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, April 01, 2008

The Independence Project : Review

by Carmen Nge

In our post-post-colonial world of global capitalism, multinational-ism and online interconnectivity, the idea of independence must be rethought. In the visual art world, contrary to what people may think, artists increasingly create in collaboration with diverse others. Collaborative efforts do not necessarily erode each individual artist’s sense of autonomy but they do challenge artists to negotiate with people who may or may not share similar artistic trajectories and visions. Collaboration entails risk and few artists are willing to heed its calling.

An initiative of the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, The Independence Project is a collaborative exhibition between Galeri Petronas, KL and Gertrude Contemporary Art Spaces, Melbourne that celebrates two seemingly contradictory ideas: independence and collaboration. The exhibition commemorates the 50th anniversary of Malaysia-Australia diplomatic relations, which certainly have deep roots in the arts world.

A work that simultaneously epitomizes collaboration and independence is Wong Hoy Cheong’s Aman Sulukule, Canim Sulukule (Oh Sulukule, Darling Sulukule), a 14 minute video created by the artist and the kids of Sulukule, a district in Istanbul where the Roma community has resided since the 11th century. Although the Roma settlement is slated for demolition, the video manages to capture a vibrant and kinetic world peopled with children who continue to hope, play and dream like any other. The aesthetic influence of Michel Gondry permeates the video, which poignantly captures a transient society refusing to be demoralized by its impending eviction. The whimsy and carefree air of the children and their stories belie the numerous difficulties faced by the artist and his team when creating the film with the community of Sulukule. Within the gallery space, a cosy TV room is constructed which enable viewers to imagine Sulukule. Such an ambience help to situate and contextualize the work, thereby heightening the experience of viewing an unfamiliar community.

The rest of the works by Malaysian and Australian artists exhibit a wide range of predilections and tendencies. Paintings by Richard Bell and David Griggs, and Tim Silver’s photographic narrative explore independence as seen through the lived reality of specific marginalized communities: the aboriginal artist, urban youth of colour, and dark-skinned islanders, respectively. While Bell’s painting is glib, conceptual and tries too hard to embrace postmodern high theory, Griggs’ gargantuan triptych of garish colour is refreshingly unpretentious. A throwback to Basquiat’s pop/street art style but with a twist of social realism in the tradition of Filipino and Mexican muralists, the work is unusual for its daring; unvarnished and unframed, The Bleeding Hearts Club is raw, vivid colour. Like Grigg’s work, Silver’s photographs are the anti-thesis of beautiful, though well-executed. His desire to juxtapose island life with gore films, however, perplexes.

Helen Johnson and Mark Hilton appear to approach the theme of independence in a far more indirect manner. Johnson’s sketches of mundane human activities and familiar objects seem out of place in the gallery but their very ‘unbelonging’ is perhaps indicative of a wish to assert the artist’s identity, independent of the gallery space. Hilton’s double-sided lightboxes, on the contrary, are far from mundane. Luminescent and arresting, their suspension from the ceiling enables both sides to be viewed; the images resemble Persian miniature paintings and like most miniatures, deserve a closer look. Hilton is well-known for using lightboxes to explore tragic and criminal events in his native country such as gang rapes and murders that have claimed the front pages of Australian newspapers.

Of all the works by the Australians, Zehra Ahmed’s Permission to Narrate stands out. Tucked away in one of a few dark recesses at the gallery, this sound installation with video projection is visually and aurally hypnotic. Borrowing ideas from the late Edward Said, Ahmed weaves intricate layers of popular culture (hip hop, breakdancing, fashion) with identity politics, Islam and the Arabic language. The almost pitch black space lends the dark-skinned dancing figure—decked out in an all white outfit—an angelic aura. It is impossible not to remain riveted to the moving body as it goes through a series of fluid moves; the superimposition of Arabic script onto this embodiment of urban street culture calls into question the usual Western-centric distinctions of “cool” and “religious”. For a change, both terms co-exist, projected onto one body and for a few hypnotic minutes, they become independent of the socio-political contexts that confine their meaning to mere stereotypes.

Seeing as independent art spaces are as important as the work they inspire, a section of Galeri Petronas is devoted to presenting a library of information and material culled from such spaces in both Malaysia and Australia. Although not part of the exhibition proper, this resource enables artists and gallery visitors alike to appreciate the range and diversity of independent initiatives as well as their trials and tribulations. The documentation of independent spaces is further explored by Malaysian artist Yap Sau Bin, whose work could not have happened without Google Earth. He maps all known art spaces in Kuala Lumpur and viewers are invited to point and click these locations with a mouse. The work exploits our fascination with technology but its rather clinical method of spatial mapping reduces the lived reality of independent spaces into pixelated dots. For those already familiar with Google Earth, this work is but a pointless gimmick.

Ahmad Fuad Osman’s slide show and Kungyu Liew’s photographic sculpture choose to deal with independence in its more literal Malaysian sense. Using old photos from the 1950s, around the time of our country’s independence, Fuad plays with the idea of Merdeka, tourism and identity. What would a young person do if he could travel back in time to meet with political luminaries and to join in momentous events from a hallowed era? The results are at times scathingly hilarious and at others, predictably droll but the idea of being able to explore independence through the willful doctoring of historical photos and facts is cheeky, clever and a sign that Fuad is finally beginning to lighten up. Liew’s sculpture is intricate and kitsch beauty at its best but not a huge leap from what he has done before. This is characteristically Kungyu Boleh and undeniably Malaysian.

Vincent Leong’s Shut up! You’re Not Real video installation is work that would have benefited from less cute and more bite. Blatantly poaching from Tony Oursler, Leong’s soft toys with projected human lips solicited more giggles and squeals of delight from viewers than any other work. Although seemingly benign, these talking toys lip sync to random media news reports; Leong previous attempts to fuse the conceptual with the cute has garnered unusually nuanced results but this work lacks complexity.

Roslisham Ismail or Ise’s DEB, on the other hand, is potently political without being unduly overt. But Malaysian viewers would have no trouble figuring out the artist’s sly and sophisticated critique of the New Economic Policy. Using hundreds of business cards advertising loan, credit and money lending services, Ise fashions a collage shaped in larger-than-life size letters: D E B. Chinese, English and Malay name cards proclaim to be able to help rid clients of debt, dependency and destitution but at what cost? How successful is the NEP and who stands to benefit the most from such government policies? Ise is true to his pop art-collage roots in this work but ups the ante with its political sting.

Sharon Chin and Sooshie Sulaiman are two artists whose work would have benefited from a more concerted attempt at integrating interactivity into their display. Chin’s video gives viewers an inkling of what heart-to-heart communication could look like but the absence of a human being in the installation was sorely felt. Two stethoscopes were left on chairs, with a note explaining how to listen to the ‘true’ voice of conversation but no viewers took up the offer. Similarly, Sooshie’s art book would be better enjoyed outside their transparent casing. Wall text alone did little to illuminate the interactive nature of the work and keeping the book opened to one page and only frustrated this writer.

Taken as a whole, the Independence Project is a mixed bag of well-conceived new works, some of which directly touch on the theme in question while others only tangentially so. Nevertheless, the range of media, materials and artistic approaches is a positive reflection of just how essential it is for artists to be given the space to create as freely as they choose.

This review first appeared in Off The Edge, Feb 2008 issue.