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The Political Artist

  • December 1, 2004
  • 114 Views

By Carmen Nge

If Wong Hoy Cheong’s exhibition at the National Art Gallery had kept to its original opening date – September 2003 – his response to the sacking and arrest of Anwar and the judicial misconduct that followed would have taken on an entirely different tone. Anwar would still be in jail; it would the 5th anniversary of his arrest; Mahathir would still be in power. Hoy Cheong’s Vitrine of Contemporary Events (1999) – an illuminated showcase of judges’ wigs, police batons and a section of our Federal Constitution, all made from cow dung – would no longer simply be artwork; they would transcend their art establishment-art historical context and become tools of political provocation.

So, today, a little more than one year later, Hoy Cheong’s 1999 works are exhibited as part of his artist’s oeuvre; they are contextualised (like most artwork in this country) within the chronology of an artist’s creative output rather than in relation to the socio-political-historical contexts that birth them.

In this gallery setting, you will find hanging above the Vitrine what I call the artist’s “reverse psychology” Artis Pro Activ postcards: “Kill Freedom. Don’t Get Involved” they read in bright yellow letters. Beside these are his “found objects”: Used tear gas canisters from demonstration dispersals by the FRU on 20 September 1998 – retrieved from the road leading to our former Prime Minister, Tun Mahathir’s residence. Red and white melted down candle wax from a peaceful vigil calling for the repeal of the ISA on the eve of Deepavali 1998. Dried flowers collected from another vigil on 26 November 1998 that called for the release of Tian Chua, who had been arrested.

Seldom have an artist’s ”found objects” carried this much political weight. Unadorned, they are exhibited like museum artefacts from a moment in history – a cauldron of political ferment bubbling over but which is now, with the release of Anwar Ibrahim, temporarily subdued.

Works such as these are partly why Wong Hoy Cheong has been out of the art establishment exhibition loop (though not out of establishment purview) for the past few years. But art audiences sometimes forget that Hoy Cheong’s work has always been intimate with the State, whether within their spaces – i.e. Lalang (1994) and Of Migrant and Rubber Trees (1996) at the National Art Gallery’s Creative Centre – or engaging with their ruling processes – e.g. political posters for Parti Rakyat Malaysia during the 1999 elections.

But times have changed. Hoy Cheong’s recent work, a film commissioned for the Liverpool Biennale this year, seems rather removed from the Malaysian political scene. It is about Roy Rogers – America’s iconic Christian cowboy – and his horse, Trigger, and their short stay at Liverpool’s Adelphi Hotel. With horse as surrogate filmmaker (6 cameras were mounted on an actual horse which was led through the hotel during the shoot), Hoy Cheong has begun to push the boundaries of directorial control to new limits and has begun a journey of intellectual engagement beyond our usual stereotypes of the artist.

In many ways, Wong Hoy Cheong’s solo show at the National Art Gallery today, has taken on a veneer of nostalgia – it seals in and captures a time in our nation’s history that has passed. Two months after Anwar’s release, judges wigs fashioned from cow dung are emptied of political charge. Artefacts from Reformasi are precisely that: products of human agency NOT provocations for change. They are end-points of a struggle that is archived, not alive.

The Weed that Refuses to Die

But art establishment politics aside, it is impossible to visit Hoy Cheong’s solo show without feeling a measure of awe at the artist’s meticulous, painstaking labour – both at the level of research+intellectual as well as artistic labour.

When Kakiseni asked me to review this show, I was hesitant because, as I told the editor, I am a friend of the artist, I have known him for about thirteen years, and we are currently curating together – wouldn’t it be just too nepotistic for words? The question of bias was unquestionable. Yet, at the same time, I was aware that few art critics/writers live in that rarefied world of objectivity; if they did, they would only be deluding themselves for even my teenage students can tell me that art is subjective and art reviews particularly so.

With that caveat, perhaps readers might be inclined to dismiss my awe as undisguised adulation. But in an era that has produced artists who are short on ideas and even weaker in their execution of them, Hoy Cheong’s hard work is plainly evident.

Few artists spend months on end researching their materials before working with them – whether it be lalang, edible fruits, poisonous plants or paper. Few artists learn the process of book binding from a traditional bookbinder before binding his own books the old-fashioned way (i.e. stitched-bound). He even had his assistants (heartening to know that the artist does not horde knowledge unto himself) apprentice with a bookbinder to have a feel for the entire book-making process.

For his mock reference books (1999), Hoy Cheong made his own paper by hand – he pulped copies of Hitler’s Mein Kampf and Mahathir’s Malay Dilemma (for The Definitive ABC of Government) and Margaret Mead’s Coming of Age in Samoa and Naipaul’s Among the Believers (for The Definitive ABC of Ethnography) into thick sheets of handmade paper, onto which he printed text and images that he and his assistants compiled from various colonial and post-colonial archival sources.

