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Artists Without Borders

  • July 6, 2005

By Gina Fairley

The idea of exchange is an interesting one in today’s world where technology, the internet, cheap air travel and satellite-cams deliver news directly into our Ikea-clad lounge-rooms, remove all sense of borders or isolation. As we meld together in a kind of culture-mash, gradually becoming ‘international’, what is it that remains significant to who we are, what we look like, and where we live?

These questions are not new to artists, nor is the idea of cultural exchange and artist residencies – so why is this exhibition different? In one word – balance.

ArtconneXion is a curatorial coup and, I suspect, was a logistical nightmare to pull off. Divided into three regional clusters – (Sydney-Manila-KL), (Singapore-Melbourne-Hanoi) and (Jakarta-Bangkok-Auckland) – nine artists were invited to produce one work in their home city and one as a guest artist in another city. They were joined by nine German photomedia artists. The residency period was essentially a month, and the work was developed following this ‘interaction’. Our cluster included Martin Fengel (Germany-Manila), Albrecht Fuchs (Germany-KL), Shaun Gladwell (Sydney-KL), Nicola Meitzner (Germany-Sydney), Jay Yao (Manila-Sydney) and Yee I-Lann (KL-Manila).

An initiative of the Goethe Institute, with a bevy of sponsors in its wake, it is an example of how the concept of exchange can result in something profound and exciting. We who see the exhibition get to travel vicariously through the eyes of these six photographers to places that are strangely familiar. At the same time it is a personal journey and a global conversation. Viewing the exhibition I found myself scanning faces and buildings with a feeling of nostalgia and a whiff of curiosity, amused by the ‘difference’ in seeing things I know.

Splitting my year between Manila and Sydney, and now an ardent visitor to Malaysia, I am constantly surprised by the differences between the three countries – not the subtle cultural differences but the sledge hammer ones that leave you jolted and reeling with a feeling of non-comprende.

Gladwell mentions in the catalogue that his greatest fear was it was going to be some kind of “art Survivor” where they would be thrown on an island with other artists and you just had to make it.

He raises an interesting point. How do you survive in the unknown – is it the similarities or the differences that you gravitate towards? When we go somewhere new, what strikes us first, and what do we anchor ourselves to?

This exhibition documents those individual reactions by the six artists.

Manila is a noisy, grimy, chaotic beast-the complete opposite to Germany. Martin Fengel was affronted by this level of difference. I intentionally use the word ‘difference’ instead of something new, as Fengel believes today it’s impossible to find something ‘new’. He proposes, through the work, that maybe it is the ubiquitous that is most revealing. He narrowed his focus to gun-wielding security guards. They are everywhere in the Philippines – shopping malls, train stations, banks, supermarkets. Something seemingly banal to a pinoy eye is affronting to our western sensibilities. He shot them (bad pun sorry) anonymous and presented them as a series of five posters – you can take home your own security force! The poster format is key to the work. There is something temporal about a poster that parallels this notion of being ubiquitous. It looses any sense of being precious, and in doing so, becomes everyday, real.

However, for Australian artist Shaun Gladwell it was quite the opposite. He gravitated towards the similarities. He found in KL a language of a global community – breakdancers – but with a Malaysian translation. He’s interested in how different cultures modify global styles, and the connection between urban cityscapes and subcultures.

Like Fengel’s security guards, presentation is also integral to his work. One could not help but be impressed by Shaun’s hip-factor, using the latest Sony play-stations to display his videos – a brilliant correlation of youth and street culture (in loathe of sounding old!). The slow-mo delivery of the video counter to the frenetic games we usually see on play-stations.

Just as there is a jarring difference between these three cities – Sydney, Manila and Kuala Lumpur – so too is that difference in the individual artists’ work. I-Lann’s work couldn’t be any more different than the urban vibe of Gladwell’s videos. She has produced a superb body of work that, for me, is the real gem of the show. She has used the exchange to bring these two concepts together – similarity and difference – through a more personal investigation.

I-Lann went to Palawan in the Philippines, that other island on the opposite shores of her homeland, Sabah. It is a shared story of the Sulu Sea, caught up in allegory and Muslim culture, uniting these islands across the waters. She has used digital manipulation – a 21st century photomontage – in bringing together her passion in collecting archival images and the photographic image. Her empty sea/landscapes are populated by briny images of the past – of collected and connected histories. And, through her images, she leaves us to entertain the shared history between the Philippines and Malaysia.

What results from bringing these six artists together in a gallery in KL you ask?

Clarity. The success of this project, I feel, rests in its medium – photography. When you are seeing things for the first time, the eye is alert to the subtleties. Photography has the immediacy to record them before familiarity settles. The camera is an intuitive and instant editing process and, looking through the lens, the artist captures the sharpest reading of a place.

I think Gladwell best answers this question in the catalogue essay:

“Nicola’s representing Germany but living in Zurich, Jay’s rep the Philippines but based in New York. You have this idea of an international exchange but the subjects are already international – there can never be an idea of someone being transplanted purely from their local situation into another situation, because they’re already hybrid subjects.”

We have a shared language and all have emerged from a colonial past. We are hybrid nations and we live in a global world. You come away from this show with two words ringing in your thoughts- similarity and difference. Unlike some exchanges that can be criticised as voyeuristic or culturally imperialist in their attitude, this project permits us to see ourselves vicariously through another’s eyes. It is an honest, revealing and interesting journey.


Gina Fairley is an Australian arts writer visiting Malaysia for a year. She was previously the Exhibition Coordinator for the Biennale of Sydney.

First Published: 06.07.2005 on Kakiseni