13 December 2017

Dash @ Five Arts Centre, 22 September 2017

With beads of sweat covering his forehead roughly two-thirds into his 55-minutes performance, Ho Rui An’s voice starts to quiver. Despite taking sips of water throughout his narration, sitting in front of a projector screen underneath bright lights, is obviously an onerous act. Signs of physical toll provide the finishing touch to a coruscating account that started with a car crash, then zooming past topics such as the rich foreigner, moving at speed, horizon scanning, the Kobayashi Maru, scenario planning, Centre for Strategic Futures, the Black Swan, shamanistic symbols, Marina Bay Sands, economic development, sentiment analysis, luck & trauma, weak signals, then settling back to the dashcam video recording one sitting behind a car’s dashboard.

“Horizon Scanners”, talk by Ho Rui An where a number of topics are also covered in ‘Dash’ [video from Asia Contemporary Art Week (ACAW) YouTube channel]

Donned in black with a wireless headset, Rui An adopts the presentation format pioneered by Silicon Valley, manifesting too its casual/repressive capitalist mode that is central to his performance. Pairing crisp robotic delivery with a stream-of-consciousness narrative, any sense of the inconsonant is pacified by the presentation format.  “His writing is elliptical”, writes Tshiung Han See in a review; I understood every word that Rui An uttered, which perhaps included corporate and economics jargon. The artist’s reference of Shell Oil’s scenario planners as futurist poets is equal parts funny and poignant, as I can testify to the irrepressible efforts corporations take to forecast the future with increasing accuracy.

Snapshot of performance [picture taken from criticsrepublic.com]

Where to look, when we are moving so fast? The world crashes and burns, and our first instinct is to race ahead and look back only when we can see it in the rear-view mirror. Wealth gap perpetuates, nation-states become useless, and unknown quantities are assigned a monetary value. We voluntarily subscribe ourselves to internet protocols, and subject ourselves to be a statistical probability in a commercial transaction. Rui An’s work recalls Futurismo, where contemporary expression extends then subverts its medium. Some clunky graphics aside, ‘Dash’ is a phenomenal show, its entire production itself manifesting one of the key point it espouses – “No longer can one make a clear distinction between signal and noise.” Keep running, there is no end...

Lecture titled "Hunting Black Swans & Taming Black Elephants" by Peter Ho (Senior Advisor, Centre for Strategic Futures). Peter Ho, Black Swans & Elephants, and the Risk Assessment and Horizon Scanning (RAHS) Programme Office, are topics covered in Ho Rui An's 'Dash' [video from Institute of Policy Studies Singapore YouTube channel]

07 December 2017

KL Biennale (II): The Gift of Knowledge

“What's so interesting about Durai Singam? Durai Singam (1904 – 1995) was no ordinary secondary school teacher who once taught in Kuantan. He also became one of the world's most obsessive bibliographers and collectors of memorabilia related to the world prominent philosopher and historian of Indian art, the late Ananda Kentish Muthu Coomaraswamy (1877 – 1947). (…) A selection of his editorial layouts using collage as a compositional technique are on display in this exhibition. This selection provides the viewer with a sense of the hands-on DIY nature of Durai Singam's by turns whimsical, high-minded, and idiosyncratic approach to publishing. In a sense, Durai Singam pursued this work as if it were his karma or sacred duty to disseminate this knowledge for posterity.”
– Snippets from Visual Art Program, Cultural Centre, University of Malaya Facebook page, in a post dated 17th November 2017

Installation snapshot

At the end of these long introductory paragraphs, it is noted that “(t)he late Durai Raja Singam was not only Niranjan Rajah's uncle but also the late art historian/curator/artist Redza Piyadasa's secondary school teacher back in Kuantan. Redza Piyadasa (1939 – 2007) is recognised today as a seminal figure whose contribution in art historical scholarship and creative practice since the late 1960s continues to resonate in the Malaysian and regional art scene. He was also the founder of our Program here at the University of Malaya.” Staged at Piyadasa Gallery no less, ‘The Gift of Knowledge: An Installation Commemorating the Person and Work of Durai Raja Singam (1904 – 1995)’ by Niranjan Rajah, is an amazing display that highlights the dedication and resourcefulness of the human spirit, when a single-minded passion is one’s guiding light in life. 


