22 May 2018

Gallery Partnerships, and a Pago-Pago @ National Art Gallery

Upon conclusion of the inaugural KL Biennale, the National Art Gallery proceeds to hosts several exhibitions, that collaborates with commercial galleries. Happening at the same time, questions abound about the selection process. What was the criteria for galleries invited to participate? How are costs shared, in the staging of an exhibition? What did Balai get out of this endeavour, apart from delegating its exhibition schedule to private companies? As outmoded as the notion is, the museum as institutional recognition is still a notion, worth considering while viewing these shows. From tiny works by international artists, to selling and non-selling thematic showcases, to a memorial/ clearance of sorts, each display is distinctly different. The following jottings are about each presentation, including one opportunistic display by Balai itself…

Exhibition posters at the lobby of the National Art Gallery; Final opportunity to see 1Malaysia logos on art show posters?

“Kuala Lumpur International Miniprint Exhibition 2018” (Segaris Art Centre): A miniprint is defined as a work not larger than 20 x 20 cm, and executed via a conventional printmaking technique (relief, intaglio, planography, and/or serigraphy). This definition is provided by the organizers of the Jogja International Miniprint Biennale, who also played a part in staging this display of 200+ prints by 90 artists. For eyes accustomed to graphic design on monitor screens, the majority of exhibits fail to register a second look. Figurative depictions in series by Mansoor Ibrahim and Derek Michael Besant offer visual continuity, while dramatic pictures by Loo Foh Sang and Samsudin Wahab appear primed to complement imagined storybook narratives.

Samsudin Wahab – Keramat (2018)

“Optimism is Ridiculous” (Richard Koh Fine Art): Natee Utarit writes in the exhibition statement, “(f)or me, Western-style art is (…) everything which exists in its Western contexts (…) My paintings are no different.” Therefore, looking at ;realistic paintings of animals, hung in a dark and air-conditioned museum gallery, appropriates a Western form of art appreciation. The subject matter is posed and creates a shallow perspective, its lush surfaces projecting a sheen on the flat canvas. Selected short phrases are etched upon thick custom-made dark grey frames, the solemn presentation heightening a sense of reverence, that was transmuted from the Western church to the Western museum. Its market value aside, Natee’s paintings portray art which is repressed, a muffling of self-expression tendencies in a self-proclaimed democratic world. Optimism, is indeed, ridiculous.

Natee Utarit – Innocence is Overrated (2012)

The Unconventional Sculptor: The Works of Vong Nyam Chee 1956 – 2017” (G13 Gallery): The gallery pays tribute to one recently-deceased self-taught artist, better known by the moniker Cheev. The artist constructs dancing figures by gluing wood fragments together, where such additive assembly approach appears amateurish and naïve, especially after one has seen sculptures from the National Collection in another gallery downstairs. More interesting are vitrines filled with hands and carved faces, that emphasize the craft behind the making. The lack of wall texts and round stickers (that indicates sales), offers a stark contrast in presenting art by a single artist, as compared to…

Installation snapshot at “The Unconventional Sculptor”

“Aku: Dalam Mencari Rukun…” (Core Design Gallery): Husin Hourmain creates large paintings that refer to religious commandments, whose previous solo exhibition in 2013 is “…acknowledged as a watershed moment in (…) the genre of contemporary Islamic calligraphy...” The unctuous wall statement continues to describe this body of work as a “philosophical series”, as sketchbooks, mason jars, and large preparatory paintings, contribute to the show’s maximising aesthetic. Isolating a geometric form – cubes, in this case – to express doctrinal reflections appear restrictive, while expressive brushstrokes tend to draw the looking eye, from its centre to the edges of the painted canvas. Which then directs attention to the many round stickers (that indicate reserved/sales), and the hilarious repeating typo ‘Modelling Pace’ in describing the works’ medium (instead of ‘paste’).

Installation snapshot at “Aku: Dalam Mencari Rukun…”

“Meraikan Pago-Pago”: Latiff Mohidin’s celebrated series is the subject of a current display at the Centre Pompidou, which exhibition was co-ordinated by National Gallery Singapore. Balai – who does not have the resources to execute a similar partnership – takes the opportunity then to exhibit its “Pago-Pago” holdings from the National Collection. The 3rd floor exhibition presents more newspaper snippets than actual work, and it is striking how consistent the language of art writing is and has been, across five decades. Chronological facts, artist soundbites, and/or personal adulation. Nabilah Said’s recent review of the Paris show offers more food for thought – “Latiff’s paintings may bear suggestions of totemic structures, but to insist on their primitiveness is to ignore the capacity of modern societies to build new forms of religion, and the dangers these can bring…”

