Art KL-itique 2018 Look Back

There were a dozen 2018 art exhibitions that I would have liked to write about in-depth. But the impetus to document observations about local visual arts has waned significantly, as my interest shifts (again) towards philosophy & aesthetics. It is fitting then, that this shift is triggered by a show itself – Games and Politics at Lostgens’ in May 2018. Organized by the Goethe-Institut, this interactive exhibition of political games, offered a level of visitor engagement that the typical contemporary artist can only yearn for. Its exhibition catalogue includes many insightful essays, which eventually led me to learn more about game mechanics & rules-modding, game designer Ian Bogost and media & cultural studies, then I ended up reading about object-oriented ontology, which then led me back to Plato’s forms, Hume’s copy, Schopenhauer's sublime, Deleuze’ differences… (my brain is fudgy now).

Screenshots of games [clockwise from top-left]: Dys4ia; Orwell; Killbox; Yellow Umbrella

Politics is a valid source of inspiration for art-making, yet it is expected that Malaysian artists’ response to the government change remains muted. The best solo exhibitions are accumulations of creations done over the past few years – as I recall beautiful paintings of faces (Tan Wei Kheng’s Forgotten Beauty), 40-years old expressions of feminist intent (Renee Kraal’s A-Ha Moments), wonderful layers of whimsical characters (Donald Abraham’s Yang Lain-Lain), and the endlessly thought-provoking set up of a triptych (Sean Lean’s 3, likely the best ‘painting’ exhibition in Kuala Lumpur recently). A special mention also to Juhari Said’s sculpture-installations included in Go Block, which wonderful individual qualities of his art-objects, appear extremely incongruent when displayed in the prosaic space of a Kelana Jaya commercial gallery.

Installation snapshots of Lith Ng Yee Leng - In Defence of Pleasure: [left] at In Defence of Poetry, Urban Culture rooftop; [right] at #reimaginekl, 2 Hang Kasturi

A+ WORKS of ART continues to be the most experimental, in terms of offering artists the opportunity to re-tool its gallery space, which Ahmad Fuad Osman and Chong Kim Chiew did so successfully in their respective solo exhibitions. Outside the conventional white cube, group shows In Defence of Poetry (July) and #reimaginekl (November) are notable for its wide variety of exhibits, that reflect also the diverse & overlapping group of participating artists and their art-making concerns. Sophia Kamal’s vivid paintings and Lith Ng Yee Leng’s translucent condom-shaped pieces starred in both exhibitions, and both artists are due solo presentations. Back at the institution, Patani Semasa and Latiff Mohidin: Pago-Pago are educational endeavours organized by ILHAM; The former is especially poignant when one reflects upon the proximity of conflict, and shared identities of people, in this region.

[left] Jehabdulloh Jensorhoh - The Beauty in the Dark Pattani 5; [right] detail

The National Art Gallery, which began 2018 with the lacklustre KL Biennale and a questionable series of exhibition partnerships with local galleries, ended the year on a high with several laudable presentations. Teh Tarik with the Flag (Wei-Ling Gallery) and Di Antara Itu dan Ini (Fergana Art) are two of the longer-running gallery presentations, and well worth multiple visits. The latter show features outstanding works by the likes of Sharmiza Abu Hassan and Lim Kok Teong, while one series of “dark” drawings by Tengku Sabri Tengku Ibrahim recounts the artist's recovery from a stroke, that mesmerizes with its antagonistic narrative and sardonic humour. In Galeri Tun Razak downstairs, Sharmiza’s 1996 creation ‘Retrospect’ – a wall-hung series of compressed train carriages with impressions stuck on its surface – is among the fantastic sculptures shown at Minta Perhatian: Arca.

Tengku Sabri Tengku Ibrahim - The Dark Drawings (2018): [left] 6. Urutan Pertama dan Jin Ahmar; [right] 5. Tersungkur 

While the “Minta Perhatian” shows offer a great introduction to non-painting works from the national collection, Tekad 6 Dekad presents itself as “sustaining a collective memory”. Notable sections in the latter exhibition include a room about Frank Sullivan, Loke Wan Tho, and the ‘pioneering spirit’, snippets about H.N. Ridley & the rubber industry, thematic presentations about ‘social contexts’ & ‘Reformasi’, and a final room commemorating ‘The Skin Trilogy’ and art performances. Most of the shows I enjoyed in 2018, were not popular within the established art world, as I continue to question the motivations of local art enthusiasts. The raving support for Pangrok Sulap, for example, is rooted in a made-belief perception of the group as defying censorship, but less attention is given to the group’s DIY activist tactics in engaging & sustaining rural communities.

Chan Teck Heng - Bust of Frank Sullivan

For what it’s worth, I sense an increased interest in local art, evident from seeing more people during gallery visits, and the emergence of Art Seni, who runs paid gallery-hopping tours around town. Local media covering exhibitions have turned up a notch, thanks to Sharaad Kuttan who now interviews artists on Astro Awani, and BFM’s Sharmilla Ganesan who started a program called Everyone’s A Critic. Given the dearth of writings, I created an Instagram account for this blog to document my reading, which also exposed myself to how images & news travel within the local art scene. It remains unfathomable personally, how people can buy or judge art via Instagram, and how many artists seem intent to use it as a marketing tool. Nonetheless, as a new beginning beckons, writing about art seems like a luxury, but it is perhaps a luxury worth striving for.

[left] Sharmiza Abu Hassan - Retrospect (1996); [right] detail