28 May 2017

As We See It: History Through Visual Design @ National Art Gallery

After celebrating the opening of a physical space earlier this year, the enterprising Malaysia Design Archive stages an exhibition at Reka Gallery. Objects with distinct elements of graphic design are demarcated into three timeframes – colonial British Malaya, the Japanese Occupation, and from post-WWII to Malayan independence. Looking at product advertisements and public service announcements, I was struck by the vivid red and yellow hues that appear in many exhibits. Were these colours used for printing because it was cheap? Or has its enduring properties render these objects more attractive for exhibiting and preservation purposes? Are cinema billboard paintings – like Mr. Vampire – not peddled as nostalgic collectibles, because painted pigments fade faster than printed colours? 

Cinema billboard for Mr. Vampire 新僵尸先生 (1992)

24 May 2017

Collective: Individuals @ 2 Hang Kasturi

In the art canon, artist collectives are often mentioned in reverential tones, and remembered for providing the alternative to established art. This characteristic manifests in the underground location of “Collective: Individuals”, a group exhibition of works from artists belonging in seven collectives. The reasons individual artists gather together are varied – practical concerns of sharing a house, propagating an aesthetic ideal, co-producing a zine, or banding together to form a commercial gallery – but ultimately favourable in maintaining and promoting an artist’s individual agenda. Apart from the relatively formal statements of Make It Happen, the exhibiting collectives do not display overt desires to be similar, which result in a great collection of individual artworks.

Installation snapshot of Nadirah Zakariya - Hitam Manis

Walking through the exhibition – starting with The Sliz’ repurposed road signs, and ending with Orkibal’s pink chair and colourful painting – is a thorough visual delight. The attention-grabbing and vivid displays can be attributed to the show being part of Urbanscapes arts festival, which draws hip youngsters and curious tourists into its quirky space. Metal grills, concrete pillars, narrow walkways, and a vault (!), magnify the sense of discovery. Exhibited works complement the environment, as the miscellany of mediums, themes, and approaches utilized, offer a vibrant survey of artistic forms. Geometric/amorphous shapes, neon/earthy colours, realistic/abstract depictions, singular/modular objects, manipulated/Xeroxed photographs, and even participatory installations. That there are no large nostalgia-tinted paintings, already is refreshing as compared to recent art seen in Malaysian galleries.

Installation snapshot of Tomi Heri – Bujang Senang (2017)

Personal politics and statement-making are still in vogue, however, and works that thread the line between obvious one-liner and obscure symbols, prove most enjoyable. Is Caryn Koh making a prank, an observation, or kooky souvenirs, with her painted eyes? Are the spots on Nadirah Zakariya’s screens and photos, also a heatmap for racist judgements during people interactions? Can Tomi Heri’s “Bujang Senang” signify carefreeness, when its compositions are made up of stencilled geometric patterns? With its marker pen lines on small-squared exercise book sheets, is Foong You Xiang practicing drawing, or doodling his future away? One extreme example of statement-making belongs to the engraved lines by Yew Jun Ken & WAISHUKUN. Does anything make sense, given that the series of artworks is titled “Untitled~Production of Brain Stew Percolator S4+9”?

[from l to r] Yew Jun Ken & WAISHUKUN – Untitled (36); (41); (53); (1-9)

Beyond Instagram-friendly displays, participatory art also takes the form of Blankmalaysia’s ‘Alter’ and Minstrel Kuik’s ‘Artist’s Block’. The latter is part of Run Amok’s installation within the vault, which emphasizes its status as a co-operative (“divide and rule/ Berkerjasama”), but offers too playful interpretations of professional traits expected in artists. Posters of past gallery exhibitions are displayed in one dimly lit room, with a centrepiece that pays tribute to its recently-deceased member Trevor Hampson. Minstrel’s anxiety-ridden declarations in ‘Personal Competencies’ are juxtaposed with Tetriana Ahmad Fauzi’s pictures of stationary fashioned from cucumbers, while metaphorical painting-sculptures by Liew Kwai Fei keep the artists’ rhetoric alive – ‘2B OR NOT 2B (THAT IS THE QUESTION)’ (as black & white jerseys fly away…)