Latiff Mohidin – Pago-Pago Bangkok

17 May 2018

A New Post-Election (Art) World

How much Malaysian art created up till 9th May 2018, will be put aside/thrashed/repurposed by artists? Should all commercial galleries stage a "pre-GE14" show, for displaying works created before 9th May 2018?
Where will the references to an oppressive regime stop, and to an uncertain future begin? 
How many Birkin and cunning animal images will be purged, and how many frogs and AirAsia planes will be depicted? Will political party flags be the new rage?
Who will self-censor, and who will censor? Will big noses and black eyes, replace clowns or a man of steal?
Can Balai finally have a decent website, and a transparent acquisitions committee? 
How many histories, can be re-written?

Installation snapshot of Hasnul Jamal Saidon - Kdek! Kdek! Ong! (1996)

This momentous change in government, will shift one’s mindset from a reflex to oppose, to a moment’s pause, for one to assess and evaluate. This pause, short as it may be, will be the biggest change for Malaysians, before expressing oneself. This pause alone, I believe, will help Malaysian art evolve. I do not harbour any hope in politicians, but I do hope that a new post-election art world, will make one practice that bit more care, in addressing Malaysian art as we know it. 

Blog post title reference: BFM A Bit of Culture (12th May 2018 episode) “A New Post-Election World”

Nik Zainal Abidin Nik Salleh - Corak Bendera (1970)

26 April 2018

arkologi: gelap @ Artemis Art

“Ajim Juxta’s fourth solo exhibition arkologi: gelap, is an on-going and progressive questioning of the world we live in, and more importantly a reflection of an artist’s questioning of humanity and what it is that drives us. (…) His evolving narrative continues to warn us. With his 2014 Matikatak exhibition, he told us to listen to frogs, or rather reminded us that we have ceased to hear croaking frogs in our padangs, a sign that flora and fauna are rejecting our ways of building and living. Following, his 2016 Unknown Plus exhibition further drew out penghuni distopias, a mirror onto a future where we adopt and assimilate technology to achieve an optimum self.”
- Sharmin Parameswaran, catalogue essay for “arkologi: gelap”

Penghuni Distopia X (2018)

A reflective mood sets in, after reading the above paragraph. Not about dystopian living, but about one’s journey in art. Ajim Juxta is the first full-time artist I met in person, when I first stumbled upon Malaysian (contemporary) art. His illustrations still hang at Artisan Roast TTDI, where I first encountered both the artist and his works, six years ago. Ajim was a prominent regular at the café – which long black is still one of KL’s best – playing the ukulele while taking breaks from sketching. Once, I expressed interest in his work, and the artist gladly showed me a few architecture-influenced drawings, which fascinated me. I frequented the café a lot less, after moving away from TTDI the following year. Since then, my understanding of Malaysian art has deepened too.

Installation view of: [from l to r] (2018) tugu: sarang serabut; tugu: gerbang; tugu: selepas pertembungan

In a radio interview, curator Sharmin Parameswaran speaks about the time, she first met Ajim then invited him to show in a group exhibition, which incidentally was the artist’s first experience displaying his work at a White Box gallery. Over time, Ajim’s presence continues to be felt at the art mall Publika. Apart from participation at its weekend art markets, Ajim proceeded to set up Galeri Titikmerah along Art Row (with Adeputra Masri and Latif Maulan), and now works together with Artemis Art gallery, who carries his works to international art fairs. The artist’s involvement with the Sembilan Art Residency Program, active internet presence, and recent Khazanah-sponsored London residency, has progressively elevated his profile within Malaysian art circles.

tugu: gali (2018)

This exhibition features “Penghuni Distopia” illustrations, some presented at the previous solo; Ajim’s paintings attract me less than his drawings. ‘tugu: gali’ is a notable exception, its clear lines, washed-up colours, and scraped effect, contributing to a crumbling-but-not-collapsed aesthetic. Nonetheless, it is remarkable to observe the artist’s growth over the years. Never part of the establishment, Ajim’s DIY ethos and persistence has resulted in his work now being found on walls in cafés, homes, galleries, store rooms, museums, and fairs. In an egoistic manner, I identify my affinity with Ajim as rooted in our outsider status, where we may never breach the inner circles of Malaysian art. This journey thus far – learning about Malaysian art, for me – has been tremendously rewarding. What holds, in the following six years?

