KL Biennale (IX): First, and Last, Impressions

I visited the National Art Gallery 3 times in 3 months, during the inaugural KL Biennale. Among offsite exhibition locations, I was at Piyadasa Gallery twice – once to visit Niranjan Rajah’s installation, and another time to attend the artist’s talk. I spent 30 minutes trying to locate Siti Zainon Ismail’s ‘Rumah Waris Uwan’ within Kampung Bandar Dalam. I did not find it, even after enquiring at multiple warungs along the way. At my first visit to Balai, one usher prompted me to register as a visitor by pen on paper, which I assume was the organizer’s method in tabulating the number of visitors, which target was announced as 250,000. I was not asked to register, in subsequent visits. In the first week of November, the elevators were undergoing refurbishment, two galleries were closed, and the open galleries had different exhibits than what I saw during my final visit in February.

[foreground] Bashir Makhoul – Shift (2017); [background] Syed Ahmad Jamal – Lencana Balai Seni Lukis Negara (1984)

In To Biennale or Not To Biennale, Sunitha Janamohanan writes about the “origins and rise of  biennales within the context of Malaysia’s aspirations for a world-class international visual art mega-exhibition.” Her two-part essay is concise, and poses the pertinent question, that “(t)o be engaged in a global conversation about contemporary art in Asia is not a metaphorical statement; why stage a biennial if not to participate, and, indeed, steer a conversation about art and art history, and about social issues of local and global relevance? For both arts community and audience, a biennial affords opportunities for intellectual reflection – it is an opportunity to gather not just artists, but leading curators, thinkers, academics and public intellectuals, to ruminate on pressing global issues. Will the Kuala Lumpur Biennale do this? Can it?” 

Bayu Utomo Radjikin – Mata Musafir Hati (2007)

As a member of the public, the opportunity “to gather…” and “a global conversation” seems absent here. In Biennials: Four Fundamentals, Many Variations, Terry Smith writes about the distinctive features of global biennales, which include “(b)iennials as infrastructure builders”, and “(b)eing events, rather than primarily an assembly of art objects on display, is what makes biennials contemporary.” Despite its long list of sponsors and partners, it appears that this event is under-budgeted. Program booklets were non-existent, relatively few auxiliary events were organized, and new commissions were minimal (a shocking revelation: a biennial is typically defined as a “mega-exhibition of contemporary art”). If refurbishing an old elevator shaft can only be done via holding a significant event (such as a biennial), that speaks volumes about the role of Malaysia’s art institution under this administration. 

Tengku Sabri Tengku Ibrahim – Banteng Paca Donata/ The Demi-Gods Blockade (2017)

KL Biennale’s chief curator is Zulkifli Yusoff, who is a well-respected and reputable artist, but does not possess significant curatorial experience. In television and radio interviews, members of the curatorial team speak about the six months, given to them for preparing the exhibitions. Assuming the biennial was first announced two years prior to the actual event, this preparation timeline is ridiculous. The resulting output was uneven, and it is difficult to single out any curator for praise or criticism, because it is not stated anywhere who curated what. The Belas/ Be Loved theme (and its five sub-themes) proved to be a difficult but decent choice, although the organizers did not get to justify the selected theme, since the biennale produced no curatorial writings. As for documentation, one relies on a lousy website and its outdated design, and generic social media postings. @klbananaleh!

Screenshot of KL Bananaleh? Instagram page 

The lack of published writings would have been my biggest bugbear about the inaugural KL Biennale, if not for the “elephant in the room”. Suzy Sulaiman’s account of Pusat Sekitar Seni’s “Under Construction” installation, and the (self-)censorship debacle arising from it, ends with a plea for “an empowered (art) ecosystem”. That turn of events deterred myself, from thinking and writing about the KL biennale, during its exhibition run. Displaying typos on artwork signages is one thing; Displaying no accountability for exhibits at one’s premises, is another. Although there are more visitors than usual in my trips to the National Art Gallery, any proclamations that this biennale is a success, will be seen as a bureaucratic and empty achievement. I am reluctant to see another KL Biennale take place, at least not until the organizers project gestures representing Belas. Start with an apology, perhaps.

Snapshot of Under Construction covered in black netting [photo credit: The Star/M. Azhar Arif, taken from star2.com]