Drawing Water

An Indonesian artist once pointed out to me the pervasiveness of visual clichés. He said that Indonesian schoolchildren, whether from Aceh or Irian Jaya, always draw the same landscape in art class:

A rectangular sheet of paper, divided lengthwise by a horizon line. Rising from this horizon are two green hills, roughly triangular, drawn side by side. In between these hills a bright yellow sun, flat rice fields in the foreground, and a coconut tree or two. The sky is blue, the clouds puffy, and the birds are shaped like curving Ms.

They draw the same countryside scene even though Aceh’s landscape is dominated by beaches, and Irian Jaya’s by mountain ranges. What the children see around them is often trumped by what they think a typical landscape should look like.

Such stereotyping seems almost inevitable. There are strong visual codes we have come to associate with the natural environment: unpolluted air and water should be blue; untouched rainforests should not only be a brilliant green but are best represented in wide-angle landscapes or from an aerial view. We expect recycled products to be speckled brown or beige. Nature and natural objects should look a certain way. Their corollaries — pollution, man-made objects — also have a prescribed look: dull, grey, brown. It takes skill to employ these codes -­ or subvert them — in a way that adds something to the way we see or understand our environment.

As bags of tricks go, the one deployed by the visual artists who participated in this year’s Arts + Earth festival, held in Kuala Lumpur between 18 August and 16 September, was surprisingly meagre. The tendency was to relate ‘Water’, the festival’s 2006 theme, with the liquid form of the substance — illustrated as either clean (and therefore blue); or murky (and therefore brown or grey).  Another popular trend was to associate water with fish. In clean water, the fish bubble happily. In contaminated water, the fish are wide-eyed skeletons.

Limited Visions

The unimaginatively titled H20, by Masnoor Ramli, almost manages to exhaust that entire visual vocabulary in one painting: a lonely fish swims upstream to get from dark, polluted waters to fish-friendly blue water. There’s a degree of graphic and sentimental appeal to the work, but its meaning, so plainly stated, runs dry in the three seconds it takes to decode the painting.

The inclination of many of the Arts + Earth artists was to, quite literally, paint a picture of water, to tell us what it looks like — rather than explore its qualities (how it moves, for instance) or its effects on our faculties (how it feels on the skin).

A notable exception was Choen Lee’s series of comic-styled ink drawings on photographic prints of familiar KL scenes. More than any of the other pieces at the festival, his figures, drenched in rain, evoke what water feels like. But the whole point of this series seems centred the artist’s cute, cartoon-ish style and his even cuter imagination. In one piece from the series, a figure sits atop a giant toilet in the clouds, overlooking part of the city’s skyline. Quite simply, that figure represents us and what rains down from the looming toilet is the waste we generate. After allowing myself to smile at his wit and endearing style, however, I couldn’t help feeling that the work was depleted, and that it was time to move on to the next piece.

Some of the works at Arts + Earth were beautiful objects, Jansen Chow’s Unusual Reflections and Jack Ting’s abstract piece What happened to it? (which he painted in his idiosyncratically fractured style) in particular. These paintings served to flaunt the talents of their creators, but I felt they did little else. The already lightweight message — “So much pollution!” — was diluted, not augmented, by the artists’ attention to beauty and technical skill. Content seems to take a back seat to technique. Of a similar vein were Paul Gadd’s photographs of parched earth.

Long Thien Shih’s apocalyptically titled Not yet but it’s going to happen and Dead souls are laughing at us would almost belong to this category of beautiful objects if it were not so obvious that he was trying to imitate Salvador Dali.

The Art of Questioning

The issue of questioning and interrogation in art is, I think, an important one. Artists produce work that is more compelling when they engage in the complexities of their subject. Granted, an artist can choose to confine himself to a purely technical exercise, but even then, what we look for is how deep the artist has delved in his exploration of form and the techniques of creation.

Looking at the visual art at Arts + Earth, the vast majority of which were paintings, I felt like I was being preached something I already knew. Sure, pollution is bad, pollution is ugly and murky brown in colour. But there are human and ethical dilemmas that emerge, even when dealing with a seemingly black­-and-white issue like environmental protection. The industries that create waste also create jobs. Chemicals can actually make our lives better. Environmentally friendly products are not always affordable.

The issue is not so much wanton pollution, as much as it is about making growth sustainable. This dilemma was strategically skirted by many of the artists, who opted for the easier route of scolding the polluters of our waters and decrying the destruction of our planet.

I’m not suggesting that artists find a way of painting what amounts to a PhD dissertation on the environment. I am just reminded of Barrie Cooke, who allowed his painting of slime at the mouth of a waste disposal system to look menacingly attractive.

Because it is. And here’s another dimension to the problem — consumption. The artists who presented their works at Arts + Earth seemed unwilling to address the seductiveness of consumption. I don’t consume, or over-consume, because I am making a deliberate attempt to create waste and pollution. The things I consume make me feel, well, really good.