Snapshots from The World of Coomaraswamy

Stepping into the unlocked gallery and turning on the lights, this visitor is greeted by two pedestal-tables and three old cupboards. One coat rack stands at the far end of the room, while a degree certificate from the University of Jaffna is presented next to it. Walking past framed collages of text and pictures, I noticed the books inside the cupboards as copies of publications exhibited on the pedestals. A wall of old photographs and illustrations portray Durai Singam and a few luminaries, but at this point it remains unclear what is significant about this installation. Flipping the book cover open of the volume titled The World of Coomaraswamy, I see the proclamation “THIS IS A BOOK OF MY OWN DEVISING”; Printed in capitals too a few pages later, “Fifty years of Coomaraswamy for me, the cup is filled in another measure. To beg I am ashamed.” fills three quarters of one sheet. Then it struck me what was on show.

Snapshots from Remembering and Remembering Again and Again

Like self-published zines but belonging to a different magnitude, Durai Singam compiles writings and pictures about Ananda Coomaraswamy, then inserts his own texts and designs to make genuinely interesting reads. It appears that Durai Singam was not an academic scholar, as these books do not attribute any university press (also, his home address is always referenced on the book sleeves), but he funded printing presses in Kuala Lumpur for these publications. The thicker volumes are even printed on art paper, bounded in coloured hard covers, and are effectively limited-edition compilations. In A Study of a Scholar-Colossus, the biographer notes in the postscript of his preface, “No doubt the project will be expensive for a single individual but finance never represents a real difficulty. Finances follow. They dog your footsteps if you represent a real cause.”

Snapshots from A Study of a Scholar-Colossus

Notwithstanding the effusive reverence for his subject matter – Durai Singam assigns the title Kala Yogi to Coomaraswamy – the approach in putting together the materials is methodical and rigorous. Explications of each volume’s intent (Monograph? Collection of Letters? Biography? Bibliography?) is stated clearly in the introductions, followed closely by a table of contents, acknowledgement of his sources, and demarcating section headers. It is Durai Singam’s personal touch, however, that stand out. One quote from a cross-continent correspondence here, one snippet from a poem there. Designing an essay’s border with repeating images of postal stamps. A photograph, an illustration, a musing, plus multiple typefaces, all featured on a single page (to hell with sterile book design!) One hand drawn graph is titled “Comparison of Aesthetical and Metaphysical Publications by Ananda K. Coomaraswamy, 1917 – 1947”. 

Snapshots from Ananda K. Coomaraswamy: A Bibliographical Record

‘The Gift of Knowledge’ astonishes with its physical evidence, about what it takes to pursue a vocation in studying and documenting one topic of interest. There is even one heartfelt text I chanced upon, which Durai Singam dedicated to his deceased son, and contributed to the delay in publication for a volume. As one who has written about my personal passion for the past five years, it is deeply moving to read a sentence such as “(t)his work is not meant for a publisher who may judge a work by academic standards or profit. It is a one-man edition, written and typeset with devotion and pleasure.” Leaving the installation, I still did not know Who Is This Coomaraswamy? But I now know who is Durai Raja Singam.

Snapshots from Who Is This Coomaraswamy? 

"No sort of work is a hindrance on the spiritual path. It is the notion 'I am the doer' that is the hindrance. If you get rid of that by enquiring and finding out who is this 'I', then work will be no hindrance since you will be doing it without the ego sense that you are the doer and without any attachment to the fruits of your work. Work will go on even more efficiently than before; but you can always be in your own, natural, permanent state of peace and bliss. Further, one should not worry about whether one should engage in work or give it up. If work is what is ordained for one, one will not escape it, however much one may try. On the other hand, if no work is ordained for one, one will not obtain work however much one wishes to strive for it." 
– Excerpted quote from Ramana Maharshi, as seen in one collaged page (presumably arranged by Durai Raja Singam) in ‘The Gift of Knowledge: An Installation Commemorating the Person and Work of Durai Raja Singam (1904 – 1995)’ by Niranjan Rajah

Snapshots of collaged pages exhibited at 'The Gift of Knowledge' installation 

01 December 2017

Snippets: September 2017

Museum hopping in Singapore might become an annual family affair, given the international superstars the nation-state draws to their pristine shores. While the kid runs wild at teamLab’s interactive “Future World” exhibition at ArtScience Museum, I appreciate the fascinating collection of technology-meet-real world exhibits in “HUMAN+”. The highlight of the trip is undoubtedly the long queues to get into the galleries and infinity rooms for Yayoi Kusama’s “Life Is the Heart of A Rainbow”. Visual gimmicks and the solace/trauma of repetition aside, Yayoi’s fabric phalli constructs and large black-and-white drawings stand out to this visitor, for its concerted effort in failing to figuratively depict a representation. As a visitor sums up at the start of her review, “Kusama’s art is far from happy, despite its bright hues.” Indeed, “she’s way more than just a photo op.” 

