Change begins with small acts. The title of my blog is taken from Paul Gilroy's powerful slim volume packing a resounding counter-cultural critical punch.

Tuesday, August 31, 2004

Jejak Langkah: Review
by Carmen Nge

On a recent visit to the National Art Gallery, Kuala Lumpur, I found myself faced with two choices: to walk under the bright pink archway that loudly welcomed me to the Malaysian Art NOW show or to leave my imprint on the malleable grey walkway that invited me to view the Jejak Langkah exhibition.

From my initial observation, the two entrances highlight the discontinuities within the artistic landscape of Malaysia. The first is indicative of the commercialization of art whereby shockingly bright colors symbolize the power of advertising and the value of surface over substance. The second signals a different compulsion, one that is seemingly more earthy and humble: an invitation to the public to be a part of the works on display, to leave an imprint of their footsteps behind. Perhaps this gesture is inspired by Chong Siew Ying’s A Moment in Time, one of the pieces in the Jejak Langkah show that is a time- and site-specific collection of the footprints of people entering and exiting Central Market.

Jejak Langkah, or Footsteps, is an art exhibition that claims to be collaborative because it brings together the creative efforts and practices of seven artists from different backgrounds with dissimilar attitudes and opinions about art. From the childhood motifs of Yusof Majid’s sea-inspired works to the film-derivative oil triptych of Eric Chan, this exhibition, is, however, anything but collaborative. The works on view do not appear to be the result of dialogue or collaboration between the artists, instead, the exhibition is marked by a high level of individualistic expressivity.

The theme of the show gives the artists license to create work that prey on their own idiosyncrasies and preoccupations. Ivan Lam’s mixed media Footprints convey a sense of foreboding and personal confusion; dark black clouds hang over the silhouettes of two children like ominous child-drawn, angry squiggles. Alternatively, Circa—an assemblage of cut-out pictures and text, repeating images and alphabets—exude incoherence and disjunctions. The artist’s statement asserts Ivan’s retreat into the realm of the personal and the contemplative; this may explain why this writer found it difficult to extrapolate meaning from the pieces. They were too mired in the personal and as such, inaccessible.

Azliza Ayob’s work—drawing on the elemental artifacts of childhood: storybooks and fairytales—is anchored by and tethered to a sense of the world seen through the eyes of children. Azliza believes that her installation, which draws on popular images and objects linked to childhood such as dolls, scrapbooks, and kid-sized chairs and tables, evoke memories for parents and adults and enables them to engage in an internal dialogue with themselves.

Due to the interactive aspect of her work, Azliza’s piece is the only one that parallels the clay walkway at the entrance because it engages on a physical as well as visual level. Yet the introspection it invites is still rooted in the personal; we are asked to use the artist’s memories from childhood to investigate our own but this exploration does not encourage us to contextualize our world-view. The personal becomes the universal: we were all children once and hence, we can all relate to this common experience. But the experience of childhood is at once uniquely individualistic and also uniquely social. And it is the social dimension of childhood that gets glaringly elided in Azliza’s work.

Yusof Majid’s pieces have very similar tendencies even though their medium (painting) is quite different. Homeless, Bus In My Soup and The Daisy Chain have a naïve visual quality about them because they almost look like something a child would paint but in the gallery space, they are defamiliarized. We may recognize the work from our own childlike experimentations but here, they are estranged from us—no longer intimate. The blue sea and sky that form an unbroken line of color is an ambiguous backdrop that decontextualizes the human figures in the work; the images may be a reflection of Yusof’s own childhood but they are not rooted in a time or place. It is this sense of being from everywhere and yet nowhere that inflects most of the pieces in this exhibition.

The artworks for the show are purportedly anchored by a sense of journey and the passing of time but in my view, they are imbued with a deeper sense of fixity and nostalgia than movement and kineticism. While it is true that the artists themselves are world travelers, having studied, lived and worked in countries such as England, Australia, Singapore and France, their work do not necessarily capture this sense of travel and multiple-localities.

The triptych by Eric Chan, for instance, negates the energy of movement by undercutting the idea of moving pictures with the more static image of the photographic form. Entitled Final Take, the work is an oil-based simulation of a film still, divided into 3 parts and curiously divorced from the usual narrative propulsion of film. The figure of a woman, cut up into 3 circular frames, is mise en scene gone awry; it is a physically impossible feat for a woman to be thusly proportioned. But how might this relate to journeying is anyone’s guess. The dismemberment of the female starlet—posing with her pouty lips and a bared right shoulder—almost seems like a cruel artistic joke culled from any number of Hollywood flicks, rather than from the 1950s black and white Malay and Chinese films that are the artist’s current interest.

