24 August 2017

10/16 Musings about Negaraku @ NAG

Greeting one into the exhibition gallery, is a large collage consisting of 13 state flags, the national flag, printed snapshots of scenes captured within this country, and brushy strokes of coloured patches. Completed by the American artist Robert Rauschenberg, on the 9th leg of a 10-countries self-funded tour, ‘Yang Teragung’ denotes a fascination with the country’s diverse landscape, and co-existence of many sovereign rulers under a single nation-state. The artist was known as a compulsive creator, and improvised upon what he had on hand, at any one point of time. That a personal document, can be turned into a gift of goodwill, then utilized by administrators to signify the grandiose image of one country, is a testament to the power of art. Some say Rauschenberg’s slapdash style & form have lived on in Malaysian contemporary art until now…

Robert Rauschenberg – The Greatest (1989)

22 August 2017

9/16 Musings about Negaraku @ NAG

Two works by Nik Zainal Abidin are exhibited in “Negaraku”, but these are not the artist’s signature paintings of wayang. ‘Corak Bendera’ is a ‘T’-shaped composition of lines, half of it filled with colours from the Malaysian flag, yet no crescent moon or stars are in the design. The other is a wide watercolour illustration of Malay cultural objects. Titled ‘Mural Muzium’, one suspects this work was submitted into the mural competition for the then-new National Museum, which was eventually won by Cheong Laitong. This exhibit appears to be one of two panels, and compares against the left mural currently on the museum’s façade. Nik Zainal Abidin’s depictions are detailed and elegant, consisting of practical objects either woven or built, some with artistic flourishes; Laitong’s design has less things but more people, and is highly stylized. What is culture, if people do not practice it?

Nik Zainal Abidin – Mural Muzium (1961)

19 August 2017

8/16 Musings about Negaraku @ NAG

Narrowing the timespan in looking at exhibits in “Negaraku”, I notice an inter-generational difference in making art. Looking at Fauzan Omar’s ‘Luminosity 3’ and Joseph Tan’s ‘The Formation Series’ – both made in 1990, and depict interesting surface textures (or lack of) using acrylic paint. It is abstract, yet formal. Contrasting with works from artists in the Matahati collective – screaming figures made in 1992/3 by Bayu Utomo Radjikin and Ahmad Fuad Osman, and Ahmad Shukri Mohamed’s 1994 assemblage of indigenous items & motifs – there is a stark difference in mood and intention, despite the virtuosity on display. The latter works channel an immediacy, but what that impulse relates to is not clear. The audience for the art, and philosophy behind the art, appear to cross a boundary – that has since ushered in Malaysian contemporary art as we know it today. 

Bayu Utomo Radjikin – Bujang Berani (1991)

16 August 2017

7/16 Musings about Negaraku @ NAG

Why is the consciousness towards cultures outside one’s own ethnicity, so low among Malaysians? Despite the hollow calls to celebrate diversity, monoculturalism is practised among the ethnic groups that control the economy and politics. This concentration of capital and power is centred in Kuala Lumpur and diffused along the west coast of Peninsular Malaysia; Incidentally where the local art scene also is, which continuously underpins the status of art as luxury object. This is my main problem when viewing contemporary artworks that touch upon topics about indigenous or non-mainstream cultures – if the audience is middle class and liberal, cultural understanding is often turned inwards and desensitised into clichés. In this example, the triptych format appears ill-conceived without a clear purpose, apart from attracting eyes accustomed to Western art. Aku enda mereti…

Shia Yih Yiing – Homage to the Vanishing World (1996)

13 August 2017

6/16 Musings about Negaraku @ NAG

Re Kuala Lumpur, KL – the former Railway Station is a beautiful building. Few will dispute that the architecture of the former National Gallery, is more elegant than the current one. Old KL remains a beguiling place, every time I step foot into it. Refurbished spaces such as 2 Hang Kasturi, or the many hipster cafes, or paintings by artists such as Victor Chin, Gan Chin Lee, and Chin Kong Yee, still cannot fully capture the charm of old KL. What is it about the neoclassical façade? Is it an imagined past tinged with nostalgia? So, what if only lowly-paid migrant workers stay there now? Why is there still anger when I look at Chuah Chong Yong’s painting? Not like I disagree completely with gentrification. There is an existing sentimentality for old KL, and I am still trying to understand why that is so. 

Chuah Chong Yong – Pre-War Building for Sale (1996)

10 August 2017

5/16 Musings about Negaraku @ NAG

Most exhibits in “Negaraku” are culled from the National Collection, except for a small number that are loaned from local collectors. Institutional curatorial selections involving private collections in a loosely-curated group exhibition, should always be questioned. A successful example of such collaboration is the Ismail Hashim photograph ‘The Pool Table and the Painting on the Wall’, which giant painting referenced (by A.J. Rahman?) is also shown, together with Redza Piyadasa’s deconstruction ‘The Great Malaysian Landscape’. As noted in a Fergana Art Facebook post, Ismail’s snapshot is taken in the saloon bar of the former KL Railway Station, close by the former National Gallery, and probably a former popular hangout with artists. Inspiration can be propagated in many ways, and it is this creative possibility inferred in this three works together, that make this installation memorable.

Installation snapshot

08 August 2017

Getaran @ White Box

Stopping in front of the monumental ‘Perentas Ribut No. 18’ on my way to White Box, I grinned in anticipation at visiting Mad Anuar Ismail’s long-awaited solo exhibition. The last couple times Fergana Art brought in works by the artist were astonishing steel sculptures, or so I thought – ‘Belangkas #4’ is in fact made from painted canvas wrapped around a steel wire structure! Off pedestals, onto walls. Nevertheless, there are two steel creations from the “Pahlawan” series, among the wall-hung fixtures exhibited. With its sharp contours and headdress outlines, these striking sculptures showcase the artist’s masterful technique, where glittering welded joints and bronze fillings accentuate its presentation. As indicative in the series’ namesake, these are heroic and awesome sculptures. In contrast, the majority of exhibits utilize a new approach of painted canvas on steel structure.