Snapshot of Yayoi Kusama – Love Forever series

After attending the gut-wrenching “Art AIDS America” exhibition in Chicago this year – which explores how the AIDS crisis changed American art – it is difficult to be enthusiastic about the “ArtAid17” charity show organized by local artists Ahmad Zakii Anwar and Noor Mahnun Mohamed. The past two editions, together with the “Transit” group exhibitions organized by MAARS, have been a favourite personal pursuit to observe Malaysian art output. The quality among artworks displayed by 35 artists is good, with particularly memorable creations by Chan Kok Hooi and Shia Yiih Ying. Alluring also are the ink washes of Wong Xiang Yi, Nia Khalisa’s wonderful collages, and one print/painting by Afiq Faris. Surprisingly for one who has no love for household pets, I was smitten by Anisa Abdullah’s ‘Teman Baru’, whose depiction of her feline companion is intimately affecting.

Afiq Faris – Gold Fence (2017)

Meeting Gan Siong King is easy. The artist meets visitors in his studio four days a week, for four weeks, which resulted in 93 dedicated posts on one Instagram account. Driven by the artist’s genuine focus on developing rapport with his guests, this initiative is clearly not a hokey act of public engagement, as conversation topics and laughter flow smoothly during my visit. Upon arriving at the single-storey house, “tiada yang ‘seni’ mengenainya” (quoting Azzad Diah’s notes). One glimpses small paintings hung onto wooden walls, as Gan explores “making painting that consists of more than 1 canvas.” Strangely we did not speak about the actual paintings surrounding us, but went straight into light and its permutations in painting, exhibition-making, writing and the local art ecosystem, the difference between video work and painting, Gan’s wish to one day bring together both mediums…

Snapshot of meeting.people.is.easy Instagram account

Two days after a sekolah tahfiz in Kampung Dato Keramat is burned down by teenagers which claimed 23 lives, I arrive at a nearby bungalow-cum-gallery showing large hangings filled with dirty colours, caked impastos, scratched shapes, and paint splashes. Fauzulyusri’s new creations appear bright and visually captivating, as the lack of recognizable shapes take away the excessive meaning-making sometimes attached to his works. Quoting the artist in the exhibition essay, “Whiteground comes after two to three years of painting in dark, earthy tones, and as part of a rebellious time of wanting to explore other directions. This merely represents a natural movement of personal tastes – I should bring light after dark…” Viewing these exhibits was a guilty pleasure, as the positive ambiguity in abstract art, is countervailed by the horror which took place just 350 metres away. 

Fauzulyusri – Dripping Link (2017)

Interest in works by Haffendi Anuar is high in the local art scene – it sells well at international art fairs, are displayed in institutional exhibitions, and the artist was recently commissioned to create outdoor sculptures for a London property. Curators have framed Haffendi’s works as adopting a modernist sensibility towards materials, or as addressing a postcolonial legacy with everyday objects. What I see, however, is only the clever subversion of traditional signs into a contemporary form and vice versa. This approach works brilliantly in “Migratory Objects”, where compact designs are affixed to metal stands, then collectively displayed in front of one blown-up photograph taken at Kuala Lumpur’s Bird Park. The natural, the manmade, the real, the fake, oscillates continuously in an infinite loop…

Installation snapshot at “Migratory Objects” exhibition

Chong Kim Chiew’s restaging of ‘Isolation House’ at A+ Works of Art, a new shop lot gallery at Sentul, evokes an uncanny emptiness. A charcoal drawing on paper prints by FX Harsono, of people holding skulls, is displayed behind and accessible only via the gallery’s back entrance. While both artists’ works refer to the history of Chinese peoples in their respective countries, Kim Chiew’s installation is more powerful due to its economical approach. Rusted zinc plates and iron cages (both big & small) project a blank space, which implies narrative gaps and unspoken violence. The third re-staging of this work takes place in a gentrified space, which offers a new perspective to the work’s original intent. As the artist once said in an interview, “history is not past – the taste of things is always in the now. Now, we’re inside future, past and now combined together…”

