10 March 2017

Unveiling The Unseen (1937 – 1971) @ Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia

Pictorialist or Modernist? An irreverent argument, as what we see is contemporary history. Raja Ihsan Shah unpacks and exhibits more material from the archives containing Sultan Ismail Nasiruddin Shah’s photographic negatives and slides. On display are 58 well-composed pictures of Terengganu and other places around the world, many of which look like it was taken from an upstairs hotel room. Wall statements clarify photographic techniques utilized, including four hand-coloured photographs attributed to the zokinkage technique. One curious example titled ‘Broken gate and bicycle, Singapore’ depicts the subject matter with a blue sky background, yet Raja Ihsan revealed in a talk that the cloud was actually painted on, and not part of the original black & white photo. 

Port Swettenham, Klang, Selangor (1957)

Images with local context are invariably more interesting to the local visitor, such as the beautiful reflections in ‘Morning. Taiping Lake Garden, Perak’, and people at work in sunny ‘Port Swettenham, Klang, Selangor’. Ships and coastal areas are evidently close to the Sultan’s heart, some brilliant examples include one stunning capture of coconut ‘Trees. Marang, Terengganu’, a high-contrast portrait of ‘Fisherman with paddle and net’, one junk surrounded by modern ships in Penang Harbour, and a sailboat named kemajuan. The two latter works present signs of modernisation, a theme also featured brilliantly via four photographs on a single display wall, which juxtapose pictures of fishermen on a beach with a land excavation, mending nets with the ‘Sungai Besi Airfield’. 

Junk, Penang Harbour (1952)

It appears to be a conscious curatorial decision to show a wide range of photographs, and the presentation – which includes a video of Raja Ihsan trawling through rooms of archival materials – is simple and attractive. However, it is not stated anywhere who came up with the titles of the photographs, and the exact year when prints were developed. Unseen too is the inherent privilege of these vantage points. The Sultan had access to good cameras, as one imagines a number of the exhibits were taken on official visits. He is sometimes flanked by officials, whether the subject matter is a crowd of people (Sungai Tong, Terengganu), or empty streets (‘The Weld during the curfew of 14th May 1969’).  If it takes a king to record history for contemporary interpretations, so be it, whatever form that may take.

The Weld during the curfew of 14th May 1969

05 March 2017

Bakat Muda Sezaman 2016 @ NVAG

Despite lowered expectations, I remain perturbed by the disappointment felt each time, when viewing works by relatively young Malaysian artists. Typically, the lacklustre quality can be attributed to three values in judgement: aesthetically not attractive enough (visual cues are derivative), conceptually weak (what can I learn more about this condition being highlighted via art?), and/or poor execution (a good idea is not enough). Walking past grotesque creations, bizarre contraptions, and a trapped Ultraman, one notices only three paintings on show. The increase of competition submissions utilising non-traditional mediums is encouraging on paper, although the final output leaves much to be desired. Technology is utilized to encourage audience interaction; However, a number of animated videos fail miserably with its amateurish presentations. 

Installation snapshot of Helmi Azam Tajul Aris – Kepada Sesiapa Yang Berkenaan (2017)

Whenever encountering an artwork that hints at Malaysia’s multiculturalism, I am immediately suspicious, as a personal conviction surfaces that Balai is only a venue for promoting tourism. This observation applies to the mini heritage buildings of Ipoh scattered around in one gallery, and one woodcut/animation installation depicting the bamboo-slapping Magunatip dance. Liu Cheng Hwa’s ‘Golden Shaft’ is attractive yet obscure, and subscribes to a contemporary form more palatable to an international art audience. A number of works fall into this category, including creations by Haffendi Anuar and Saiful Razman that project formal concerns, social engagement projects by Hings Lim and Ho Mei Kei, and installations by Faizal Suhif and Haslin Ismail which generate spectacles.