Pahlawan #6 (2017)

Upon inspection, these recent works recall soft sculptures. Gestural figures become stately portraits, its static presentation concentrating the semangat/tenaga onto an emblematic icon instead of allegorical characters. “Yes, it’s a bust portrait”, Mad Anuar says, referring to the five works from the “Wayang” series. Like figureheads carved onto boat prows, these are not reverential figures on plinths, but a group of personalities with individual characteristics. Its cast of characters resonate little with me, although the applied forms fascinate. From triangular sunrays on ‘Rama’ and ‘Laksamana’, to ‘Sita’s and ‘Rawana’s wiry flourishes, the shapes are minimalist yet effective. Tudung saji-like weavings connect these portrayals to a cultural tradition; Strangely, its colours remind me of the five elements 五行 of Chinese cosmology…

Ibu dan Anak (2017)

The remaining wall pieces project more accomplished and less moralistic depictions, without the scale constraints of “bust portraits”. A captivating example is ‘Ibu dan Anak’, with its canopy-like crowns and stretched canvas (instead of woven strips). Sewn ridges recall the textured surfaces of Mad Anuar’s steel creations, where the sculpture is now dressed in painted clothes, thereby augmenting tenderness to a delicate portrait. ‘Penari’ displays joyful colours, the wavy trails describing a spiritual uplift, its shape recalling also a soaring eagle. Hung next to it is ‘Kelibat’ and its floaty impression of torn fabric, with sides bent outwards like burning paper. Metal rods join two sections at the middle to form a pattern, its filling left bare against the white wall, for viewers to complete the (hopefully) chromatic image. The centre seems to hold a sacred truth; Perhaps this space offers a glimpse of the ideal sublime form?

Kelibat (2017)

The exhibition, however, is overshadowed by the towering presence of ‘Meditasi #4: Penghormatan kepada Ibu’. Placed off-centre in the gallery, intertwining forms emerge from a single 7-feet tall block of raintree wood. Its mild steel base resembles a keris hilt, but looks more like a mismatched container that can barely hold the majestic carving. Yes, mother nature provides, but how empty is its core? Organizer Jaafar Ismail describes in his foreword, “(t)his is a work that forces itself into the show, offering its role as a cardinal centrepiece, from which the others radiate; The ‘Semangat’ of Meditasi must have emanated out of the ‘Primordial’ Mad Anuar. The raw power which reinforce the autonomy of the artist is much evident…” The exhibition catalogue also includes writings by artist and collector peers, providing insights to the artist’s philosophy of art, and formative snippets that led to the making of wall pieces.

Installation snapshot of Meditasi #4: Penghormatan kepada Ibu (2017), with “Wayang” series in the background

Interviewed by studio partner Mansoor Ibrahim, Mad Anuar gives a simple explanation behind these wall pieces. “Sekiranya saya buat pameran solo nanti… dinding saya sangat bogel! (…) Jadi why not saya buat “3D painting!” This recent approach successfully expands Mad Anuar’s repertoire, while preserving his artful concerns. The ductile and fully-formed wire shape denotes a literal framework for cultural motifs and personal observations. Canvas strips recall Zulkifli Yusoff and a uniform shredding of the painting tradition; Yet the colours of wall pieces have symbolic tones, and its banded swathes showcase the artist’s unwavering dedication to craftsmanship. Should Malay painting be hanging off Malay cultural forms? Are these creations depicting a personal belief, or a critique? The tremors I feel then, is the yawning gap that separates the consummate craftsman, with contemporary art.

Close-up snapshots of wall pieces

“Seniman membaca alam.  Di dunia yang terbentang.
Dengan cakerawala yang memayungi siang atau malam.
Pohon-pohon, logam, pasir dan batu batan bagai aksara
Kalimat-kalimat yang kemas, lurus, lengkung atau panjang.
Dia merumuskan cerita yang tidak nyata meskipun yang terang.

Bacalah! Dan renungilah wajah.  Arca-arca yang diam, tetapi diam-diam memadam.
Takrif seniman yang memaknakan persekitaran: Sejarah, tradisi, bakat dan warisan
Atau hanya pergelutan sia-sia tentang masa depan.”
- excerpt from Tentang Arca dan Persekitaran (Untuk Mad Anuar: Seniman dan Pembaca Alam), poem by Baha Zain, July 2017

Penari (2017)

02 August 2017

4/16 Musings about Negaraku @ NAG

As the Malaysian art canon goes, the late 1970s and early 1980s seem like a dry well. The conceptual act by Sulaiman Esa & Redza Piyadasa was a once-off, while Ismail Zain’s “Digital Collage” was not yet ready. Modernist paintings and abstract works remain the norm, and had a small existing market. The 1971 National Cultural Policy had apparently encouraged the proliferation of non-figurative art, although this conclusion is being challenged nowadays. One proponent of figurative work during this time is Samjis Mat Jan, whose ‘Rendezvous’ comes across as a cheeky and self-assuring statement. The young, confident man is wearing a pink polo shirt, while his (assumed) friend sits dangling a foot with untied shoelaces and rolled-down yellow socks. The expression is optimistic, and a nostalgic one.

Samjis Mat Jan – Rendezvous (1984)

30 July 2017

3/16 Musings about Negaraku @ NAG

Cecil Rajendra once commented on Lee Kian Seng’s ‘Of ' Image, Object, Illusion ' – Off Series Mechanism’: “…It is loaded with symbolism that teases and invites the viewer to interpretations. Why is the flag reversed? What does the cockroach on the top right of the painting mean? Does it augur ill for our future? It is also a beautifully composed picture that achieves an almost perfect balance between subject matter and media..." While the artist’s displeasure with Balai for exhibiting his works wrongly is well known, it is perplexing how they got it wrong again, including the artwork title on the wall placard. One student noticed that the lighting is wrong (my observation: is the real flag hung too low?), as there is no shadow reflected onto the floor. If the presentation of art is the responsibility of the curators, then this one is also on them.