Installation snapshots of Chong Kim Chiew – Isolation House (as exhibited at A+ Works of Art, 2017)

29 November 2017

To You I Surrender My Vanity @ Suma Orientalis

The Christian ring to the exhibition title is deliberate – Eng Hwee Chu’s devotion to her religion and family, are clearly on display in her art. Consisting of signature acrylic paintings, preparatory sketches, watercolours & pastels, and charcoal & graphite drawings, this collection of works provides a satisfying look-through at the 50-years old’s career. Entering the new bungalow-cum-gallery space, the visitor is greeted by two paintings from the “Black Moon” series made in the early 1990s. The crimson figure and its corresponding shadow, wavy landscape as background, gestures of anguish and cynicism, are all hallmarks in Hwee Chu’s subsequent output. Her more recent works on display suggest an increasingly confident and still-evolving artist. 

Victims of Struggling Live (2017)

The exhibition statement describes well a typical painting by Hwee Chu – “(s)he casts her doppelgänger self and others close to her into her paintings, lingering them onto the canvas surround, as symbols around the messages she is eager to propound.” A cursory glance at her oeuvre, and it is apparent turmoil and strife are the precepts postulated; Hwee Chu’s paintings recall murals of the Christian Judgement Day and the Buddhist Hell, its self-contained images arranged in overlapping axes on the flat picture plane, levelling too any sense of a fixed sequence. The artist’s usage of background tropes can be tedious – a horizon that ends with the sky, dense forest or sterile ground, memorial portraits or cultural motifs, swirling water and gushing gold shower – yet the careful inclusion of each component contributes significantly to her works’ emotional impact. 

After Lost (2013)

The number of figures featured in Hwee Chu’s pictures, have increased as compared to her earlier works, and are progressively depicted in more detail. Ever-present are the burning nude self and her darkened & textured companion, while representations of babies and children, an imagined public, and spectral beings, now become vital symbols. In ‘Authorities Behind Women’, some figures are elongated à la El Greco, the bodies twisted to form an elliptical space enclosing a persecution scene underneath a streetlight and a curving stone arch. Balancing the shape on the left is another ellipse, a misshapen stadium with a façade of arcades, in which a blindfolded cleric assumes an accusing pose. One pink lying nude, a flying horse toy, and the gesturing shadow, anchor the swirling picture, while a luscious flow of gold hold together its elements. The composition is forcefully dynamic, yet brazenly attractive. 

Authorities Behind Women (2016)

Such arrangements of pictorial subjects to create movement, is surprisingly less effective in Hwee Chu’s vertical paintings. Scale dissimilarity among narrow environs in ‘After Lost’, results in a close-packed image of desolateness like a compressed triptych, its floating orb-tombs appearing neither in or out of the picture. In ‘Silent Cry’, one argues that the children at the painting’s bottom is intentionally positioned out-of-focus as such; However, the different brush strokes Hwee Chu apply in blue to create visual continuity is counterproductive. I attribute the relatively successful ‘Return Home’ to its static dimension and clear horizon, with figures entering/existing the picture denoting an expanded picture plane. The positions of the ladies kneeling on the bottom left, and its alignment to other figurative gestures within the painting, testifies to the artist’s mastery at compositional balance.

Return Home (2012)

The virtuosity on display in ‘Origin of Women’ is breathtakingly superb. Portals are utilized cleverly to depict many dimensions, while just a few figures define the swirling movement that Hwee Chu’s paintings typically project. Two lingam-shaped archways roughly frame the expansive picture, while a tiny wooden cross hanging above a patch of green grass, marks the centre. Metaphorical symbols represent beauty and suffering, while life and death is clearly illustrated as intertwined states, as I stare at a baby bump next to one deceased visage. The interplay of gestures (and cultural stereotypes by skin colour) between men and women occur in a shallow pool, while a dimly-portrayed lady covers her ears. Women come into being if they fulfil gender role standards; It is wise to turn a deaf ear to this echo chamber. 

