By Gina Fairley
When setting out to review the inaugural Kuala Lumpur International Photography Biennale (KLip, 4 June – 9 October 2005) I thought this is going to be great – a power-punch arts event addressing the wider KL audience.
What I learnt, attending the KLip launch at the National Art Gallery on 14th July was that it was already six weeks into the Biennale and I’d seen several of the shows and others were already closed. They have been impressive shows, so much so, that I felt compelled to write about Valentine Willie Fine Art’s show two weeks ago and have returned to the Petronas exhibition three times, but where is the local hype surrounding KLip? Where is its presence in the city? And why launch an event six weeks after it has commenced?
To look at the event democratically, I decided I would visit all the galleries that had shows on in KL on the day of the launch. Wouldn’t that represent the event at its pinnacle? What I saw was confused by the organisers’ interchangeable use of the terms ‘biennial’ and ‘biennale’, setting up certain expectations that weren’t delivered. These are complex terms. A biennial happens every two years. A biennale is an art term describing a festival of contemporary art.
The KLip program is an exhaustive list of galleries and spaces – some 200 participating photographers from Malaysia, Australia, Canada, Cuba, Germany, Japan, Norway, the Philippines, Singapore, the UK and USA represented in 21 exhibitions across 15 galleries. Impressive! It represents a collaboration between institutions, commercial galleries and amateur groups never before achieved in Malaysia. Congratulations to the organisers, and in particular, Alex Moh. But does the rhetoric match what is in the galleries?
The quality of the individual exhibitions is patchy. I think that comes down to the confused agenda of the event and how that has been communicated. The Minister for Culture, Datuk Seri Utama Dr. Rais Yatim’s address in the catalogue and at the launch keeps it simple, “I have high hopes that this first ever biennale of our country will build an international reputation as a festival that sparks excitement, stimulates dialogue and debate, and expands audiences of contemporary photography art. Further, it continues to be the Ministry’s vision to establish Kuala Lumpur as a leading city for the arts, and I am convinced this event is an important step in that journey.”
He’s right. The function of a biennale is more than just a meter of time and there is the potential for this event to set Malaysia firmly within the global art environment. The idea of a photography biennale in KL is an exciting one. The decision to focus on photography was a wise choice because it sets itself apart from the vast number of biennales today and the medium is accessible. But it needs a strong curatorial hinge to work.
Photography’s Arrival on Our Shores
Photography has a long history in Malaysia, as documented in the Biennale catalogue – a superb catalogue I want to give due credit to! It tells us that photography’s, “… first arrival on our shores during the 1840s was the result of … colonial administration employ(ing) photography for expeditionary and recording purposes.” Does this not resonate with a similar sentiment to Valentine Willies’s KLip exhibition artconneXions, where photographers are sent out to explore, connect and record?
The first Malaysian photographic exhibition was held in 1953, and in 1956 The Sarawak Photographic Society and The Photographic Society of Malaysia were both formed. The breadth of photography as an artform had found a place alongside the development of the visual arts here in Malaysia. Curiously, The Loke Legacy (14 Jun 2005 – 1 Mar 2006), which I believe was the catalyst for KLip, grew out of Dato’ Loke’s visit to the First Singapore Open Exhibition of Photography in 1950, around the same time of Malaysia’s blossoming photography scene.
The Sarawak Photographic Society held the first ‘international’ photographic exhibition in Malaysia in the 60s. Titled the Sarawak International Salon, it was followed by The Photography Society of Penang in 1982 presenting the 1st Penang International Photo Salon, an event recognised by the Photographic Society of America and the Federation International De L’art Photographique – clearly an endorsement that photography has a place in Malaysian culture, and Malaysian photography in the international circuit. KLip‘s future could extend this legacy and rekindle that spirit within a contemporary perspective.
Building an International Reputation
I cannot review KLip without commenting on the exhibitions. Two exhibitions I saw on the day of the launch that stand out are Galerie Petronas’s exhibition Petronas Art Collection: Series 2 (12 Apr – 7 Aug 2005) and Valentine Willie Fine Art’s artconneXions (29 Jun – 16 Jul 2005). Both take a serious look at contemporary photography practice and expand our thinking about the medium. Increasingly the term ‘photomedia’ is used to encompass the expansion of photography through new technology, such as digital manipulation and collage, digital video stills, photographic projections, new printing techniques etc. An interesting comparison is Yee I-Lann’s digitally composed portraits and Zaini Zainol’s photographic collages at Galerie Petronas. Both present a montage image but use different techniques – one old, one new. However, it must be said, the only connection these projects have with KLip programming is their perfect timing: one an initiative of the Goethe Institute and the other an ongoing display of an excellent collection.