Installation snapshot of Lee Kian Seng – ‘Of ' Image, Object, Illusion ' – Off Series Mechanism’ (1977)

27 July 2017

2/16 Musings about Negaraku @ NAG

With 5 curators working within 5 broad themes, one can look past incoherent curatorship, especially when the “Negaraku” exhibition is part of a larger patriotism project. Apart from works that feature political slogans, most exhibits present little correlation to the idea of nation-states, which is a good thing. For the casual visitor, visiting the exhibition is a pleasant affair, apart from the occasional irritation felt when reading wall placards. The decision to state the age of the artist on a separate placard is odd, notwithstanding theoretical debates on when an artwork is completed. Translation is the real bugbear, as the task to render all titles into Bahasa Melayu, looked like it was done by an intern and reviewed by no one. Typos and illegible texts abound. If the presentation of art is the responsibility of the curators, then this one’s on them.

Wall text for a 1971 painting by Ibrahim Hussein – title is ‘Unknown’? Mesonit bod? Bahasa or English to name the collection it came from? Why not reveal that this is a restored mural from the sports center of Universiti Malaya?

24 July 2017

1/16 Musings about Negaraku @ NAG

Even before entering the exhibition gallery, “Negaraku” makes a loud statement via the hanging of Zhang Zhou’s ‘Keranamu Malaysia’ (who?) at the lobby, flanked by a mixed media painting by Ahmad Shukri Mohamed with people & place names emblazoned across it, and two installations by Zulkifli Yusoff. The latter is a visual translation of the agricultural diversity program Rancangan Buku Hijau, launched by Tun Abdul Razak in 1974. With its layered canvas strips, resin-encased protrusions, and wall-height display, Zulkifli’s work seems to encompass all five of the exhibition’s curatorial themes: Landscape, Social Interaction, Beliefs, Abstract and Inheritance/ Independence. For all its virtuosity, there is only one reason why it is presented in Balai’s lobby – as a talking point when the current Prime Minister (and namesake reference) opened the “Negaraku” exhibition on 16th June. My country, indeed.

Zulkifli Yusoff – The Green Book (Razak Series) (2014)

21 July 2017

Snippets: USA, Mar 2017

Notes at SFMOMA: Fun exit by getting lost in a Richard Serra construct, although a so-so permanent hang offers little surprise. One gallery dedicated to Alexander Calder presents a great range beyond the well-known mobiles, and provides visual evidence that “the exceptional quality of his sculpture was often the result of its unique combination of precision and chance.” Also poignant was a room full of Warhols, where one is surrounded by re-printed portraits of dead celebrities, as if visual immortality is preserved in an unnatural and ironic (‘Pop’) state. I learned about Martin Puryear from John Yau’s reviews of the artist, and it was a pleasure to finally see the fully-formed artworks.

Martin Puryear – Untitled (1990)

Kerry James Marshall retrospective at MOCA: Commenting upon “the presence and absence of blackness”, “Mastry” presents important works by one well-known American contemporary painter. From early self-portraits that emphasize blackness, to crowded and symbolic compositions, to his mature style of figures populating lively scenes, Kerry James’ major series of paintings are shown alongside smaller projects and photographic installations. ‘De Style’ and ‘School of Beauty and Culture’ are wonderful examples that amalgamate daily life with visual tropes, while the powerful triptych ‘Heirlooms and Accessories’ transforms the image of a lynching event into a symbolic burden. Browsing this superb collection of well-executed paintings, pictures like ‘Black Painting’ hangs heavily in one’s mind, although I did leave with a broad smile taken after the ‘Club Couple’.

Kerry James Marshall – Untitled (Club Couple) (2014)

Notes at MOCA: Walking past one large & tiresome installation by Thomas Hirschhorn, then humoured by Rachel Lachowicz’s ‘Lipstick Cube’, I stopped transfixed in front of Robert Rauschenberg’s ‘Interview’. One of the artist’s earliest combines, the collection of paint and images demarcated by a swinging door, projects into the viewer’s space yet draws one closer to the work. What unknown/anxiety is Bob alluding to? Is art-making, art-presentation, art-know-how, or art-selection, what people want to know about the artist? Are sports and food the best conversation starters in New York City? Does staying in one’s closet offer help advance a relationship? ‘Interview’ is not a product of introspection, but a reaction towards social interactions. Painting and found objects, what a great combination.

Robert Rauschenberg – Interview (1955)

Chicago Public Art: Braving the cold (stupidity), I spent a morning tracking down as many public art sculptures I could locate that were close to the Loop, by referencing the city’s official Public Art Guide. The list of famous last names is long – Calder, Picasso, Dubuffet, LeWitt, Serra, Wool, Castle, Oldenburg, Plensa... yet crowds gather only at Kapoor’s ‘Cloud Gate’ for a photo stop. Less Instagram-friendly but more engaging than a shiny bean, is the sounding sculpture by Harry Bertoia, located at the plaza of Aon Centre. Copper rods fixed onto a brass base sway in the Windy City breeze, its musical chimes offering an enchanting experience to complement the view of Lake Michigan (or skyscraper) in the background.

Harry Bertoia: Untitled Sound Sculpture (1975) [video at Richard Gleaves YouTube channel]

Viviane Sassen at MoCP: “Conceived as an installation work with seven different chapters”, “UMBRA” by the Amsterdam-based fashion photographer remains the best solo exhibition I seen this year. The size and themes of pictures exhibited in each section is distinct, yet the play on shadows and mirror images infuse a psychological dimension into her captures. Moving from a meditation about burying the dead and coloured shadows upstairs, to the lucid snapshots of people that juxtapose sunlight with darkness, Viviane’s works display a knack for surprising visual configurations within a rectangular freeze frame. I sit in the dark room and watch the sign language performance video ‘Hurtling’ three times, before settling into the LARVAE installation to trace surreal close-ups of human bodies. Mirrored projections are nonidentical; shadows take its desired form; reflected light rays hurtle.