Origin of Women (2013)

Social expectations, then, is the main subject matter in Hwee Chu’s paintings. The struggle (as a filial daughter, an obedient wife, a life-giving mother, etc.) has always been a personal one, but as her self-realization grows, her art simultaneously matures by drawing in external elements that define one’s gender role. These are not feminist images that stir awareness towards gender equality, but a lament of one patriarchal reality. As compared to the sparsely-composed “Black Moon” paintings, the newer works enthral via more complex renderings (and interpretations) befitting the topic at hand. With hymns humming in my ears, I finally see these works as devotional paintings – grounded observations cloaked in symbols, that happen to be situated within surreal landscapes. The self is surrendered, in honour of a greater truth.

Silent Cry (2016)

““When the unclean spirit has gone out of a person, it wanders through waterless regions looking for a resting place, but not finding any, it says, ‘I will return to my house from which I came.’ When it comes, it finds it swept and put in order. Then it goes and brings seven other spirits more evil than itself, and they enter and live there; and the last state of that person is worse than the first. While he was saying this, a woman in the crowd raised her voice and said to him, “Blessed is the womb that bore you and the breasts that nursed you!” But he said, “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it!””
- Luke 11:24-28, New Revised Standard Version 

Women, Life Warrior (2015)

24 November 2017

KL Biennale 2017 (I): Under Construction

After two visits to Balai Seni Negara, and one sojourn at Universiti Malaya's Piyadasa Gallery, there is much to ponder about the inaugural Kuala Lumpur Biennale. Beyond the initial disappointment of navigating a terrible website, arriving at empty galleries and a broken elevator, I have since encountered thoughtful installations and great individual artworks, and a couple effective arrangements befitting its cheesy theme. It is unfortunate, yet unsurprising, that the first note on this five-months event is about (self)-censorship. One day before its official opening, news portal The Malaysian Insight reports that Aisyah Baharuddin has chosen to cover 'Under Construction' in black netting, due to the removal of certain components in her (and her collaborators') installation by authorities. A police investigation pertaining to this matter is ongoing. 

Installation snapshot (taken on 17th November 2017)

Occupying a long floor space on the second floor, visitors walking up the circular path are greeted with decorated tongs filled with recyclable stuff, while a dark banner hanging above shows a photograph of a balustrade wall with the stencil-sprayed letters "saya berjanji tidak akan membuang sampah merata rata". One placard describes the mixed media installation (and documentation), as a collection of stuff belonging to Pusat Sekitar Seni and Population Project. Wall texts further introduce the former collective, as an active community that encourages environmental awareness, through art activities involving children participation. Surrounded with low wooden fencing, patterned straw mats and tarpaulin sheets cover the exhibit's floor area, while photographs, a television, false doors & windows, posters & banners, quotes & slogans, cover the wall. 

Installation snapshot (taken on 17th November 2017)

Cardboard cut-outs of comic characters, paintings on paper, and colorful patchwork denote children's input. A poignant poem about social media use, titled Aku, is scrawled in red ink on scrap paper pasted onto the wall. Slogans and prints indicate the activist practice of the collectives' organizers; Texts spotted include "Bebaskan Hak Berorganisasi", "Rasuahahahahahaha", "grow food not racism", and "Mesra, Cekap, Betul, Berpistol". The accumulation of furnishing and household stuff, and its DIY presentation, portray a vibrant community and egalitarian spirit. This is a delightful installation that presents a breathing space between two enclosed galleries, and its main slogan "Membina Bersama Masyrakat" falls neatly into the exhibition theme "Belas Insan". Nine months after Samsudin Wahab's mural is painted over, and eight months removed from the Pangrok Sulap controversy, this incident of censorship occurs at Balai again.

Installation snapshot (taken on 17th November 2017)

Miscommunication is apparent; Questions abound - what was the exact complaint about? Who physically removed the exhibits deemed offensive? When were the police involved? Why were the artists not allowed to continue work on their installation? Did the curator/organizer overstep their authority? Who exactly uttered the Communist description? How much truth was conveyed to the artists, who then reacted with a gesture of protest? Previous episodes of censorship in Malaysian visual arts have informed, that taking sides at the outset of such incidents, is an unproductive reaction. Especially when I am relying on information, relayed only by two reports by the same journalist, on the same news portal. This source had not named the curator involved, or gotten a response, even. Being told that you are loved, when you are actually not? An inauspicious beginning, indeed.

