Critical Reaction to Converging Strategies

Galeri Petronas’ 20th anniversary coffee table book Convergence presents glossy photographs of its sizeable collection, supplemented with bland historical text with the occasional racist statement. Better content could have been included, such as summaries of major exhibitions at the gallery, like the J. Anu-curated “50 Ways to Live in Malaysia”, or printmaking feature “Go Block”. Ten times cheaper and much more informative is RogueArt’s second publication in the “Narratives in Malaysian Art” series, titiled Reactions – New Critical Strategies. A great variety of texts describe the different approaches in Malaysian art, interspersed with wonderful insights regarding specific artworks. The editors’ hope for readers to appreciate the “situations that demand reaction, and call for a heightened sense of criticality”, is best typified in Mark Teh’s incisive essay ‘An-Other May 13’.

Mad Anuar Ismail - Siri Meditasi (2003): No. 1 Pucuk Paku & No. 3 Bawang Sebokor

Ismail Embong’s ‘Mural Sejarah Malaysia’ at Putra World Trade Centre reminds that public art can be singularly responsible to spread racist sentiments and record biased histories. Such monuments crush the impact of socio politically critical works by fine artists, but May 13 also “justifies the recognition of a post-1969 consciousness in the arts”, as quoted from Krishen Jit. This murky event had significantly affected the local visual arts (and its move away from the figurative), but history attributed this shift more to the implementation of the National Cultural Policy 1971. Demythifying conventional art history is a preoccupation of academics, whose chronological analysis through the “localised lens of postmodernism”, as quoted by Michelle Antoinette, fit snugly into the starting point laid down by T.K. Sabapathy and R. Piyadasa decades ago.

Shooshie Sulaiman - Rumah (2006)

Looking back at realistic mystics via their landmark manifesto, the 1974 SELF-AGGRANDISING TRAIN-OF-THOUGHT RAMBLE portrays two persons stuck in a dichotomy of West/East, constrained by the books and thoughts available then. The refusal to acknowledge an Ersatz state, a term suggested by Ismail Zain, fortunately eroded in local artistic thought as both the public and the artist become more well-travelled. Nirmala Dutt Shanmughalingam is mentioned as the first artist/activist, although social concerns have been highlighted since Chai Chang Hwang’s unconnected handshake to Ahmad Fuad Osman’s large distressed self-portraits. The latter was a critical reaction to the sacking of Anwar Ibrahim in 1998, another event that elevated the political consciousness of artists as much as May 13 did. Two socio political performance works stand out for its pure ingenuity – Wong Hoy Cheong’s ‘Lalang’ and Mark Teh’s ‘Sudden Death’.

Photo captures of Mark Teh - Sudden Death (2009)

Acute observations by Hoy Cheong state the dilemma of most visual artists, that “there is no alternative art in Malaysia”, where he also took the “more plebeian, accessible” figurative approach in his painting output. Identity and its localised context are key themes among local artists – Chong Kim Chiew’s site-specific ‘Isolation House’ and Yee I-Lann's kitsch-y plates being excellent examples. The book’s final third include many passionate write-ups about art practices “beyond the white cube”. Zhuang Wubin’s excellent summary about photographic practices pays respect to the "grids & assemblages" by Ismail Hashin, and Eric Peris’ evolving technique, which he describes “evoke the passing, and not the flatness of time”. Video art has been slow to develop, perhaps because handheld cameras used to be relatively expensive. Yap Sau Bin's essay denotes a universal human desire to have a "critical engagement with space", framed within artistic pursuits.

Minstrel Kuik - Mer.rily, Mer.rily, Mer.rily, Mer.rily (2008 - Now)

Despite the plurality of opinions offered, the common acknowledgement that art does not change the world grounds a solid practicality among Malaysians. Practising artists display a collective obsession with time and space, be it at a macro level (post-colonialism, nationalism), or at a micro level (video captures, site-specific). Fortunately artists like Bayu Utomo Radjikin are still keenly aware, that “if it is not beautiful, it is not art”. The compilation does not mention contemporary forms of paintings, apart from Simon Soon’s essay which curious terminology glosses over this major form of artistic expression. By commenting on these essays, I become fully aware of my own myth-making prowess, and learn a bit more about Malaysian art in my selfish way. A Chantal Mouffe quote aptly summarises these discourses, that “critical art has the ability to foment dissensus and render visible what is obscured and obliterated in the dominating consensus.”

Wong Hoy Cheong - Chronicles of Crime: Carpark (2006)