Installation snapshots at Viviane Sassen – LARVAE (2017)

Art AIDS America Chicago at Alphawood Gallery: As described by one reviewer, this staggering “show explicates how the art created during and after the AIDS crisis is not a footnote or a sub-genre in art history, but something that impacted the course of it.” This temporary gallery space is charged with personal emotion relayed through the many artworks, that successfully engages visitors with anguished tributes, coping mechanisms, and a collective voice. To cherry-pick one artwork feels like relegating the rest, as I become a bit more optimistic about art as a politically mobilising force. In this day & age when people feel uncomfortable after watching Moonlight, it is still relevant to anchor an exhibition onto a traumatic duration, especially when there is still no cure for AIDS available now.

Dr. Eric Avery – The Stuff of Life (1993) – an installation of condom-filled piñatas against a background of blood-cell patterned wallpaper to encourage HIV testing in largely Latino communities in Texas

14 July 2017

Di Mana (Where Are) Young @ National Art Gallery

Visitors ascending the spiral walkway to the third-floor galleries are in for a treat. Walking past well-executed paintings – some surreal figurations, some abstract expressions – one is greeted by a large marionette made from jute ropes. Lisa Foo’s aptly-titled ‘Being in the Moment’ grants playful freedom; Otherwise one can slingshot chalk onto a classroom blackboard, duck and run through a geometric-shaped passage, sit on beautifully-designed rubber wood bar stools, lie down inside a bulbous plastic bag (with a fan blowing inside), or engage in a game of Chinese chess with trapezoidal constructs as moving pieces. Within the smaller gallery hangs a floral wreath made from plastic bottles, while a comic strip about Kapitan Yap Ah Loy is encased in an acrylic box nearby, and a collection of repurposed biscuit tin cans and small framed drawings is arranged in one corner of the gallery.

Installation view of Lisa Foo – Being in the Moment (2017)

I appreciate Anna Azzreena’s quirky observations about sitting poses. I laugh out loud at ‘My Language Proficiency’ by Okui Lala, a video of the artist having a conversation with her selves in English, Mandarin, Bahasa, and Hokkien. I indulge in the spectral yet lively figures in Hamidah Abdul Rahman’s ‘Kitaran’. I marvel at clay ‘Globe’(s) by Ham Rabeah Kamarun, its caked and hardened surfaces reinforcing its status as tactile art objects. I watch stoically at Sharon Chin throwing flowers forcefully onto the tarmac in the recorded performance ‘Ria/Joy’. I was struck in awe by Mah Chai Soon’s ‘Labourers’, a sketchy watercolour painting made in 1966, and collected by Balai the following year. Even after admiring crafty and colourful textile works by Ani Emina Azman and Yim Yen Sum, there remains no obvious hint that I am looking at artworks done exclusively by women artists. 

Video snapshots of Okui Lala – My Language Proficiency (2017)

Only after coming across the word Anxiety on a wall near the larger gallery’s entrance, did I pay attention to the "women artists only" aspect of this exhibition. Several questions spring immediately to mind regarding the exhibition theme. For one, specifying a gender reinforces clichés associated to “women’s struggles”, i.e. women artists receiving less recognition, woman as child-bearer and primary care-giver, feminist beliefs that challenge social norms, etc. Secondly, the exhibits are culled from multiple sources – the national collection, works chosen by artists already represented in the national collection, artists invited by the curator, and an open call (which includes five students). This haphazard selection resulted in 101 women’s artists, which number is retained in the exhibition title to imply an introduction or primer. 

Liu Siat Moi – Self Portrait (1963)

Given that its exhibits are sourced from various channels, and only one curator involved, it is unfair to expect a coherent show. The result is a sprawling presentation with some complementing works shown together, some sections that reinforce clichés, some works which seem better suited for another exhibition within the same building, and some rarely seen gems from the national collection. As indicated by statistics presented outside the gallery, institutional recognition is the key theme. For the 2006 exhibition “Holding Up Half the Sky by Women Artists”, a survey done only with pieces from the national collection, curator Laura Fan stated that, “(e)ven with the collection, there may be several women artists who have been overlooked either because their names were not recognized…” This is true as my favourite Malaysian female contemporary artist was not included among this 101.  

Sarah Joan Mokhtar – Untitled I, II, III, IV (2012)

Putting aside the definition of “women’s struggles”, many works project a keen sensitivity that is less apparent in works by local male artists. There are images that reinforce the artist’s gender, such as Yee I-Lann’s portrayal of seven women in the arts, or the four beautiful Celtic-inspired illustrations by Sarah Joan Mokhtar. There are masterful usage of materials, such as Jasmine Kok’s fantastical ceramic and velvet wall sculpture, or the small gesso and wool ‘Object 006’ by Naomi Ching. There is a pair of dense, personal, and brilliant paintings hung side by side, by Eng Hwee Chu and Anna Chin. Special regard is accorded to the video record of Intan Rafiza’s 2012 performance at Chow Kit, and Ruby Subramaniam’s photo series of dancers in body paint posing in Brickfields. These two works approach the theme of body politics with aplomb, and should be celebrated for making its way into the National Gallery.

Naomi Ching – Object 006 (2015)

Which leads me to the most interesting exhibits here – pieces from the national collection, especially those acquired in the first 30 years since its inception. I wonder about the life and times of Katherine Sim, whose portrait of ‘Salmah’ is dated 1948 and was collected in 1959. Liu Siat Moi’s casual ‘Self Portrait’ is hung on the same wall as a 1968 painting by Nora Abdullah, the latter an accomplished comic artist whose 1956 illustrated book was acquired by the British Library. The most stunning work belongs to Rokiah Yusoff, whose ‘Pasangan Melayu’ is a collage consisting of painted cut-outs, rattan placemats, lace, and magazine snippets. With its printed words, awkward figures, and crafty patterns, the work recalls a combination of Richard Hamilton and Ismail Zain, while offering a fresh take of a local subject matter. Google has not yielded a single piece of information about Rokiah Yusoff, the artist.

