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)