By Lydia Chai
It was a very wet afternoon. Not the ideal time for a visit to the National Art Gallery. My Kiwi husband was in town and I thought I would show him the livelier side of our Balai, dropping by the Laman Seni art fair held every first Saturday of the month. There were stalls selling art and crafts, artists talking about their work, as well as live performances. This event is the initiative of our Ministry of Culture, Arts & Heritage to attract a wider audience to the Balai and to get Malaysian children interested in art.
A pleasant outing it was not to be. We travelled up the escalator at the entrance only to be greeted by a leaking roof overhead. Not only does it give visitors the image that the building is run-down, leaking water will surely damage the escalator as well.
I wandered into a gallery where Sabahan art was being exhibited (Saruk Kinabalu, from 30 Jun-18 Sep, 2005). I was excited to see work from fellow Malaysians across the pond. It was my first time seeing attempts to contemporise the art of ethnic textile weaving through collage and printmaking. My enthusiasm quickly turned into shock and horror, though, as there was water dripping from the gallery ceiling right next to a painting! I notified the lady security guard outside the gallery and the cleaners were told about this quickly. Still, I did not get the impression that a higher authority was notified. I hope that the technical problem of leaky ceilings will be fixed immediately.
Then, I went into a gallery featuring a major retrospective by local Chinese brush artist Chung Chen Sun (5 Decades of Chung Chen Sun, from 23 Jun to 21 Aug, 2005). I do not care much for Chinese brush painting myself, but I must say some of the work was quite beautiful. In particular, a dark painting of the edge of a towering cliff – it was like staring at a void and it evoked the sublime. The exhibition spans five decades of pure dedication to a craft, so it is a lot to take in, but even then I could not enjoy the art as I would have liked to.
Something else was preoccupying my mind.
I noticed that most of the dehumidifiers had stopped working because they were full of water and needed to be tipped out so that the water from the air could continue to be distilled.
Dehumidifiers are important contraptions to keep artworks dry. As this particular gallery contained many brush paintings on fragile paper, a dry environment is especially crucial to protect the quality of the art material.
I notified an old security guard outside the gallery. At first, he did not understand what I was saying because I did not know the Malay word for “dehumidifier.” When he came into the gallery and realised that I was asking him to please tip the water out constantly, he responded to me in Malay, “You just shut up and mind your own business. Don’t meddle, just shut up!” and walked away.
Any other Malaysian might not have persisted as I did; I walked over to another old security guard who seemed more willing to carry out my suggestion. I explained to him the importance of such a practice. Soon, he and the first cranky security guard were tipping out the water from each and every dehumidifier in the gallery. However, as the cranky one was doing it, he was verbally abusing me loudly in front of other visitors. The more understanding security guard gestured at me not to make a scene.
“Nyanyuk (senile)?” I said, and he nodded.
I wanted to make sure that this incident would not happen again. I chanced upon the artist’s personal assistant who is there to look after the artwork for the duration of the retrospective. When I recounted to him the incident, he said that he is not allowed to meddle with the dehumidifiers and that his job is only to look after the paintings. The irony of his statement was not lost on me. It is just such a “tidak apa” attitude that irks me.
Besides the bad service, I would like to comment on the poor presentation of artworks at the gallery. Why is Nor Azizan Rahman Paiman and Suhaila Hashim’s art-work “On Air”, which was awarded the Major Prize at the Young Contemporaries Award in 2002, shoved into a corner at the foyer on the top floor? This art-work is supposed to be a little contained room for viewers to walk into and interact with the speaker phone and closed-circuit tv. Now, it is merely detritus littering the hallway. The tv screens in the installation are not working and there is no lighting to indicate that it is for viewing. If it is not to be presented properly, in the state that the artists intended, then it should not be left around for visitors to wonder what on earth it is.
Furthermore, whenever a space within a gallery is not in use, the administrators think it is enough to cordon it off with a piece of cloth or cardboard. This is also very unprofessional.
The administrators of the Balai do not need to travel far to observe what it takes to run a National Art Gallery professionally. A trip to the Singapore Art Museum will suffice. It is obvious that the people running our Balai do not accord artists and artworks enough respect. They do not know how to take care of art, much less promote it.
Why should our young artists aspire to exhibit in our National Art Gallery when, chances are, their art would be (1) poorly presented or (2) damaged?
This experience at the Gallery only reinforces my opinion that Malaysia does not have a culture of maintenance, we only know how to build new things.
The turn-up at the said Laman Seni event showed that many Malaysians ARE interested in art. The National Art Gallery should take pride in such a wide audience and take their work seriously.
Lydia Chai is an artist who has just returned home from New Zealand and manages an online database of articles on Malaysian art (database.gnuted.com). Too many people ask her if she can do the haka.
First Published: 13.07.2005 on Kakiseni