By Benjamin McKay
An emerging visual artist whose work has been exhibited both in Malaysia and abroad, Yap Sau Bin represents an emerging generation of artist who attempt to fuse their local experience with a broader global understanding of contemporary visual arts practice.
Having studied at the Birmingham Institute of Arts and Design at the University of Central England, he focuses on site-specific installations and work that is imbued with a careful synthesis of form and concept. Since his return to Malaysia, Sau Bin has been an active participant in artists collective Rumah Air Panas (RAP).
The following is part of The Young and the Restless, my series of interviews with Malaysian arts practitioners under the age of 40, in attempt to discover the undercurrents of creative practice in Malaysia. It is an edited version of a much longer conversation.
Getting Started: Rumah Air Panas, Homeless
Benjamin McKay: RAP is now apparently homeless. How did that come about?
Yap Sau Bin: One of the aims, when we first came together, was that the artists themselves should engage in some art activism: begin involved in self-organising. That they did not have to depend on projects from galleries and museums. After two or three years, we found it a little bit harder than we thought it was going to be.
BM: It’s slightly ironic that – in the same year that RAP actually became a registered non-profit organization and could attract funding – it became one without a concrete, real space.
YSB: We only became registered in August. It took us about nine months. Being idealistic at the beginning we all believed that we should also be a space for artists – we rented out space to others. There was always a kind of contest for space, after that.
In 2005 the DBKL and the Department of Works announced that there was going to be a highway from Sentul to Dato Keramat, and that was going to affect our area. So there were a few factors, I think – but I would also point to uncertainty and indecision with the others and how we actually organized things.
In Hot Water
What makes you eligible to be a member of RAP? What do you need to bring to it?
YSB: Members must be willing to engage in a do-it-yourself sense and have ideas of how to help each other. I think that is quite important. The backgrounds of many of the initial members were all quite different: some pursued more studio based, idiosyncratic types of art – very personal sort of works; others went for more publicly engaging work – conceptual and installation work.
So what bound us together? A need for artists’ space – away from institutions – and even that was, at times, a difficult issue. Decision-making takes longer than many other groups I have encountered. Having travelled as an RAP member to workshops abroad, I have noticed that other groups seem to work very fast.
BM: Does the collective work with broader networks of other collectives?
YSB: We would like to. Those opportunities only came up after Universes In Universes, a German-based arts portal picked up Tan Sei Hon’s Kakiseni article. The Asia-Europe Foundation was organizing an Asia-Europe Arts Collective meeting in Shanghai – they were looking for a Malaysian representative and they approached the proper channels, but there wasn’t any response from the National Arts Gallery. So they went to UIU and thought: Why not approach RAP? I was always amazed at how they found us. It was the Kakiseni article that did it.
BM: In your last years of high school you went to Canada, and then you commenced university study in engineering. How did that come about?
YSB: When I was in Tatamagouche, Nova Scotia, we were the only non-Caucasian family in the whole area – it was a kind of resort village, and you only saw people coming in during the summer time.
The natural course at that time was that I would pursue engineering, as my father had – But I took up Philosophy as one my minors, and – and that radicalised me – that was the first stage where my decision changed, intellectually. With Philosophy, I really needed to think harder. So I told my dad that I did not want to do engineering – if I wanted to be happy when I was forty years old, then I needed to switch. I came back to KL and enrolled in a graphic design course. The thing that I enjoyed most were the art history classes.
BM: In your body of work you interrogate art history in some ways. Like the museum piece you did in Birmingham, an installation titled ‘Museum of Alternative Science and Knowledge – MASK – Department of Oriental Discipline – Details’ (1998); or later, with ‘Who Gave Birth to The Great White One’ (2002), where you play with the idea of the canvas, and the nature of the museum, and the sense of reception in a gallery space …
YSB: My Young Contemporary works have a more serious context, a more Malaysian context with Malaysian art history. I have always felt that good art engages at different levels – whether it is the formal aesthetic side or the anti-aesthetic side, in terms of referring to an art historical context or art theory context. I try to do that in my own work.
BM: In some of your site-specific installations, there is a very strong formal edge at play. You have blurred the distinction between more conceptual art and more formal traditions.
YSB: I enjoy that. People argue that I have always had a strong like for minimalist work. That becomes a conscious challenge, for me, when I have to conceptualize the work. The audience, when viewing it, might think: Yes, this is very simple – but there are things in the work that could contradict your whole formal reading of it, certain dialectics within the work.
I enjoy doing that – not imposing, but teasing. Some critics think that I am throwing too many questions without answering them.