Hafizzudin Abdul Jaidin – Magunatip Orang Kita (2016)

Tetriana Mohamed Fauzi arranges manipulated fabric and domestic wares into symmetrical patterns, with drawn objects representing fragments of the artist’s life adding to her charming wall display. One standout exhibit belongs to Yusri Yusoff, whose “Siri Buai Pesaka” are constructions made with wood salvaged from old Malay houses. A white plaster cast is strung onto each rocker, which together with the kain kuning and kemenyan displayed in front, and projecting light sequences, result in a compelling and mystical installation. Working with culturally-specific objects to comment upon a culture tends to be an effective approach, as one admires the artist’s attempt to preserve Malay-ness in a time when (a particular type of) religious practices are made synonymous with an ethnic group.

Installation view of Aiman Yusri Mohamad Yusoff – Siri Buai Pesaka (2016)

Two lighted-up installations leave good impressions too – Haris Abadi’s ‘Teletopia’, and ‘Kepada Sesiapa Yang Berkenaan’ by Azam Aris. Haris arranges a park scene complete with tree, leaves, and bench, while a talking face is projected onto a rock. Its mobile messaging sounds and casual chatter (“Bro!”) are witty, and offer an empathic take on the impact digital technologies have on our lives. On the flipside, Azam utilizes UV lights to illuminate a dark room with paper flowers and a starry wall, offering the visitor a moment of silence. The wall statement adds to its poetic poignancy: “’Maaf’ itu dapat merobohkan tembok ego yang kian menebal di dalam diri kita semua. Maaf ruang ini, maaf masa kini dan maaf tenaga gelap ini.” Bias and judgement soften in quiet solitude, as I unwittingly submit to be one of the concerned

Installation view of Haris Abadi – Teletopia (2017); Detail snapshots inset

Competition submissions this round was notably lesser, after the fiasco that happened in the previous edition of the Young Contemporaries. Alas, leave it to the hidden hand to further undermine this competition. Despite judging sessions having already take place, Samsudin Wahab’s “Fakta Auta” wall presentation – an anti-KL Biennale logo, and fake news photographs – was removed two weeks after going up. Upon hearing this news, I thought of two other exhibits that somehow became relevant after this turn of events. Khairul Ehsani Sapari’s post-performance wall text for ‘Merdeka’ makes mention of “…destructive criticism and rejection.”; While one imagines ‘Meng-Wap’ by Melcom Anak Angkun as depicting the faceless oppressor. Whose art is more audacious? The one who presents exaggerated facts? Or the one who shows a looping video of steam?

[left] Installation view of Samsudin Wahab – Fakta Auta (2017), taken by author on 13th February 2017; [right] Picture from Fergana Art Facebook page, dated 18th February 2017

28 February 2017

Of Unlearning and Relearning @ OUR ArtProjects

The introduction to this exhibition states, (i)n recent years, art has taken a back seat as (Wong) Hoy Cheong takes on a more active role in politics and policy-making. This may well be Hoy Cheong's final exhibition of never-before-seen paper-based works. For visitors who are familiar with Hoy Cheong's work, the exhibition can be seen as a mini-survey of his practice.” As the story goes, friends of the esteemed Malaysian artist came to the opening and asked, ‘where are Hoy Cheong’s works?’ For one who knows little about his oeuvre, this selling show of drawings and prints provides good insight into the artist’s methods. After a couple rounds of observation, I conclude that Hoy Cheong’s drawn line projects a strong sense of restlessness, which contradicts with the labour-intensive studies for installations also displayed in the gallery. 

Exhibition snapshot

Two-worded statements demarcate the exhibits nicely into time periods, starting with a landscape painting from secondary school, to prints done overseas, to attempts at recording cultural forms, to political posters, and onto preparatory studies for large installations, or unrealised projects. Like everyone else, the influence of the Western canon is apparent in earlier works. By 1986, a certain figurative aesthetic was formed, which culminated in his landmark series of charcoal drawings “Of Migrants and Rubber Trees”. The exhibition fizzles out after “Women of Chow Kit”, as the remaining studies – collages, or small versions of installation work – are more interesting only if one knew about the end-product. One exception is the proposal for “Food of the Gods”, which illustrates 98 ‘Chocolate Slaves’ facing the window with sunlight streaming in. Bittersweet, one imagines.