I still remember the first time he showed me the fruits of his pulping labour – freshly dried handmade paper, still untainted by ink, with bits of Hitler’s and Mahathir’s texts showing on the page. The last time I saw Hoy Cheong that excited was when he was wrestling with lalang in the undergrowth behind his Kuala Kubu wooden shack­cum-studio backyard. The unruly, uncontrollable, defiant weed was in the process of being groomed to steal the limelight from the docile, domesticated cow grass on the National Art Gallery front lawn.

I have read random comments in a different section of this website that basically claims anyone can use lalang to make artwork: what’s the big deal? Plant the dastardly weed (it doesn’t take too much effort at all), let it grow rampantly, then torch it and call it performance art.

What’s missing from Hoy Cheong’s current solo exhibition at NAG is precisely the meticulously researched accompaniments to the Lalang show – the many carefully drawn and inked images of species of lalang; botanical information about the plant, how it flourishes, how it can be killed and how it refuses to die. The resilience of the weed directly references the resiliency of the opposition during 1987’s Operasi Lalang, who continues to persist despite State suppression and control. But this reference is muted without the botanical information on display.

Indigenous Spice?

Thus, the artist’s not-so-indirect allusion to a watershed political event becomes relegated to the margins of “I can do it too” artwork. Perhaps erstwhile critics of the art scene can say the same for Hoy Cheong’s plant-based works: Non-Indigenous Skins (1998), Indigenous Skins (1999-2000), Poison (2000) and diPULAUkan/(Exile Islands) (1998).

But I am willing to bet very few artists will contemplate making life-size busts, partial face casts, and miniature islands from thinly-sliced slivers of fruits, transparent plant membranes and poisonous plants.

The deep respect that I have for Hoy Cheong comes from my observations of his scrupulous attention to the materials he works with and his ability to reframe seemingly benign products from nature, i.e. to locate them firmly within their botanical contexts but at the same time, re-position them within the cultural, political and socio­economic matrix of colonial and post-colonial history.

How is it that chilli, which actually comes from South America, introduced to South East Asia by the Spaniards and the Portuguese, is so often seen as an indigenous spice because it is integral to our idea of what constitutes Malay food? How much of our identity is actually transplanted, extracted, grafted from other indigenous cultures, contexts, communities?

Hoy Cheong’s Of Migrants and Rubber Trees is, in many ways, a precursor to the Skins series. It draws fascinating parallels between the migration and movement of people and that of plants. In this exhibition, the scope, depth and socio-economic commentary of the Migrants series is undercut by the absence of the museum-style diorama of the immigrant experience from the original show, which was culled from texts and samples related to the history of rubber made and collected from 1994-1996. Hoy Cheong tells me that much of the documentary and archival installation material from the first show is no longer available (since it was a site specific work). As a result, the work loses its ability to expose the historical causes and consequences of migration, and how it recycles racial stereotypes of a racist colonial paradigm towards post-independence political and socio-economic ends.

Nonetheless, the large-scale charcoal drawings of early Chinese migrants and the headshots of new migrants from Bangladesh, Nepal, the Philippines and Indonesia, are undeniably impressive. The miniature exhibition catalogue tells us that these drawings “play on the idea of black and white photographs – both nostalgic family portraits and identification paper mug shots.” But they are better than photographs; they are a pastiche assemblage of people, cultural objects, colonial artefacts constructed into a most complex and visually rich mise-­en-scene.

Almost Lost His Eyesight

Elaborate compositions and excruciatingly fine details are the hallmarks of the black and white maps of London­-meets-Penang in Hoy Cheong’s Map of Buckingham Street & Its Vicinity and Map of Downing Street and Its Vicinity (2004), which are the main part of an ongoing project called Mind The Gap. His maps’ fidelity to the style of 15th-17th century cartography is frankly, mind-blowing. Hoy Cheong told me that he almost lost his eyesight due to the kind of eyestrain he subjected himself to for the map drawings.

The maps are the most current work in the exhibit (not including the ongoing Tapestry of Justice, which collects thumbprints from people who support abolishing the Internal Security Act of our country – to continue indefinitely until the law’s demise) and they reveal the ways in which colony and Empire are always enmeshed, intertwined, intimate. These imaginary maps are deceptively real because they derive their authenticity from a cartographic tradition that is properly colonial, i.e. well-organised, systematic and categorisable.

In a strange way, Wong Hoy Cheong can be said to be a post-colonial artist who is “properly colonial”: the systematic way in which he researches his materials and excavates their history, the way his installations are organised along the lines of archive and museum conventions, the manner in which we have come to categorise him as Malaysia’s eminent political artist.

However, “properly colonial” subjects like Hoy Cheong, who have lived and worked within the confines of our neo-colonial state and who understand its inherent contradictions, will never be properly colonised. Instead, he inhabits establishment spaces, parodies the meta-textual and linguistic structures of the past and present ruling powers, and raises the intellectual and creative stakes of what it means to be a Malaysian artist today.

~~~

Carmen Nge is frequent contributor and arts writer for Options2, The Edge. She also lectures at a local university, and has a lot of artist friends, which probably makes her an un-objective critic.

First Published: 01.12.2004 on Kakiseni