Rokiah Yusoff – Pasangan Melayu (1963)

Institutional recognition remains a pressing question, when one wonders why a work as significant in Malaysian art history as Nirmala Dutt Shanmughalingam’s ‘Statement 1’ – a breakthrough in social commentary art – is not included in the “Negaraku” survey downstairs. In another article, I read about Sivam Selvaratnam remarking about the importance of institutional acquisitions during the 1960s & 70s, especially for works by women artists which were less popular with private collectors. While there is not sufficient information here to trace a lineage of women’s artworks in Malaysian art history, the wide-ranging works in this exhibition demonstrate that the fe/male binary is less apparent than what one first expects, and that can only be a good thing. It is a real-life translation of the wonderful “MyWomen’sArt” Twitter account, and a celebration of good, diverse art.

Soraya Yusof Talismail – Yee I-Lann (1999)

07 July 2017

Barehands 2017 @ National Art Gallery

The sequence of events that culminated in this exhibition is well worth recounting. As stated in the catalogue, it started with Juhari Said inviting Anees Maani to his studio Akaldiulu in 2010. In 2014, Anees joined Mamoru Abe for another residency at Akaldiulu, then Juhari visited Anees’ studio in Amman the following year. Upon returning to Malaysia, Juhari and Setiawan Sabana arranged for the inaugural Barehands – Asian Artist Residency Project to be held in Bandung, with 19 participants from five countries. The rotation continued with Mamoru hosting 21 artists in Fukuoka, who stayed in Munakata for a week. For this Kuala Lumpur leg, 28 participants spent a month beginning April 2017, in five studios spread across town – Akaldiulu, Pantau Iraga (Awang Damit Ahmad), Studio Tikus (Samsudin Wahab), M.I.A. Studio, and RAG Studio (Ramlan Abdullah).

Kenji Makizono – The City and Its Tower (2017)

While residency programs offer great learning and networking opportunities among fellow artists, the short duration and expectation to produce exhibits, is typically seen as a constraint towards good art-making. However, Barehands boasts an international line-up of mid-career artists, and experience shines through in this collection of well-executed artworks. In works exhibited immediately outside Galeri 2A, Kenji Makizono offers clever takes on Malaysian matters. ‘Look Yeast’ presents a metaphorical play on Mahathir’s “Look East” policy, with local ingredients such as tapai and tempoyak left to ferment in vitrines. On the wall, 30 horizontal photographs of water tanks captured in and around Kuala Lumpur, is titled ‘The City and Its Tower’. A couple of these snapshots even feature the Petronas Twin Towers and KL Tower.

Exhibition snapshot

Entering the gallery, one is struck by the smell of earth, the sound of waves, and the many artworks made from natural or industrial materials. Among creations by foreign artists, it is difficult to pinpoint specific Malaysian influences, notwithstanding the works’ visual attraction. Paintings of tropical plants and embedded signboards. Rusted metal plates fused together into a rectangular picture. Woodcut prints of large faces onto tufted cloths. Creatures illustrated manga-style onto banners by Indonesian artists. Multiple layers of coloured stripes. A video focused upon bare hands. Interactive art which requires visitors to stare at a dot, or make clay objects. The sparse exhibition layout only accentuates the lacking coherence between artworks. 

Marvin Chan – Desecration of the Temple (2017)

Nevertheless, it is nit-picking to expect more from an end-of-residency show. I probably appreciate the works by local artists better, because I am familiar with their oeuvre. Marvin Chan’s ‘Desecration of the Temple’ assembles drapes and paintings onto a red wall, where women figures appear ready to smash the ceiling over a church’s nave, as a hardened heart is depicted at the centre. In ‘Lee Kuan Yew & The Tales From The Little Red Dot’, Stephen Menon juxtaposes the Singaporean’s portrait with various symbols, which result in a cheeky yet ironic series. Outside, two large & three small paintings by Awang Damit depict forceful expressions, and one imagines that Tisna Sanjaya’s powerful painting displays traces of influence from the senior artist. 

Exhibition snapshot

Ramlan Abdullah’s ‘Zero to Zero’ recalls the term kosong-kosong this Ramadan month, and its sturdy construction projects an elegant aesthetic balance. Equally crafty are creations by Sharmiza Abu Hassan and Bibi Chew. The former’s conjoined bird cages and floating nest with roots, explores sources of inspiration; Coconut husks and sawdust from the latter, denote symbolic representations utilizing heavily-textured materials. Faizal Suhif’s ubi-shaped print appears static in the presence of Samsudin’s ‘Mud Tent’, literally a tent-shaped cloth covered in mud from Tanjung Harapan, Klang. An accompanying video captures the work/performance by Buden, as the artist digs up wet grey soil and spreads it across a long piece of white cloth. What is left behind – a muddy shelter, a hopeful hovel, or both?

Video snapshots of Samsudin Wahab – Harapan Tanjung Harapan (2017)

Although it is unclear how the name Barehands came about, a conjecture can be made based on exhibited works by the project initiators. Quirky-shaped sculptures on pedestals, lead up to two rust-coloured figures by Juhari. Anees’ smooth pieces of wood draw attention to the medium’s distinct grain and texture, which presents a balancing effect when contrasted with the generic wooden veneer of gallery floorboards. The transformation of materials into appealing forms continue with Mamoru, whose ‘Surveyed Map’ recalls a dried-up diorama of a sunken lost city, while Setiawan’s ‘Paperium, Reflection’ makes industrial detritus from paper and wood. Being hands-on from crafting one’s artwork, to building networks, to organizing exhibitions, require a significant amount of effort and resilience. The sensual experience of this show, testifies to all that.