The only piece that appears to confront the intricacies of environmental protection is an as-yet untitled painting by Hamir Soib, whose work I’ve always liked. This piece is less didactic, and more of a conversation. The artist refrains from declaring that development is unequivocally bad. Development and nature don’t sit on opposite ends of a spectrum of good and evil. The way the canvas is divided — half the space is occupied by concrete blocks, the other half by representations of nature — suggests that there is space for both development and conservation. Balance, then, becomes the crux, and the painting illustrates just how delicate that balance is. I particularly like the concrete blocks, which, all at once, obscure and contain meaning. One of the blocks is wrapped up in yellow packaging: an open-ended question for the viewer.

Painting to Win

This year’s Arts + Earth festival inaugurates what is intended as an annual event, aimed at creating public awareness on environmental issues and raising funds for environmental conservation and restoration activities. The festival was organised and conceptualised by the Global Environment Centre, a non-profit environmental group established in Malaysia in 1998.

For a whole month, events and activities — either arts-related or earth-related -­ were held, many of which were free and open to the public. There were art, drama and photography workshops, film screenings, nature camps, music and ballet performances, a rock concert, nature mapping lessons and capoeira classes.

Visual arts made up the largest component of Arts + Earth. Of the 27 individual artists and arts collectives involved, 21 were from the visual arts community. Exhibitions related to the festival theme were held at the KL Performing Arts Centre, galleries such as Gudang and Elle Six, and gallery / watering hole The Attic. Most of the artwork was intended for fundraising.

An additional component of Arts + Earth was the Young Artist Award (YAA), funded by Canon, which sought to recognise a promising young visual artist. The YAA name is slightly misleading, however, as the ‘award’ was framed more like competition. The selection was made from amongst entrants who submitted their work for consideration when a call for applications was made in May. Over 75 entries were received.

The submissions were straightforward bids to clinch the award. As with the more eminent artists who participated in the festival, the younger artists made references to highly recognisable visual symbols. More than their older counterparts, however, these artists had a fondness for associating water with its chemical formula (H20), and with terms and concepts that ring of scientific authority: hydroponics, ozone, amniotic fluid, hydrocephalus, ‘burning is actually called dehydration in chemistry’. It probably is a good reflection of the spirit of this generation: everything derives its credibility from science — even art.

In any case, the use of jargon is an old trick. Once again, content was diluted in hackneyed imagery.

The entries, of course, had to reflect the theme of water as an environmental concern. I found that this criterion made the competition a good test of technical skill and a good test of how well the artists adhere to the given theme.  It was not, however, a good measure of the artists’ ability to explore, through art, their ideas and commitments — an ability that, at the end of the day, would allow them to enter into a discourse of ideas. The Arts + Earth festival has shown how in need we are of artists — young or old — who are able to do precisely that.

Art and Advocacy

It’s a little strange, to me, that the organisers of Arts + Earth thought that an art festival was the best way to raise environmental awareness among the public. Most producers, administrators and publicists working in the attention-starved arts scene grapple constantly with the task of getting an audience. People are not exactly thronging to arts events.

The Global Environment Centre, however, maintains that the festival was ‘an attempt at engaging with the public through non-traditional media’. It’s an interesting effort, and the sentiment that the activities should involve interaction from the public ‘so that they are not passive receivers of information’ is commendable.

Also bandied about was the notion that the festival would give artists a platform for presenting their work. And it did: the number of visual artists involved — and, just as importantly, the number of YAA applications received — attests to this.

Yet, one gets the sense that the art was subordinated to the issue — and that a platform for presenting an artist’s work, such as the one provided by the Arts + Earth festival, is not quite the same thing as a platform for presenting his or her ideas. If the artwork did not explore the subtleties of the issue at hand, it might have been because there was not much room for that. Not only was the theme predetermined by the organisers, to a significant degree, the context of the festival framed the message and the content of the work — it had to raise awareness, it had to motivate change, it had to educate.

Arvind Pasricha, in Vermouth Bottle Martini Water and 7UP Submarine, tries to do just that: he attempts to warn us that the poisoning of our water sources will make water a luxury good. He brings up a crucial environmental point about the shrinking availability of drinking water, one that would have had a stronger impact if the paintings were not so poorly executed.

In Mama, by the same artist, a child whose grey clothing merges with a grey landscape holds up a picture with the word ‘MAMA’. If this image doesn’t make you feel like you’ve been bludgeoned with a message, then perhaps the artist’s statement will: ‘Mama,’ writes Pasricha, ‘In this sense represents Mother Nature… The child is asking Mama for help, forgiveness.’

The art in Art+ Earth had to serve the issue and the cause. No matter how noble the cause, however, art that does not have itself as its own end — and all the grappling with truth that implies — simply makes for poorer art.

First Published: 11.10.2006 on Kakiseni

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