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.

Monday, October 25, 2004

Young Contemporaries 2004 : A Review
By Carmen Nge

Gone are the days when a visit to an art gallery meant quiet moments spent reflecting on walls of artwork, contemplating creativity as much as conspiring with solitude for precious time beyond the hustle and bustle of work and life. A cacophony of pop music and a smorgasbord of unnervingly loud sound are more likely these days—such is the mediascape of the Young Contemporaries exhibition currently at the National Art Gallery.

Born in 1974, this biennial gives Malaysian art audiences a glimpse of the predilections and preoccupations of the younger brood of artists creating today. As a competitive exhibition, judges are given the authority to select from among hundreds of work and to eventually put up for display those deserving attention. From among these, a handful of winners are then chosen. At the time of writing, results of the final judging have yet to be released—a good thing, for this frees gallery patrons to decide for themselves the works they consider most worthy of mention and acclaim.

If the young Malaysian artists of the 2002 Young Contemporaries competition were accused of being anti-global and parochial, refusing to engage with international issues and art paradigms, then this year’s competition signals a marked shift in neo-global consciousness. While work by navel-gazing and solipsistic artists still exists, a great majority of pieces transcend the usual egoistical impulse. Though the depth of visual and intellectual discourse is debatable, there is no denying that global concerns—the Iraq war, rampant consumerism, environmental degradation—share the stage with local issues—corruption, Malay identity, snatch theft, among others.

Suhaidi B. Razi’s Statue of Democracy exploits an image that is rapidly becoming a cliché. Using black hoods—macabre iconography from Abu Ghraib prison—to hide the heads of de-feathered, bedraggled and lifeless chicken carcasses, the political commentary is too blatant and too tongue-in-cheek to register layers of commentary on the war. To link it with the existing bird-flu scare may alter the visual hermeneutics of the piece but I suspect Suhaidi’s work was created much earlier.

Illi Farhana Norhayat’s garish and brightly coloured print, on the other hand, opens up multiple sites of engagement. Using a pastiche of Western symbols and icons—comic book/cartoon characters like Captain America and Batman; Ronald McDonald and the golden arches—and Eastern allusions to Buddha and the Hindu god Kali, Illi renders Eastern and Western inextricable. Though high in kitsch value, the presence of photographic images of war vehicles (armoured helicopters and battleships) serves as an obvious reminder of America’s naked imperialist aggression, beyond its less belligerent (but no less benign) capitalist hegemony—symbolized by the prominent Visa card symbol. However, the work should have, in this writer’s view, dispensed with the large caption at the foot of the print image: “Without consumption I am nothing.” After visually accosting us with the lurid metaphors of capitalism’s hybrid excesses, was it really necessary to knock us over the head with such a one-dimensional statement?

‘Too much unnecessary text’ seems to be a recurring refrain in this exhibition. Mohamad Khizal B. Mohamad Saad’s wordy Mengadap Masa Hadapan suffers from the same syndrome. Perhaps images are poor substitutes for words when dissecting and discussing the ills of globalization.

Alternatively, Shafrizal B. Shahrir’s Imej sebagai Teks, Teks sebagai Wacana aims to break down the boundaries of text and image by suggesting that images can be read as text. In the case of his digitally manipulated collage of photographs, art and world events become intertwined. The drip art of Jackson Pollock is as much a part of history as the murders at Auschwitz; Picasso, Guernica, Hitler, Hiroshima, Mona Lisa, Tunku Abdul Rahman—these figureheads and visual artefacts from history are images invested with meaning. From them, we construct ways of seeing and comprehending our world. The fact that the photographs are masterfully replicated and manipulated by the artist speaks volumes about the ways in which discourse is very much shaped and guided by those who engage with images and text from history.

Perhaps one of the more courageous, complex and uniquely local meditations on the power and consequence of words, is Hazrul Mazran Rosli’s piece, M.O.U.: Takkan Melayu Hilang Di Dunia. Etched onto four square cement blocks, which suggest tombstones, are the faces of our four former prime ministers: Rahman, Razak, Onn and Mahathir. Beneath each face are segments of the story of Pak Kadok, a cerita rakyat in the Malay oral tradition. In a nutshell, the story recounts the tragedy that befalls Pak Kadok, who makes a bet during a cockfight with the Sultan, using his entire village as pawn. When he loses the fight, he loses his village to the king. The irony of the tale is that the winning cockerel is originally Pak Kadok’s but in deference to his king, he exchanges his animal with that of the Sultan. The full story, written in quasi-classical Malay language, is carved out onto the grey slabs of concrete. Here, oral tradition is concretised (pun intended) in the form of text and it is this text—read in conjunction with the faces of our country’s previous leaders—that invites reflection and discourse.