Installation snapshot of gallery space allocated to Run Amok

A paper monument is erected in the middle of a room covered with printouts of Facebook posts about “the World’s tallest mural”, currently undertaken by the five artists who make up Rumah Studio. This projection – and the equally irreverent diorama next door by The Secret Hideout, whom some of  Rumah Studio's members are a part of – detracts from attractive individual works on show. Sattama creates charming diptychs pairing flat living room scenes with arcane signboards, its intoxicated figures seemingly enacting a meaningless midnight ritual. ‘Rumah Studio: Aftermath’ by Kangblabla stages a miniature comic version of one house interior (his own?), its varied wooden forms coming alive as a collective whole. At the basement entrance, metal signs by The Sliz recall the creative urgency of Rauschenberg (in a good way), with current messages emblazoned on via painted layers.

Sattama – Anta/Bahya – Empuk Malam (inside/outside – tender of the night) (2017)

It is telling that collaborative artworks are less attractive than individual productions. Studio Mekar founder Haris Rashid states, "...collectives must serve a purpose as a support group, a stepping stone. But ultimately, all artists are individuals." Looking at the steady stream of visitors, I wonder: what types of contemporary art do hipsters like? Walking past hanging pinafores and paintings commenting about hyper-connectivity, some exhibits come off as derivative and naïve. Nonetheless, in an art scene where some artists acquaint themselves more with collectors than with other artists, artists organizing themselves is a productive endeavor. Curator Sharmin Parameswaran speaks about recognizing this "DIY culture", a useful ethos in a country weighed down by patriarchal institutions. Perhaps this should be the reason we celebrate artist collectives, in this country.

Installation snapshots of Kangblabla – Rumah Studio: Aftermath (2017)

08 May 2017

Afterwork @ ILHAM

For a curatorial premise that started as about domestic migrant workers in Hong Kong, “Afterwork” does remarkably well in its Malaysian adaptation, with the inclusion of local artists and relevant programs organised during the exhibition run. For starters, the exhibits are remarkably diverse. Artist nationalities and choice of medium are moot points; Timelines and approaches in tackling the issues explored (“class, race, labour, and migration”) are multifarious, where the starting point of each individual work is worth exploring in depth. The exhibition starts strong – Gan Chin Lee’s social-realist paintings appear to be an exercise in recognizing the people and things overseen when one walks the streets of Kuala Lumpur, a reminder to re-look at one’s immediate surroundings in daily life.

Exhibition snapshot of Gan Chin Lee – Portrait Scape of Contemporary Migration (2013–2014)

Two displays opposite evoke particularly different sentiments via its format and historical contexts. Larry Feign’s 1993 comic strip make light of the situation, when Filipino maids and dogs were banned to use residential lifts in Hong Kong’s luxury condominiums. Next to it, a looping excerpt from Little Cheung 細路祥 (2000) by Fruit Chan 陳果 shows the affection between the 9-year old protagonist and his household helper, which contrasts with the tough love dished out by his parents who run a takeaway restaurant. Entering the main exhibition area, two eye-catching works attract the visitor. Abdoulaye Konaté’s large multi-coloured swathes of worn garments depict (albeit literally) a crushed human figure, while posters and a (edited?) short film by Köken Ergun document entertainment channels for Filipino workers in Israel.

