Crowded Balai, Muda (Su)dah Wince See

During my first visit to "Leonardo Opera Omnia" at the National Art Gallery, I was startled by the crowd in attendance. A year ago, the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs has staged reproductions of works by the the superior Italian painter Caravaggio, in the same Galeri 3A. The number of visitors then were the usual, i.e. less than 10 persons in a single gallery, including tourists. Queuing up to look at La Gioconda – whose back-lit eyes do not follow this observer – I found the atmosphere pleasantly joyful. Guided tours in Bahasa Malaysia. Observers quoting Dan Brown while comparing Virgin of the Rocks. Baffled onlookers gazing intently at da Vinci's left-handed mirror writings. Who said Malaysians are not interested in art? A different question: are these light boxes, art

National Art Gallery visitors in front of a back-lit life-sized reproduction of Leonardo Da Vinci – Il Cenacolo (1495–1498) 

Famous Renaissance Man aside, the marketing campaign worked, regardless of WhatsApp group chat misconceptions that the real Mona Lisa was on display. Free entry (and free parking). Fully air-conditioned. Cultural sophistication. School holidays. A full day dedicated to seminars about "Leonardologics", a terrible portmanteau that implied art is implicitly irrational. Reports cite upwards of 7,500 visitors a day, for its one-month run. Certainly this is the first visit to Balai Seni Negara ('Balai') for many, and the event coincides nicely with Bakat Muda Sezaman (BMS 2019) exhibited across all three floors in the building. What a great opportunity for the Malaysian public to appreciate artworks by young local artists! Or so i thought.

Snapshot from @tukkura91 Twitter feed on 19th August 2019

During my second visit two weeks later, I was again startled, due to less joyful observations. After walking through the Young Contemporaries galleries, it was apparent that a number of exhibits were rosak, or its presentations altered due to physical interventions. Amar Shahid's songket-covered arcade game was out of order. No ripples formed in Anwar Suhaimi's Jury prize-winning 'Delan'. The LOL-inducing fly I glimpsed on Afiq Faris' mask was no longer found. Nizar Sulaiman's arrangement of stand-fans was noticeably out of position, while a couple of wooden contraptions by Yong Kiam Sam buzzed no more. A stark reminder that most visitors did not even bothered to look, what more see, is when I noticed no one stood in front of my favorite artwork from BMS 2019 – 'Isn't This the World that We Love?' by Syafiq Nor – despite the triptych being displayed prominently in Galeri Tun Razak. 

Mohd Syafiq Mohd Nor – Isn't This the World that We Love? (2019)

Social media confirmed that works at the Bakat Muda Sezaman exhibition, have been damaged by clueless visitors caught up in taking snapshots. The pictures & stories are wince-worthy – folks sitting on the vivid constructs of Haffendi Anuar, a thumb drive removed from a video installation, people moving wall hangings, and repeated sightings of paintings being touched or bumped. Even Grand-prize winner Samsudin Wahab was not spared, where the artist's mud-caked ladder was popular fodder to be literally stepped on. The most frightening episode is where one's desire to impress, can lead a person to unnecessarily risk one's life, to sit on a mirror with a rock hanging over one's head. Any instance of these recorded events would make headlines, but not in Malaysia.

Snapshot taken from Facebook post on 19th August 2019

As I am less precious about artworks, what draws my ire is that Balai is not held responsible when a BMS 2019 work is damaged during its exhibition run. It is illogical that a gallery space be not responsible for the exhibits it hosts. Time & again Balai has demonstrated that it has no will (and no power), to be a custodian for local cultural output. Keyboard warriors questioning the lack of gallery sitters, are oblivious to normal operations at the National Art Gallery, where there is no demand for such jobs. Perhaps, it is time the gallery/museum considers charging for admissions, to bring in additional revenue for the upkeep of cultural artifacts. "Leonardo Opera Omnia" was executed as a cultural diplomacy activity. Right now, I am not sure what aspect of Malaysian culture we can exchange in return.

Choo Yan Xin - Colour Rhythm (2019)