KL Biennale (VII): Belas Alam

Cerita Belas ‘Kanou Moung Hilo Bawang’ greets the visitor into Galeri Tun Razak, which exhibits the biennale sub-theme Belas Alam. I wrote in an older post, “(c)urator Tan Hui Koon also maximized the installation for the subsequent exhibits that feature fish/water/rocks, resulting in a coherent display at the beginning of this gallery.” After appreciating Shamsu Mohamad’s beautifully moulded and glossy ceramic pieces, I turn the corner to admire Jamil Zakaria’s dramatic wire mesh sculpture ‘Lubok’, which references a number of Malay proverbs (‘Ada air, adalah ikan’, ‘Bondong air, bondong ikan’, ‘Bagai ikan pulang ke lubuk’, ‘Lain padang lain belalang, lain lubuk lain ikannya’). Three fishing “Traps” by Anassuwandi Ahmad command one’s full attention, so too the sensory pleasures of virtually touching a large rock, as engineered by J.C. Tan.

Snapshots of author’s hand on J.C. Tan – “Techure” (2017)

Tourists and new audiences get to appreciate good examples of Malaysian modern art in the subsequent gallery; It is always enjoyable to re-look at Ibrahim Hussein’s venereal painting ‘Genting’, Joseph Tan’s flat rocks in “Memories of Dungun”, Anthony Lau’s upturned metal forks, and the wonderfully droll figures of Zulkifli Dahlan. Inclusion of the latter’s ‘Satu Hari di Bumi Larangan’ denotes an expanded interpretation of the exhibition theme, and extends legitimacy to Toccata Studio’s and Marisa Diyana Shahrir’s urban-themed black box installations nearby. Nevertheless, the unassuming centrepiece of this gallery space, belongs to the superb installation ‘13/∞: Sg. Gombak’ by Saharuddin Supar, which won the juror’s prize at the Bakat Muda Sezaman in 2000.

Installation and detail snapshots of Saharuddin Supar – 13/∞: Sg. Gombak (2000)

Investigating the pollution of water from its source to the urban centre, the artist documents his findings via an arrangement of maps, leaves, photographs, vials, and charts. The careful choice in the relative size of its exhibits, results in a tidy and easy-to-read experience (except for the small images that are stuck too high up on the wall). Looking at pieces of rock and encased liquids in an art gallery, I recall the typical exhibition that intends to highlight environmental concerns, that are cluttered with information; Saharuddin’s installation provides an outstanding example on how to do such installations in an effective manner. The cynical visitor may relate this work as drawing parallels to zero-sum corruption and politics, but I prefer to see it as a straightforward outlay of a research process.  

Fauzan Omar – Fire Gutted Landscape (2009/2010)

The stage is thus set for Bibi Chew’s cut-outs of state boundary lines and riverways, which offer an interactive yet meditative presentation about ground & habitat, and the state of the nation. Multi-faceted works by Lim Kok Yoong and Chris Chong Chan Fui lie in the background of this gallery filled with direct engagements, while technical showcases such as Fauzan Omar’s leaves on burnt plywood, and a lush forest acrylic painting by Johan Marjonid, dazzle visitors. Subsequent exhibits present equally impressive individual output – stunning ceramic bounded seeds by Mohamad Rizal Salleh, Krishna Murthi’s meditative two-channel video about silat practitioners, and the absorbing wall of monochromatic amorphous forms by Tetriana Ahmed Fauzi. These powerful works validate the relatively abstract paintings of Zheng Yuande and Rafiee Ghani, as being representative of the Belas Alam theme.

Tetriana Ahmed Fauzi – Solid Peel Spring Breathe (2017)

Tetriana’s ‘Solid Peel Spring Breathe’ consists of magnified “micro images of seeds, pollen, pistil or stamen from plants and flowers (…) arranged on layers of (semi transparent) industrial or construction related materials.” Her concise presentation contrasts with Atul Bhalla’s installation nearby, which utilizes a typical biennale presentation of filling one large space with objects. ‘To Dvaipayana/ Looking for Dvaipayana (“You always step into the same river”)’ employs an archival approach to depict a personal relationship between the artist (as cultural representative), his home city Delhi, and water. Near-headless portraits and photographs of a funerary procession are visually interesting, but by then I was jaded with the documentary approach in art presentation, which strikes one as superfluous when compared to the preceding single-work exhibits. 

Hamidi Hadi – Tanah, Air, Api, Angin (2016)

A sense of sublimity describes the final group of exhibits in this gallery. Hamidi Hadi’s resin blob and cracked paint, recalls a mid-afternoon observation of water spots on arid ground. Like historical relics, Chang Yoong Chia creates objects which aesthetic and utility functions, are transmuted into narratives and time-bound meaning-making. Behind a wall text inscribed with the words Nature is myth where death create life, lies Nur Hanim Khairuddin’s encased manuscript on a rehal. Exhibited sheets depict English and Jawi script describing illustrated Malay talismans and medicinal plants. Another version of this “Grimoire” series takes the form of an accordion-fold book, which “features colourful abstract drawings painted on copies of an old manuscript of Malay talismanic and medical arts…” Unfortunately, the contents were barely legible behind the Perspex screen. 

Detail snapshots of Nur Hanim Khairuddin – Grimoire II (1997)

Opposite it, a painting by Thai modernist Thawan Duchanee is given the Bahasa title ‘Tertawan Oleh Tuhan’, its ripping central figure posed in an anguish expression. Do medicinal containers contain a remedy for mental illness? I never figured out Shooshie Sulaiman’s seminal installation ‘Kedai Ubat Jenun’, hence it is always good to look at it some more. Galeri Tun Razak ranks as the second-best display on show at this KL Biennale, after Niranjan Rajah’s installation ‘The Gift of Knowledge’ at Piyadasa Gallery. The selection here features social collaborations, modern masterpieces, interactive zones, spectacular paintings, environmental awareness, multimedia installations, meditative portraits, absorbing works by international artists… If only more galleries in Balai were just as gratifying.

Installation and detail snapshots of Susyilawati Sulaiman – Kedai Ubat Jenun (1997)