Study for Installation: Food of the Gods - Chocolate History (1998)

21 February 2017

Rags to Riches: A Story of Kuala Lumpur @ RUANG by Think City

I am intrigued with photography as an art medium. I am also intrigued by art that invokes deep realisations. Some say photography is not art. Some say art only needs to be beautiful. Formal, casual, smart-casual. There is an exhibition in KL now which contextualises one’s photographs as modernist, and not pictorialist. Another KL exhibition explores the stories of migrant workers, as interpreted via individual art approaches. The Kuala Lumpur I know is unfriendly yet dignified, crumbling yet melancholic, dirty yet orderly, ada Bandaraya tapi penghuninya orang se-kampung. Quoting John Berger, “(a)ll photographs are there to remind us of what we forget. In this – as in other ways – they are the opposite of paintings. Paintings record what the painter remembers.” 

These beliefs, thoughts, and observations, come to a head on a second floor gallery of an old refurbished building near Masjid Jamek. The premise is simple – Kenny Loh displays a number of his photographs, accompanied with stories of individuals. Portraits of people introduce the audience to individuals who make a living in Kuala Lumpur, and have a personal story about migrating from, or to here. The images are culled from a larger project by Kenny named “Born in Malaysia”, which I first came across two year ago via a video shared on social media. The YouTube tagline introduces the project as, “(w)hat began as a trip down memory lane to his local barbershop, ended up as a 4-year journey documenting Malaysians from all walks of life”.

Older ones who have operated small businesses for decades, and those fortunate enough to be still running. Younger ones who bring fresh ideas to existing spaces. Dancers, social activists, and charity workers. Refugees who lead a difficult life, who once led a good life. The chosen pictures are ones where the individual concerned had posed. The surrounding environment – in a public space, or a private setting – provides contextual evidence of one’s daily life. Two journalist friends also share their photographs in the same format, and provide a good counterpoint to Kenny’s signature style. Jahabar Sadiq’s snapshot of Tung Sook and Tung sum is particularly endearing, whereas King Chai’s captures of Filipinos around Kota Raya is spontaneous, and come alive with narratives about entrepreneurship and financial freedom. 

These are real people, who interact with real people, in the city. Among recent projects which aim to celebrate Kuala Lumpur and its inhabitants, “Rags to Riches” stands out with its straightforward presentation. The elements photographed will eventually die; From here one gauges the life of the subject matter, be it a person, a trade, a passion, a shop, or a circumstance. As a KL-ite, the photographs are familiar, and no artistic intervention is required to mediate the time & space being depicted. Ambition and opportunities are evident in these paragraph-photograph pairings, and successfully restores one’s faith in the city. Time to go out and buy the “Born in Malaysia” photobook from the nearest bookstore…

18 February 2017

Singapore Biennale 2016: An Atlas of Mirrors, Jan 2017

John McDonald writes, “(e)ven by the absurdist standards of the Biennale circuit, An Atlas of Mirrors is a phrase guaranteed to confound audiences.” The visitor is greeted by a finger to the Singapore Art Museum, where one expects a typical mix of spectacle, crowd-pleasing visual effects, traditional motifs, and jargon-laden texts, accompanying works by notable Asian artists (Caucasians are excluded?) Ignoring curatorial demarcations, I enjoy the wide range of mediums utilised on show, having come from a painting-saturated art scene. Like H.H. Lim standing atop a basketball, one threads a balance when appreciating works – between wow factor and conventional tropes, between folk tradition and cultural appropriation, between metaphorical mediation and rigid symbols; I stumble when the first work I see is made up of 100 square mirrors. This is as straightforward as it gets.

Detail snapshot of work from Pala Pothupitiye – Other Map Series (2016)

After being creeped out by one illuminating two-sided mirror, impressed by tiny scripts that illustrate a Javanese folktale, confounded by an installation of vibrating wok lids, immersed with Sharmiza Abu Hassan’s formal adaptation of a story from Sejarah Melayu, and delighted by lovely drawings over maps of Sri Lanka, I stand entranced in front of a dense foliage of incense sticks. Hemali Bhuta’s arrangement offers a welcome break from artworks and an exhibition layout that demand visitors to interact with it; I leave the room charmed and refreshed from the emanated sweet scents. Upstairs, Tan Zi Hao’s ‘The Skeleton of Makara (The Myth of a Myth)’ stands up as an excellent subversive object within the biennale presentation. Why is the skeleton of a dinosaur in an art museum? Was the dinosaur excavated in this region? Is this skeleton real, or made up? Is this dinosaur art, or is art a dinosaur?

