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What’s That Balai?

  • April 1, 2005
  • 108 Views

By Sharon Chin

Shopping malls are the truly remarkable spaces of this nation. In one multi-storey complex you can get your car washed, dump your kids at daycare, take a shit, exercise at the gym, buy groceries, bring home an exotic iguana, and eat anything from nasi kandar to Seremban siew pau.

And it doesn’t just stop at functionality. I’ve heard people speak of One Utama with sentimental attachment: “like my second home,” “I grew up there, man,” etc. Some people still like to go to Atria Shopping Center – to get that comforting feeling that at least some things never change.

They are the meeting places of migrant workers, the kampung-mari, the ponteng-school kids, the ladies who lunch, the china-beng, the fresh grads – in short, the mass. Never mind your spending power or over-stayed visa, the sliding doors will still glide open for you. They are the spaces that are alive, because of the people who use them and the way they are used.

Yes, there’s no doubt we’d be wretched without our malls.

Which is why it is interesting to think of our Balai Seni Lukis in relation to these popular public spaces. As families jostle for cart-space at IKANO every weekend, the Balai’s car park stands oh-so-vacant. It makes me wonder what sort of role BSL occupies in the everyday lives of people. If a wave should come and sweep it away, what sort of loss, if any, would we register?

The obvious function of the Balai is as a place where art can be exhibited and can be seen. Does the Balai only belong to the people who use it, i.e. artists, curators, tourists, a handful of visitors, students doing their PMR bangunan bersejarah (historical building) projects, and the camp (but ultimately annoying) security guards? If it suddenly disappeared, we know at least these people would feel the difference.

But the ‘national’ nature of the gallery makes its function and its role a complex one. It occupies a place in our lives that is harder to value than limited edition sneakers and cute glassware, yet it undoubtedly has value. By being ‘national’, it has authority. Authority to determine what art is to all Malaysians. Yes, even to the auntie down the road who’s never heard of the place. If one day the auntie decides she wants to know about art, the Balai is where she will go.

The Balai as International Art Terminal

Take the Sophia Vari in Kuala Lumpur exhibition that was recently held there, for example. Publicity was hot for this one – the word ‘blockbuster’ was even heard to be whispered in association. With an art exhibition, can you imagine! The press release described it as being the perfect launching pad for the Balai’s ambitions to “become an initiator of world-class exhibitions, developing a strong curatorial culture in order that Kuala Lumpur becomes a major centre for the arts.”

The exhibition was well-curated and superbly presented – I mean it really boleh-ed. What it implied is that since we boleh get such a renowned artist to exhibit her work in our national gallery, it means we boleh see our city, our country and ourselves as international, glamorous, sophisticated and elegant – all the things that Sophia Vari is and her sculptures are.

But more than just glamorous, Sophia Vari’s sculptures are also: Abstract, Monumental and ‘Modernist’. In fact, so abstract are they that they resist the most persistent of post-modernist methods of critique – critiques that call into question the whole structure and validity of galleries and museums.

This modernist concept of aesthetics also brings with it a modernist concept of internationalism. Along with shows like 50 Years of Italian Fashion, there is a sense here that Art and the Balai exudes an aura of desirable world-class cosmopolitanism. This aura floats on the city in which the Balai belongs like a lovely, marketable perfume. A perfume that sells – just ask Singapore. This is Art in service to the nation at its best, and how ironic is it that it is through the work of a non-Malaysian!

The Balai as History Class

So bringing it back to the home-boys (and home-ladies too, excuse me), what about the Balai as a home for Malaysian art? If you’ll allow a stretching of the domestic metaphor, I think we can find the same sort of tensions and dioramas being played out here that are present in so many of today’s modern families.

The patriarchal (and to a lesser extent matriarchal) aspect takes form in what I like to call ‘Official-itis’, in which certain artists and their art are turned into symbols or icons to aid in the constructing of what they tell us is our National Identity.

Take the show 100 Years of Abdullah Ariff. It had been up for a while now (since Dec 2004), and only just recently been taken down. The exhibition of his watercolor works was arranged chronologically, each decade delineated by separate partitions. Accompanying texts and photographs narrated the artist’s life in parallel with Malaysia’s history. The main exhibition text designated him ‘The Most Important Painter in the History of Malaysian Art’ and ‘The Father of Modern Malaysian Painting’.

This is not unlike studying history in a local public school; here, all the facts are being dictated to you, by some vague, distant, elderly, authoritative voice. It is telling us this man gave birth to Malaysian Painting (by default Malaysian Art), which is sort of like giving birth to National Consciousness. Anybody dare to turn a deconstructing post-modern eye on the Father of Modern Malaysian Painting? Not me! It’d be like calling your father by his first name, or trying to fail your SPM.

It’s doubly interesting then, that amidst constructing such fabulously grand modernist narratives, the Balai exhibits local voices whose works diverge from the official Kenal Malaysia, Cinta Malaysia route. Wong Hoy Cheong’s retrospective was highly anticipated and a long time coming. Much has been said of his work being political and provocative, particularly works made in response to the unfair enforcement of the Internal Security Act.

To me, the relevance here lies not only in lambasting those Evil Power Structures, but questioning how they are made, how they accrue power and validity. When we are invited to take off our shoes and step on manifestos (Text Tiles, 2000), and to add a thumbprint to his work Tapestry (in support of repealing the ISA, 1998-ongoing}, we are in fact invited to take up our roles as being a part of living history, not merely someone who gets told what it is. It is not so much about changing WHAT we think, as about thinking more regarding HOW we think.

The Balai as Alternative Space

And that is why we should move beyond the view of the benevolent (sometimes malevolent) Parent/ Datuk/ Kak in relation to the Rebel/ Progressive/ Prodigal Son or Daughter. While there might seem to be disjuncture of direction in the Balai’s decision to host all these shows at the same time, it speaks a lot about the widening framework of the gallery. It speaks about the Balai beginning to move beyond being either a tool for nation-­building or a tool for nation-critiquing. Perhaps it might even begin to inhabit the space between, which I might characterise as nation-questioning.

We might begin to think of the Balai not in terms of having a fixed agenda or needing a specific role, but of it being a mutable space – able to accommodate the various spectrums that seek to use it. And if that’s not taking a tip from our beloved shopping malls, I don’t know what is.

Naturally, certain agendas will be given higher priority and visibility. Is this acceptable? Part of me thinks that, the inevitable exclusion of certain artists and their art forces the creation of alternative contexts in which to make and show art. I guess it is a question of validity, that is, of being valid. It certainly makes it easier to justify to parents that you really are an artist if you have an exhibition at the National Art Gallery.

But as Hoy Cheong’s show demonstrates, the Balai is able to absorb changes and directions that appear to veer off the ‘official’ Cinta Malaysia road. And each time it does, it expands its own boundaries. The Balai, by simply existing, naturally creates the need for alternatives to it. Beyond being simply a house for Malaysian art, this is also its function.

We must realise the role that we play in creating our Balai. We cannot mindlessly walk in there like we do a shopping mall and accept its structure as the authoritative validation of what is Art, nor seek to supplant that structure and replace it with one of our own. In the end the Balai is nothing, it’s nothing but us. Let us look towards change and progress in ourselves, instead of what is ultimately a structural building, grand as it is.

~~~

Sharon Chin is an artist who has just come home from Melbourne, Australia. She has never read a Terry Prachet Discworld book.

First Published: 01.04.2005 on Kakiseni