UNPACK-REPACK @ The Whiteaways Arcade, Penang (III – Taking a Break)

...Back to Looking Out, juxtapositions of rubbish dumps and beautiful vistas occupy the Environment table. Sliced into half horizontally, this heaven/hell configuration projects a moralising message that regresses into what Jacque Rancière calls the “ethical regime of art”. Not being able to fully express his disdain at such behaviour shows Ismail Hashim as one truly passionate about social concerns. The next section Human Rights expands on his activist persona, where cleverly designed graphics include a play on Barisan Nasional’s flat-bottomed dacings. Perhaps the link between photography and graphic design is much closer than previously thought, since both disciplines require work on flat printed surfaces. Tennyson’s poem closes off this corridor, but at this juncture, the issues – and ethics – of “curating posthumously” are already apparent. General categories suit an archive, but how suitable is it for a gallery exhibition?

Graphic designs in Looking Out: Human Rights [picture from Aliran's Facebook page]

A personal take will be to view the works in Environment right after Streets, then Work and People, in order to appreciate better the notion of human presence in Ismail’s works, given the break into Looking In midway down the corridor. The next area is more problematic when interpreted at face value, as one can argue that the Passing of Time is by default applicable to all Ismail’s works. Bookending a selection of untitled test prints, the curator repudiates ambiguity to re-present an outstanding characteristic. Sequential snapshots of a dying papaya tree din the point to ignorant visitors. Exhibits in this area act as a counterpoint to the introspective Going Bananas section. Prints displaying the Growth & Decay of plants are curiously coloured, as if the real world only sets in, when a being’s natural lifecycle reaches its end. Journey’s End documents the last bullfight in an extinct village, a diversion into photojournalism.

The Looking Out corridor [picture from OUR ArtProjects website]

Before & After shows pictures more easily associated with Ismail, including eccentric sequences of a plant coming back to life, or a girl disappearing from a doorway. Curator Hoy Cheong describes a hallmark in Ismail’s works, “…the way he look for idiosyncratic elements within photographs, that take him to the next level of an ordinary photographer…” Works here are titled but not framed – one rolling back mists, the other revealing human spoils – both waiting to be labelled as masterpieces. In Narratives, ants carrying a dead cockroach pique curiosity, as much as noticing which picture is coloured and which is not. Time-lapse images of ants lured by drops of honey, its sequence manipulated by Ismail, again shows the photography artist and his preoccupation with time’s passing. Dwelling in this room, one feels that the curator was ruminating about the “irrepressibility of time” within his research journey, as much as about the theme itself.

Now you see her, now you don't

Emily Dickinson’s tragic ‘I Died for Beauty’ wraps up the exhibition, the hand-copied poem displayed alongside fleeting images of clouds, plants, and landscapes. “It is our basic nature to be attracted to beauty”, said Ismail. Wordplay injects a quirky dimension to these serene pictures, notably in the three distant captures of a propelling sampan titled ‘Kayuh! Kayuh! Kayuh! – nun di sana Pulau Tikus / row! row! row! and yonder is Pulau Tikus’. His romantic side reveals itself in a title given to a photograph of water lilies: "When light touches water, we are privileged to witness miracles; when light, flowers and sun come together, we have a glimpse of paradise." Nature is awe-inspiring and transient, as this wistful tribute themed Truth & Beauty, ends with 300 photographs found on Ismail's digital camera when fate took his life. Last Engagements projects an unending memorial, as one ponders what has become and what could have been.

Kayuh! Kayuh! Kayuh! – nun di sana Pulau Tikus / row! row! row! and yonder is Pulau Tikus (2001)

Fellow photographer and friend Ooi Cheng Ghee remarked about Ismail telling him once that “God may be found in the bathroom”, and I am inclined to agree. Utilitarian acts contribute to renewal, in a publicly private space. This observation sums up Ismail’s approach, which he utilises the common image to highlight the subconscious and in-between, informed by the culture in his home state Penang. Ismail’s oeuvre and quotes indicate one who lives his life through art’s context, but is also sufficiently self-aware to know what a perfect work should be. Coming full circle back to the lady in ‘Doktor Jam’, most proceed with life without taking in the many absurdities present in one’s immediate environment, and Ismail points that out with charming wit. These multi-layered interpretations are evident in this exhibition, where its brilliant title alludes to a physical activity, a curatorial process, a re-presentation, and best of all, a reference to Ismail’s penchant for words.

Snapshot of desk print in Looking In: Home

“UNPACK-REPACK” will be remembered as the Ismail Hashim exhibition curated by Wong Hoy Cheong, archival process notwithstanding. "...(T)asked to invade (his) privacy" and "...to think through how to honour the assets and archives because the artist is not here for a dialogue", the curator's selection of works and configuration of space demonstrate a masterful exposition. In a rare move for Malaysian artists, Ismail’s family initiated an archival process to document his belongings, which beneficiaries hopefully extend beyond local art collectors. Unpacking continues when the exhibition travels to Balai Seni Visual Negara next year, together with the release of a monograph, as I anticipate the opportunity to make sense of the four pictures on a black board seen in Streets. To sum up this tribute show and its curatorial effort in Ismail's own words, “Respect the space, respect the subject”. 

Doktor Jam (1979)