The presence of Malaysia’s four prime ministers on the tombstone-like slabs gives Hazrul’s work a political charge but the ironic title indicates the artist’s concern, not with all Malaysians but specifically with the plight of the Malays in the course of the last 47 years and more. Pak Kadok’s deference to the king suggests the feudal and hierarchical nature of traditional Malay culture; the fact that he is cheated by the very leader he respects is symptomatic of the lack of political accountability and the corrupt tendencies of those in power. Pak Kadok is, however, not entirely free from blame either. Like an unthinking follower, he neither questions the Sultan’s intentions nor resists the eventual result of the bet. The story of Pak Kadok is the sad legacy of the last 47 years of political leadership; being a culture that avoids conflict and confrontation, we are unable to speak the truth in simple terms and instead, have to resort to proverbs and morality tales to convey our displeasure.

Another work to touch on the theme of political corruption is The Puppet Show: The Key is Gone, by Mohd Ekram Al Hafis. Very much in the vein of Indonesian art collective, Apotik Komik’s recent effigies, Masuk Angin, Mohd. Ekram’s piece plays with the idea of bloated, political windbags and corporate malfeasance. Caricatures of men with forked tongues, cigar-smoking men in shirts and ties, and alcohol-guzzling men attired in baju Melayu, grace the large, black garbage bags that are pumped with air, swaying and billowing without direction—like weak-willed politicians, forever blowing to the winds of political change. Some of the caricatures remind this reviewer of the work of political cartoonist, Zunar, from Malaysiakini but in Mohd. Ekram’s work, they all share one feature in common: grotesque potbellies that hang over their waistbands—a metaphor for all kinds of excessive behaviour. Captions such as “sejuknya bontot aku, cepat-cepat angkat-angkat” are gleefully bold and critical of the kinds of ass kissing and cronyism rife in all aspects of Malaysian life—from business to politics, and even academics.

Not all of the works on exhibit deal with such charged political issues; younger visitors to the National Art Gallery will no doubt be attracted to the interactive digital media of Khairul Azizi and Rini Fauzan B. Mohd. Zuhari, and drawn to the Harry Potter-like miniatures and menacing sculptural figurines of Khairul Azmir Soib’s Bagaikan Pungguk Rindukan Bulan—by far the most ambitious, technically intricate, and beautifully crafted piece of hybrid art in the show. Khairul’s work draws from a rich lineage comprising comics and animation, Malay mythology and literature, sci-fi films (notably the Star Wars trilogy), the Al-Quran, fantasy films such as Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter, computer games, and Malaysian art (the sculptures of Raja Shahriman and Mad Anuar are most recognizable influences).

In many ways, Bagaikan Pungguk is emblematic of the kinds of influences pervading the creative consciousness of young artists today. Our world has become saturated with iconography and motifs that can no longer be pigeonholed as uniquely Malaysian or essentially British or whatever other national identities. As young artists navigate the visual artefacts of our past and present, and negotiate the delicate interplay between local and global, contemporary and traditional, the challenge is not to represent but to reinvent. But reinvention is a postmodern conundrum—what are we reinventing? Does reinvention reinscribe existing conventions and paradigms or does it break free from them? Ultimately, is reinvention a form of invention or can it be a mode of intervention as well?

To a degree, what is heartening to note is that some young Malaysian artists are beginning to address these questions more concertedly and with a remarkably sharp political edge. What remains to be seen is the growth and sustainability of their intellectual rigour in the long term.
This piece was published in the November 2004 issue of Options2, The Edge

Wednesday, October 20, 2004

Agus Suwage : Review
By Carmen Nge

In the firmament of Indonesian art, the name Agus Suwage has become synonymous with self-portraiture. But conventional self-portraiture of the self-aggrandizing variety is not the mainstay of Suwage’s appeal.

The consummate self-critic, Suwage has a delightfully whimsical and occasionally acerbic penchant for poking fun and taking potshots at himself. He particularly enjoys visually attacking every part of his head—having darts thrown at his clownish grinning face (Teruskan, Semakin Sakit Semakin Baik), having fingers yanking hard on his right ear (Selingkuh Tak Sampai) or stuffing themselves into his nostrils (I Smell Therefore I Am), having a McDonalds garbage bag pulled tight over his head ala Iraqi tortures at Abu Ghraib (Sekadar Memperagakan Apa Yang Sedang Dilakukan Oleh Si Dia).