Installation snapshot of Tan Zi Hao – The Skeleton of Makara (The Myth of a Myth) (2016)

A number of spectacular works are exhibited on the second floor. Qiu Zhijie illustrates maps with terminologies associated literally with atlas, which progressively develops into an encyclopaedic list of animals and places. Mythological creatures in crystal are displayed together, accentuating further the durational impact of cartography as an activity. Navigating from the ‘Sea of Geopolitik’ to the ‘Mount of Twelve Titans’, one encounters sheer joy in the arbitrary nature of this cultural & literal mapping exercise. Pannaphan Yodmanee’s ‘Aftermath’ exhibits an apocalyptic scene – weighty chunks of concrete with painted murals, metal grids jutting out of hard surfaces – that impresses at first sight. Upon reflection, the presentation fits too neatly with an imagined place gleaned from end-of-days action blockbusters, notwithstanding the inherent appeal of pools of azure paint.

Installation and detail snapshots of Qui Zhijie – One Has to Wander through All the Outer Worlds to Reach the Innermost Shrine at the End (2016)

Martha Atienza‘s multimedia installation successfully creates an environment, where one feels like bobbing along in a small ship cabin for ‘Endless Hours at Sea’. In another dark room, I recharge again while looking at starry night scenes made by Ni Youyu with chalk, and magnets. Traditional Hmong embroidery by Tcheu Siong depict Laotian spirits as interpreted by her village shaman husband, which geometric forms and tactile surface manifest a narrative as well as any other art medium. With surprisingly few videos on show, one should forgo Araya Rasdjarmrearnsook’s obscure 5-channel work, and spend time viewing documentary records by Wen Pulin. Capturing critical moments in Chinese contemporary art history, I watched the segment about Xiao Lu’s controversial gun-shooting performance 肖魯《槍擊事件》, where the artist insisted in an interview that the act was a personal gesture.

Detail snapshots of works from Adeela Suleman – Dread of Not Night series (2015–2016)

Equally violent is the blood oath taken by S. Chandrasekaran, who cut himself in protest of the organizers’ decision to disallow his planned performance, on grounds of it being religiously-insensitive. Metal hooks meant for the performance remain displayed on the third floor of 8Q, now transformed into markers of state-sponsored censorship. Htien Lin’s carved soaps are incidentally displayed in the adjacent gallery, reminding the audience that freedom cannot wash away the shackles of oppression. Re-arranging historical objects to depict the ‘Singapore Human Resources Institute’, Ade Darmawan’s superb installation celebrates a foundational organization that has contributed to Singapore’s first-world status. Yet, with its broken chairs, stickers on wallpaper, and chopped slogans, one senses that the artist is left out in this development, and still playing catch up now.

Installation snapshots of Ade Darmawan – Singapore Human Resources Institute (2016)

Hidden away in a small room behind heavy curtains is one of the biennale’s best work. ‘Hearings’ by Jack Tan is a collaboration with charity organization Community Justice Centre, where the artist interprets sounds from court proceedings as graphical scores, that are subsequently performed by a choir. Xun Wei Er’s careful review describes the moral economy manifest in this work, and emphasises that “…voice is a significant if not the predominant means of engaging with…” the viewer. The clash of languages – oral, visual, musical – is intriguing, and extends the meaning of “representation” into the social realm. The law favours the learned and the privileged, not unlike art. Dwelling upon this sobering thought, I walk past impenetrable lightboxes by Niranjan Rajah, also sympathizing with Azizan Paiman’s eccentric pop-up café which sits uncomfortably on 8Q’s porch.

Detail snapshots of works from Jack Tan – Hearings (2016)

Ahmad Fuad Osman’s expansive installation fares better at the Asian Civilisation Museum, as I gleefully note the number of visitors who come & go believing that the first person to circumnavigate the world was a Malay man. That lines between fact and fiction can be blurred to the point of uncertainty, is a ready approach in contemporary art-making, yet out of steps in times like this when fake news is rampant. With its elliptical curatorial theme, “An Atlas of Mirrors” pans out as an exhibition of individual artworks in visual dialogue with a familiar museum space, thereby leaving this visitor feeling like a missed opportunity. As Lim Qinyi asks in her crisp criticism, “…can a biennale that has so far fallen short of its touted complexity and reflexivity justify its existence beyond as a mere charade for larger political colonialist designs on the region’s art narratives?”