Taking the Initiative
BM: From an outsider’s perspective, there seems to be an awful lot of complaining about what can’t be done here – but not a lot of evidence of activity that addresses what could and can be done. There seems to be a sense of resigned fatalism attached to the visual arts that I do not necessarily discern in other art practices in Kuala Lumpur. Is the supposed ‘lack’ as bad as it appears?
YSB: With the KL visual arts, you need to look at the ecology of it. The galleries have always been there, and the colleges have too – so you can see that there has been a tradition, in a sense.
Those who are outside of the national institutions think that, yes, they have been marginalized by a national agenda. Does that bring about a ‘lack’? Yes, in the sense that our discourse in the visual arts and art history has only been dominated by a certain kind of direction – should I use the term ‘National Art’?
BM: Perhaps in Malaysia you can talk about ‘National Art’.
YSB: What kind of visual arts should Malaysia have? Is there such a thing as a Malaysian art?
Another thing about the landscape is our lack of exposure for critical discussions in arts training. Malaysian artists are trained to make good images in visual art – but their concerns might be lesser, in terms of conceptual challenges or issues. If the art is about a social issue, how much and how critical are artists looking into that issue?
There was a culture of being critical in the 1960s and 70s. But some of the social realist works that come out of the local colleges now are – not shallow, but perhaps they are reactionary expressions of a certain artist from a certain social background. There is not much debate. The visual arts do not have a strong, intellectual exchange with other disciplines – whether it is with social studies, or even the humanities. I think, in Malaysia, the training of visual arts is separated from the rest of the humanities.
National Art and Personal Courage
BM: Are you saying that visual arts training here is more artisan-like, in a sort of ‘fine crafts’ tradition?
YSB: I am not sure if that is totally the case, but there is a lack of cultural awareness and the ability to be reflective about things. We tend not to analyse. Artisan-like training is disadvantaging Malaysian artists. Since the only art theory training they are getting has to do with aesthetics and expression, our artists either pursue the grandeur narratives of state institutions – answering the nationalist question: What is Malaysian Culture?; or they answer the aesthetic question: What is art for art’s sake?
There are no in-betweens. Aren’t there other types of choices? I what to explore this question. Maybe the work I do has dialectical tendencies.
BM: So you perhaps are trying to fill a middle ground, in a sense: art that bridges things, both inside and outside the borders. That willingness to engage outside of prescribed limits takes a degree of courage and conviction …
YSB: A lot of visual artists think that their art is not your art, and they have no need to explain – they do not need to ask for your understanding. Do they really want that intellectual debate that they claim they want either spiritually or intellectually? I don’t know. Maybe we lack a culture of being critical, in the first place.
Criticism and the Lay of the Land
BM: One could argue that there is also not a great depth in much of the art criticism here in terms of what is actually published.
There was a review of an exhibition, recently published in Kakiseni, that attracted a lot of vitriol from those who chose to give it feedback; the attack was on the review itself, rather than whether the review might have actually had something constructive to say about the quality of the works it chose to deal with – in other words: how dare you criticize?
YSB: Is that Asian culture?
BM: You yourself said that in the 1960s and 70s it was much more dynamic.
YSB: Yes, I would like to think that it was more dynamic then. The intellectuals writing then, as well as the student and labour movements, were very engaged.
But, I think I am also trying to struggle with being a middle-class kid, trying to be radical by posing those questions. I feel I am just taking a few more steps compared to some who are making art that they are comfortable with.
BM: Perhaps you have led me to that question that should never really be asked – but: at the end of the day, everything seems to come back to a question of identity, here – whether it is a particularised national, ethnic, sexualized or gendered identity. What should we think of as Malaysian art?
YSB: Malaysian art is not what you see in the state brochures. It is not just the things you see in the galleries, I suppose.
BM: What makes a Malaysian an artist?
YSB: The more you think, the more you realise that we need to engage – engage in a global world. But, having said that – and having met some academics or even curators about this – in one sense you are aware that you are being localised, and that you need to keep a ground level description of who we are.
My work has been called 1970s British Conceptual. Which is kind of interesting. The art industry here is exposed to the style and the image and the art history – and they consume it. So they think they know how to identify the work.
They need to talk to the work, talk to the artist, but even my friends do not talk to me about my work. Perhaps it is too threatening? I don’t know. We have, here, a lot of very interesting ideas – but do we have the tenacity to see it through? We talk about it. But do we commit ourselves? Is there conviction?
BM: Is this really, at the end of the day, attributable to the broader politics of the country – a reticence to actively engage and push the boundaries?
YSB: (laughs) No comment …
Politics feeds on the culture and the culture feeds on the politics. It is a vicious circle. You are either in the national agenda or you are out of it – it becomes a black and white thing. But practitioners should not be constrained by the national borders. It seems that the national border becomes our cultural border as well.
First Published: 30.11.2006 on Kakiseni