Perhaps he is a masochist; after all, masochists have no ego and are willing to subject themselves to the sadistic dictates of their oppressors. Many of Suwage’s self-portraits are precisely about divesting the artist of his ego by destabilizing the myth of the self as centre of the subject in portraiture.

For his solo show at Valentine Willie Art Gallery, curator Adeline Ooi notes that Suwage “introduces a number of works made specifically for the Malaysian context”. It would appear that Suwage has hit the nail on the head: masochism as an underlying tendency of our consciousness is not altogether a misleading way of characterizing our society. We allow ourselves to be suppressed, oppressed and silenced on many fronts—and we grin and call it economic stability.

Like most artists, Suwage, when pressed, is unwilling to explain himself. Yet, he does reveal a few things: as a Chinese Muslim convert (he is a former Catholic) who has no qualms about changing faiths for love and marriage, Suwage is perplexed by monotheistic religions’ fervour to demarcate clear boundaries amongst themselves. “It should not matter if one is a Muslim or Catholic. The important thing is the values underlying the two different religions. People have forgotten about that,” he muses.

Works like Madonna Baru and Holy Beer play with ubiquitous signifiers of Christianity, art and Islam. The famous image from Western art of Madonna and the Christ child is parlayed into a deeper reflection of religious symbolism itself. Here, Madonna is cloaked in a jilbab, her face lighted up, emanating a kind of hallowed glow. Positioning himself as the Madonna figure and using his own child as the Christ stand-in (Suwage tells me that his son is crying in the painting because he does not like his father dressed up as a woman!), Suwage appears to question the iconicity of the Madonna and Child image. Is it preposterous to imagine a Madonna wearing clothes most identified with Muslim women? Is it sacrilege to reimagine her as a man? Is it arrogant for the artist to paint himself in this role or does the gender, racial and religious reversal degrade the symbol itself? Does the source of Madonna’s value and iconicity reside in her identity as woman, Christian, Jew?

Holy Beer traverses a similar religious path, this time drawing on that tenuous link between teetotalling and religious piety. The Holy Beer logo fuses two icons from the Islamic and Christian faiths: the crescent moon and the crucifix. The former is a religion that necessitates abstinence from alcohol; the latter is one that ritualises wine drinking in church services. The artist—signifying both Muslim and Catholic—sits in the empty beer glass, gleefully shrugging and grinning at his fate: to drink or not to drink, does it matter? Will he burn in the fires of hell if he does? Are the two faiths more different than similar?

In another visually charged work, Suwage revisits a favourite animal: the pig. Suwage tells me that he feels for the pig, which is often a figure of vilification. Generally speaking, pigs are often symbolic of corruption, filth, greed, taboo and degeneracy; in the West, cops and riot police are pigs. For some reason, pigs have become universally reviled even though, as Suwage quips, “Piglets are really cute.”

Just as he strips the Madonna icon of its symbolic overtones of Christian sanctity, Suwage wants to redeem the pig from its sad, visually over-determined fate. Wearing bright pink pig masks in Paradiso-Inferno PP#2, Suwage is Saint Pig and Satanic Pig, both at once. Good Pig and Evil Pig share the canvas, Good Pig and Evil Pig playfully bare their bottoms—though the latter has flames shooting out of his underpants! In fairly typical Suwage style, he juxtaposes two opposites: good and bad, black and white, positive and negative, sacred and profane. The artist, the man behind the mask, does not preside over and control the definitions of any of these categories, instead, he inhabits them with his whole self. Pig, after all, is a facade for Man.

Self-portraiture, according to Rizki A. Zaelani (curator of Suwage’s “Ow…Oink!!” show at the National Gallery of Indonesia, 2003), is “also shaded by the atmosphere of discussions that assert the narrative of the death of the author.” It is therefore natural for someone like Suwage, who has eschewed the narcissistic tendencies of self-portraiture, to create a piece called Self Portrait As Banaspati. In this work, made up of a series of five canvasses connected to tell a tale, Suwage references Banaspati, who is a lord of omnipotent power in the Mahabharata and who later transforms into a flame.

It is possible to read the work as depicting a metamorphosis, but it is also entirely plausible to interpret it as the final act of self-destruction. The artist as corporeal is extinguished. What remains is the creative spirit, the energy that drives the artist—the impulse, which is abstract, and not the result, which is concrete. Suwage tells me that he is drawn to the image of fire because fire is life, not destruction, and he is unafraid of it.

At its most fundamental, Agus Suwage’s self-portraits are provocative, interesting, even controversial because in their disavowal of an idealized self, they embrace the kind of self-criticism, self-reflection and even self-loathing that is more often than not, a more accurate symptom of everyday human beings.

This piece was published in the November 2004 issue of Options2, The Edge