Installation snapshots of Ahmad Fuad Osman – Enrique de Malacca Memorial Project (2016)

15 February 2017

Snippets: Q4 2016

Some artists leave the audience bowled over with sheer technical skill, yet the work’s emotional impact is zero. Hasanul Isyraf Idris’ all-over illustrations belong in this category, where contextual terms such as ‘drawing’, ‘surreal’, and ‘pop’, have failed to register significance in my personal appreciation. Finally, I come across one work which strikes a chord, but I am unsure which observation holds the key in attracting my attention. Is it the unique logos that form the frame? Is it the fantastic waves that set the scene for a mythical narrative? Is it the blocks of ice and yellow jump suits that recall Bruce Lee in The Big Boss? Is it a necessary violent depiction of bloodletting? Is it the familiar sight of an oil drilling derrick? Is it the caricature of a bubbly climax after oral sex? Is it the ogres, snakes, and faceless characters? Is it the layout of an archaeological excavation site? Is it…

Detail snapshots of Hasanul Isyraf Idris – Krishna Tongue (2016)

A movie about exorcising living ghosts from the past. Who was created because photographic snapshots were crystallised on glass plate negatives. In Borneo, in 1915. A mythical bird lives on in human form. Which feeds on living ghosts. In a city that looks like Kuala Lumpur. Despite its urban locations and fast-paced action, Dain Iskandar Said’s Interchange is grounded less in reality as compared to his previous feature film Bunohan. Everyone who becomes part of the myth, has their fate sealed with inevitability. The myth consumes its characters, literally. Photographs record memories; Its flat form and more fragile source manifest physical evidence of life. Inserting philosophical questions into a crime noir, the director exhibits great flair in storytelling via strong characters and a mysterious backdrop. Cannot wait for his next feature in five years time!

Movie still from Interchange (2016) [picture taken from screenanarchy.com]

Japanese department store Isetan opens its swanky The Japan Store, which top floor The Cube houses a bookstore stocked with art-related titles, a collaborative makespace with 3-D printing facilities, and exhibition spaces featuring works by Japanese artists. Media artist Yoichi Ochiai 落合陽一 stages one curious yet fascinating show “Image and Matter”, that experiments with technological modes and visual perceptions. Amidst the flickering light & shadows, floating dust & orbs, I stand fascinated viewing one video about creating a light-object with a femtosecond laser. That tiny physical matter is malleable by bursts of light to create 3-D images, distorts further the truthfulness of human visual perception, and that informative realisation itself is worth the RM 40 entrance fee. 

Digital Nature Group – Fairy Lights in Femtoseconds (2015)

A visit to the Vietnam Fine Arts Museum provided a wonderful respite, from the bustling traffic of Hanoi Old Quarter. A number of 17th century lacquered wood sculptures on the ground floor, enthral with its sheer beauty and expressive features. Wise man, old man, or servant to the Buddha, one detects certain exaggerated characteristics in each creation. Walking past galleries of wall hangings – silk, lacquered, and oil paintings – I visually marked down works that caught my interest, and was amazed to find this shortlist mostly populated with works by Trần Văn Cẩn, one of the “four masters” in Vietnamese fine art canon. Working across mediums and styles, an attractive composition is a key feature across the artist’s varied output. How did artists from that era become proficient across multiple mediums? 