Installation snapshot (taken on 17th November 2017)

"Who is the custodian of the artworks in any art exhibition? What is the role and responsibility of a curator and/or co-curators in relation to the exhibition, the organizers, the artists, the artworks and the public? If there is a complaint about an artwork or artist, what is the standard operating procedure (SOP) to deal with such a complaint? Who devised the SOP and in whose interest? If there is no SOP then why is there none? Who benefits from and who is disadvantaged by the presence or absence of a SOP? Who has the authority to remove a work and under what circumstances would this authority be exercised? Are there checks and balances to ensure there are limits to this authority? Who would serve as a credible check and balance and to what end? In my view, until some of these questions are addressed in an open, honest, consultative and deliberative manner, we will never escape the C and perhaps, we never should."
No Escape from the C: Reflections on Censorship and Curation in the Pangrok Sulap case, Carmen Nge, published 22 June 2017 on artsequator.com -

Installation snapshot (taken on 17th November 2017)

14 November 2017

M @ A+ Works of Art

“M” recalls ‘M’, a memorable work by Tan Zi Hao I last saw three years ago. The found-object aesthetic extends to shop signs hung here, where a pawnbroker’s signage – with its four languages and prominently circled 當 ideogram – greets the gallery visitor. Shown next is a paperback Susur Galur Bahasa Melayu by eminent linguistics scholar Asmah Haji Omar, placed before three similar book covers where the words “Bahasa Melayu” is translated into Chinese, then Jawi, then “Bahasa Malaysia”. The Chinese rendition is beguiling; While “Bahasa 巴哈薩” gets a direct phonetic translation, the rendering “Melayu 巫來由” now implies “Malay origins”, due to the process of translating Latin alphabets into monosyllable Chinese characters. Although illegible, the Jawi translation reminds me of the Arabic script adapted to write the Malay language, when Islam arrived at this region in the 12th century. “M” for mortgage?

Exhibition snapshot at gallery entrance

Therein lies the theme explored in these exhibits, which Eddin Khoo succinctly describes on radio as, “what happens when language, which predates nation, meets nation, and begins to serve the interest of nation.” Approaching the silver ‘Bhāṣā Jīva Vaṃśa’ inscription stone, its cracked halves suggest broken precepts. To quote sociologist Tham Seong Chee from a 1981 essay, “(l)anguage, according to a Malay saying, is “the soul of the nation” (bahasa jiwa bangsa). It is interesting to note that the word bahasa etymologically Sanskrit means both “language” and “manners”, so that bahasa in effect is associated with or implies “speech and breeding” or “speech as indicating breeding.”” Bahasa jiwa bangsa, has been upheld by the government agency Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka since its official formation in 1956, as the slogan for promoting the National Language. “M” for Moses?

Susur, Galur, dan Bahasa Melayu (2017)

“”M” provokes and frustrates us at every utterance (…) In our infantile babbling of “ma-ma-ma”, we pronounce the bilabial nasal…”, Zi Hao states in both exhibition statement and BFM interview. My first impression of “M” as exhibition title, however, is the capital letter’s pronunciation “em”. “M” as the sound of dithering. “M”, James Bond’s superior. “M” in the play M. Butterfly. “M” as a sign for male toilet. “M” the 1931 Fritz Lang film. “M+” the new museum in Hong Kong. That I did not think of “Malaysia” or “multilingualism”, denotes the interpretation gap between artist and spectator. Both topics are explicitly confronted in two older works – one heavily-subtitled Negaraku music video, and “The Danger of Translation Lies in That Which is Left Untranslated”, where each of the eighteen metal plates address specific issues in the Malaysian context. “M” for microwave?

Writing is a Strange Thing (2017)

The familiar silkscreened form is repeated in two new brilliantly-titled works. ‘Clowning/Crowning’ refers to political satire, while ‘Writing is a Strange Thing’ quotes Claude Lévi-Strauss from his travel memoir Tristes Tropiques. The anthropologist writes in the same chapter, that “(w)riting may not have sufficed to consolidate human knowledge, but it may well have been indispensable to the establishment of an enduring dominion.” Nevertheless, correlating this text with Zi Hao’s “Pen-Datang” is insufficient; The increasingly shorter word of “datang” upon each translation, stirs endless fascination too with its aesthetic design. Representation remains an area of improvement for the conceptual artist, whose use of visual cues is lacklustre in thematically strong works, such as the three-sided light enclosure emblazoned with “Mantra, Menteri, Mandarin”. “M” for mimesis?