[l to r] (2018) Penghuni ii; Penghuni i; Penghuni iii

22 April 2018

KL Biennale (IX): First, and Last, Impressions

I visited the National Art Gallery 3 times in 3 months, during the inaugural KL Biennale. Among offsite exhibition locations, I was at Piyadasa Gallery twice – once to visit Niranjan Rajah’s installation, and another time to attend the artist’s talk. I spent 30 minutes trying to locate Siti Zainon Ismail’s ‘Rumah Waris Uwan’ within Kampung Bandar Dalam. I did not find it, even after enquiring at multiple warungs along the way. At my first visit to Balai, one usher prompted me to register as a visitor by pen on paper, which I assume was the organizer’s method in tabulating the number of visitors, which target was announced as 250,000. I was not asked to register, in subsequent visits. In the first week of November, the elevators were undergoing refurbishment, two galleries were closed, and the open galleries had different exhibits than what I saw during my final visit in February.

[foreground] Bashir Makhoul – Shift (2017); [background] Syed Ahmad Jamal – Lencana Balai Seni Lukis Negara (1984)

In To Biennale or Not To Biennale, Sunitha Janamohanan writes about the “origins and rise of  biennales within the context of Malaysia’s aspirations for a world-class international visual art mega-exhibition.” Her two-part essay is concise, and poses the pertinent question, that “(t)o be engaged in a global conversation about contemporary art in Asia is not a metaphorical statement; why stage a biennial if not to participate, and, indeed, steer a conversation about art and art history, and about social issues of local and global relevance? For both arts community and audience, a biennial affords opportunities for intellectual reflection – it is an opportunity to gather not just artists, but leading curators, thinkers, academics and public intellectuals, to ruminate on pressing global issues. Will the Kuala Lumpur Biennale do this? Can it?” 

Bayu Utomo Radjikin – Mata Musafir Hati (2007)

As a member of the public, the opportunity “to gather…” and “a global conversation” seems absent here. In Biennials: Four Fundamentals, Many Variations, Terry Smith writes about the distinctive features of global biennales, which include “(b)iennials as infrastructure builders”, and “(b)eing events, rather than primarily an assembly of art objects on display, is what makes biennials contemporary.” Despite its long list of sponsors and partners, it appears that this event is under-budgeted. Program booklets were non-existent, relatively few auxiliary events were organized, and new commissions were minimal (a shocking revelation: a biennial is typically defined as a “mega-exhibition of contemporary art”). If refurbishing an old elevator shaft can only be done via holding a significant event (such as a biennial), that speaks volumes about the role of Malaysia’s art institution under this administration. 

Tengku Sabri Tengku Ibrahim – Banteng Paca Donata/ The Demi-Gods Blockade (2017)

KL Biennale’s chief curator is Zulkifli Yusoff, who is a well-respected and reputable artist, but does not possess significant curatorial experience. In television and radio interviews, members of the curatorial team speak about the six months, given to them for preparing the exhibitions. Assuming the biennial was first announced two years prior to the actual event, this preparation timeline is ridiculous. The resulting output was uneven, and it is difficult to single out any curator for praise or criticism, because it is not stated anywhere who curated what. The Belas/ Be Loved theme (and its five sub-themes) proved to be a difficult but decent choice, although the organizers did not get to justify the selected theme, since the biennale produced no curatorial writings. As for documentation, one relies on a lousy website and its outdated design, and generic social media postings. @klbananaleh!


Screenshot of KL Bananaleh? Instagram page 

The lack of published writings would have been my biggest bugbear about the inaugural KL Biennale, if not for the “elephant in the room”. Suzy Sulaiman’s account of Pusat Sekitar Seni’s “Under Construction” installation, and the (self-)censorship debacle arising from it, ends with a plea for “an empowered (art) ecosystem”. That turn of events deterred myself, from thinking and writing about the KL biennale, during its exhibition run. Displaying typos on artwork signages is one thing; Displaying no accountability for exhibits at one’s premises, is another. Although there are more visitors than usual in my trips to the National Art Gallery, any proclamations that this biennale is a success, will be seen as a bureaucratic and empty achievement. I am reluctant to see another KL Biennale take place, at least not until the organizers project gestures representing Belas. Start with an apology, perhaps.