In contrast, the digital video by Zulkifli Zakaria (more widely known as Joe Kidd of the underground punk scene) is a pastiche of stills strung together into a raw but not entirely discordant narrative format. The video is animated and quirky, juxtaposing musical references with sly social commentary. “We are all the same” is a line from one of the frames but this is not necessarily seen as a good thing. Or is it? Does homogeneity mean boring, cookie cutter, dispensable or does it signal a common purpose, a united front, a strong alliance of like minds?

Yee I-Lann’s work grapples with this question to some degree, though not by intention or design. In Topography of the Sole I, II and III, she extends the tension between the personal and the universal that is a strong undercurrent in the exhibition. Her photographs of the soles of anonymous feet are shot through with intimations of the personal—these are, after all, the feet of 3 different individuals—but because we do not recognize one another by our footprints, feet alone cannot establish the identities of their owners.

But what is identity anyway, the artist seems to ask. Is it our race, our nationality, our gender? Or is it about where we have been, how far we have traveled, and the extent of our mobility—our past, our future, our class? The variations in color, texture, size and shape of the feet are, however, too few; as a result, the particularities of each pair of feet are overshadowed by their general qualities.

Could it be, at the end of the day, we are all the same?

This review was published in the Merdeka (August) 2004 issue of Options2, The Edge

Malaysian Art: Function and Future
By Carmen Nge

“I don’t believe in Merdeka as the day of celebration because I’m Sabahan and I find it ironic that the country chooses to celebrate Merdeka Day over National Day (when West and East Malaysia became one nation). To celebrate Merdeka is to celebrate the past and not the future.”

Artist Yee I-Lann’s comment captured, for me, the essence of conversations I recently had with 5 young Malaysian artists (I-Lann, Yusof Majid, Azliza Ayob, Chong Siew Ying and Ivan Lam) in conjunction with their exhibition Jejak Langkah. These conversations ranged from opinions about the contemporary Malaysian art scene to identity, commercialisation, and the process of creative work among young artists today.

Who is a Malaysian artist—is this identity to be understood based on an artist’s work or her identity as a Malaysian citizen? Is it the responsibility of Malaysian artists to produce Malaysian identity in their work? Why should artists make Malaysian art as opposed to just art? Is there such a thing as Malaysian art anymore? What are the future prospects of art for young Malaysian artists living and working in Malaysia today? These were just some of the questions that came to the fore during our conversations.

When talking to Yusof Majid and I-Lann, I found their thoughts about art and the artist to be worlds apart. Although both artists are of mixed parentage and have grown up and studied in numerous locations abroad, their work, though very loosely connected in theme, is divergent in terms of style, motivation and influences.

I-Lann finds her inspiration in street culture, television, newspapers, pop culture, and local films (in addition to art she also works extensively in the film industry). As she puts it, “most of my work is a reaction to something from the street or issue at the time, or occasionally, a curated idea (like the Jejak Langkah show).” For Yusof, on the other hand, a lot of his influences are based on childhood memories of things that inspire him—from books and from where he used to live—and involve him coming up with more direct responses to what he has seen. Painting, for him, is about a synthesis of what he is and, at 33, how he got there.

Yusof is of the opinion that “our generation of artists is extremely diverse and talented and exciting.” This diversity gives him the impetus to work harder and to be confident enough to produce more work. “In 20 years, maybe we will be more homogenous but now, young artists are more individual in their thinking,” he adds. Yusof sees this heterogeneity as something positive for the current and future generation of young artists.

Ivan Lam shares Yusof’s observations: “The (Malaysian art) scene is good enough to accommodate many styles and isms right now. It is a fertile ground for all artists to get started. It's difficult to notice any trends or styles; I think everyone is just doing their own thing.”

But does this overabundance of individuality and difference—styles, medium, subject matter, aesthetic qualities—necessarily translate into artwork that engages on multiple levels? Should artwork aspire to reach and touch as many people as possible from as many different walks of life as possible? Is art about audience at all? For Azliza Ayob, “Art is about communication.” But the statement begs the question: What exactly is art trying to communicate and with whom?

In Azliza’s case, the answer is straightforward: “I do work that tries to be specific, something dear and personal to me. I like to interact with people. My fans are all children because I work with children.” This impulse to interact propels Azliza to create works that are kid-friendly, work that invites her audience to inhabit a space and by so doing, transport themselves back to a time from their own youth.

Yusof, however, is of the belief that artists should make work for themselves and not for an audience: “There should be complete freedom for artists. I would hate to see that no-one would understand a Malaysian artwork but a Malaysian.” I-Lann adds that “making work for audiences or for commercial reasons is dangerous.” She thinks that it is more important for artists to be in touch with their motivations and to be honest with themselves.

