ILHAM Contemporary Forum: Malaysia 2009 – 2017 (II, Re-hang) @ ILHAM

In the previous blog post about the ILHAM Contemporary Forum, I wrote that “(c)oncluding what is contemporary is an impossible task, largely due to the different time ranges inherent in the making of exhibited projects.” I have been looking at it the wrong way, it seems. For the re-hang (week 14 of the 20-weeks long show), the revised exhibition text states that ‘Forum’, not ‘Contemporary’, is the pivotal keyword. My involvement in the programme also got deeper beyond an exhibition visitor. I attended the “Meet the Curators” forum when facilitator Lee Weng Choy and the seven project curators, talked about three topics – ‘Representation’, ‘Exhibition’, and ‘Contemporary’. In the same week re-hang took place, I was informed that my essay competition proposal was accepted; I then submitted a 2,000-words essay titled I See Efforts in Curating, but Whose Process is it? in the exhibition’s final week.

Installation snapshot of: [l] Lim Kok Yoong – Operasi Cassava 3.0 (2013); [r] Video made by project curator Kat Rahmat (2017)

With an emphasis on the ‘Forum’ as “a gathering where individuals can give voice to their thoughts and feelings”, the updated exhibition includes seven Q&A wall displays, each representing one project curator’s statement. While the information about who chose what remains concealed (although full disclosure was made by all towards the end of the “Meet the Curators” forum), these snippets reveal the deliberations of each participant, thus highlighting an aspect of the individual curating process. Those whom identify themselves as visual art curators are more conscious of exhibiting in institutional spaces, while the others seem more engaged with the curatorial themes outlined by the facilitators. The group curating process, however, remains invisible outside the arrangement of exhibits. 

Exhibits along the right passage in ILHAM 5th floor gallery

The most dramatic change in the re-hang belongs to the series of works from Liew Kwai Fei’s “Shape, Colour, Quantity, Scale”. chi too – project curator and responsible too for exhibition design – relinquishes control to the artist, who rearranges and re-hangs his modular paintings in between a wall of horizontal bands, with a few left free-standing on the floor. Pixels converge into a text or form, although the varying distances and overlays between Tetris-shaped paintings, result in a spectacularly playful yet disjointed scene that metaphorically represents the exhibition premise. If art is defined as how something is presented, does that relegate the curator to the role of merely a selector, and the exhibition designer – or artist, in this case – as the exhibition-maker?

Liew Kwai Fei’s rearrangement of works from “Shape, Colour, Quantity, Scale” (2010)

Another series of Kwai Fei’s green circle-in-red rectangle, chevron-shaped paintings, are hung on the stilts of Liew Seng Tat’s kampung house. Its parasitic attachment to vertical columns recalls traditional unearthly beliefs about houses, yet the paintings’ colours conjure a socio-political dimension within the overall presentation. The spiritual quality extends to the two static exhibits by Haffendi Anuar which imply movement, placed at the beginning of the left and right passages that divide the 5th floor gallery. Placing Buden’s ‘Mud Painting’ close by Tan Zi Hao’s ‘The Soil is Not Mine’ augments attention onto the theme of national identity, which gallery passage continues and ends wonderfully with Au Sow Yee’s meditative video installation that revolve around migrant labour experiences. 

Exhibits along the left passage in ILHAM 5th floor gallery

Looking at the exhibited materials relating to Buku Jalanan – which have changed markedly since its first hang – I recall a question asked by an audience member in the “Meet the Curators” forum. To paraphrase, “why did some select cultural projects for this exhibition, if it was acknowledged that the white cube may kill the work?” The difficulty in presenting cultural projects – and methods to compensate its lack of visual appeal – underline the prevailing issues of representing the diverse choices of a contemporary curator, in a museum exhibition. As a contemporary exhibition visitor, I am expected to immerse myself beyond what is on show, to have a deeper understanding of the curatorial theme. Are such participatory engagements with the public mutually beneficial encounters? I would not be surprised, if I find out again, that I have been looking the wrong way.

Installation snapshot of card game POLITIKO, created by Centre for Artful & Useful Recreation (CENTAUR)