Snapshot of Under Construction covered in black netting [photo credit: The Star/M. Azhar Arif, taken from star2.com]

18 April 2018

KL Biennale (VIII): Second Floor Galleries

For the interested visitor, the second floor KL Biennale exhibition area in the National Art Gallery, presents an incoherent and challenging display. The immersive “Cracks in the Wall” presentation by Leon Leong greets those walking up the stairs. A draped “Under Construction” installation greets one walking up the rotunda, its censored form and state, not made known to the uninformed. Siti Zainon Ismail’s “Rumah Waris Uwan” proposes a visit to one kampung house six kilometres away, that cannot be found on Google Maps, thereby decreasing the prospects of proposed trip. Entering Galeri 2B next, pastel-tone photographs of “Swedish Dads” cuddling their offspring, and other works featuring children are displayed. While Zakaria Awang’s solemn ‘Warkah Buat Anakanda’ is undoubtedly the centrepiece within these small galleries, the remaining presentation is disjointed.

Installation snapshot of Zakaria Awang – Warkah Buat Anakanda (2012)

The cavernous Galeri 2A projects a better first impression, with a presentation of 80-years old paintings by O. Don Peris, along with photographs taken by his son Eric Peris. Unfortunately, Eric’s “Flower Does Not Talk” series is displayed in lightboxes which require the gallery to be dimmed, thus rendering works from the senior Peris illegible (or was this done due to preservation concerns?). The immediate galleries to the left changed its displays between November 2017 and December 2018, revealing the unrealistic timeline curators and artist representatives were working towards. In the final presentation, H.H. Lim’s expressionist painting, surreal cage, and fishing video are displayed, along with two wall hangings that depict human suffering. At this point, it is worth pondering the relevance of exhibits, with regards to the gallery’s biennale sub-theme Belas Insan

Installation snapshot of Amir Zainorin – Tong Tana (2017)

Small photographic portraits by Diana Lui and Jeffrey Lim captivate, while subsequent white & black box galleries include a variety of public engagement evidence. Before a common thread between these exhibits is established, the show veers off to works categorized under the sub-theme Belas Warisan. Three wooden sculptures by Tengku Sabri Ibrahim stand unsure of its positions, its blurry shadows wavering underneath the spotlight. Patterned constructs and paintings of traditional motifs surround a suspended fabric sculpture by Yim Yen Sum, while selected prints from Ilse Noor’s “Warisan Nusa” series are hung around the corner. The short walkway then continues into, a dark room showing Nasir Baharuddin’s large video projection ‘NT Ext Neuro’. This interchange of sub-themes in the middle of the gallery layout, disrupts an already tenuous flow, which implies a tentative exhibition strategy.

Installation snapshots of Mahen Bala – 222KM (2016–2017)

Squinting at Novia Shin’s tiny creations at the corners of the black box gallery, it is apparent that some exhibits are at risk of being a space filler, rather than a space disrupter. The final two gallery spaces, connected by a passage covered in brown paper, attempts to portray Malaysia as a culturally diverse place. Many works are excellent if evaluated standalone, but as a group, the presentation fails and appears contrived. This area is anchored by Ismadi Salehuddin’s collage of a Malaysian flag, made from wooden scraps. The symbol is as broken as its visible gaps, and casts a sinister light on neighbouring works by Sabah & Sarawak-born artists, and a spectral display memorializing Pudu Jail by K. Azril Ismail. In the preceding gallery, heroic sculptures by Raja Shahriman Raja Aziddin, coexist uncomfortably with paintings of indigenous motifs by Kelvin Chap. What was made from loss, and what is lost from made?

Installation snapshots of Galeri 2A, with works by Kelvin Chap, Shia Yih Yiing, Raja Shahriman Raja Aziddin, and Mad Anuar Ismail

14 April 2018

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)

10 April 2018

KL Biennale (VI): YouTube Vlogs

While KL Biennale organizers were lackadaisical in managing its website and social media platforms – the person responsible for reviewing (not posting) each post should be held accountable – the web content posted by the public presents more care. A hat tip to each of these YouTube channel users (perhaps offering also an insight into what the public is interested in):

‘KL Biennale at the National art gallery’ by BulanLifestyle, published on 12th December 2017

‘#JujueVlogs 🎥 KL Biennale 2017’ by Zulaika Shamin, published on 16th December 2017

‘KL BIENNALE 2017’ by Nur Izz Damia, published on 29th December 2017

‘KL Biennale 2017 || VLOG - 27/12/2017’ by anis sofea, published on 30th December 2017


‘KL #3 | KL Biennale 17'/18'’ by Liaaa, published on 17th January 2018

‘WeekendVlog: KL Biennale 2017’ by syahira rose, published on 22nd January 2018

‘KL Biennale 2018’ by Han Hanan, published on 2nd February 2018


‘KL Biennale’ by meelasia, published on 9th February 2018