Menacing Forms

Walking into the side entrance of the new Westin Hotel down at Jalan Bukit Bintang, you will find yourself intimidated – and attracted – by what appears to be a large and ancient torture device perched onto the wall. Black, mettalic, and organic, with a centre that spreads out in slinky waves and mutant millipede legs ready to embrace you in your death throes, it is likely to make you confess to everything in no time. Such is the product of Abdul Multhalib Musa’s imagination.

For an artist who has been practising professionally for only three years, Abdul Multhalib Musa’s track record is impressive if a little incredible. Notwithstanding a flourishing career that has been swiftly burgeoning since his debut at Rimbun Dahan Resident Artist Exhibition in 2002, Multhalib stands as one of Malaysia’s most promising young artists.

Besides Kuala Lumpur, Multhalib has also been invited to international shows in Australia, Japan, Singapore, Spain and Sweden among others. The 28-year-old artist had received the 2nd Prize Award of Excellence at ‘6th Oita Asian Sculpture Exhibition & Open Competition in Japan. Then, in 2002, our own National Art Gallery presented him with the Juror’s Award at the Young Contemporaries Awards Exhibition. And come the middle of June this year, Abdul Multhalib Musa will be traveling to Sydney – the Australian High Commission Residency Award 2004 has selected him as Resident Artist at Gunnery Studios, Sydney.

What sets this architect-turned-sculptor apart from other sculptors is his predilection for precision, contrasts and technological advances. His works reveal the artist’s combined architectural training, innate artistic sensibilities and style. The physical qualities of his choice materials – usually steel and wood – are stretched and challenged through unusual finishing, sleek laser-cut shapes, impeccable joints and striking designs synthesised from nature (for instance palm fronds, anatomical structures and cells) and conceptual drawings. Besides The Westin, you can also see his sculpture at the Putrajaya Convention Centre; both were commissioned works.

While his works are dramatic, sophisticated and at times, menacing, the sculptor himself is in person one of the most introverted (yet endearing) artists I’ve come across – he confesses to have problems “articulating my thoughts verbally and coherently” although the interview below will reveal the contrary. Only after many persuasive rounds of emails, begging and phone calls, did I manage to convince our “bashful” and extremely busy artist – currently engaged with a solo exhibition preview in Taksu Singapore and preparations for Sydney – to come out for a quick chat. This is what he had to say:

Have you always wanted to be an artist?

Yes, I’ve been drawing since I was in kindergarten – that’s when I took part in my first art competition in Penang. Still have the winning work actually…

How has your architectural training informed your practice as a sculptor and tell us more about your process?

Most of the time I would say I am an idea-driven person – rarely medium driven; more for process…

My training in architecture has allowed me to approach the sculptural process slightly differently than that of a conventional sculptor who would toil and put his/her blood and sweat into building the actual sculpture. I give priority to how I construct my work in shaping its final form. Ease of construction is important from an architectural point of view since this means better use of materials, minimisation of waste, structural soundness, faster construction period.

In that sense, it is important to keep up with technology – something which I think many sculptors tend to overlook. New tools and advances are constantly invented and updated to realise better results. Why waste time and effort if they are affordable and available to do the job better?

Given my architectural approach, there is the question of my identity as a “real sculptor” since I do not make the works myself, except for woodworks. Planning is a key aspect in my approach.

I design and plan my work in advance and assume the role of supervisor. I provide instructions to my team of builders – using laser or water to shape and cut the steel – and have ongoing consultations with engineers to come up with proper and practical solutions to various design/construction problems. This is particularly important when it comes to big outdoor works. The actual fabrication process will be more feasible and practical while maintaining the desired result.

Nothing is more fulfilling than to have a work that comes out as you planned. Eventually, what’s important throughout the fabrication process is that the integrity and essence of the original idea is sustained and followed through till the end.

Do you tend to get involved with one material with a tendency to exclude others?

Yes, now that I think I’ve found my niche. ie. Steel, but wood, I love working with wood and its finishing more than steel, but it takes too damn long to do, and I can’t sustain the momentum nor do I have the patience. Manja gileee…  lagi susah dari nak jaga hati perempuan.

Why do you think there are so few young Malaysian sculptors today?

I’m not really sure but perhaps it has to do with cost being a major deterrent – but again, this depends on what kind of sculptures you are making though… In general, prices of materials and machinery are high and young artists may not have the financial resources to make their art, let alone to experiment on new ideas and medium. For instance if you are working with metal, wood or marble, you will need a decent machinery, tools, space, manpower and transport to help you move things around as you can’t do everything alone. Of course, you can always downsize, make sketch models instead of the real thing, but that would be like telling a painter to make studies all the time.

From Rimbun Dahan and now to Gunnery Studios, this coming June, tell us more about your views and experiences of artist residencies. Do you think they have helped tremendously in your ‘formative’ years?

Rimbun Dahan Residency Program was a timely and fortunate event. It allowed the opportunity for me to further develop an interest, and new possibilities – to find that common ground in bridging the highly technical aspect prevalent in architectural works and the seemingly abstract representation of form more commonly associated to art.

Believe it or not, making art is much more challenging than designing a high rise building. The difficulty of art­making lies in the highly personal nature of the project and it is therefore more difficult to realise. There’s no limit to what you can do and there’s no one around to report to or check up on your progress or tell you what to do. You are left to your own devices.

What do you hope to achieve in Gunnery Studios?

I hope to have a break from my current norm/routine. Break the monotony, in daily life and in my work. Not to have any anticipation is the best way to go, no expectation. And the Gunnery residency has no outline of what you have to do – which sounds good to me.

Do you think there should be more programmes as such for our local artists?

Of course I do! I believe that non-conventional/non-institutionalised approach in creating art and design can work for everyone – even established artists – just to be in a different mode of thinking and mind set for a certain period of time. With financial constraints in mind, young artists are always in search of space and resources.

More residency programmes – and they may not necessarily fund the artists’ expenses entirely – part funding will also be a huge relief. Not only will you have less to worry about and more time to make works, the interaction with other artists within the same building or ground is always conducive.

(Abdul Multhalib Musa will be based at the Gunnery Studios in Sydney from 15th June until the end of August 2004)

First Published: 26.05.2004 on Kakiseni

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