Exhibition snapshot

30 June 2017

ILHAM Contemporary Forum Malaysia 2009 – 2017 (I) @ ILHAM

The gallery director – a former curator – invites another curator, to select seven young curators, whom each propose five recent Malaysian “visual artworks or cultural projects” for display at a 20-weeks long exhibition. Keywords include ‘Malaysian’ – which nationality should be identified by all participating curators, artists, or project initiators; ‘Young’ – criteria for curators to be below 39 years old, i.e. the definition of youth in Malaysian political parties; ‘Recent’ – created/ visualized within 2009-now, i.e. years since Najib Razak became the Malaysian Prime Minister. Can recent art stir political awareness in the Malaysian youth, as the next General Elections loom overhead in the coming months?

Instagram page for Gan Siong King - YariYarimoriya (2015)

Or is this just a sequel to the gallery’s 2016 show “Era Mahathir”, with curators clearly named and readily available to be criticised? The exhibition statement describes it as “an experimental programme” that “…is meant less as a survey of contemporary trends than as a prompt to discuss and debate what has been happening in the local arts and cultural scene.” Cross-disciplinary events aside, the show is still anchored by a museum-format exhibition display. Moving between art objects, performance records, on-site installations, and even one card game laid out on a circular table, I am left disorientated. One expects a curated exhibition to generate flow and self-realization opportunities, but here I am viewing exhibits as standalone presentations, while walking past wall texts with laughably vague themes such as discomfort and reassemble.

Installation snapshots of Tan Zi Hao - The Soil Is Not Mine (2013)

For a show that wants to highlight the curatorial practice, the missing information about who chose what is a bugbear. Who preferred Liew Kwai Fei’s Tetris-shaped single-coloured paintings, over his later output of colourful & waggish painting-sculptures? Who convinced the organizers, and/or funded, Liew Seng Tat to recreate the house for ‘Projek Angkat Rumah’? Were family portrait photographs and collated hand-drawn maps by Vincent Leong, selected by the same curator? Was the person who proposed LiteraCity, also the one who recommended Rizman Ruzaini’s outlandish costume? Which contemporary curator did not shun painting? Who only selected “cultural projects” and no “visual artworks”? Each curator has their own experiences, individual politics, and social cliques. Not naming their selections only muddles any attempt to highlight curatorship.

Rizman Ruzaini - Miss Universe Malaysia 2016's national costume (2016)

When maximum realisation of the exhibition theme depends on a (unrealistic) commitment, from visitors to participate in its weekly events, one questions if enough effort was put into contextualising the art on display in the first place. Concluding what is contemporary is an impossible task, largely due to the different time ranges inherent in the making of exhibited projects. From framed paintings, to free-standing objects, to static prints, to single-channel videos, or rearranging such objects into a new installation. There is even one Instagram feed, a product, and different versions of the same map. Buku Jalanan and Arts-Ed probably deserve its own category, because no single project is highlighted and these outfits are still evolving. Imposing an age limit onto participating artists, seem irrelevant in its contribution to the ambitious theme.

Haffendi Anuar - Highway Heat (2016)

Nevertheless, the selections offer excellent examples of contemporary Malaysian art. Several works reward long looking, like the fantastical scenes in Hasanul Isyraf Idris’ ‘Krishna Tongue’, Au Sow Yee’s moving images in ‘Pak Tai Foto’, and the hypnotic lines in ‘Highway Heat’ by Haffendi Anuar. However, dwelling on the small items in Tan Zi Hao’s ‘The Soil is Not Mine’, or the large ‘Mud Painting’ by Samsudin Wahab, misses the point, if one overlooks the conceptual (yet meditative) expressions projected. Looking at the few groups of visitors, I was surprised how little time people spent at Fahmi Reza’s “Student Power” installation, as though they have been conditioned to look away from densely-arranged political posters, or perhaps it was just a matter of contextual placement within this gallery layout.

Installation snapshot of Fahmi Reza - Student Power (2009-2011)

One contemporary mode is the intent to initiate a re-hang midway through the exhibition, in line with the agile approach favoured by project management professionals nowadays (and perhaps an idea for the KL Biennale if its inaugural hang fails to impress). If the curators decide that ‘Banana Money’ be moved, will the gallery commission Chong Kim Chiew to re-do his tape artwork on another wall? The re-hang introduces an element of hope, a sentiment hardly felt in these tough times. Nonetheless, I look forward to more interesting juxtapositions – Hasanul’s crab paintings hanging in the Rumah Melayu, Eiffel Chong’s photographs displayed in the same corner as Kwai Fei’s modular creations, Haffendi’s ‘Waterfalls’ placed right in front of Sharon Chin’s flags, decks and seats available for visitors to play ‘Politiko’, with dissonant noises from Kamal Sabran’s recording playing in the background, etc.

Installation snapshot: [foreground] Chong Kim Chiew - Boundary Fluidity (2014-ongoing); [background] Edroger C. Rosili - The Greatest View At The Similarities in Features Between the Pinnacles of Two Different Nation (Revisited) (2016) 

What happened in Malaysia from 2009 until now? A declining economy and soaring living costs, coincide with the tenure of an unpopular yet powerful Prime Minister. With social media shaping imagined communities, a strong sense of disenfranchisement pervades among the public, especially urban dwellers. Personally, the establishment of BFM Radio has played a big part in disseminating cultural knowledge, during this time. In the local art scene, the painting-centric art market has grown significantly, while issues such as censorship and factionalism persist. How many independent Malaysian curators were there before 2009? Curation implies omission, and identifying what is not selected and not shown, is equally important in understanding the contemporary. Especially before the next General Election.