Detail snapshot of Larry Feign – The Ethnic Cleansing of Statue Square (1993)

Given its curatorial theme, the photographic snapshot is expectedly a popular medium. The varied approached among exhibits utilizing this mode, however, dispel clichés of the photograph being a document that emphasizes the Other. From Sebastião Salgado’s forceful act of looking & meaning-making, to Alfredo Jaar’s literal ‘Fading’ of boat people (reports about stranded refugees continue to occupy the news today); Then & now juxtapositions of Hong Kong streets denoting society’s sensibilities at the time of capture, also bringing personal fame to photographers Fan Ho (1950s), and Xyza Cruz Bacani (2010s) respectively; From the sardonic interventions by Sun Yuan & Peng Yu (seeing a hand grenade in a home interior is no laughing matter), to the documented performances of Liliana Angulo and Melati Suryodarmo; How each work relates to work and the worker, is dramatically different and exciting to observe.

Exhibition snapshot of wall displaying photographs by Fan Ho

Looking at Miljohn Ruperto’s homage to a Filipino actress who did not make it in 1940s Hollywood, this pursuit of visible work contrasts significantly with Daniela Ortiz’s collection of pictures from social media. Happy photographs of family & friends include cropped-out domestic helpers, the slideshow effectively depicting invisible work. Expected behaviours are portrayed in a video footage of interviewees practicing pre-set dialogue, while Imelda Cajipe Endaya’s figurative sculpture composed of found objects stand quietly in one corner, ever ready to present itself to the overwhelmed gallery visitor. Non-representational works appear less relevant in this exhibition’s context; the inclusion of vivid abstract paintings by I Gusti Ayu Kadek Murniasih, is probably to satisfy the Malaysian audience who prefers paintings?

Daniela Ortiz – 97 Empleadas Domesticas (97 House Maids) [slideshow from daniela-ortiz.com]

In another awkward presentation, posters decrying violence against women by Taring Padi are displayed lying in an acrylic box, thereby relegating pressing messages into archival documents. Perhaps it belongs together with other exhibits at this end of the gallery, that refer to historical associations of social hierarchy with menial labour. Walking past reproductions of paintings, a curatorial masterstroke takes the form of a small screen looping eight advertisements from Hong Kong, Thailand, and Malaysia. Stereotypes of migrant workers – darker skin, coming from different cultures, but possess a willingness to adapt – are shamelessly portrayed, the videos implying the propagation of a non-colonial master-slave dynamic that has evolved in this part of the world.

Lai Loong Sung – Refugees (1979)

Besides infusing local relevance, the Malaysian works expand upon the exhibition’s curatorial themes too. Lai Loong Sung’s powerful woodcut print ‘Refugees’ project an empathy not present in other works of the same topic. ‘MA=FIL=INDO’ by Pangrok Sulap refers to national histories, but one cannot ignore the affinity (and enmity) between peoples who cohabit in the same seas. Sharon Chin’s ‘Pendatang/Arrivals’ correlates language and migration, and its straw mats offer a welcome entrance into the darkroom screening Taiwanese Jao Chia-En’s sleep-inducing ‘REM Sleep’. The former presented works by local artists in an engaging talk about migrant work (and art), one of many cultural events organised during the exhibition run. One minor regret in this adapted group exhibition, was the non-sale of the Para Site publication Afterwork Readings at the gallery.

Video recording of ‘Pendatang: A Conversation About You, Me, & Other Migrants’ with Sharon Chin, Katrina Jorene Maliamauv & Sze Y Goh, held at ILHAM Gallery on 11 March 2017 [video from ILHAM Gallery YouTube page]

As one who recently got live-in help, works by Gum Cheung Yee Mun and Joyce Lung Yuet Ching prove most captivating. The former illustrates a landscape based on his maid’s recollection of her village; the latter creates porcelain sculptures of household cleaning products, painted with spoken words often used by domestic helpers. The human connection has been established, agency has been quirkily subverted, yet the power dynamic remains. Like Poklong Anading’s ‘Ocular’ which traces the places the artist’s mother – a domestic helper in Hong Kong for 11 years – has gone, “Afterwork” feels like an epic journey, although the individual stops, i.e. works, can be mundane by it selves. “Dim Chung Chung/ Chung Chung Fei/ Sum Fu Cup/ Tau Tai Hei”!

Joyce Lung Yuet Ching – Susan (2016)