At the same time, I-Lann unashamedly declares: “My interest is Malaysia. All my work is Malaysian driven because we live in a fascinating part of the world and I don’t know about other places. There are great issues here that are also international in nature. These issues become condensed in Malaysia because we are a young country, with lots of things to respond to. My target audience is a Malaysian audience. To have an international audience is a bonus but the Malaysian community is ultimately the community I care about. That is very kampung of me but it’s true.”

The idea of kampung evoked by I-Lann conjures up a localized, bounded world that it at once parochial and idiosyncratic, rooted in a particular history and with very definite social and political moorings. She continues: “Art is part of a social dialogue within a country and it documents time and place. Artwork is part of the artifacts of that place. To be true to those times, art has to come from that context.”

But the contemporary Malaysian art scene is indicative of the ways in which the definition of a Malaysian or local context is no longer insular and contained—and perhaps it never was. To make art that engages with everything Malaysian is also to make art that engages with the world because both entities are inseparably linked.

For Chong Siew Ying, who considers her lifestyle “international” for she lives and works in both Kuala Lumpur and Paris, there are a lot of young artists who experiment but the Western influences are unavoidable in their work. “Modern art history is always Western,” she says.

The Eurocentrism of art history may account for the overriding impulse to create artworks that are uniquely Malaysia or uniquely Asian as an antidote or counter-measure to circumvent the pervasive influence and infiltration of Western art and culture. But this antidote is not only ineffectual but it has a tendency to valorize and essentialize Malaysian identity, lauding certain works or artists as being quintessentially Malaysian and others as being too Western. This tendency is not only observed in the art arena but in other areas of Malaysian life as well—debates over Malaysian or Asian versus Western values as they pertain to issues of censorship, for instance.

The question of what constitutes Malaysian art is complicated by the fact that artists do not often have the space—both physical and mental—to express what it means to be Malaysian or what it means to be an artist in Malaysia outside of acceptable categories. Some of this inability is due to an over-reliance on the National Art Gallery to grant legitimacy to their work; as much as some young artists may gripe about the nation’s artistic institution, there is also no denying the fact that they continue to seek validation from the same source of their angst.

Another factor that plays an increasingly influential role in the lives of young artists today is the art market and the growing commodification of art. According to I-Lann, “The commercial world is stronger than it’s ever been (in KL) and it buys artists freedom. Buyers are very exciting now and the art market is very strong. Buyers are young, in their 20s and 30s, and professional, and they do not necessarily have large collections. But this is only in the urban context.”

The kind of freedom that the commercial world buys an artist could also explain why, despite her enthusiasm, I-Lann does acknowledge that “intellectual art is weak and has deteriorated.” In a world that increasingly downplays intellectualism and critical thinking in favour of surface aesthetic value and commercialisation, it is troubling to think that the market can buy freedom. Is it the case then that artists are only free to create when they become participants in the global marketplace of value? At what cost do they buy their freedom?

One obvious consequence of the art market is that the aims and vision of an artist become subservient to those of the art patron or art buyer, and to perceived commercially viable international and local trends. For the most part, contemporary art in Malaysia is very much conceived and executed within the existing conventions of gallery-specific art. This may explain why, in contrast to Indonesia for example, public art—both the kind initiated by the artists as well as those commissioned or sponsored by government and private companies—in Malaysia lacks dynamism and creativity. Occasionally, the work of street or graffiti artists threatens to disrupt the existing paradigm but these occasions are dependent upon the commitment, tenacity and courage of a few individuals, most of whom are concentrated in urban enclaves.

Yusof Majid would certainly like to see more public art in places such as shopping complexes and hotel lobbies, for example, because he thinks the next step is “art that interacts with audiences.” But what form should this interaction take and more importantly, how much freedom can an artist have in a commercial space? Will his or her creative activity be subject to restrictive rules and regulations enforced by the management of such commercial space? Will the artist be able to create work that critiques consumerism and attacks market capitalism, for example? What values, ideas or aesthetics will be compromised in such a work?

Ultimately, the issue of public art returns us to the question of audience, context and the function of art. Because we live in a world that is rife with war, violence, poverty, racism and geopolitical chaos in general, it becomes all too easy for an artist to retreat into a private and personal world that disengages from the realities external to instincts and the mind. But from the Surrealists to the Pop Artists, from the Romanticists to the Abstract Expressionists, art movements and artists have always engaged with their contexts and their communities in critical ways. What is crucial about these movements is not only that they are historically situated and responsive to their socio-political contexts but also that they are able to transform their contexts through their ideas about art and society.

Perhaps the challenge for young Malaysian artists is not to wait for history to unfold in order to capture and reflect it but to be a catalyst of its creation.

This article was published in the Merdeka (August) 2004 issue of Options2, The Edge