Novia Shin - Not So Long Ago (2013)

23 June 2017

Bumi Larangan: Zulkifli Dahlan @ National Art Gallery

Studying one artist’s progression based on works held by the family ~40 years after his death, is a messy effort. Curator Nur Hanim Khairuddin describes in her catalogue essay ‘Yang Aneh, Nakal dan Trajis: Kehidupan dan Kesenian Zulkifli Mohd. Dahlan’ – “(n)early all of the works in the collection are not dated (…) it is hard for us to determine precisely the different phases of the development of his imagery, for instance, the shift from partly dressed to totally naked figures, or from realist figures to hairy monsters to distorted forms to amoeba-like zoomorphic and biomorphic shapes; and the transition of the various configurations of his mutant hybrids: plant-animal, plant-object, animal-object, human-plant, human-animal, human-object, and so on and so forth.”

Untitled (c. 1970s)

“Apa yang dia lukis, bonjol-bonjol di dalam lukisan itu?”, asks Siti Zainon Ismail. Looking at the ink drawings on display at Galeri 2B, it is astounding how well these figurative characters effectively represent this world. Humans & machines are fused together as one. Sprouting is a natural function. Windows frame an alternate reality. A television is just another window. Sitting is a contemplative/ dreamy action. A landscape (preferably one with a horizon) is required to ruminate. When pop-eyed individuals look at each other, engagement & narrative occurs. Collectives thread the same line. Or multiple selves spawn from one’s sense faculties. Humans harbour inner beasts. Perspective is personal, not visual. Durians are awesome. The interior and exterior are two sides of the same line. What is nakedness, when everyone is unclothed?

Detail snapshot of the centre panel of Realiti Berasingan: Satu Hari di Bumi Larangan (1975), painted on a board advertising the boxing match between Muhammad Ali and Joe Bugner at Stadium Merdeka. The red letterings MUHAMMAD are now showing through the drawing. [Anecdote from Zanita Anuar's essay Satu Hari di Bumi Larangan published in Tanpa Tajuk (No. 1), 2000]

As rightfully pointed out by Tan Zi Hao, “Zulkifli’s meandering lines, as a formalist feature of his aesthetics, receive scant attention.” His “resolute outlines” possess a “semangat”, but is unfortunately canonized in Malaysian art history as cartoonish, naïve, or lucah.  Zi Hao’s penetrating write-up also detects the “sense of fascination predicated upon his exceptionalism” that “contributed to the fossilization of Zulkifli’s works.” A rarity in local art exhibitions, this wonderful show is accompanied by an exceptional catalogue, that I purchased online. A biographical write-up, reminiscing interviews, tributes from friends & family, an effusive reflection that compares ‘Kedai-Kedai’ to Mondrian’s ‘Broadway Boogie Woogie’, poems, re-published exhibition essays and newspaper clippings, and colour plates for all exhibited artworks. Gem of a catalogue for only RM 100.

Installation snapshot of [clockwise from left] a sketch book; photograph of Zulkifli Dahlan and Latiff Mohidin at Studio Dapur (1972); image used for the front cover of the "Pameran Kenangan Allahyarham Zulkifli Mohd. Dahlan" exhibition catalogue (1978)

Another fantastic essay is contributed by Niranjan Rajah. ‘Revisiting the Art of Zulkifli Dahlan: A Post-traditional Reading’ argues that the artist “…has left us a body of work that exemplifies an indigenous humanism that sits comfortably within a theocentric view.” Niranjan elaborates, “(f)rom an Islamic point of view, Zulkifli’s work never presents sufficient illusory space, sculptural dimensionality, dramatic action or definitive personality, to constitute a focus that would amount to or facilitate idolatry.” These essays debunk decades-old interpretations of Zulkifli’s works, and present updated perspectives that are relevant now. For example, there were repeated mentions of Zulkifli growing up in suburban Petaling Jaya, and is the son of a ustaz. Or how the May 1969 riots may have influenced the young artist’s outlook in life.

Untitled (c. 1970s)

Moving away from ink drawings – once described by Ismail Abdullah as ‘permulaan yang berkesempurnaan’ – Zulkifli’s paintings require a different mode of interpretation. The utilized canvas is relatively large, juxtaposed blocks of colour create luminous contrasts, and its composition typically emphasizes the painting’s flatness. Showcased here are four of the five paintings that nabbed Zulkifli the major award, at the inaugural Young Contemporaries competition organized by the National Art Gallery. The styles displayed are rather incoherent, for example, if one compares ‘Penjual Kueh’ to ‘Halaman Rumah Kami’. Geometric shapes define objects in the former, and follows an unconventional but definite horizontal perspective. In the latter, colours fill entire outlined forms, although one cannot ignore the dated and spotty condition of this 43-years old work.

Halaman Rumah Kami (1974)

Intentional spots cover densely the diptych ‘Dari Dalam Sa-Buah Rumah’ and ‘Ruang Tengah Sa-Buah Rumah’. Instead of Pollock, I presume that such expressionist gestures are influenced by Latiff Mohidin, whom Zulkifli shared a studio with in 1972. Latiff was then working on his “Mindscape” series, which arched portals probably reinforced Zulkifli’s philosophical beliefs in the depiction of windows (or was it Zulkifli that inspired Latiff?) Another interesting anecdote is that Zulkifli was the resident artist at Angkatan Pelukis SeMalaysia (APS) in 1973/74 – what did other APS members think of his surreal creations? I think Zulkifli depicted a universal truth, however ideal that ambition was. The meandering lines manifest a knowledge that what is prohibited on earth, stems from a hierarchical seeing and evaluating. When that imbalance is flattened, like in his drawings, reality is unveiled.