Exhibition snapshot

Language aside, this logocentric lamppost indicates a more prominent theme in this exhibition, i.e. the act of addressing. Four printed addresses are shown translated sequentially in ‘Addressing Home’, from Bahasa Malaysia to Chinese to English to Bahasa Melayu. The slippages in transliterations are summarily presented, delightful as its result may be – Mekar Berseri sounds like a more attractive township than Seri Kembangan. Along with the accompanying work ‘Unaddressing Home’, one’s physical dwelling is rendered as a sovereign claim by the nation, whereby the utility of language does not correspond to the immediate commune, but to an imagined polity. A starting point for both works is the use of Bahasa Malaysia in public signboards and road names, which is stipulated in the National Language Act 1963/67 and local council by-laws. “M” for mail?

Addressing Home (2017)

Looking at the four signboards recreated on galvanized iron sheets, my reaction and subsequent interpretations fail to reconcile with Zi Hao’s statement claiming “(n)ot only do multilingual signages hint at the nature of Malaysia’s linguistic landscape, more insidiously, they betoken some form of inequality and exploitation in the name of language.” Surely, commercial intentions direct business owners in the design of their signboards? Malay is compulsory, English sounds privileged, and Chinese is to address the main customer base. By asserting his observations, the artist puts himself at the mercy of his own critique, that the written language as an approach to convey ideals is an inadequate endeavor regardless. Addressing an issue, its corresponding artwork & presentation, and audience perception, is a tricky balancing act. Perhaps, more “M”-biguity is needed. “M” as ‘art coefficient’?

That Which Exploits, Unites (2017)

“In the creative act, the artist goes from intention to realization through a chain of totally subjective reactions. His struggle toward the realization is a series of efforts, pains, satisfaction, refusals, decisions, which also cannot and must not be fully self-conscious, at least on the esthetic plane. The result of this struggle is a difference between the intention and its realization, a difference which the artist is not aware of. Consequently, in the chain of reactions accompanying the creative act, a link is missing. This gap, representing the inability of the artist to express fully his intention, this difference between what he intended to realize and did realize, is the personal ‘art coefficient’ contained in the work. In other words, the personal ‘art coefficient’ is like an arithmetical relation between the unexpressed but intended and the unintentionally expressed.”
The Creative Act (1957), Marcel Duchamp, “The Writings of Marcel Duchamp”, ed. Michel Sanouillet and Elmer Peterson, 1973 

Bhāṣā Jīva Vaṃśa (2017)

10 November 2017

This Is Where We Meet @ OUR ArtProjects

As large surveys featuring Malaysian modern art are under way in two KL institutions, this relatively small exhibition stands out as a significant complement, to one’s understanding about abstraction in Malaysian art. Lee Mok Yee’s creations highlight its medium’s inherent properties, although the pattern-dominated wall hangings attenuate the transformative effect, of utilising materials such as wood cork and incense to make art. Conversely, my attention was chiefly absorbed with ten paintings by Liew Kwai Fei, whose exhibits hardly resemble the artist’s recent output featuring waggish characters or painted texts. My deliberation of these paintings is influenced too by John Yau, whose reviews of New York gallery exhibitions I find fascinating, where the writer’s detailed descriptions of painted surfaces and poetic recount of its visual impact are remarkable.

Liew Kwai Fei - The Art of Painting (2017)

Indistinguishably titled ‘The Art of Painting’, each acrylic painting is a composition of flat colours and irregular shapes. The first work hung on the left upon entering the gallery, is demarcated crudely into two squares and one rectangle. In the top right box, a background of two rich red hues recalls Rothko, while two vertical mints strips painted atop it is further overlaid with two-three swatches of colour. The ruffled mustard outline of a white rectangle at the lower right, mirrors the carnation outline of a larger rectangle at the top left. However, how both impressions came to be are different. The former’s yellow is painted over at least two layers of blue shades before the box is depicted, while uneven white brush strokes created the jagged pink outline in the latter. Each swathe of hue is utilized elsewhere on the canvas, each outline shows through the colours underneath it, and each form comes into being from marks made on both the inside and the outside.

