fun of rhetorical quotes, yet missing are works from the same series that feature Mahathir Mohamad and Daim Zainuddin. General commentaries in the form of metaphors provoke a cynical chuckle – such as Phuan Thai Meng’s leaking pipes, and Juhari Said’s corsage-flaunting gorilla – while one wonders the relevance of showing prints from the “Digital Collage” series by Ismail Zain.

Vincent Leong – Lot 3-75 (2012)

Therein lies the crux of this exhibition’s problems. By naming him, all issues and circumstances that occurred during a fixed duration are correlated with only one person, thus granting further agency to one powerful individual. Was an international tourism marketing campaign led by Mahathir? Why is the controversial National Economic Policy associated to just Mahathir? What does the Malaysian middle class’ liking for roman columns have anything to do with Mahathir? The reaction by artists to Ops Lalang – a political oppression that can be directly attributed to Mahathir – is only presented as documents in a glass box. Photographs and newspaper snippets overlay each other, denoting the carelessness and nonchalance of the organizers. Opposite, small screens play recordings of the eight-hour long ‘Skin Trilogy’ by Five Arts Centre, nary a chair nearby to ease one’s viewing experience.

[Jo Kukathas) #TanyaYBeeee – Will the petrol price affect the poor? [video published on 18th September 2013 on popteevee YouTube channel]

A compilation of Jo Kukathas’ ‘YBeeee’ videos offer welcome humour, as I pivot away from the proposed theme, to focus upon logical groupings of artworks. The found object aesthetic seems prevalent amongst MIA graduates, while painters prove that figurative depictions can portray strong emotions as effectively as abstract brushwork. One wall displaying works by Yee I-Lann, Nirmala Dutt Shanmughalingham, and Vincent Leong, project great examples of socio-political artwork, where the artists’ vantage point (i.e. perspectives) are literally embedded in the creation of pictures. Despite my detestation for large paintings, Ahmad Fuad Osman’s intense self-portrait stand out as an effective protest symbol in this politically-saturated gallery space, where the repressed sentiment is still present 17 years later. Also relevant today is the visual elucidation of the impact of media images, in Nur Hanim Khairuddin's video 'se(RANG)ga'.

Detail snapshots of Anurendra Jegadeva – Running Indians and the History of Malaysian Indians in 25 Clich├ęs (2001)

A missing strain in this narrative is the emergence of collectors who were supportive of politically-charged expressions, masquerading as the thinking person’s art (a notion still popular now, as if the Moderns thought lesser). They likely belong to a social class that patronised one of the curator’s former private gallery, where more than half of the current exhibits have shown before. Further convoluting the presentation are the four catalogue essays, which cover broad topics related to authoritarian rule, but only one relating to Malaysia's visual art history. So what if Mahathir had no interest in visual art? Why is there no mention of Anwar’s role in the nation’s gradual Islamization? Who decided to include ‘Puncak Purnama’ into the exhibition’s chronological timeline at the last minute? Where is Syed Ahmad Jamal’s logo design for Parti KeAdilan Nasional? APA? SIAPA? KENAPA?

Nirmala Dutt Shanmughalingham – Great Leap Forward VI – Bakun (1998)

“The reductive Era Mahathir branding is the sound of the first mine going off. I wonder why you would want to brand an exhibition of progressive, independent art with the name of a politician, no matter how important you consider him to be? It immediately brings to bear issues of power, gender, patriarchy, ethnicity and ideological interpellation. It has the effect of branding all the work in the show. And it underscores the impression that the exhibition, and the gallery itself, are tied into the game of thrones of Malaysian politics. The public will be forced to confront the spectacle of a supposed struggle between Barisan power elites, with Mahathir and Daim on one side vs Najib and his cronies on the other. But when boiled down to a paste, don’t both sides really represent the same ethos and ideology? And is it an ethos and ideology shared by the exhibited artists?”
‎- excerpt from Ray Langenbach‎’s 5th July 2016 letter to Rahel Joseph, as published in a posting dated 13th September 2016 on ILHAM gallery’s Facebook page

Ahmad Fuad Osman – Syhhh..! Dok diam-diam, jangan bantah. Mulut hang hanya boleh guna untuk cakap yaaaa saja. Baghu hang boleh join depa... senang la jadi kaya (1999)