There are exhibitions still to open that promise to be similarly probing and place Malaysian photographers alongside international colleagues, such as Blink at Darling Muse Art Gallery (17 – 31 Aug 2005) and Taksu’s Of People and Places (16 – 30 Jul 2005), but neither were open at the time of the launch of the biennale. Is this a result of poor KLip administration in defining a succinct biennale period, or again a lucky addition to usurp from regular gallery programming?
There are other exhibitions that stood out on my epic journey. Galerie Seni Maya’s exhibition Handprints (5 – 24 Jul 2005), took a single genre – landscape – and explored it through the work of three different artists, Eric Peris, Soraya Yusof Talismail and Chan Kin Wah. And Azrul K. Abdullah’s exhibition Voids & Spaces (11 – 27 Jul 2005) at Townhouse Gallery which, counter to today’s bias towards photomedia technology, uses the large format print – untouched, uncropped and showing the rawness of exposed technique, a delicious celebration of traditional practice. There is a melancholy to these vacant spaces, leaving us to question the value we place on things – on tradition. Simryn Gill also explores this question in her works at Galerie Petronas. It is a contemporary question presented through the use of traditional technique in this digital age. A biennale devoted to the medium photography can be validated through an investigation of such breadth of consideration as these two shows.
There are also exhibitions deserving of credit in their own right. A revealing exhibition is Insight (11 – 30 Jul 2005) at The Photographer’s Gallery (Garden) – an amateur photography exhibition with a strong concept. Developed over seven months using 15 disposable cameras, Mr. Leong, who is blind, takes an intuitive look at his surroundings, using sound as his prompt to ‘click’. I would love to see what he could do with a digital camera! And of course the National Art Gallery’s project Afterimage (9 Jul – 14 Aug 2005), curated by Alex Moh and Li-En Chong, is an encyclopedic examination of popular photography in Malaysia. One highlight is the probing photography from LimKokWing University College of Creative Technology, in particular Syazlia Albina Sari’s “Mermaid” and Eiffel Chong’s mannequin bride and lab of beauty, challenging our perceptions of identity. I’d also like to mention UiTM Photography Club member Muhammad Rasfan’s photographs – narrow bands floated off-centre in the frame like modernist ‘zips’ – they remind me of Rorschach blots, those provocations of one’s psyche and are an insightful use of photography in a contemporary sense.
Sutra Gallery’s Paintings on Water (7 – 31 Jul 2005), NN Gallery’s Four Dimension (4 – 31 Aug 2005), Five Smooth Stones (1 Jul – 30 Sep 2005) at The Photographers’ Gallery (City), and ARTrageously Ramsay Ong’s Eroded Masks – A Fantastic Tour around Asia (18 Jun – 2 Jul 2005) likewise, might be more appropriately presented as part of a satellite program because, although they show a sensitive exploration of the photographic medium, they do not as the Minister says of the biennale, … “build an international reputation”. And why should they?
That all these galleries have been able to present an exhibition for KLip shows the level of commitment that commercial gallery dealers are working towards, collectively, in promoting the visual arts in Malaysia. The decision to use the commercial galleries was a smart solution to expand upon KLip‘s program given the shortfall of resources of the National Art Gallery.
That brings me back to where I started. How do we make the jump and turn KLip into its namesake, an International Photography Biennale? I think a good place to start is to look at the professional practice of some of KLs leading galleries and take a page from their book. Their presence in the global arts community and sound curatorial practice offers a cue to the way an artist’s work can be presented to a contemporary audience. Their success with international exchange and staging exhibitions demonstrates an ability to bring artists to Malaysia, to work in an international context. There is a rich resource of talent in Malaysia that could be further mined. If this event is to continue as an international biennale then some serious thought needs to go into this event before the next two years swings around.
Gina Fairley is a Australian arts writer visiting Malaysia for a year. She was previously the Exhibition Coordinator for the Biennale of Sydney.
First Published: 27.07.2005 on Kakiseni