Trần Văn Cẩn – Mùa thu đan len (1959 – 1961)

04 February 2017

Art KL-itique 2016 Look Back

Blame it on the economic & political gloom, but 2016 feels like a dour year in visual art highlights. Nevertheless, there are moments to cherish by looking back at... In the city centre, “MAPPING” stands out as a significant step for the National Visual Arts Gallery in exhibiting its permanent collection. Only the 1970s iteration Transition was a disappointment, due to a lack of wall texts to justify its curated sections. Nevertheless, the opportunity for the committed visitor to learn about Malaysia’s visual art history, is an invaluable one. Despite my reservations about its incoherent curatorial approaches (and the politics of the exhibition spaces), Galeri Petronas’ “YMA: New Object(ions) III” and ILHAM’s “Love Me in My Batik” present a number of good artworks. One realization is that an exceptional painting can stand up well against more contemporary expressions, although Malaysian collectors’ preference for framed paintings with obvious brushstrokes remain a troubling trend. 

George Giles - Che Ali (1885) [ [GIF file from Balai Seni Visual Negara Facebook post dated 30th November 2016]

One missed opportunity is Jeganathan Ramanchandran’s solo exhibition, which looked great on first glance but a more thorough visit was surprisingly cut short, as the comprehensive exhibition in Balai's expansive top floor gallery lasted only two weeks. Nearby at Sutra Gallery, Sivarajah Natarajan’s celebration of headgear utilised in traditional dance performances was tremendously enjoyable, the artist’s deep appreciation of his subject matter evident in joyful depictions. Less eye-catching but equally heartfelt are surreal drawings by Shahrul Hisham at Segaris, whose careful and well-drawn illustrations are a delight to appreciate. Umibaizurah Mahir’s “Fragile” was an ambitious exhibition of charming ceramic sculptures, that would have probably sold well at an international art fair, as compared to at The Edge Galerie. 

Shahrul Hisham Ahmad Tarmizi - Ugly Duckling Turntable (2015) [picture taken from artist's Behance page]

Wei-Ling Gallery was the only commercial gallery that presented more than one memorable exhibition in 2016. From Minstrel Kuik’s domestication of political paraphernalia, to Sun Kang Jye’s inversely-painted biblical verses, to mix ‘n match religious icons by Rajinder Singh, these artworks offered different perspectives for interpreting visual icons and recognizing visual cues. For enjoyment of good ol’ medium-sized paintings, solo shows by Liew Kwai Fei at Richard Koh’s, and Maamor Jantan at Universiti Malaya, proved invigorating with personal representations of subject matter close to the artists’ hearts. Detaching oneself from the self-perpetuating stupidity of the news cycle, the optimism inherent in Azliza Ayob’s wonderful plastic creations and glittery collages rubbed off myself at Rimbun Dahan, especially when one visits the charming gallery with a curious toddler. 

Snapshot taken at Minstrel Kuik's solo exhibition "After-image: Living with the Ghosts in my House"

Independent art spaces provide the interesting sights. Lorong Kekabu featured wisecracking works by Izat Arif, and a promising photography-based show by young artists; One small architecture-related exhibition at PORT Commune piqued my interest. “Panggung Art Weekend” offered art objects for sale on the higher floors, as I gleefully picked up a number of creative expressions. A price ceiling and a salon hang make for an attractive display, as compared to the typical small-sized illustrations and paintings found at Publika’s Art Row. Also exhibited at upstairs shop lots are delightful musings about gender identity by Shieko Reto/ Shika Corona, and a "SHOW" consisting abstruse video collages by Wang Rou, which give the impression that his media/(network-ed?) art is many years ahead of other regional contemporary artists. 

Snapshot of Anonymous Art Market at Lostgens' [picture from Panggung Art Weekend Facebook post dated 20th August 2016]

One memorable 2016 time was spent visiting the “Derivative Modernity in Nanyang Art” exhibition at Oriental Art & Cultural Association. After 90 minutes looking at chops, scrolls, and Chinese ink brushstrokes, reading each caption, and listening to the QR Code-triggered commentary, I come away blank, as though what I have just seen could not register as art. The Chinese ideogram as visual form excludes the uneducated viewer, and further manipulation, e.g. the application of ‘scripts’, appears to negate whatever meaning the ideogram carries in the first place. Exhibitions like this one gives me hope that there are visual representations supposedly close to one’s personal history, that remains a mystery. That art can still deliver a neutral judgement, in this times which political positions must be declared, is truly a blessing. 

Snapshot of "衍生-南洋書畫印的現代性" exhibition at Oriental Art & Cultural Association [picture from gallery's Facebook page photo album]