Untitled (c. 1970s)

“Subjek utamanya memang saya ingat. Insan yang bermata agak belolok, ‘insan getah’ nama saya untuk dia. Insan tidak berskeleton. Kalau ditiup angin, ia bergoyang. Barangkali itu pernyataan Zulkifli untuk mengatakan bahawasanya kita ini hanya kulit sahaja. Kita tidak bertulang. Ertinya kehidupan insan yang dilihatnya dirumuskannya begitu. Kita ini hanya kulit sahaja, kita tidak ada batin. Mungkin itu yang dilihat sebab kita boleh ambil kira latarnya sebagai anak kepada seorang agamawan. Jadi, tentu soal dunia akhirat mesti ada dalam diri dia dan dia melihat hidup di dunia itu sebagai bayangan kepada masa akan datang. Di akhirat, sebagai misalan. Jadi, dosa dan paha diterjemahkan ke situ.”
- Excerpt of interview with A. Samad Said, 25 February 2016, Balai Seni Negara

Untitled (c. 1970s)

18 June 2017

June 2017: The Month to Visit Balai Seni Negara

With six exhibitions running concurrently in the National Art Gallery, one suspects that concentrating so much glorious art into one building, is either one fortuitous coincidence, bad planning, or a trial run before the KL Biennale opens in November. While its galleries are relatively quiet most of the time, the Balai seems even more still in the month of Ramadan. Perhaps the gallery guards have been removed? Barring minor renovation work, school children, or the customary hustle bustle before a minister’s visit, the spacious environs typically offer interested persons a pleasant gallery viewing experience.

A Aishah Abdul Latif – Pemandangan (1979)

Very large wall hangings greet visitors into the Balai’s new-look lobby, the displayed works being part of “Negaraku”, a collection of art from the national collection and a few private collectors. In contrast with the chronological survey “Mapping” staged last year (will there be a permanent hang?), “Negaraku” includes more works from the 1980s onwards. The lack of exacting curatorship is excused, assuming the show is likely staged to propagate a patriotic agenda. Nonetheless, the wide variety of mediums, themes, and approaches, provide a great display of Malaysian art. As one who is somewhat familiar with the oeuvre of presented artists, I take more notice about the arrangement of artworks, but there is no doubt the gallery is filled with many visually captivating artworks.

Din Omar – Antara Dua Hidangan (1991)

Crossing the hall to Reka Gallery, one finds respite in “As We See It: History Through Visual Design”, an exhibition of graphic design objects from colonial to post-war times. Organized by the Malaysia Design Archive, the demarcation of exhibition space into three compact rooms corresponds to three historical periods, present visitors an opportunity to imagine a bygone time through contemporary interpretations of preserved things. Nostalgia is invoked as visual cue, and not as lost memory. Before proceeding to the upper floors, I recommend stepping out to first visit the usually-forgotten National Portrait Gallery, which is now showing three series of artworks by former Anak Alam member Thangarajoo M.A. Kanniah. The artist’s spherical shapes and blooming patterns are mesmerizing, and each individual composition deserves a long look.

Thangarajoo – Anak-anak Alam I (1982)

Thangarajoo’s “Atomic Consciousness” functions as an opening act to “Bumi Larangan: Zulkifli Dahlan” in Galeri 2B, easily the star and best show at the Balai now. The short-lived and founding member of Anak Alam Zulkifli Dahlan, is canonized in Malaysian art history for his outlandish amalgamated characters. This presentation of sketches, together with well-known masterpieces, is a revelation, especially if one can also get hold of the comprehensive catalogue (unfortunately not on sale at Balai). Imagining a time when painting is fine art, when the 1969 riots are still fresh in the memories of Kuala Lumpur residents, when cross-continent travel is tedious – Zulkifli’s meandering lines manifest a rebellious yet wise-beyond-his-years record of modern living. Reflections about this exhibition deserves another blog post.

Zulkifli Dahlan – Akrobat II (1970s)

One will most likely be suffering from art fatigue at this point, so a café break may be in order. Otherwise, the sound of waves and the smell of earth in Galeri 2A, may be enough for visitors to recuperate and reenergize. “Barehands” presents a collection of artworks by Malaysian and international artists, whom collectively completed residencies in five local studios. A diffused presentation in “Barehands” betrays the well-executed artworks by committed mid-career artists, and familiar styles raise questions about the presence of a universal aesthetic.

Installation snapshot of Shin Asato – Under the Same Sun (2017)

Visitors with children should head straight to the third floor, where interactive exhibits await – control a large marionette hung from the ceiling, run through pop-up passages, or use a slingshot to propel chalk? “101: Di Mana (where are) Young?” displays works by 101 Malaysian women artists, including striking pieces by lesser-known artists collected by the National Gallery before 1980. The large number of exhibits can be overwhelming, even negating the significance of womanhood as a factor in art creation/ interpretation. Looking past categories, one may relate Tetriana Ahmed Fauzi’s anthropomorphic plants, with Zulkifli’s creations downstairs; Why is Khatijah Sanusi not part of the “Negaraku” exhibition, when a later work also utilizing textiles by spouse Sulaiman Esa is shown there?

Tetriana Ahmed Fauzi – [top] Tiga Rasa (2011); [left] Keepers (2012); [right] The Veil (2011)

Cross-exhibition looking is fun – one sees Thangarajoo’s lines as having traces of Zulkifli Dahlan and Latiff Mohidin, or when noticing the differences between a wooden tower and a bamboo wheel made twelve years apart by the same artist (Ramlan Abdullah). Multiple visits are required to fully appreciate each of the six exhibitions, and re-looking only magnifies learning and self-realisation opportunities. In the past five years of immersing myself into looking at Malaysian art, this is the first time I felt that the Balai is teeming with life, although actual visitors are still lacking. Free of charge and fully air-conditioned, June 2017 is suiting up to be a wonderful month to visit Balai Seni Negara, which recently reverted to its original name (from Balai Seni Visual Negara). Yayoi Kusama who? Singapore where?

[foreground] Installation snapshot of Ramlan Abdullah – The Raw Generation (2005); [background-l] Joseph Tan – The Formation Series (1990); [b-r] Sharifah Fatimah Syed Zubir – Sri Jingga Indera Kayangan (1998)