By Lydia Chai
Chapter 1: Ikat Batu at Gudang – a warehouse tucked away in suburban Damansara Jaya – was an art event instead of an art exhibition. It lasted only one night (25 November 2005) and had a festive air about it, what with a musical trio, night-long ice-sculpting, and lip-smacking kenduri complete with homemade bo bo cha cha and barbeque lamb. The event was unusual because it was a non-static series of happenings where the art was continually being made by artist and audience. Ultimately, it was a show of artists-at-work. In fact, some artists were installing works throughout the night but hardly anybody minded, since it contributed to the artists-at-work feel. Advertising the exhibition as a show by “art workers” and locating it at an abandoned warehouse put into motion the dynamics of the evening.
It was therefore this notion of art-in-flux that made Ikat Batu interesting as an event, as if it were an artwork itself, especially as many of the individual works were informed by the social aspect of the show. In other words, Ikat Batu used the party atmosphere of art openings as a field of play, and developed an engaging experience, using the event itself as material. Hence, a more holistic assessment of it is needed to supplement individual evaluations.
Some art openings are not remembered for much except for how fabulous the exhibition space or food was. Gudang itself is an impressive space with its high ceilings and ad hoc office that resembles a tree-house. Thankfully, though, most of the artworks didn’t take a backseat to the setting. The most successful works, therefore, were those that interacted with their surrounding space.
Sek San’s work responded to Gudang as a space and as a concept. His installation consisted of square concrete blocks, painted red and laid out in a grid across the entire floor. With this work he mapped the area in which people, objects, and other artworks introduced disruptions to the grid. Extending the exhibition space beyond the warehouse perimeters, Sek San continued the installation into the outside compound, where there was a small avenue lined with kampong houses. The work therefore became a common denominator between interior and exterior, blurring territory fines that divide artist community and neighbourhood dwellers – or more accurately, people living on the fringes of suburbia. A stack of leftover blocks and a trolley put aside in one corner served as a reminder of the art worker’s labour, utilising the language of a gudang: that of carting, stacking, numbers, stock.
Beside each block was a single lit tea-candle that enhanced its red-ness. The glowing candles cleverly provided an element of lightness to the heavy and solid concrete blocks, distracting the viewer from the materiality of the concrete by pronouncing its colour instead.
Playful amidst struggle
The second exhibition space is dominated by a very large hammock, made from twine, by Tessa Wetherill. Tessa and Ka Jin Goh are two artists from Canada who undertook an informal artist residency at Gudang. Tessa’s work filled up the spacious Gudang quite well but it seemed to be complete only when it was activated by weight. One was struck by the sheer labour involved in its construction – the playfulness implied by the hammock belied painstaking effort and dedication. Its huge size was not a matter of scaling up according to its environment; it is not a hammock made for a giant, that is. Rather it seemed be more of a metaphor for community support, which is an apt gesture considering there is a kampung outside the gudang. This idea of protection or safety was serendipitously illustrated by the following incident: The children who were present, being more daring than the adults, climbed up the hammock and eventually used it as a trampoline although that was not its intended purpose. The hammock started to slacken, causing alarm among horrified parents standing by; squeals of delight turning into squeals of alarm.
At the deepest end of the cavernous Gudang was Ka Jin Goh’s unassuming installation “Moths”. Four moths were placed evenly on the floor and light bulbs hung over each one, illuminating them for inspection and (critical) dissection. To my utter surprise, Ka Jin informed me that they were not real; such was his craftsmanship. The more attentive viewer could find that each moth bore the image of a Malaysian prime minister, and that the wingspan of each moth corresponded to the number of years each prime minister served. The illusory realness of the moths was dispelled when, halfway through the event, Ka Jin inserted the fifth and final moth that represented Tun Dr. Mahathir Mohamed, whose size and wingspan was just about unnatural for any moth. To make it even more special, this one fluttered once in a while with the help of hidden electronics. Why were the moths, vulnerable and self-destructive creatures that they are, anthropomorphised political figures? Why did Tun Dr. M refuse to lay still like a good moth should? These questions did not seem to matter much, as the installation was engaging on a formal level.