Detail snapshots of Liew Kwai Fei - The Art of Painting (2017)

The painting is incredibly well-balanced visually. Without a single focal point, the viewer’s looking is trained across the surface of the canvas. The roaming eye pauses at each assumed shape and colour, limiting its descriptive reading to a bare minimum. As a counterpoint to the common modes observed in Malaysian contemporary painting, there are no metaphorical symbols, no intentional obfuscation, no figurative gestures, no expressive brush strokes. It is just paint and canvas, not a webpage layout, not simplified abstraction, not child’s play. One fails to make sense of what is seen. It is avant-garde painting by deduction, whereby innovation is achieved through the failure of other approaches. In the age of disruption, Kwai Fei’s painting presents an oasis of mindfulness. The emphasis is on the current moment of looking, and over-thinking is discouraged.

[l] Lee Mok Yee - Two Bodies (2017); [r] Liew Kwai Fei - The Art of Painting (2017)

Two works hanging opposite immediately conjure faces, however grotesque or unintentional the impressions may be. While Mok Yee’s arrangement of incense seem to illustrate a bulbous nose, a blob of pink in Kwai Fei’s creation resembles a wagging tongue. Looking harder at the latter, and one realises the slight differences in laying paint upon canvas. From opaque finishes to thick washes to stripped away surfaces, painted effects are subtly noticeable, especially the two streams of turquoise drips in this picture. As I gaze longer at the square area in this painting, more associations come to mind – sunny day, ice mountains, a rock, prostrating figure, etc… The composition of colours and shapes alone draw out illusions, thereby offering a return to the purpose of drawing-painting. Similar reflections can be realized upon observing most of the painted exhibits.

[l] Lee Mok Yee - Net (2017); [r] Liew Kwai Fei - The Art of Painting (2017)

Admittedly, the pairing of Mok Yee’s and Kwai Fei’s works has an impact on the exhibition viewer. For another pairing hung on the wall at the gallery’s deep end, complementing features stand out – black is highlighted, vertical rectangles in ‘The Art of Painting’ enhance the geometry in ‘Net’, and the former’s pink and white lend a lush effect to the latter’s earthy flowers. However, the peeking pea pod/gold ingot forms, and underlying green lines, are muted in this presentation. The exhibition title is a misnomer, as both artists are not aware of each other’s current art, prior to this show. Kwai Fei revealed too in the artists’ talk, that contrary to the catalogue essay, ‘The Art of Painting’ is not a series of paintings, but a collection of standalone work. This becomes a key point to consider, when appreciating the three paintings hung close by.

Installation snapshot of: (2017) [foreground] Lee Mok Yee - The Stacking Memory Series I; [background] Liew Kwai Fei - The Art of Painting, Lee Mok Yee - Pentagon

The paintings are a composition of rectangles, as one mentally assigns nouns – doors, windows, corridors – to these shapes. Upon individual inspection, each work explores different concerns in painting. Figure-ground relationship on the left, colour tone in the centre, and the one on the right… space? Larger than other paintings in this exhibition, the canvas is roughly divided into three sections, with flat colour fills and dry brushy outlines. The jagged line at the centre strangely recalls Clyfford Still, or a loose floorboard – both imagined objects which I have not seen clearly in real life. Such conjuring of read images also apply to several paintings. When attempts at making sense fail, a myriad of random terms come to mind – Matisse, impasto, Jolly Koh, mirroring, national flags of African countries, bevelled watermarks, colours that blend into the white wall, etc.

Liew Kwai Fei - The Art of Painting (2017)

Viewing Kwai Fei’s paintings in context of his previous body of work, and the non-figurative paintings of the 1960s currently on show at Sasana Kijang and ILHAM, there is good reason to step away from words and expressionism. The most common illusions on a two-dimensional surface one encounters daily, come from social media delivered on a mobile screen, where clickbait and fake news headlines stir emotions incessantly. ‘The Art of Painting’ offers an antidote. Quoting sentences from John Yau in his review of Don Voisine’s paintings, “(t)hese are the pleasures these paintings offer the viewer who cares to think about how complicated the everyday act of looking actually is, who is able to slow down long enough to pay attention to things as real as surface, colour, density, and space. The tension between the painting-as-container and the planar forms wedged, as well as layered, into it, is exquisitely tuned.”

Liew Kwai Fei - The Art of Painting (2017)