Ka Jin’s video installation with two TV monitors showed the artist on each screen volleying tennis balls on both sides of the same tennis court. The work is called “Playing With Myself’. Within the context of Ikat Batu – as a show connecting artist and work – this video seemed to be about the struggle of the artist with himself when producing art, where the ironic rule is that an artist ought to be “playful” amidst the struggle. The title also smirks at this apparently solipsistic activity that often appears to others as masturbatory. Added to that was the idea of detachment, as the tv monitors were mounted on separate makeshift plinths – the artist as detached from himself, and the viewers who are denied the whole picture, forced to ‘complete’ the tennis game in our minds.
Next to Sek San’s pile of blocks were Ahmad Zamany Mohd Din’s rows of large ice blocks waiting to be carved, and there was anticipation among the audience throughout the night as to what shapes he would fashion out of them. Sure enough, he skillfully carved, with the use of a chainsaw, a fort-like structure with swans on top. One would not expect such precision from a chainsaw, but then again, this guy actually does this for a living. I found that the mass of ice blocks contributed greatly to the ambience of the event, as the water vapour mingled with the smoke from Sek San’s candles. It is interesting and unusual for temperature to be employed as an element in an artwork, making it a sensory experience as well.
Nizam Rahmat displayed a series of paintings to do with issues of konsumerisme, cari makan and multinational corporations, namely Coca-Cola. The artist also comes from a graphic design background, so one would think this is his way of biting the hand that feeds him. The paintings are well-balanced compositions, rather pretty-looking, but contained superfluous brushstrokes that seemed to be there more for cosmetic than conceptual purposes.
Hamir Soib’s “Sepah”, a life-sized drooping human figure made with sugarcane pulp, is an abject figure because of its posture and the fact that it is made out of discarded scraps from the local air tebu seller. The artist used a stick to support the figure’s upper body as it bent over. The problem is, it reads as just that: a stick to support it instead of a crutch or cane. It would have been more interesting if the materiality of the pulp – its texture, smell and weight – was explored better.
At the end of the night, some videos were projected on a large screen. Of note were Ka Jin’s “Untitled” and Ka Jin, Tessa and Nazim Esa’s “It’s OK What’s Happening Right Now” which won Best Experimental Short Film at the recent Malaysian Video Awards. The former work featured old footage of vehicles crashing down from dangerous heights and buildings getting torn down, with Peggy Lee’s sweet voice singing “Is There All There Is?” in the background. I noticed that Ka Jin refrained from using more contemporary images of such destruction, perhaps to romanticise them. The work seems to be an attempt to value aesthetics outside of morals and buys into today’s trend of desensitised violence. “It’s OK What’s Happening Right Now” are scenes from the surrounding suburb of Damansara Jaya. Made up of hundreds of digital stills, it is a portrait of the neighbourhood, moment by moment, a montage of its streets and nocturnal activities.
Ikat Batu was an experience where the whole (the ambience/Gestalt of the event) was larger than the sum of its parts (individual works) because certain slants, flavours and nuances in the art were created due to the particularities of the space and artist/audience participation/observation. Although some of the ‘parts’, for instance “Moths”, could stand well on their own, many of the other works derived their meaning from the ‘whole’. This is not necessarily a bad thing, as people perceive complex entities rather than their elements. However, the experience was as engaging as it was because some of the individual works had been sufficiently considered by the time they were presented. As Massimo Cacciari once wrote: “The whole remains something different from the sum of its parts – but at the same time the parts determine its ‘health’.”
That said, how does this event build on critical art discourse in this country? What novel views and prepositions does it present to us? Though the experience of the night was, at best, engaging and fun – at worst, it satisfies little else beyond that. Perhaps a tighter correlation between each artwork, or art activity, would have contributed to greater fluidity within the event.
The phrase “ikat batu”, Hamir told me, is a term used by construction workers when laying the foundation of a building. In this light, this art event may serve as a springboard to similar events at Gudang in the future which, judging from this one, may not be a bad thing at all. However, one hopes that in future the artists will build on what is gained from this inaugural event, and consider a properly curated show and a stronger conceptual base to go with the festivities.
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).
First Published: 15.12.2005 on Kakiseni